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Shalom From Rabbi Chalom

This sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashana Morning services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation on September 15, 2023. You can see video of the presentation here.

Groupthink: A Complicated Relationship

People sometimes ask me when I became a Humanistic Jew. What happened to make me question traditional Jewish belief in an intervening God, a revealed Torah, binding religious law, the chosen people, all of it? My intellectual journey is actually very boring. I was raised a humanistic Jew. That's what I am today, the end. To borrow a phrase from one of our movement's founders, Yaakov Malkin, my family is actually very traditional. I am a Humanistic Jew. My parents were both Humanistic Jews. On my mother's side, her parents and grandparents on both sides were secular Jews. Even my rabbi growing up was the OG Humanistic rabbi. My wife was raised as a Humanistic Jew and still is. My mother-in-law is also a Humanistic rabbi and until they self-declare otherwise my children are Humanistic Jews too. This secular yichus or humanistic Jewish pedigree means that I am very comfortable with our philosophy. Living it, explaining it, creating within it. My pedigree also means that I have a nagging question in the back of my mind. Am I a Humanistic Jew by inertia? This is the way I've always done it. Am I still a Humanistic Jew because changing my Judaism or dropping it all together would create social and family and professional stress. Am I a victim of Humanistic Jewish groupthink?

Do not worry, I am indeed a committed Humanistic Jew and rabbi. Sometimes our parents make choices we actually agree with. Raising me as a Humanistic Jew worked, both for them and for me. It gave me Jewish roots and a way to understand the world that makes sense, that responds to new evidence, that provides values based on human experience and human need rather than revelation and religious authority. I am a Humanistic Jew for the same reason as everyone else: this Judaism speaks to my heart and mind more meaningfully than any other identity. A key tenet of Humanistic Judaism that speaks to me strongly is the core principle that each of us has the right and responsibility to think for ourselves.

But do we? Do we think for ourselves? Last night and today we sat together. Hearing the same words, singing the same words. Standing up and sitting down in unison. And in general, following instructions. If we are literally on the same page at the same time Is that not groupthink? While services are happening, I have no idea what you are actually thinking. In your mind, Perhaps you are focused on the weather or sports scores or what other people are wearing. Maybe you are preoccupied by a health challenge. Or you miss someone you care about. Or you're thinking about anything other than the lyrics to Hinnay Matov or a poem by Maya Angelou. I chose which words you would hear. Ellen and I chose which songs we would sing. I chose which ideas would enter your ears to rattle around in your mind. If groupthink is always and forever bad, then ideological community like a Humanistic Jewish congregation or action for social justice or advocacy for any issue: they are all fatally flawed. We reject groupthink, but we will have a hard time creating community or finding solidarity with others without at least some of it. Groupthink is a complicated subject. It is emblematic of the complicated relationship between individual free thought and living together.

Let's clarify our subject. What is groupthink? Groupthink is going along with what the collective believes and not thinking for yourself Groupthink is conformity, enforcing boundaries orthodoxy with a lowercase o. Ortho as correct like orthodontist, dox as in doctrine: ortho-dox. Groupthink affects politics, religion, social mores, cultural expression, fashion, family dynamics. Groupthink is seductive. Being part of the clan is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary brain. And we feel more secure about our beliefs, our practices, even ourselves if everyone agrees with us. And we agree with them. One person making a statement is an opinion. 1 million people making that same statement feels like a fact. We have seen the dangers of group thinking, fascism and communism, in religious fanaticism and rigid communities. We've seen the social dangers of challenging groupthink. Kneeling during the national anthem. Challenging either/or gender binaries. Asking questions about what everyone else knows to be true. Challenging the social consensus endangers our social standing, and that can apply to questioning orthodoxies right, left, and center.

One of the most interesting blessings in the rabbinic canon is the blessing on seeing a large multitude of people, understood to be 600,000 people or more. So it's not a blessing that's used very often. The blessing praises God, the knower of secrets, “because the multitudes opinions are not the same, one from the other. And their appearance is not the same, one from the other.” Who they are and what they think are all different. From our perspective, we celebrate the multitude of human opinions, 600 or 600,000, knowing that nothing and no one will ever know them all, understand them all, control them all. At least until AI takes over. In the words of a German folk song made famous by Pete Seeger, Di gedanken sind frei, thoughts are free. I think as I please, and this gives me pleasure, my conscious decrees, this right I must treasure. My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator. No one can deny. Di gedanken sind frei.

Our thoughts do not cater to duke or dictator or to rabbi or to religion. And yet, it takes some group thing to gather together people based on shared beliefs and values. Groupthink is how humanity evolved beyond clans of 100 people into tribes of thousands. Nations of millions, civilizations of tens of millions. Religions of hundreds of millions. We need groupthink to accept shared concepts like money, or the nation state, or human rights. There is no basic human equality in “nature, red in tooth and claw.” The cougar does not care about your human rights. And neither does a rival clan conquering your territory. If we sometimes question the virtues of unthinking national allegiance, we also acknowledge the precarious nature of the useful fictions, the groupthoughts we all agree to, to believe in for the sake of social harmony, stability, and happiness.

When we affirm that we as a community have the right and responsibility to think for ourselves, there is a paradox in that statement. If I tell you “Think for yourself,” how would that work? If you DO think for yourself, you're doing what I told you to do, so you're not. If you do NOT think for yourself and therefore you agree with me, then you need to think for yourself because that's what I told you to do.

