The New Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Humanism for Humanistic Jews

This post was originally a 2004 Yom Kippur sermon delivered at
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Ben Gurion and Eisenhower, 1960

Humanists are individuals, and Jews are famous for being opinionated. Imagine the challenge and the paradox of a congregation of Humanistic Jews. When David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, met President Dwight D. Eisenhower,  Eisenhower supposedly said, “You know, it’s not easy being president of 250 million people.” Ben-Gurion responded, “That’s nothing; try being Prime Minister of 1 million prime ministers.” We Humanistic Jews say that “we have no dogma,” and we are very dogmatic about that statement. And we declare as a congregation that we are individuals. Let me demonstrate the paradox. Please say after me: we are all individuals” “we can all think for ourselves.” I do this not to mock what we are doing here as a congregation of Humanistic Judaism but to show you that being the rabbi of 250 rabbis isn’t easy either.

This High Holidays, we are exploring together the two pillars of Humanistic Judaism – Judaism and Humanism. On Rosh Hashana, we felt our intellectual and emotional connections to our family heritage of Judaism. For Yom Kippur, the traditional “day of atonement,” we will explore the more contemplative side of our identity: our commitment to Humanism. In medieval Jewish philosophy, Maimonides tried to define his most important concept, God, by saying what he was not – definition by negation: God is not  limited, God does NOT have a body, etc. For a more relevant example, instead of saying “I am a Cubs fan,” which I’m sure may develop over time, I could say that right now “I am not a San Francisco Giants Fan, I am not a St. Louis Cardinals Fan,” and so on. In my case, as a native Detroiter but a new North Shore resident, I can be both a Detroit Tigers fan and a Chicago Cubs fan, since they’re in different leagues and the chances of them both being in the World Series at the same time are so tiny that if it ever did happen, I’d change Jewish teams and start praying because the end of the world would be near.

Imagine carving a statue – you start with a big rock, like the one in front of me. First you remove the big chunks on the outside and at the corners, because you know that those are not the statue. As the general shape begins to emerge from the block of rock, however, you begin to see the contours of what it will be the statue – here is the arm, here is the head. Your creative process changes from discarding what the statue is not to refining what the statue is. Maimonides and the sculpture of the human forms made famous by the Greeks are from opposing traditions – the Judaic and the Hellenistic, the Jewish and the universal. Yet just as Maimonides drew from the best of Greek wisdom in his Jewish philosophy, so too do we draw strength from both sides of our identity, the Jewish and the human. And we can use the power of language, the power of NO and YES, to refine our statue – to remove chunks of what our Humanism is NOT, and to refine and polish what Humanism IS.

Chunk #1: Humanism is NOT angrily rejecting everything from the past, or everything connected to that with which we disagree. Yes, we have the right and the freedom to not follow the rules and rituals of our ancestors. But a dogmatic rejection of EVERYTHING old and traditional only because it is old and traditional would be just as closed-minded as absolute obedience. To scrupulously avoid anything that has ever been associated with traditional religion would leave us Jewishly and humanly shallow, illiterate, unsophisticated, shunned, and totally broke – remember, “In God we Trust” is on every piece of money. We could not read the Bible, we would not study historic Jewish culture or celebrate holidays, we would have few friends and many enemies. It’s bad enough that some of the outside world thinks that all we do is nothing – no prayers, no traditional Shema, no God, no kosher, no no no. We have to say to ourselves and to the world around us that Humanism is NOT rejection, but choice – we choose what we believe, and we choose how we live out our beliefs.

Chunk #2: Humanism is NOT just “being nice.” I’ve experienced many times in our movement that when there is a personality conflict or someone doesn’t get something for free that other people pay for like memberships or publications, they say “that’s not Humanistic of you.” And I’ve wondered, “what does being nice or just letting you have your way have to do with defining a naturalistic, human-centered philosophy of life?” Yes, we should be nice to each other – EVERYONE should be nice to each other, regardless of their beliefs about the human role in the universe! Where personal interactions do learn from Humanism is the question of respect and dignity – if we only  wanted to be nice, we would not object when our personal beliefs were ignored or offended by the less considerate, or when our needs were ignored for other people’s priorities. Humanism is not just being nice but about respect – I want respect from you, and you deserve respect from me.

Chunk #3: Humanism is NOT simply caring for the welfare of other human beings – one can be a humanitarian without being a Humanist. The Quaker-organized American Friends Service Committee, the image of Mother Teresa, and everyone else in the family of religious humanitarians are certainly not humanists, and while we admire their dedication and generosity, we disagree with their possible dogmatism and efforts at religious conversion. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a Humanist who is in no way humanitarian, someone who in no way cares for the welfare of other human beings. In a shtetl in Eastern Europe, a man once wandered into town on a Friday night after dark. All of the doors were closed except for one house at the end of town, whose solitary inhabitant welcomed him in. In the morning attending synagogue, the visitor was shocked to hear that his host is the town apikoros  [heretic]! The visitor asked his host why he took him in, and the apikoros  responded, “The others believed that God would provide; I knew that he wouldn’t!” For us, our  humanitarianism is a RESULT of our Humanism – not because people were created in the image of God, but because we know that if we don’t create justice, there will be no justice; that if we don’t improve the world, it won’t fix itself. If everyone were self-sufficient and happy, I would be glad to retire from community service, because everyone would have the dignity of being strong enough to help others. We want dignity for ourselves, and for every human being.

Chunk #4: Humanism is NOT the easy way through life. In fact, as many of you have experienced, there’s nothing easy about being a Humanist in a world that sometimes doesn’t even understand what we’re talking about. “You can be Jewish without prayer?” “You can be good without God telling you what to do?” It is not easy and simple to believe that this life is the only life, or that the universe doesn’t give a damn about our happiness, or that there is no guaranteed happy ending over the rainbow. Humanism is not the easy life but rather the life of courage – the courage to act, and live, and love without guarantees.

We have removed four major chunks of our statue – Humanism is NOT about rejection – it is about Choice; Humanism is NOT simply being nice – it is concerned with respect; Humanism is NOT equivalent to Humanitarian – it is about dignity; and Humanism is NOT the easy way out – it is a life of courage. You can see how beginning our statue by subtraction, removing large chunks of excess stone has given definition to our project. Now we put away the rough hammer of NO and turn to the smooth chisel of YES. We begin to see the detailed features and nuances of our statue come to life.

The first and most basic YES statement for Humanism, the first refinement to our statue: Humanism IS ultimate responsibility – no excuses! Some accuse Humanists of elevating humanity to the status of God, but that is as wrong as Enron’s financial statements. For Humanists, we studied the human experience and came to our own conclusions: the God of tradition has been “downsized” to a character of our own creation; his powers have been “outsourced” to physics, geology, and meteorology; and his moral absolutes have filed for bankruptcy. We are not Gods – we are human beings. And human beings have power (not absolute power, but power nonetheless) and the responsibility to control the direction of their lives. When you paddle a canoe, sometimes you can go right where you want to, and sometimes you have to fight the current, and sometimes a wave knocks you over or you run aground, and sometimes you get wet and have a good laugh. Sometimes you can fully direct the course of your life, and sometimes events intervene that throw you off course. If the water conditions are too challenging, it’s not your fault if you get wet. But if you never try, or if you sit on your paddle and hope the current goes the right way, if you coast through life without ever taking the steering rudder for yourself, even then you have made your choice and are responsible for what you get. And what great satisfaction from a successful effort – the current gets no credit, nor the wind, but YOU who have propelled and steered your boat to your destination, YOU who are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. Success is no miracle – it is the result of bringing our will to into the real world.