Humanistic rabbis only have so much authority. We don't work in commandments. At best we offer 10 strongly worded suggestions. The word mitzvah comes from the Hebrew root 4 to command. Rabbinic Jewish theology believed there were 613 myths votes, commandments given by God and the rabbis. Some were what we would call good deeds, like honoring your parents or respecting elders or paying workers their wages on time. Some were ritual commandments like dietary laws or wearing fringes or fasting on Yom Kippur. And some commandments were intellectual. Love God. Fear God. Believe the Torah came from heaven. All of them, all 613 were commandments, not suggestions, not proposals submitted for debate and democratic approval. Today we use the word mitzvah more colloquially, meaning “good deeds,” something we should choose to do, exemplary behavior. But commandments without a cosmic commander do not have the same force. Maybe they are folkways, the lifestyle of our ancestors, elements of our cultural inheritance that still resonate. But I cannot command you to do anything. As tempting as it might sometimes be. Maybe, just maybe I can persuade you.

What does it mean to persuade? Persuasion straddles the line between individuals thinking for themselves and groupthink. Persuasion means encouraging someone else to make up their own mind, but in a certain way. Persuasion encourages someone who is unsure to actually make a decision. Persuasion asks someone to change their mind from what they believed before. These are all very hard things to do one at a time. To make up your mind, to make a decision, to actually change your mind. If I'm persuading you, I'm asking you to do all of those all at once. And what if you are trying to persuade someone to change their mind on a core belief of their group identity? That is another order of magnitude harder. Now you're not just asking me to change my mind, you want me to change who I am.

Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute explains that true persuasion, true dialogue, is a risk. If I want to change your mind, the most effective path is to first understand you. But learning about what you believe might change my mind. When you were a teacher debating your student or a parent with a child and the student or the child changes your mind, In many ways, that's a wonderful experience. It shows they have learned from you. Instead of believing what you believe, they are self-actualizing their own intellectual life. They are thinking for themselves. And they are not listening to you because of who you are. A famous story in the Talmud describes a rabbi rebuking a voice from heaven, telling the heavenly voice to butt out when rabbis are debating the law that God gave long ago. Since the law is ours, they declare now it's up to us to make a decision in a postscript to that surprising moment. A later rabbi asks what God's response was when he was told to leave them alone. That rabbi is told that God smiled and said, “nitzkhuni banai, nitzkhuni banai. My children have defeated me. My children have defeated me.” The text actually says that twice. You can picture the God character shaking his head and smiling, just as we might if and when our children outsmart us or make us change our minds.

True dialogue with an antagonist, however, was someone in a different groupthink bubble that is opposed to yours. That's a risk many of us will not take. It does make sense to me that certain basic issues of human dignity can be deemed non-debatable. I am not required to respect Nazis by publicly debating whether there really is or not is not a global Jewish conspiracy controlling governments and operating space lasers. I will not debate whether there is such a thing as being transgender or whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Maybe human rights are just groupthink, but dignity and respect are non-negotiable. I accept that the cost of this approach is that other people may declare that they will not debate me on the status of a fetus as a full person from the moment of conception. Or their beliefs about transgender people. It may still be worthwhile to understand why our antagonists believe what they believe. If only so we can resist their impact on society. Understanding is not the same as engaging, debating, respecting. If it means we give up on persuasion sometimes, well, maybe they were never really persuaded.

This summer, I attended the Parliament of the World's Religions at McCormick Place in Chicago. The first such parliament of the world's religions was held in Chicago in 1893, part of the Columbian Exposition. The second was also held in Chicago in 1993. This parliament was number 9. 500 years ago, an assembly of the world's religions would have become an ultimate fighting championship. Tom Lehrer once sang, “Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everybody hates the Jews.” Religion is the most prominent example of group think in human history. So what happened at this 2023 Parliament of the World's Religions? I helped staff an exhibition table shared by Humanistic Judaism and the American Humanist Association. There were basically 4 faces and encounters we experienced. The first was. “What are you doing here?” The second was, “OK, I see why they might be here. I have no interest at all in talking to them, but it's okay that they're here.” The third was “Hmm, that's intriguing. What is a Humanist group doing here? Maybe I'll talk to them and learn more about their perspective.” And the fourth was, “Wow! So excited to see a Humanistic perspective included in the spectrum of religious options!” Many of those were Unitarian Universalists, some liberal Jews. But they were glad to see that humanism was part of the spectrum of world religions. There was no hatred. There was almost no yelling. There were no pogroms. There was no Inquisition. After all, this parliament was a self-selected group of religious people who want to spend time with other religions, to learn about them, to find out what they have in common and what they can work on together to improve the world despite theological differences. The fundamentalist extremists who are convinced that everyone else is going to hell, this parliament would have been their hell. Many different religions, even secular humanists, chatting, getting along, encouraging tolerance. There were certainly plenty of groupthinkers there. But they were willing to dialogue. No one really expected to change anyone else's mind. We were there to share who we were and what we believed and to learn about others.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the barriers of groupthink can go down and minds can change. Sometimes there are 2 sides to an issue and persuasion is possible. Remember the joke about 2 disputants coming to a rabbi for resolution? After hearing the first case, the rabbi says, “You are right.” When he hears the antagonist’s response, he says, “You are also right.” An observer says, “Rabbi, you said person A and person B are both right; they can't both be right!” The rabbi responds, “you are also right!” I can believe that Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank is wrong. I can believe that Israel's treatment of Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority is both short-sighted and oppressive. I can believe that there are racist anti-Arab sentiments among groups of Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews too. I can also believe that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and ineffective. I can believe that many Palestinians would like there to be no Israel by any means necessary. I can believe that anti-Semitic attitudes are widespread in the Arab world. Is this “both-sidesism,” distracting from one set of problems by saying everyone's terrible? Or am I simply acknowledging that there is more than one perspective? Truth and morality are not monopolies held by one side or the other. We will return to our complicated relationship with Israel on Yom Kippur. Consider this your teaser trailer.

The point is that groupthink and group loyalty can close our eyes and our ears to other perspectives. Sometimes we have to force them open to make us think for ourselves. It's very easy to sign on the party line. Very easy to agree with what people like you all think. Very easy to like the same posts and share the same memes that confirm what we already believe. I think it's good for us to be a heretic once in a while from our own orthodoxies. We all have our group think orthodoxies. What are your hairs? Maybe you're a progressive who questions liberal immigration. Maybe you're a libertarian who sees value in government support for healthcare access. Maybe you're a fiscal conservative who would subject all wage income to Social Security tax for fairness’ sake. We all have our orthodoxies. What are your heresies?

Kol Hadash is an ideological community. Humanistic Judaism is an ideological community. We have shared values and beliefs. We affirm everyone's right and responsibility to make up their own minds on the big and the small questions of life, even though sometimes their conclusions take them beyond the boundaries of a Humanistic Jewish community. As the Yiddish saying goes, you shouldn't be so open-minded that your brain falls out. The strength of our community is not built on uniformity, on rigid groupthink, on orthodoxy on demanding agreement. We celebrate the power of “no,” the power of “I disagree,” the power of “I have a different opinion.” We balance our groupthink with our free think. Is that complicated? Of course, but we would not have it any other way. If I had a congregation that agreed with me 100% of the time, that would be disturbing. If I persuade you, great. If I do not persuade you, also great. If I make you think longer and deeper and differently before you make up your own mind, mission accomplished.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and thought-provoking new year.

This sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashana Evening services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation on September 15, 2023. You can see video of the presentation here.


Tradition: A Complicated Relationship

Spoiler alert: people change. If we change, then our relationships with other people will also change. Consider parents and children. When we are 5 years old, we are convinced that our parents know everything. When we are 15 years old, we are sure that our parents know absolutely nothing. As time goes on, we become adults, maybe 25 years old, maybe 35. We realize that our parents are people. Just people, not perfect and not terrible, they were imperfect people who were sometimes wise and sometimes foolish. They made mistakes and they made good choices. Ideally, we forgive them their faults. We are grateful for their gifts. We learn from their best, we avoid their worst. A mature relationship with our parents as people is more complicated as adults than it was when we were 5 or 15. A complicated relationship is also richer. Deeper, more realistic. More honest. We change. They change. The relationship changes. That is as it should be.

This High Holidays, we explore complicated relationships. How do we relate to Jewish tradition if we live nontraditional lives? How do we connect with groups without falling victim to groupthink? How should we relate to Israel as home to almost half of the world's Jews and an ethnic state entangled with Orthodox Judaism and all the problems those entail? In a season dedicated to repairing relationships, how can we better relate to each other in all of our complications? And can we come to terms with our relationships with loved ones even after they are gone? Simplistic relationships have superficial rewards. And some relationships are so painfully complicated that we are better off letting them go. We will examine the in-between. Complicated relationships worth keeping despite their complications. Perhaps worth keeping because of their complications.

When we hear the word tradition, It's hard not to sing it. “Tradition.” The irony of the musical Fiddler on the Roof is that the show is really about how traditions fall apart. And sometimes for the better. In the original Yiddish stories of Tevya the milkman, published around 1900, Teyva rejects his third daughter for marrying out, and there is NO reconciliation. That ending reflected Jewish tradition. When Zero Mostel first played Tevye on Broadway, he played that moment of rejection with full anger. It was the anger of rejection he had felt from his family 20 years before when he married out. In that scene, his “never” cut to the quick. However, the Broadway musical written in the 1960s has a softer ending than the Yiddish original. Tevya eventually accepts Khana and her love. In our days, acceptance has also become a Jewish tradition. Celebrating love, however, and with whomever your children find it. The implied next act of the musical Fiddler is Jewish success and freedom in America. With some traditions and without others. It is sad that Tevy has to leave his shtetl, but the Fiddler comes with him. And we know where he goes and what happens after. If we had been Jews in the audience in 1964, we were the happy ending. Today we can sing “Tradition” and we can pick up brides and grooms on chairs even if most of our actual grandparents never actually were picked up on chairs at their weddings. And thank goodness we do not have to live in the world of tradition described in that opening song. Where women minded the children and tended the home, and men longed to sit in the synagogue and study the holy books seven hours every day. “Tradition,” up to a point.