This responsibility for our fate, these acts of will would be meaningless without the ability and the power to see our plans and efforts through. We would be up the creek without a paddle! The next YES statement, the definition we give to the arms and legs of our statue: Humanism IS the importance of human power to understand our world and to improve it for the better – not perfect power, not unlimited power, but significant power. That power comes from our ability to think, and to reason, and to work together on the knowledge quest called science and the communal quest called society. Some people pooh pooh human power because it’s NOT perfect, NOT unlimited – but I respond that human power is the only reliable power we know, and look at what it can do and has done: healed the sick, helped the lame to walk and the blind to see, uncovered the past and improved the future. Some say that rationality and science have made mistakes, and are very dangerous – I respond that that is true of ALL human power – we are imperfect, limited, but always able to learn. Like the superheroes and gods of our own creation, our powers can be used for good or for evil.

Some say that rationality and science, the building blocks of human knowledge, are boring, that they drain the color from the rainbow and make it into wavelengths of light, that it’s just too complicated to be interesting or relevant to their personal life. To those who say that science is boring, I ask: have you ever talked to a scientist just after a momentous discovery? Have you ever seen the beauty of a distant star exploding thousands of years ago, or the joy and jubilation among NASA technicians when a robot to Mars travels 36 Million miles and lands exactly where it was supposed to? Do you remember the first time your child used one of your facial expressions, or one of your sayings? Or if you’re younger, do you remember the first time you heard your parents’ words coming out of your mouth to someone else? Have you found yourself watching a Discovery Channel special on chimpanzees, who share 98% of their genetic material with us, and remarked to yourself how human they behave, only to realize that it is we who are behaving like them? Don’t tell me that science takes the color from the rainbow – science IS the color in the rainbow, and it can be as exciting, as interesting, as personally relevant and meaningful as the most creative mythological narrative.

We have refined and given definition to our statue; its arms and legs now clearly cut from the rock – now we need to sand smooth the rough edges. To smooth out the rough spots, understand that Humanism IS the ability to smile at the absurdities of human existence, and ourselves. If we do have limited power, and we have limited control over what happens to us, when we face a setback – unexpected traffic makes us 30 seconds late for the train, we happen to be outside for the 10 seconds of the hardest downpour, we’re trying our best to impress someone and we trip and fall flat on our face – at those moments, we have a choice. We can yell and scream at the universe, and find ourselves in exactly the same position. Or we can remember the big picture – our families, our homes, our lives – and smile at yet another example of the absurdity of life. And we have to be able to see through the pomposity of our own inventions. From the preface to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”

There are times when our inventions take on lives of their own: we create gods in our own image who then give US commandments. One of my favorite riské jokes highlights how we can take certain rules seriously to the point of absurdity (click here to read it).

Now there are times when the absurdities of life are no laughing matter. When a hurricane lands and destroys half of the homes in a neighborhood, when a plane crashes and kills most of its passengers, when a genetic disease strikes the youngest and most defenseless among us – then life is absurd, unfair, we would say even cruel if the universe had a personality. At those times, we need a final refinement of Humanism to guide us and put the finishing touches on the face of our statue.

The head of the statue, the most basic and fundamental principle underlying it all: Humanism IS dealing with reality as we find it, not as we wish it to be. Who wouldn’t want a world of cosmic justice where the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished? Who wouldn’t want death to be abolished? Who would miss human suffering, natural disasters, and the plagues of human cruelty that explode all over the globe again and again? The answer: we would all love these terrible realities to go away. But wishing does not make it so. We may work to eliminate these pains, to minimize their impact, to comfort the afflicted, but we can only do so if we take an honest look at the world, and ourselves. When we see ourselves in the mirror, do we see lives of integrity, of purpose, of kindness and generosity? And if we do not, what are we going to do about it? And if not now, when?

Put down your hammer and chisel, your brush and your polish. What does your statue look like now? I hope that it looks like YOU! But beware of putting yourself on a pedestal – when a statue goes up on the pedestal, we can see it from all sides – every beautiful aspect, but also every imperfection, crack, blemish and break. We are not Gods – we are human beings, and that is something special indeed.

I want to conclude with a new question: Nu, what about the Jews? The Jewish story has been a story of movement. Again and again, we left an old, familiar home for new and unexplored territory. We moved for many reasons: we moved for new opportunities; we moved because of fear and persecution; we were expelled and we fled, we were lured and we leaped. In our most pious moments, we hunkered down where we were and prayed that our situation would miraculously get better, and we studied our ancient texts for signs of divine intervention and for memories of better days in our past. When we moved, we did not follow a pillar of fire by day and a pillar of fire by night, as in the mythical Exodus – we followed the light of human ingenuity and courage, the flame of human hope. 350 years ago, the first Jews arrived on the shores of this continent, fleeing religious persecution and hoping for a better life. When we as Humanistic Jews and inheritors of Jewish history look back over the course of our family’s experience, we know that we owe our survival as Jews and as individuals to those courageous souls who took their future into their own hands, braving the unknown and refusing to wait for divine deliverance as much as we owe those who studied the ancient books. Our courageous ancestors were not humanists, but they DID act with human power to improve their lives. As do we. This tradition we are proud to continue.

Yom Kippur is a time of reflection. Let us look at our image in the mirror every morning as if it were the statue we chiseled here today out of the rock of our being – a powerful image of responsibility, power, humor and courage. Let us create together a Shana Tova:  a good, and even a GREAT new year!

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Let Go – Yom Kippur Memorial 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher

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

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

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

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

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I Forgive – Yom Kippur Morning 5776

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

In 1943, in the depths of the Holocaust, a Jewish prisoner was taken from his labor camp to a German army hospital. There he met an SS man dying from his wounds who confessed his participation in a massacre of Jews. The SS man wept, proclaiming his deep distress and regret, and then he asked the Jewish prisoner for forgiveness. Having sat quietly and listened to this horrible story, the Jewish man left without saying a word. In the following days and weeks, he discussed this experience with his fellow prisoners and he found that no two of them had the same opinion – should he have offered compassion to a suffering and dying man? Should he have condemned the SS man for his unforgivable actions? Or was it best to say nothing, as there was nothing that could be said?

Thirty years after the war, this Jewish man, Simon Wiesenthal, wrote his story in a short book called The Sunflower and at the end of the book he asked intellectuals, rabbis, priests and fellow survivors of genocide a deceptively simple question: “What would you have done?” Their answers are all over the map – some draw on the Jewish tradition that one must ask forgiveness from the person one has wronged, which makes murder unforgivable. They also note that assuming that one Jew can speak for all Jews, and forcing a Jewish captive under threat of death to attend to your need for forgiveness, hardly shows true repentance. Some Christians emphasized the importance of mercy and compassion, imitating their conception of God and living out the saying of Jesus: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” One respondent concluded his rejection of forgiveness tersely: “I would have silently left the deathbed having made quite certain that there was now one Nazi less in the world!”

Is it useful for us to compare our lives to the Holocaust? Internet discussions are notorious for something called Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” – in other words, the longer the discussion, it is practically certain that someone or something, no matter how outrageously inappropriate, will be compared to the Holocaust.  It is highly unlikely that any of us in our lifetimes will face a challenge to “I forgive” as difficult as Wiesenthal’s experience. But it is not impossible –remember those bereaved families from the Charleston Church shooting, who said that they forgave the shooter just two days later? It is impossible to know what we might have done in a similar circumstance unless we ourselves have lived for months under starvation, abuse, the fear of death, and the loss of family and friends and even your name. And yet, Wiesenthal asks for your response – “what would you have done?” At Kol Hadash, our 7th and 8th grade Sunday School class reads The Sunflower in their study of the Holocaust, and I have taught the book to university undergraduates. Precisely because this scenario is an extreme circumstance, the story highlights some of the challenges to forgiveness, but also some of the possibilities. Is forgiveness collective or individual? Is forgiveness for the relief of the violator’s guilt, or is forgiveness for the release of the victim’s anger? Is a deathbed, even the deathbed of a murderer, a place for compassion or for honesty? Even if we never face such a challenge, it is clear that “I forgive,” while it seems like a simple thing to say, has more to it than meets the eye.