Tonight we celebrate a traditional Rosh Hashana. It is after sundown on the first night of Tishrei, the first month in our current Hebrew calendar. We lit candles to begin our observance. We heard the shofar blow the 3 traditional sounds of Tekia, Shevarim, Teruah. Our shofar sounding was live and used the horn of an animal not recorded or on a metal trumpet. We read from a Torah scroll and we heard Avinu Malkeinu, at least a version of Avinu Malkeinu. We have sung Hebrew, we have remembered our dead, we have stood in unison and we sat in unison. We thought about the year just concluded and we consider our choices for the year just begun. And our service will be followed by challah. A traditional Kol Hadash Rosh Hashana.

Tonight we are also celebrating a non-traditional Rosh Hashana. We used sound amplification. We are webcasting. And we will turn out the lights at the end of the night. The Torah and remaining prohibitions on doing work on the holy day do not bind us. Our Torah reading was not the rabbinically required passage about Isaac's birth in Genesis 21 or his almost murder in Genesis 22 or the animal sacrifices offered when the Jerusalem Temple still stood. Our reading was something different that I chose, and it will be different next Rosh Hashana. We adapted traditional texts to reflect humanistic beliefs. And we used English poetry and prose to inspire us rather than page after page of Hebrew text. Our services are focused on human forgiveness of each other and ourselves, rather than petitioning a God for cosmic atonement and one more year in a supernatural book of life. And we do not believe in the Jewish tradition of kol isha erva - the voice of a woman singing is like nakedness. At our gender integrated congregation of Kol Hadash, a new voice, we appreciate the incredible beauty of our all-gender choir.

I do not think anyone walked here tonight to observe the prohibition on lighting a fire by driving an internal combustion engine. If you did walk, kol ha-kavod, all honor to you, even if I have chosen differently. You may be interested to know that 2 months ago, the Conservative movement's rabbinic Committee on Jewish Law and Standards debated whether or not one could use an electric car on Shabbat and Jewish holidays - after all there's no fire. The committee issued 2 opinions. If the ratio is 2 Jews 3 opinions, I guess it's one committee 2 opinions. The opinion in favor of allowing electric cars on holy days received 10 votes for, 6 votes against, and 5 abstentions. The opinion opposed to electric car usage was also approved. 11 in favor, 5 opposed and 5 abstentions. However, conservative rabbinical students are not allowed to travel by car on Shabbat and Israeli Conservative Jews have rejected the car permission entirely, electric or otherwise. With one ruling in favor and one opposed, each American conservative congregation and their members will make their own choices. As American Jews tend to do anyways.

One of the ways humanistic Jews are non-traditional is that we are not limited by what Jewish law has to say about driving on Rosh Hashanah, about what we eat or where we sit in synagogue or who can sing or whom we marry. Humanistic Jews can learn about Jewish law as a record of historic and current Jewish practice, as an expression of Jewish values, as a conversation about meaning making in the world, but we are not bound by its ritual prohibitions. Our Judaism is ours, not theirs. The conservative movement issued multiple opinions on using an electric “Rosh Hashan-uber.”

The fact that they accepted one in favor and one opposed and Jewish people are going to do what they want to anyways, that demonstrates a Jewish tradition that we value. The tradition of argument, debate, and sometimes agreeing to disagree. 2 Jews and 3 opinions, or the Jewish person on an island who builds both their own synagogue and the one they once had foot in. The argument over which way to observe a particular tradition when in fact the argument itself is actually the tradition. There is a Jewish tradition of debate and there are also Jewish traditions of banning heresy. And expelling those who violate community norms. Jewish traditions of prescribing belief and demanding conformity. The Jewish battle between diversity and conformity is just one more argument within the Jewish tradition.

That model of Jewish debate and coexistence despite disagreement from Talmud to today is not just useful for Jews. What is Jewish is human too. The first talking movie was The Jazz Singer in 1928 and it is a very Jewish story. Jack, the son of a cantor, wants to sing jazz in bars. While his father wants his son Yaakov to be a pious Jew and sing Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. Jack leaves home for jazz in the wider world. He becomes famous. But his heartstrings are pulled every time he hears Kol Nidre. Back in New York for his Broadway debut. Jack is torn between loyalty to family and tradition and his own opportunity and joy, torn between being Yaakov and being Jack. In the Hollywood ending, Jack manages to both sing Kol Nidre and debut on Broadway, with his Yiddishe mama and his blonde girlfriend sitting in the audience together.

Why was The Jazz Singer a smashing success? It's such a Jewish story. Part of it was the amazing technology for the day. Part of it was Al Jolson's magnetic personality. At its heart, the movie is a Jewish story about grappling with tradition, the old country versus new ideas, ancient tradition versus the attraction of fast music and beautiful people. That story is a very human story. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million immigrants came to the United States 2 million were Jewish, many of them our ancestors. Over 18 million were Italian, German, Chinese. And they grappled with the same issues: the old country versus new ideas, ancestral tradition versus the creativity of dynamic culture. The Jazz Singer was an American story. A human story, the story we are still living.