In Rabbinic Judaism, Yom Kippur was a day of judgment, when divine decree would declare who would live and who would die in the year just begun. Before one is able to seek divine forgiveness, decreed the rabbis, one must first seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged. That also means making yourself available to those who have wronged you, to give them the opportunity to apologize, as well as forcing yourself to do the same if they sincerely atone. In its ideal form, this Yom Kippur is in no way a get out of jail free, cheap grace, cut out the middle man end run for divine forgiveness – it demands hard work towards reconciliation. This is a great example of Jewish obligations bein adam l’khavero – between people – reinforcing our Humanism. Atonement bein adam la-makom, between humanity and God, on the other hand, may not. If we choose to fast or avoid shaving or not wear leather or even to prostrate ourselves flat on the ground, it is for personal growth rather than to soften up the cosmic judge. Does this mean that everyone has always followed this norm of personal atonement before asking personal forgiveness? Of course not – lip service and rote recitation is much easier than what I’ve described. At the same time, we need more practical guidance than simply “forgive and be forgiven.”

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ medieval code of Jewish law, a lengthy chapter is devoted to the laws of teshuvah, or repentance. Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root “shuv,” which means “return” – returning to the scene of the crime, turning away from a mistake, restoring a relationship that had been damaged. Most of the laws in this chapter concern transgressions against God, and Maimonides also describes in detail sinners who have no share in the world to come – disputing prophecy and the divinity of the Torah, denying the resurrection of the dead, challenging the authority of rabbinic interpretation, and more (ch.3). The list of sinners could actually be the basis for an early “statement of principles” for Humanistic Judaism! When Maimonides turns to restoring human relations, we find more useful insight. For example, complete repentance is when “A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his repentance alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.” (2:1) This “repentance” would be a positive outcome of therapy, a successful result of rehab, and of course a good sign that someone was worthy of forgiveness. Still, there is not enough from Maimonides alone to give us practical guidance to when it’s appropriate to offer the gift of “I forgive,” either for their sake or for ours.

Let us imagine an ideal scenario when we would be most comfortable saying, “I forgive.” First, be direct: the other person comes to us promptly after something has gone wrong, and they communicate directly and not through anyone else. Second, own it: they take full responsibility and they show regret for what they have done, without blaming anyone else or extenuating circumstances. Third, make good: they offer to make restitution for any damages they have caused. And fourth, show growth: they demonstrate that they have learned their lesson and will strive to avoid any repetition of such behavior. If someone did all of that, in most cases it would be straightforward to offer, “I forgive” – we might even feel obligated to forgive if everything were this perfect. The Assyrians of Nineveh in the Jonah story meet these criteria for their offenses against the Hebrew God, and they are forgiven no matter what Jonah wants. We know that forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting, and I am sure each of us has said “I forgive” to someone when we remember damn well that they did. Responding to that powerful episode of forgiveness in Charleston, one expert in forgiveness and reconciliation said,

People think it’s forgive and forget, and it’s the opposite…It’s forgive and remember. …. it’s a letting go, that this person is not going to control my life forever….Forgiveness is a process: It’s something you commit to, but it doesn’t happen immediately.

These four stages I’ve described parallel Maimonides’ recommendations: to merit forgiveness, you have to be direct and own it and make good and, as we saw, show growth: “even if a person restores the money that he owes, he must still appease [the person he wronged] and ask him to forgive him.” Maimonides also emphasizes how important it is to seek forgiveness:

If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [him]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is now the one considered as the sinner. (2:9)

Returning over and over, admitting one’s failing in public, all demonstrate what teshuva, repentance is all about, and conversely when it should be easier to say “I forgive.”

But what if one or more of these conditions is not met? Be direct: what if the other person delays in coming to us, or sends someone else to apologize on their behalf? What if they want you to forgive them for something they did to someone else? Own it: what if they blame others rather than taking responsibility? What if they are more indignant than apologetic? Make good: what if they refuse to help clean up the mess they made? And Show growth: what if they show no signs of change or personal growth? Indeed, what if they demand forgiveness as an obligation you have to them? In this worst-case scenario, with everything going wrong, very few of us would say “I forgive;” we would be more likely to say, “get lost!” or something much stronger.

We still might decide for our own sanity to let it go, but moving on is not the same as forgiveness. After all of these detailed descriptions of true repentance, Maimonides encourages us to cut the offender some slack:

It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. (2:10)

Perhaps easier said than done – we are not all by nature easy to pacify and hard to anger; some are easy to anger and hard to pacify, and most of us are somewhere in between. When I was a teaching assistant for undergraduates studying the Holocaust, we would invite two survivors to come and speak to the class – one was still very angry, while the other had made his peace with the Germans of today. Several years ago, after Kol Hadash walked in the Highland Park Fourth of July parade, we received an angry email asking, “How dare a Jewish congregation use a German car for their ‘float’?” (we had put banners on a member’s convertible BMW). I eventually responded that this is an issue to which different Jews have responded differently – visit any synagogue parking lot and you’ll see plenty of German-made cars. I also wrote that moving on in this particular area means neither forgiving nor forgetting. We may decide if and when it would be better for us to forgive, or even just move on, but we should resist making that decision for someone else.

How does Wiesenthal’s dying SS man fit these forgiveness criteria? Be direct: He talks directly to Wiesenthal, a Jew like those he killed, and not to a priest or fellow soldier – but at the end of life when he fears hell more than he fears his conscience. Own it: he clearly shows deep regret and accepts his guilt, though some respondents wonder if he ever would have done so had he not been mortally wounded; they also condemn his blaming of “the system” for his own choices to join the Hitler Youth and to volunteer for the SS against the values and wishes of his parents. Likewise, his late confession means he has no opportunity to make good, though he does try to will his few possessions to Wiesenthal, who refuses them. The open question is whether he shows growth – what would he have done if he had survived – would he have dedicated his life to reconciliation, or would he have hidden his crimes to resume a normal middle class German life? That we can never know. All in all, if I were to answer Wiesenthal’s question, “what would you have done,” this case is far enough from the ideal to merit dismissal rather than forgiveness.

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s response to Wiesenthal’s account presents another example to consider, where every criteria is met, but there is still something wrong (The Sunflower, pp. 170-171). The Rabbi of Brisk, on a train homeward, is rudely treated by a traveling salesman who does not recognize him. When they arrive in Brisk and the salesman realizes whom he has offended, he begs forgiveness repeatedly, tries to make good, and yet the rabbi firmly rejects him. He finally asks the Rabbi’s son to intervene, and the Rabbi explains to his son that the salesman had not known who he was, so he had offended a common man. It is to THAT person he should apologize. Remember Maimonides? Come back several times, and be willing to grant forgiveness. The salesman was doing everything right except for the big picture – it was not his offense against the rabbi’s prestige that was the failure, but rather his lack of basic decency to any ordinary person.

What makes The Sunflower narrative even more poignant is what Simon Wiesenthal did with his life after the Holocaust. Within a few weeks of liberation, he began the work of the rest of his life: to bring fugitive Nazis to justice for what they had done. As he puts it in The Sunflower (p. 83): “Years of suffering had inflicted deep wounds on my faith that justice existed in the world.. . . I thought the work…might help me regain my faith in humanity and in the things which mankind needs in life besides the material.” Wiesenthal grappled with forgiveness, yet he also he insisted on bringing justice to the world. For justice, honesty, loyalty to the truth are basic to human existence, especially if we believe that human beings alone have the knowledge and ability to bring them about.

I humbly offer this model for when to say “I forgive” and how to seek forgiveness: be direct, own it, make good, show growth. There are no guarantees, of course, like all of these simplest things to say. But if it works to bring a bit more shalom, peace into the world, then why not? All of these simple things to say, from “I hear you” leading to “I’ll help,” or “It’s my responsibility” opening up the possibility of “I forgive,” what they have in common is their potential to build bridges across the gulfs that divide us – misunderstanding, distrust, anger, isolation. The give and take of dialogue becomes the give and take of companionship and community. Even Simon Wiesenthal, in his solitary encounter with a representative of everything he has every right to hate with every fiber of his being, even then he sat, and he listened, he showed compassion, he grappled with the humanity of the other person. And afterwards, he needed to share his story with his fellow prisoners, and ultimately the world, to ask “what would you have done.” One of his comrades offered this interpretation: “a superman has asked a subhuman to do something which is superhuman. If you had forgiven him, you would never have forgiven yourself all of your life.” (The Sunflower, p. 66) If forgiveness would be superhuman, then it cannot be expected or demanded. But if forgiveness can be the bridge to a shared humanity and teshuva opens the possibility of a return to community, then we should be willing to take that first step. As I encourage you to do as we begin this new year.

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It’s My Responsibility – Yom Kippur Evening 5776

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

Two years ago, for the first time since it opened in 1993, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.  I had not visited before for the same reason I do not visit every Jewish museum when I travel – for me, it feels like work. I wanted to see the US Holocaust Museum because I was intrigued by its very existence. The Holocaust was an unimaginable tragedy, but it did not happen in America, the Holocaust was not suffered by Americans, and it was not perpetrated by America. Yes, American indifference to Jewish refugees before and during the war played a role, and after the war thousands of survivors made the United States their home. But Americans were neither the murderers nor the murdered, and there were no concentration camps in America during WWII.

Actually, there were, but not for Jews. From 1942 to 1945, over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 2/3 of them American citizens, were forcibly relocated and interned in camps. Many of them lost their homes their property, anything they could not carry with them. It took the United States over 40 years to finally and formally apologize and to offer $20,000 per person in meager restitution. I mention this dark page in our national history because it is not the first time it took us a long time to take responsibility. The Holocaust Museum opened in 1993, but the National Museum of the American Indian did not open until 2004, and there still is no National Museum of African American History and Culture – that is slated to open in 2016. Both Native American expulsion and slavery, Jim Crow and racial oppression were committed by Americans in America. The Holocaust was a failure of humanity, and it was an act of generosity for the United States to assume some responsibility for its commemoration as part of its national mall. Yet perhaps it is a bit easier to take distanced responsibility for a failure of “humanity” than it is to accept failings closer to home, misdeeds for which you were directly responsible.

This New Year’s season, we have explored “the simplest things” – small things we can say and live by that can have a profound impact on the world around us, and on ourselves. On Rosh Hashana we saw that “I hear you” and “I’ll help” deepen our connections to other people while strengthening ourselves. There are many trends in society that support “I hear you” and “I’ll help” – listening to those who need to be heard, and reaching out to those who need assistance. At the same time, saying “It’s my responsibility” in a tangible and meaningful way may be on the decline. It’s easy to sign an online petition, to share a moving image over social networks, but taking personal ownership of a cause or assuming personal responsibility for a failure is much harder. Because that’s what “It’s my responsibility” really means – taking direct, personal responsibility for success or failure. And it is much easier to avoid personal responsibility than to accept it.

We understand the power of circumstances. We know very well that the circumstances of your birth, your parents, your upbringing, your home situation, your neighborhood, your education – all factors beyond the ability of a child to control – these factors have a profound impact on your opportunities later in life. We know that car accidents and illness and financial crashes can derail even the most careful long-term plans. And we know on the psychological side that it can be easier to make excuses than to take responsibility. When megapastor Rick Warren opened his best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life with the words, “it’s not about you,” he was saying that any problems you have, the bad things that have happened to you are all part of a divine plan – it was not your fault, and you do not have to take responsibility. Indeed, traditional religion can encourage you to avoid it – all glory be to God, says the Christian athlete. The book of Zecharia (4:6) proclaims, “not by might, not by power, but by my spirit alone.” Deuteronomy (8:17-18) warns you to beware lest “you say to yourselves: ‘my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you to the power to get wealth.” A few years ago, a Buffalo Bills wide receiver dropped a potential game winning touchdown, and after the game he went theological on Twitter:


With reporters, he did take personal responsibility, and I’m sure he cashed his game check rather than donate it to his church. But when your god gets the credit, or the blame, it seems harder to say clearly, “It’s my responsibility.”

Taking credit is a kind of taking responsibility – it’s the easy kind of responsibility when something has turned out to be a success. Taking the blame is much harder – responsibility for a failure, a negative outcome from which there might be negative consequences for me. The hardest can be taking responsibility before the results are known, because who knows what could go wrong? There was an amusing typo in the publicity for these High Holiday services – a number of the sermon topics inadvertently had a question mark at the end. There’s plenty of blame to go around – I proofed them and I missed it, as did some others who will remain nameless. I never said you have to take responsibility alone. Sometimes the results of the typos were amusing – “I’ll Help” became “I’ll help?”, or “Oops” became “Oops?”; a more apologetic version. For this topic, however, the question mark could reverse the meaning – instead of “it’s my responsibility,” it could read, “it’s MY responsibility??” Unfortunately, it’s much more common to hear the denial than the acceptance. I know that in public life apologies often have legal and financial implications. But just once it would be refreshing to hear someone take unambiguous responsibility for a screw-up before it was court ordered. And maybe they could apologize without declaring that their spouse or their God has already forgiven them; implication: you should let it slide. We’ll talk more tomorrow about the possibilities and limitations of forgiveness, but you can already hear that the standard politician style of assuming responsibility leaves a lot to be desired.

Responsibility is often a public stance. Researchers have found that changing your life can be accomplished more effectively by making public commitments to others – giving colleagues and friends a card saying that you’re quitting smoking makes each of them a living reminder of your responsibility for your health. When your name is on the letterhead, or your public persona is attached to a particular project, you are being publicly pushed into maintaining the responsibility you have assumed. As easy as it can be to avoid responsibility at the outset, it can be just as tempting to evade it after the fact. And here is where the balance of public and private responsibility comes into play. What would we think of ourselves if we evaded a responsibility we already accepted? And what would others think of us? We are not absolutely dependent on the perceptions of others for our self-worth, but neither are we absolutely indifferent to them. “It’s my responsibility” can be said to others or said to ourselves, but either way it is an important part of maturity and self-sufficiency.

Sometimes saying “I’m responsible” means looking backward – something bad happened, and I am accepting responsibility that it happened because of something I did or did not do, or because I was the person in charge. If you are happy to take the credit during good times, even if others do the leg work, then you have to pay the piper when it goes the other way. Sometimes saying “I’m responsible” means looking forward – I will take responsibility for this project, this initiative, this cause, and I will do my best to make sure it is a success. This does not mean that you have to do everything yourself – that’s irresponsible – but it does mean you can be judged on the results. Sometimes “I’m responsible” means looking inward – I admit to myself that something I did or allowed to happen had negative consequences that are on me to address. Sometimes that unpleasant insight comes from listening to someone else’s perspective, sometimes we get enough distance to honestly evaluate ourselves. And sometimes “I’m responsible” means looking outward – I feel a pull to support people or organizations or causes I value. I volunteer, I advocate, I am a card-carrying member. You can see why avoiding responsibility becomes more seductive the more you think about the implications of “It’s my responsibility.”