Clearly, we have a complicated relationship with tradition. And we do not all have the same relationship with tradition. My father grew up in a Syrian Jewish Orthodox household. He attended public school with religious school afterwards 4 days a week with regular attendance at services on Shabbat. It was a more relaxed orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the belief system was very traditional. Growing up he was absolutely convinced that a god was watching what he did and keeping score, writing his name in the book of life, making a list and checking it twice. As my father became an adult, he rejected that belief system, eventually settling in Humanistic Judaism where I was raised. He and I had different relationships to tradition. When I was in college, occasionally he would come to visit his family in Brooklyn and I would come down on the train to spend the weekend with them as well. Once during one of those visits, we were at a family dinner and my father's brother who had never left that community or that mindset asked me what I was studying in college. I was majoring in Jewish studies. And so I mentioned I was taking an interesting class on the Jews of Spain. My uncle said, “Oh, so you must have been learning about how they sinned and sinned and they were punished for their sins by being expelled.” Now I can see my father begin to inflate, ready to argue all the points that were made. And so I said to my uncle instead, “Well, this class focuses more on politics and economics and those kind of factors. We don't get into theology very much. It's more about history.” And so my uncle said, “Oh, OK, that makes sense.” As my father and I were walking home after dinner that night. He turned to me and he said, “I saw what you did there.”

You see, I didn't have to fight. My father's experience with his Jewish tradition was rejection, rebellion, self-emancipation, resistance to what had been forced down his throat. My father's family had absolutely rejected his first marriage, which was to a lapsed Polish Catholic. And their indifference to his 3 children from that partnership still rankled him. My experience was curiosity, exploration, understanding without any fear that my Jewish freedoms were at risk. You see, my mother was Jewish. During those occasional visits we would attend Shabbat morning services at his family's orthodox synagogue. For him, it was a visit to the past. For me, it was an anthropological expedition, studying Jewish practices very different from my own. Yet those practices were still related to me, part of my family tree, if a bit further back and a bit further away. Some Humanistic Jews share my father's experience breaking away from a strict religious tradition that no longer spoke to them. Some of us here share mine, raised in a self-aware secular or Humanistic Jewish approach. Some of us were raised just Jewish, doing things their own way in an eclectic mix of nostalgia, creativity, and practicality: holding Passover Seders on the Saturday during Passover week instead of on the first or second night, lighting Hanukkah candles when the kids were home from college instead of on schedule. Some of us were raised in conventional religious Jewish identities with synagogues and rabbis and prayer books and prescribed beliefs and practices, which our family followed in our own eclectic way. Some of us were told we were Jewish, but that was it for content and experience. And some of us were not even told that, but discovered later in life that we had Jewish heritage. Some of us became part of the Jewish story later through marriage to someone Jewish or through our own personal journey. And many of us are a little of each of those.

The irony for me is that my tradition is Ayfo Oree and Naase Shalom and doing what we Humanistic Jews do when we do Jewish. That's my tradition. In fact, the melody that we use today for A. F. Ori is not the traditional melody I learned growing up that had been written in the 1970s. The version we used was composed in the 1990s. Secular Israelis think of the song of “Mi Ha-Ish” as one of their traditional secular Jewish anthems that quotes the Bible. But if they actually read Psalm 34 on which the song is based, it's not their traditional secular song at all. If you look up Psalm 34, and then look up the lyrics to “Mi Ha-ish,” you will see how picking and choosing can turn as pious psalm into a humanistic hymn that resonates with this traditional source.

That's the key point when it comes to Jewish tradition or to any complicated relationship. We all pick and choose. The ultra-Orthodox do not read Yehuda Amichai or Leah Goldberg or our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman. We do not generally read the Khatam Sofer or the Sefat Emet or other Orthodox authorities. Even the traditional prayer book is a collage of verses from all over the Hebrew Bible cut and paste pick and choose, create and recreate. So too with our complicated relationships. There are times we are closer with each other and there are times we need space to do our own thing. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we do not, even as we stay in relationship. To lighten the heated argument at home, I have occasionally told my children, “I always love you, but right now I don't particularly like you.” That's a complicated relationship, but it's real. And it's honest and if we're honest about it, we can get past the conflict to a better connection. Jewish tradition is a cafeteria. We can stop at any one of many stations to explore what tastes best to our palate. When we sit down to eat together, your tray will look different for mine, and that's just fine.

What do you think of as traditional Jewish food? Many people point to a bagel with locks and cream cheese. I hate to break it to you. But bred in a circle dates back to Roman times. Rings of dough that are boiled and then baked appear in a thirteenth century Syrian cookbook as a dish called ka’ak. And a Polish equivalent of “boiled than baked” bread is described in writing at the end of the fourteenth century. The first Jewish reference to a bagel is 200 years after that. Lox comes from a common Indo-European root for salmon. And cream cheese was invented in America in the 1870s. Never mind the debate today over the authentic “bageldom” of asiago cheese bagels or blueberry bagels. Bagels today are sold and eaten everywhere by everyone. Does that mean that bagel with lox and cream cheese is not Jewish tradition? Ridiculous - of course it is. It is just not exclusively Jewish. And not universally Jewish either.

My father is traditional Jewish foods from his Syrian Jewish mother's table included mujaddhra, a dish with lentils and rice; bitachol, a bulgur wheat with thin pasta. Idje b’adunes, an omelet made with potatoes. And even baked circles of dough called ka’ak. This beautiful cookbook is called Aromas of Aleppo. The author's name is Poopa Dweck, she has the same last name as my grandmother's maiden name. It is an entrée into Jewish foods far beyond bagels and kugel. It's still traditional, it's still Jewish. Maybe new to you. But part of the Jewish cafeteria of choices to create your own tradition.