Consider the experience of becoming a parent. That’s responsibility in all directions, and then some. When my wife was several months pregnant with our first child, one night she asked me, “How do we know that we’re ready to be parents?” My first response was, “Too late now!”  But then I thought a bit, and I said that the only way to find out if we are ready to be parents is to have a child and then we’ll see – there is no simulation. And then I remembered a story someone else had told me years before: when he and his wife were leaving the hospital with their first child, they put the infant in the car, they sat down in the front, and they both burst into tears – “how are we supposed to keep this baby alive??” As a new parent, you feel an amazingly powerful sense of responsibility, and terror, because you have just received a title you will bear for the rest of your life. I sometimes wish parents happy “becoming a mother” or “becoming a father” day on the birthday of their oldest child, because they assumed that responsibility and they are carrying it out. Children do not come with a manual, and if you have had more than one you know that the same parents and the same environment can still produce vastly different individuals.

Each of one’s children gradually learns to take their own responsibility as they are able – The traditional blessing recited by a Bar Mitzvah boy’s father was, “Blessed are you, our god, who has today exempted me from the punishment of this one.” Before the day of his Bar Mitzvah, I was responsible for his mistakes. Today, he’s off my insurance! Perhaps it could have been phrased better, but the transition from being someone else’s responsibility to being able to say, “It’s MY responsibility” is a crucial moment in our growing independence. This is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting – pulling back on one’s own sense of responsibility to let one’s children develop their own. Letting them fall, letting them fail is part of the process, as difficult as it may be for us to allow it to happen. Just as not helping is sometimes helping, so too can letting someone else take responsibility actually fulfill your own responsibility.

The reality is that responsibility is not simply a matter of discrete projects or individual relationships. A lifestyle built around the willingness to say and live, “it’s my responsibility” means much more. It means thinking through the distanced implications of one’s actions, and behaviors, and values. It means putting your time and energy behind what you say you value, making sure that your deeds match your creed. If you say you value voting rights or economic freedom or Humanistic Judaism, then living “It’s my responsibility” means doing something to make sure that what you say you value can continue and thrive. There are many ways to fulfill that sense of responsibility, but in the end you will have to answer to yourself if something you valued withers – good will only goes so far. If we do not believe that praying changes the real world, then neither does good will without responsibility.

The Yom Kippur evening service is often called Kol Nidre, after its most famous text. Kol Nidre is not a prayer, even though it is in a language you do not understand. And Kol Nidre is not in Hebrew, even though the letters may be challenging to read. Kol Nidre is an Aramaic formula to release an individual from their vows of the past year that they have not yet fulfilled. May all my vows be annulled, cancelled, considered as void, and on and on. The melody is beautiful, but the meaning raises concerns. There’s a reason why rabbis have tried to abolish it for centuries. One attempt to evade responsibility for this apparent evasion of responsibility has been to claim that Kol Nidre was composed for survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, who had hidden their Jewishness under Catholicism for generations and were now disavowing their Christian past as they reclaimed their Judaism. The historical reality is that it was opposed by rabbis as early as early as the 9th century, because cancelling what you promised to do is the opposite of taking responsibility. A legalistic formula, even with a beautiful melody, is no substitute.

So why do WE sing Kol Nidre? Does it further a Humanistic sense of responsibility, or are we simply caving in to nostalgia for historic Jewish culture and our own memories? I would argue that our approach to Kol Nidre is consistent with our approach to Jewish and personal life. Many of the responses of the most religious to the vicissitudes of life strike us as an evasion of responsibility – it’s in God’s hands, it’s God’s will, I was tempted by the evil impulse, I’m praying for deliverance or material success. Or else it’s responsibility applied in the wrong places – blaming homosexuality for natural disasters, or women’s lack of modesty for cancer, or those who suffer for not being observant enough. I assure you, religious leaders and JEWISH religious leaders have said these things. Our approach is very different: we assume responsibility for our lives because we know that nothing else will. So if we make promises, we strive to fulfill them, but if we are unable to fulfill them, we can admit our failings. Because that’s a kind of responsibility too. Remember, “it’s my responsibility” means that it is on your account as either a success or a failure. What was a forward looking acceptance of responsibility can become a backward looking acceptance of blame; the outward looking public commitment becomes an inward-focused self-evaluation and judgment. It is not true that eliminating cosmic judgment from Yom Kippur means we are taking the easy way out. Given the evidence of political press conferences, God seems much more likely to absolve you of responsibility than your own conscience.

Do I bear responsibility for the Holocaust? In a very, very distant sense, as a member of the humanity that perpetrated it and allowed it to happen. As a Jew, of course, my Jewish family was the victim. Am I responsible for the internment of Japanese Americans, the expulsion of Native Americans, the oppression of African Americans? Even if I was not a perpetrator of these injustices, I have benefited from their results – remember that “Blackhawk” used to mean something other than a hockey team in Illinois. The GI Bill that sent our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation to college and home ownership was just as race restricted as the rest of society – according to one scholar, “of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites.” Did Jews also face discrimination in those days? Yes, but in some ways they were on the white side of the line. If I have enjoyed the benefits, I share some responsibility. Still, I must remind myself that responsibility is harder than abstract acceptance of history – “It’s my responsibility” is something I have to apply to my own life, my own relationships, my own family, my own community. Responsibility is the hard work of reconciliation, the challenge of self-ownership, the willingness to extend oneself into the unknown and face both the thrill of success and the fear of failure. We conclude this Kol Nidre address with a stirring statement of personal responsibility by William Ernest Henley, entitled “Invictus.”

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

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I’ll Help – Rosh Hashana Morning 5776

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

A rabbi was once counseling a couple dealing with money problems. She recommended that they put a tsedakah box on their mantle and put a little charity money in there every day. They responded incredulously, “Weren’t you listening? Our problem is that we DON’T have money!” But they tried, and they found after a couple of weeks that the act of giving to others actually gave them a sense of self-control, and the feeling that they had ability to help others. It also gave them a sense of perspective on their own issues; if you’re having a particularly bad day at work, you can rest assured that no matter how bad your day is, someone out there is having a worse day. And you don’t have to go to Syria to find them. It’s not a question of whether misery loves company, or even if the company loves misery, but rather the simple reality that life is not perfect, the universe does not run by our priorities, the world does not reward the righteous or punish the wicked or ensure justice. The pious Psalmist of the Hebrew Bible asks, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” He answers: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121). But what if heaven and earth were NOT made for us? What if what the Psalmist heard was only the echo of his own desire, and there’s no help coming from them thar hills? In that case, we must look elsewhere for our help.

There is no such thing as a pure individual, created from the dust of the ground like the Biblical Adam, without parents, without society – you do not have to go any farther than your own bellybutton. You were once attached to someone else, and cut loose by a second person and maybe tied by a third. There has never been the philosopher’s conceit of a pure state of nature, when autonomous independent individuals made rational social contracts to restrict their previously unrestrained rights. There’s a simple reason why the Genesis origin story starts with an individual and within a few chapters adds a spouse and children and agriculture and murder – any origin story has to end up with real human experience: mortality, ethics, society. I’m going to solve one of humanity’s great mysteries for you: which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer is the egg: the first real chicken was inside, the next step of evolution from a species of pre-chicken. We came from people before us, and our society came from a society before that. Before you could even choose whether or not to ask for help, you received it.

Of course, we are not only our past, or our heritage, or our obligations. In Jewish life, we celebrate a child’s birth, but we also celebrate the growth of their autonomy and independence through Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the creation of the family of their choosing in a huppah [canopy] that represents the new home and partnership they have created. The past, the family, society does NOT own you, but neither can we fully ignore that we participate in an endless exchange of generosity. A famous rabbinic story describes a sage walking by an old man planting a fruit tree. The sage asks the old man how long it will take for the tree to bear fruit, and the man replies, “70 years.” “Will you live that long?” responds the incredulous sage. The answer: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)

Last night, we explored how important it is to say to someone else, “I hear you.” Far easier to say, “listen to me” than to listen, much harder to hear when we ourselves need improvement without talking back. If “I hear you” is an expression of sympathy, “I’ll help” expresses engagement and commitment – I will take time and energy and attention away from what I would normally do for myself to do something for you. Even if we imagine that the favor we do today may be returned to us in some way, “I’ll help” is not like The Godfather, a sinister plot to accumulate obligations. Instead, it’s a stage in our personal connection with other people. Let’s say we’ve heard what someone has to say, and we respond with “I’ll help.” Simple, right? Maybe not. When is it appropriate to transition from hearing in sympathy to fixing the problem? How do we find the best way to help – do we know best, or do they? When is NOT helping really helping? Since we cannot help everyone, how far do we extend our hand? As you know by looking at the news any day of the year, the need is great and the resources are finite.

As I mentioned last night, I get to listen to people at all stages of life, and telling them, “I hear you” helps them even as it helps me to learn, to deepen my sympathies, to expand my horizons. Sometimes people clearly ask for help, but we can also be proud and stubborn. Some years ago, I did a High Holiday sermon series on “the hardest things to day” – phrases like “I don’t know”, or “you were right and I was wrong.” The hardest one for me, and it still is, was “help me”. Even if we need help, we want to be able to do things for ourselves, by ourselves. Admitting that we need help is difficult. So sometimes you have to offer “I’ll help” before anyone asks you, since they may never ask you even though they need it. You have to hear what they are not saying too. They may still decline your help, but they will know that they are not alone, they’ll know that someone else recognizes their situation. And if they were to ask in the future, you might be there. When we say “I’ll help” to someone else, it means “you are not alone,” even if they respond, “no thanks.” This is the problem of when.

Because sometimes “I’ll help” is not helpful, at least not yet. Sometimes the other person needs to hear, “I’ll help,” but other times all they want is “I hear you.” I may have had a terrible day at work that I’m telling you about, but I’m not be ready to start fixing the situation or to get your distanced perspective on how this could have happened. “I’ll help” can mean “I’ll help when you’re ready,” not I need to help right now to fix the problem. I am a fixer, and those of us who are fixers want to act when something is wrong or someone we care about is upset. We ourselves would be comforted by acting first and talking later, but we need to understand that help has to meet the person where they are, not where we imagine them to be. Sometimes being heard is help enough, sometimes more is needed, but hearing always needs to be the first step.

The truth is that helping is not just a matter of understanding a particular problem, but rather understanding the person’s entire circumstances, and what THEY might want or need for themselves. The problem of How. My wife works for Foundation Beyond Belief, which collects donations from atheists and humanists and then gives grants to other charities doing important work – one of their criteria is that the charity work be clearly effective in the long run. We’ve all laughed at pictures of African teenagers with T-shirts saying, “I raised the roof at Jordan’s Bar Mitzvah,” but what happens when you donate clothing to be sent overseas? Whatever it costs in shipping expenses and environmental impact, when the clothing arrives, it is given away. That destroys the local clothing economy, undermining people who manufacture clothes, which makes it harder for that nation to clothe itself. American food aid is required to purchase food from American farmers and ship it overseas rather than wire the funds to purchase local produce – and what impact does giving away that food have on local farmers? That’s helping them by helping us rather than helping them to help themselves. You might think that providing bicycles would help with mobility, commerce, education – but not if you do not train a bicycle repair technician and provide the parts needed to fix them; of what use is a broken bicycle? Do you want to make sure girls in the developing world will stay in school? Yes, they need books and supplies and uniforms, and of course security; they also need sanitary supplies for their periods, a dire need for personal dignity rarely met by international donations. The more those girls are educated, the more they will be valued by their families, the later and better they will marry, and the fewer children they will have, which in turn will lead to valuing girls more and greater economic stability. But if they miss five school days a month for fear of embarrassment, they are much more likely to drop out and continue the cycle. How do we know all this, about dignity and mobility and food and clothing? Because we started to say not just, “I’ll help and here’s how;” now we say first, “What do you need? I hear you, and now I’ll help.”

How many ways can this apply to your life? Consider this: Have you offered to fix the problem too soon without listening first? How many times has the help you have offered not been what the other person needed or wanted? Have you been the recipient of help that was well-intentioned but misdirected? I do not believe that these difficulties mean we can never help each other, or that we should not try to help at all. Rather, it means we need to give others the respect they deserve to make their own choices for the kind of help they want.

A Humanistic attitude to helping has to include fostering self-sufficiency, and the dignity that comes from personal autonomy. When Maimonides composed his “ladder of charity” 800 years ago, the highest level was giving someone a profession so they will not need charity anymore; indeed they might be able to help someone else in their turn. We must not assume, then, that others will always need our help or that we will always be able to help. In fact, sometimes NOT helping is actually helping. The art of parenting is teaching your children how to live independent lives, which means a kind of parental self-contraction. Jewish mysticism imagined that, before creation, God was everywhere and everything, and there had to be a tsimtsum, a contraction into itself, to create space for the material world. There are times as parents, or as individuals who want to help others, when we need to restrain ourselves to let them do it, to learn it, to master it, to own it for themselves. That does not mean your child will drive home alone from her Bat Mitzvah, but the road they begin when they start choosing their own clothes, their own friends, their own activities, their own diet culminates in choosing their own life, whether their choices agree with ours or not. The physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it well: “We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong there.”

And what of those who cannot help themselves – those unwilling or unable to make prudent choices, or those trapped by circumstances beyond their control or their ability to overcome? The addicts, the mentally ill, the refugees, the “tired tempest-tossed yearning to breathe free”? The choice of whom to help is particularly challenging, since our natural survival instinct is to help our own first and others later, if at all. Our needs may not be as dire, but it is easier for us to spend thousands of dollars to save one child fallen down a well than to spend hundreds of dollars on mosquito netting that could save many more lives. American Jewish World Service only works in countries that are in the bottom third of the Human Development Index. Sometimes people ask them, “why don’t you do work in Israel, where there are populations in need? Isn’t this JEWISH service?” They answer that their vision of Jewish service is not Jews helping Jews; Jewish service is Jews helping! Israel is in the top 20 out of 166 nations in the Human Development Index, so AJWS works in countries like Uzbekistan or Senegal. And, frankly, their work there is good for the Jews too – seeing food aid or medical supplies arriving in a crate marked with a Jewish star, the recipients know they will not be forced to build a church or to pray in order to get help. In those bottom tier countries, the lack of basic human needs like food, clothing, shelter, or human dignity makes aspirational development and self-determination secondary. A Syrian refugee family fleeing for their lives probably does not ponder whether accepting a food package undermines their self-determination. In these cases, without “I’ll help,” without life, there is no liberty or pursuit of happiness.