Tradition is an inheritance. And an inheritance is a complicated relationship. We usually receive an inheritance after a loss. The ones who owned the item before us may have used it very differently than we might choose to, if we choose to keep it at all. What we inherit becomes ours as well as theirs, theirs through history and memory and association, ours in the present, and in the future. Are we to be museum curators of Jewish tradition, trying to preserve it? Or are we true heirs who choose whether and how to incorporate that inheritance into our lives? Our inheritance is ours, yet our lives are our lives to live. Complicated? Sure. Complication is an opportunity for creativity.

At the end of the beautifully-written The Course of Modern Jewish History, the era when Jews went from a world of traditional authority to the complicated freedom we now enjoy, historian Howard Sachar concludes with this message. You may recognize this passage as something we have chosen for our services and celebrations. It articulates what we do, and who we are.

“There are those who now look back in complacency and indifference, who accept the fruits of the long journey but ignore the bitter cost of liberation and its lessons in tenacity and endurance. They are the strangers and the road passes them by. There are others who look back in gratitude and humility, who remember that few present blessings have been won without the sacrifices of the past, who continually reevaluate the spiritual and cultural treasures that the travail of the journey has produced. These are the true heirs of the generations and for them the long and agonizing journey has been worthwhile.”(The Course of Modern Jewish History)

2023 - High Holidays - 5784:

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

September/October 2023

Humanistic Jews deal with complicated relationships. We are individualists who connect with groups. We are freethinkers with shared beliefs. We live today with roots stretching back over two millenia. And we are part of a Jewish family that cannot agree on who belongs. If we value our relationships, we learn to live with and even love their complications.


Rosh Hashana Evening  •  Friday, September 15, 7:30pm

Tradition provides roots, and tradition oppresses us with values and lifestyles of the past. Rather than expecting our ancestors to endorse our choices, accepting the gap between their era and ours lets us claim true continuity when we agree. A mature relationship with tradition may also help us with our personal past of parents, grandparents and family heritage.

Rosh Hashana Morning  •  Saturday, September 16, 10:30am

It feels good to be affirmed, and it can be challenging to declare an unpopular conclusion. If we seek truth, we must look beyond confirming what we already believe and be willing to change our minds. Can we find those who share our values without creating a self-congratulatory bubble? The best friends sometimes say, “no.” Or maybe, “yes, and.”

Being a Child
Rosh Hashana Family  •  Saturday, September 16, 2:00pm

Parenting is hard, but so is being a child. Together we’ll explore what children can do to find their own power and voice while still loving and listening to their families.

Israel and the Jewish People
Yom Kippur Evening  •  Sunday, September 24, 7:30pm

Israel is home to almost half of the world’s Jews. Its Jewish population also tends to be more religious, politically conservative, and nationalist than global Jewry. We disagree on synagogue and state, the occupied territories, and the proper balance of “Jewish state” and “democracy.” If we do not share beliefs and values, is historical culture enough to keep us together?

Each Other
Yom Kippur Morning  •  Monday, September 25, 10:30am

No one else feels what we feel, thinks like us, or needs what we need. We experience other people through our own filters and fears. Every relationship is a narrow bridge between worlds. If we risk openness, we may suffer pain. But without risk, there is little reward.

Being a Parent
Yom Kippur Family Service  •  Monday, September 25, 2:00pm

Being a child is hard, but so is parenting. Together we’ll explore what parents can do to develop their own power and voice while still loving and listening to their families.

The Past
Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding  •  Monday, September 25, 3:30pm

William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We know we cannot change what already happened, or our relationships with loved ones who are gone. Yet we keep asking ourselves, “what if” and “if only.” Can we find healing and peace for even these complicated connections?

Humanistic Judaism 101

July/August 2023

If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.

For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This also includes those who have joined our family (i.e. “converted”). Our Jewish identity can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.

There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).

Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people – read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.

What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life – whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.

There’s an old rabbinic story about explaining the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Here’s Humanistic Judaism in one page.

Humanist Patriotism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety and Fear

 March/April 2023

There’s an old Yiddish saying, “s’iz shver tsu zayn a yid – it’s hard to be a Jew.” These days, it’s hard to be anyone!

In 2023, it feels like we have been afraid for years. We are afraid of political instability, war overseas and civil conflict at home. We are afraid of illness; a global pandemic added to the old standards of cancer, stroke and other “natural causes” did our blood pressure no favors.  We are afraid of physical violence. It could be urban crime (though crime rates are relatively low by historical standards, video footage and media coverage adds to our fear), or it could be the randomness and unpredictability of mass shootings just about anywhere. We are afraid for Jewish communities in a rising tide of antisemitism from many directions: Black nationalism and white supremacists and more. We are afraid for our children and the world in which they are growing up, and we are afraid for our parents and what might be in store for them. There is much more that is rational to fear than just fear itself.

Perhaps our greatest challenge is our fear of an uncertain future. There is a reason that humans everywhere create laws, organize societies, try to impose order on a chaotic and morally indifferent universe. Some even project their desire for order on the cosmos, hoping that either there is a benevolent design behind the messy reality we experience or that justice will appear in a future world if not in this one. They would rather blame themselves for tragedy in a just universe than face the fear of randomness in a world with no script and no director.