I still have not addressed the most challenging cases – can we help those who do not help themselves, those who even hurt themselves. To answer this, we need to explore the potential and the limits to the phrase “tikkun olam.” Many Jews have no idea what tikkun olam really means. They think it means community service, doing good, helping people, social justice. Some DO know tikkun olam literally translates to “repairing the world,” and they deploy it to confirm a partnership theology, where a limited God needs human effort to have any effect on the world. This is the “god as a verb” approach, though I’m still not sure how you conjugate it or use it in a sentence. We Humanistic Jews may sympathize in their tangible goals even if we find the supernatural vocabulary superfluous. The problem is that tikkun olam imagines there is a perfect solution, and with enough effort we can really fix the world, a return to Eden or a this-worldly paradise. The real origins of the phrase tikkun olam are in medieval Jewish mysticism, which imagined that when the world was being created, everything shattered. Humanity’s responsibility now is to perform all 613 Jewish commandments with the proper mystical intention, thereby liberating divine sparks from the material world and repairing not only the world, but also God itself. We know that language changes all the time – the same Hebrew word, avodah, was used for animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, and then for the rabbinic prayer service, and in our own days for Israel’s Labor party! We can also understand even the mystical origins of tikkun olam through a Humanistic lens: yes, it imagined magical powers, but it also promoted an active humanity responding to a reduced divinity. Tikkun olam has always emphasized the power that people have to affect their circumstances, and each other.

At the same time, we must admit when there is a rupture with the past. If we believe there was no original paradise, then we have no illusions that there will be one in the future. And that means that not every problem is fixable, and not every person is helpable. If we are proverbially “out of Eden” and thus are free, that also means we are out of Eden without guarantees. Our Declaration of Independence does not describe a right to happiness; it is the right to the PURSUIT of happiness. Part of me would love to save my children “the heartache and the thousands natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” in Shakespeare’s words. But I cannot live their lives for them: they themselves must find love and then lose it, they themselves must attempt something beyond their abilities and fail, they alone will make plans that fall through so that they can learn to plan differently and better. “I’ll help” does not mean that I can help everyone, or that I will help in the same way forever. The help we give our children changes as they are better able to help themselves; a mature relationship between parent and adult child should be very different from childhood, because both parent and child themselves should be different. If we allow our children the freedom to fail and to suffer, that must also be true for others. When it comes to “I’ll help,” the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot apply well: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” In other words, we are out of Eden, but we are not alone. We cannot help everyone, but that’s no excuse for never helping anyone.

The next 9 days, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, have traditionally been viewed as days of awe and fear – a time of supernatural judgment when it would be determined who would live and who would die. WE do not fear divine judgment during these days; we have taken the responsibility for judgment onto ourselves and inside ourselves. That does not mean that we are easily off the hook. I’ve suggested to you some ways that small things like “I hear you” and “I’ll help” can make the world a little better for you and for all. Like life itself, I offer you no guarantees. What I do offer you is an opportunity. When we return for Yom Kippur, we will explore what it means to say “It’s my responsibility” and, perhaps the most challenging, “I forgive.” Between now and then, in these next nine days, find one person who needs to hear, from YOU, the words, “I hear you.” Find one person who would be helped by your saying, “I’ll help.” You do not have to go far – they might be sitting in this very room, or only a phone call away, or someone you have never met who might take your help and use it to feel healthier, stronger, more confident, more in charge of their life, more capable of helping others.

Remember that tsedakah box? Saying “I’ll help” can help you even as you help another. As we sing here so often, my strength is in me, and in you.

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I Hear You – Rosh Hashana evening 5776

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

What was the most important Jewish invention? Not a new technology from the Start Up Nation. Not a medical treatment like Salk’s polio vaccine, not an insight into the physical world like Einstein’s relativity. In the 1880s, into Dr. Josef Breuer’s office came a young Jewish woman named Bertha Pappenheim – she was afflicted with paralysis and speech disturbances. Together the two of them discovered that simply talking about her symptoms, and exploring the thoughts and feelings she associated with them, helped the symptoms reduce or even disappear. The patient called it “chimney sweeping,” but it later became known as the talking cure.” Sigmund Freud would make it famous through psychoanalysis, and generations since have been helped by this invention; including some of us here tonight. The talking cure does not only help psychological issues, even traumas – the talking cure is why we know that we are much more than our rational, conscious minds; the talking cure is why men have learned to talk about their feelings (some men, at least), and why women’s consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s changed the world – the personal can become political, but only if someone is listening. Diaries have been around for a long time; what made the talking cure different was not the talking. It really should have been called “the listening cure,” because the listening made the difference.

Why do people pray? Why do they join traditional congregations? Why do Catholics go to confessional? They want to be heard. Why are blogs and talk radio call-in shows popular? Why does a Peanuts cartoon with a sign saying “the doctor is in” give us hope, while “the doctor is out” leaves us sadder? Why do we love getting Likes on Facebook? We want to be heard.

“The Doctor Is In”

If I have learned one lesson in my rabbinic career, it’s been the simple truth that people want to be heard – they want someone to say three simple words: “I hear you.” That need to be heard, the like on Facebook, the favorite on Twitter, having people to hear and understand you, that need transcends theology and religious tradition and time and space. Even the Hebrew God in the Bible wants to be heard: at the beginning the Binding of Isaac story, traditionally read on Rosh Hashana, when Elohim (or God) calls the name “Abraham”, Abraham response “Hineni” which is the Hebrew equivalent of “Yo!” And only then do the instructions begin, after it is clear that Abraham is listening. “Hineini” is also how Abraham responds when an angel of the god Yahveh calls out “Abraham, Abraham,” saving Isaac at the last minute. If you heard that the name for god changed in the middle of the story, that was good listening too – it may well be that two stories were put together, one where Abraham showed his obedience to the hilt (so to speak), and one where the episode was a test of the emergency commandment system; it was only a test. Different groups were attached to different versions of the story, but each one wanted to be sure that their narrative would be heard, and so they both were and are.

We who have used language all our lives may not realize what a great evolutionary leap forward human language truly was. Animals certainly communicate with each other, but has there ever been a Dolphin Shakespeare? (Truth is, who knows?) Our language does not merely work in the present tense, telling us where the food is or watch out for that tiger; we can grapple with the complexities of life and death, we can explore the past and imagine countless futures. But all of that potential in our language goes nowhere if we do not have someone to hear it. Even Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway needed to talk to a Wilson volleyball and not just to himself. He did not need a god; he needed another face.

If we want to understand how important the listening cure can be, imagine for a moment what life would be like if you were not heard: no one to complain to, no one to share your joys, no one to participate in your life. During the Holocaust, one of the motivations that kept some alive was the desire to bear witness, to tell the world what really happened, to make sure that these horrors would be heard and understood and never again.

New Lives by Dorothy Rabinowitz

Sometimes the survivors in America did not talk much about their experiences right after the war because they were not ready; other times it was because their neighbors would not have been able to hear and understand what had been endured by the survivors. Even if the survivors were ready to talk or write, and some of them did in Yiddish, their mameloshn [mother tongue], we on the outside were not ready to say, “I hear you.”

There are many reasons I am fortunate to do the work that I do: I can study what inspires me, I can teach, I have a warm and supportive community. And I get to listen. I meet families in their homes after someone has died, and they tell me about their loved ones the way they want to remember them. Who else gets to experience those moments? Often, the healing begins long before the public memorial, when we share the good stories, the best stories.  Sometimes my listening is learning, and sometimes it is a way of giving. The husband who had to leave the house at 5am every morning, so his wife left out a cereal bowl for him every night before she went to bed. The grandmother who, when she was a teenager, would sleep so soundly that her parents would yell at her to get up and get moving; she was so stubborn that even the neighbor would sometimes yell, “Barbara, wake up!” These families talk to me, and I listen for as long as it takes, and then I prove that I heard them by taking what they said and creating the eulogy. The positive responses afterwards I get are not just for representing the deceased well; they are also gratitude for hearing what was said.