It is indeed scary to face the world without a script, with no director to rely on for instruction and protection and guarantees. We can reassure ourselves with commitments to be brave enough to live and to love and to plan on the narrow bridge of life without a net. We can use statistics and reason to better understand how safe we actually are the vast majority of our lives. And our fear can motivate us to act and increase our odds of better health, longer life, safer communities, and, in the words of the Jewish labor movement, “a sheyner un a bessere velt – a more beautiful and better world.”

If we are realistic, we acknowledge our fear. But we do not let it win.

Days of Hate and Violence

The last weekend in February 2023 saw two crises in the Jewish world: a “National Day of Hate” proclaimed by fringe antisemites, and the killing of two Israeli Jews in the West Bank followed by significant rioting and property damage by Jewish settlers in the Palestinian city of Hawara. The first was announced earlier in the week, the other arose unexpectedly but predictably. Both reveal some uncomfortable realities about Jewish life in 2023.

After a neo-Nazi group in Iowa declared Saturday, February 25 to be a “National Day of Hate,” Jewish inboxes and social media feeds saw a regular stream of reminders of the declaration, efforts to rebrand the day as #ShabbatofPeaceNotHate, security alerts and deepened anxiety. As it turned out, there were no major incidents or an epidemic of vandalism: some small white supremacist protests and antisemitic flyering in a few communities, but nothing out of the ordinary. To be sure, antisemitism, even online armchair warrior antisemitism, is nothing to dismiss – witness the radicalized shooter in Los Angeles who blamed Jews for his challenges and shot two of them just a couple of weeks before. But I suspect that the real damage that was done was by the fear that we spread ourselves. If one small group making an internet statement can cause such a reaction, there’s no reason they won’t “cry wolf” again soon.

On Sunday, February 26, two Jewish Israeli brothers, aged 19 and 21, were shot and killed in the Palestinian city of Hawara. It is thought to be revenge for an Israeli raid to apprehend militants in nearby Nablus the week before, which resulted in significant Palestinian bystander casualties. Later on Sunday evening, a mob of around 400 Israeli West Bank settlers descended on Hawara with rage and fire. Dozens of houses and cars were torched, with almost a hundred wounded. Even the most right-wing members of Israel’s governing coalition were forced to remind their own supporters not to take the law (aka the monopoly on violence) into their own hands. If the whole situation sounds like a murder followed by a pogrom, a inter-ethnic riot of a dominant group against another, well, maybe it is.

This is the paradox of Jewish life in 2023 – we are both powerful and vulnerable at the same time. We feel besieged enough to react very strongly to any threat, however remote, from a small fringe neo-Nazi group in Iowa, fearful that their semi-secret network will activate to cause those near us to attack our property or ourselves. Yet we are strong enough that law enforcement, the political establishment, and our own institutions work to ensure our security every day, and thousands of non-Jewish defenders came and would come to our aid. Palestinians and Jewish Israelis live on a knife’s edge of potentially deadly encounters, yet neither is going anywhere and the realities on the ground suggest the future is some kind of co-existence rather than full separation. The more each side denies the other’s basic human and national rights, the more tension and violence we will see.

Under these conditions, is it brave or foolish to be planning a trip to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel/Palestine in December 2023? Probably a bit of both. In my experience, Israel provides a mirror in which we can understand, by comparison and by contrast, our own Jewish experiences: identity, security, community. Our trip organizers are well aware of current events, and we will never be in personal danger. Those who live there and work for positive results on all sides of today’s conflicts need our encouragement. We cannot change the facts on the ground, both there and here, but we can understand them better.

Antisemitism: What’s Old is New Again

 January/February 2023

At the end of the first century of the common era, the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus wrote a defense of the Jews against contemporary antisemitism. Some Hellenistic writers had accused the Jews of lying about their history, of being disloyal to the Roman Empire, of heresy and sedition by not participating in the dominant religion of sacrificing to Greek gods, of holding absurd beliefs and religious practices, and of wishing ill upon all non-Jews. They even incited anti-Jewish riots in Alexandria, Egypt, whose the population in antiquity was up to one third Jewish.

Sound familiar? These same accusations of deceit and treachery and heresy and primitivity and wickedness find expression in many corners of the internet, and not just the dark obscure ones anymore. In the litany of antisemitic incidents in the US of just the past several years-Pittsburgh and Poway and Jersey City and Charlottesville and Colleyville TX and more–some feel we are facing as dark a time for American Jews since the end of the Holocaust as we can recall.

There are always points of light, reason to hope. Compared to 75+ years ago, the Jewish people has much more representation and friendship in the halls of economic and governmental power – congresspeople and senators and the “Second Gentleman” Doug Emhoff. There is even a “Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values,” though it seems to have no Jewish members and was launched by Representative Bacon (R-NE)! The governor of Colorado is Jewish (and gay), as are governors in Illinois, Hawaii and Pennsylvania; also Jewish are the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security. All three of President Biden’s children married Jews, as did former President Trump’s daughter Ivanka (who converted to Judaism). This would have been unheard of in previous generations on many levels.