I also visit people while they are alive, of course: in the hospital, in rehab, in long term care. It is true that bikur kholim [visiting the sick] is a traditional mitzvah/commandment that retains its relevance and inspiration for Secular Humanistic Jews. And yes, I learn every time from their life experiences, and I can exercise my compassion muscle; I also give them that gift: the gift of listening. It could be hearing the same story about their father’s business for the third time, or maybe the latest in their medical saga. It is good for me to remind myself how it’s not about me all the time, and it is a reminder to be fully present for them no matter what else I have on my schedule. The gift I give is now a birthday party cliché – my presence is my present.

I once went to visit a member of my congregation when I was working in Michigan in the hospital, She said to me, “Why do you want to see me? I look terrible!” I told her, “I’m not here for me to see you; I’m here for you to see me!” And sometimes I can get where I’m not supposed to be. My mother-in-law once had “minor” surgery (of course, minor surgery means surgery on someone you don’t know), and her daughter called her that evening to see how she was doing. The nurse on duty said tersely, “Calling hours are over” and hung up. Before my wife blew up, I said, “Let me try.” I called again and said, “This is RABBI Adam Chalom calling to check on my congregant; can you tell her that her RABBI is calling?” The nurse responded politely that while calling hours were over, she could bring a note to the patient and the patient could call out. Three minutes later, RING! Was this a ruse, a cunning attempt to trick them? In a good cause, yes. It take no title, it takes no training to give a present of your presence by saying, “I hear you.” It just takes patience and attention and time, if you can afford them.

If we listen to those who are in pain, if we tell those who have suffered or those who are suffering “I hear you,” we expand our horizons while offering them the comfort of not being alone. Now this is not what I promised in our High Holidays PR – I wrote then that doing small things could change the world. Not a “butterfly wings in China cause a typhoon in California” kind of change; a clear and tangible way. Let me share two areas where “I hear you” makes a difference in the big picture, and not just visiting the sick. Listening alone may not change the world – we have to act on what we hear, as we will explore tomorrow through what it means to say, “I’ll help.” Starting with “I hear you” is a crucial first step.

Listening in the land of Israel – 15  years ago, I was in Israel for a summer program, and I tried watching an Israeli TV talk show. They ran the credits, the host welcomed his guests, he asked the first question, and within 2 minutes all 4 people on the panel were talking at the same time as loudly as they could. I understand that it is called a “talk show” and not a “listen show,” and I have since seen other, more civilized, Israeli talk shows. But what a useful metaphor for the situation: people talking and yelling at each other with their demands and preconditions and non-negotiables and claims of absolute right and truth and justice and accusations of absolute evil. We are close to 70 years of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and another conflict between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, and far too many people still need to learn that you cannot open your mind until you open your ears. And you cannot open your ears until you close your mouth. None of those four participants in that TV yell-fest, no one on opposite sides of a protest screaming at each other, none of them are able or willing to hear the other side.

Step one to “I hear you” is that we cannot assume we already know. How many of you who are liberal listen to conservative talk radio or read any conservative news websites? How many who are conservative explore liberal perspectives on events? It is very human to listen, but it is also all too human to listen only to what we want to hear – we hear that which confirms what we already believe, and we ignore most everything else. A study was once conducted where different groups received different versions of a report on the effectiveness of gun control – self-identified conservatives read a version showing that gun control worked to lower crime, while liberals read one that showed that gun control did not work. When they asked each group what the report the read said, each side claimed their report confirmed their perspective, even though it clearly not. Now I do not totally despair of the possibility of reason, and dialogue, and communication, even across profound differences. I do recognize our natural tendency to hear ourselves rather than truly hearing others.

How much more is this the case when our issue is not an ideological policy debate like gun control, but rather a direct and personal conflict, for our family with our neighbors or for our people against a neighboring people. Can we truly hear their story? Will they truly hear ours? At the end of Apartheid, the new South African government created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its task was not legal prosecution – it was to provide a forum for people to speak and to be heard. One documentary about the process was called Long Night’s Journey into Day. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not perfect, it may have given amnesty to some who deserved prosecution. But think of the importance of the Holocaust survivor testimonies recorded by the Shoah Foundation. The recognition of the Armenian genocide that began exactly 100 years ago this year still creates geopolitical tension. Not only is saying “I hear you” to those who have suffered important for families; it is also important for nations to know that their story has been heard.

Progress can happen when we listen to others, and listening without talking is hard to do. In 2014, a Palestinian college professor took a class of Palestinian students to Auschwitz to show them the Jewish experience of suffering. Afterwards, due to an uproar accusing him of being a “collaborator” and a “traitor,” he was forced to resign. The trip was part of a joint program involving Palestinian, German and Israeli universities; it also brought Israelis to meet Palestinians in refugee camps. The Palestinian professor wanted these students to say to the other, “I hear you” – and THAT was the outrage, that they might understand, even sympathize, with the enemy’s perspective. Lest you think Palestinians are the only rejectionists who deny the other’s narrative, witness attempts in Israel to ban from Arabic textbooks the use of the word “Nakba”, or catastrophe, to refer to Israel’s founding, or the ballistic response to non-governmental organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights which, without taking a position on one state or two, simply document human rights violations in the West Bank. Is it truly impossible to both defend Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and to listen, without talking, to the Palestinian experience? We in America have begun to understand that Columbus Day might not be so positive for Native Americans; to paraphrase Malcolm X’s famous line, they didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock landed on them! If we Jews can learn to listen to those Palestinians, and they hear us say, “I hear you,” some of their ears may well open too. And they need to hear us too – our experiences, our pain, our fears. No guarantees, but definite possibilities.

We see the same problem and the same POSSIBLE solution over and over again. When women describe experiences of sexual harassment or rape to incredulous men, or when Black Americans describe their experiences with stop and frisk policing or the social consequences of the War on Drugs. Listening without attacking, listening without defending, listening to learn and listening to grow – it may seem like “I hear you” is a very simple thing to say, but it can be a very, very hard thing to do. We as a society are NOT incurably racist and sexist, evil people in a corrupt culture that will never improve. It is indisputable that our society has made tremendous progress in the last 70 years. At the same time, it IS conceivable that some among us, even you, even me, have unconscious bias that gives more credit to Bill Cosby than to his first twenty accusers, or bias that assumes that people who look different from us are more likely to be dangerous than those who look like us. A more domestic example: we who are married sometimes do things that annoy our spouses – we rarely do them on purpose (rarely), and we often do them without even realizing the impact. How do we learn that we need to change? “I hear you. You’ve shared how you feel about what’s been happening, and I hear you.” To be better people, to build a better society, we need to say and to live all that comes with “I hear you.”

What if we hear that someone needs our help? Tomorrow morning we’ll explore the next simplest thing to say, “I’ll help.” We need to listen before we understand what people truly need – to hear what is said, and to hear what is not said.

Living with other people can be hard, whether it is one other person in our home, or two people as our neighbors, or 15 million people as members of the Jewish family, or 290 million people as fellow US citizens, or 7 billion people as fellow human beings. Conflict will not go away – it is part of the human condition in the real world. The world will never be fully repaired, but it can be improved if we try. No lives matter I am not a scientist, but there is inspiration to be had from the impersonal world of physics; on the cosmic scale, no lives matter, which is why they must matter to us. In physics, the law of entropy says that a system only gets less orderly, less put together, unless WE add OUR energy to the system to make things right. Sometimes the energy required involves doing, and sometimes we need to do without doing – to actively hear, to learn, to experience from another’s experience, to create community by communing with each other.

In the words of an unknown writer whose words will live on long after he is gone, “can you hear me now?”

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