Yet we still feel cautious, uncertain, under siege. We beef up our synagogue and Jewish communal institutional security, take webinars in active shooter response strategy, lock our doors and our social media accounts and prepare for worse, and then still worse. When a celebrity with many more Twitter followers than there are American Jews declares “death con 3,” or an avowed antisemite finds his way to a former President’s dinner table, it is reasonable to be concerned, to speak out and to ask others to speak out. Fear, if it is not paralyzing, can be an appropriate reaction.

Inaction in the face of fear is what we must resist. If we want our allies to work for us, we must also work for them. People of good will come from every faith tradition and every ethnic and cultural family. We know this because they have loved us and married us, and because they have been willing to speak up for us even as we are speaking up for ourselves. Jews among the nations have always found both hatred and friendship; Josephus himself was a Roman citizen who advocated tirelessly for his people, and we never would have survived the centuries if we only found enmity and hatred around us.

Let us seek and magnify and foster these points of light and hope in dark times. The sun will rise again.

No, Me First

November/December 2022

One of the best parts of my sabbatical leave (thank you again!) was learning how to say two important phrases for self-care: “No” and “Me First.”

By personality, I like to be helpful. I see myself as a resource for Kol Hadash members and for our broader movement of Humanistic Judaism with some knowledge, expertise and experience. I sometimes compare the role of a Humanistic Rabbi to being a travel agent – tell me where you want to go and I can help you get there! And so when someone asks for a favor, or for some information, or for reading recommendations, or for ideas for a future program, my natural impulse is to help out.

On my sabbatical, however, I set myself the task of learning how to say “no,” nicely. Or “not now, maybe later.” Being able to say “no” is not an admission of failure or inadequacy, and it is not being unresponsive. Having appropriate barriers and creating space for self-care requires being able to say “no” when “no” needs saying. Certainly in response to unreasonable requests, but also when we need to save our resources for ourselves.

That is why it is also sometimes necessary to say “me first.” In Pirke Avot, an early collection of rabbinic proverbs, we find this insight in Chapter 5:

There are four types of people: One that says, “mine is mine, and yours is yours”: this is average; though some say this is terrible. Another says, “mine is yours and yours is mine”: this is an unlearned person. Another says, “mine is yours and yours is yours”: this is a pious person. Another says, “mine is mine, and yours is mine”: this is wicked.

While an ideal might be to be eternally generous, always giving of oneself, it can be entirely appropriate to be willing to assert one’s own importance. What good is done by giving charity to the point that one needs charity? It is good to help others, but sometimes we get to help ourselves.

Obviously, we must avoid being so selfish and self-centered that we are oblivious or indifferent to the genuine needs of others. At the same time, it is prudent and reasonable to step back from work to have time with family, or to take a break from family to have time and interests for oneself. If we only live for others, we may lose ourselves in their needs.

Sometimes it’s healthy to say, “No, me first.” Just remember that other people might do the same thing to you!

2022 - High Holidays - 5783: Morality in Crisis

 September/October 2022

What do we do when it feels like the world is falling apart? Can Jewish culture and Humanistic values be relevant, even inspirational, in moments of crisis? And how can we find shared purpose and action in our personal diversity?

 Safety and Fear
Rosh Hashana Evening     September 25, 7:30pm

The basic social contract of a moral society promises reasonable physical safety. Yet today we are afraid in schools, while traveling, and at mass events. We fear both strangers and our neighbors. How can we find the confidence and courage to leave our homes and live our lives?

Personal Values, Public Responsibility
Rosh Hashana Morning     September 25, 10:30am

If the morality of our choices depends on results, then we must live our values in the real world. From the Biblical “thou shalt not murder” to the Rabbinic “pikuach nefesh – saving a life” to the Utilitarian “greatest happiness for the greatest number,” our action or inaction is truly a matter of life and death.

Being Good
Rosh Hashana Family     September 25, 2:00pm

Most of us want to be good people, but that can be hard to do. We need to remind ourselves that other people like good people, that we like ourselves better when we are good, and that everyone needs help sometime!

Isolation, Tribalism and Community
Yom Kippur Evening     October 4, 7:30pm

We are more interconnected, and more isolated, than ever. The lonely sometimes hide from the world before exploding outward in anger. Cultural, social and political bubbles create echo chambers, reinforcing “our” virtue and “their” villainy. How can we transcend our instinctual limits to include everyone in our orbit of concern?

Freedom and Autonomy
Yom Kippur Morning     October 5, 10:30am

Radical individualism corrodes social bonds, but radical communal authority imposes on the individual. We want our public schools free of religious coercion and our intimate choices of identity, partnership and reproduction to be our own. When we no longer agree on what “freedom” means, how can we assert our right to be in charge of our own lives?

Being Better
Yom Kippur Family Service     October 5, 2:00pm

How can we make better choices in the New Year just begun? We can look back at our mistakes and look inside ourselves to learn more.

Anger, Grief and Consolation
Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding     October 5, 3:30pm

The old model of stages of grief is passé. Anger and grief can all appear at once or reappear in unpredictable waves. We must have realistic goals for our mourning and consolation, knowing that we never get over a loss; we simply get used to it. Our pain motivates us to do better for others and for the future.

We Say What We Believe

July/August 2022
Originally published in The Shofar, August 2009

I am asked often what differentiates Humanistic Judaism from other liberal branches of Judaism. After all, now that Conservative Judaism ordains gay rabbis, Reform Judaism welcomes intercultural/interfaith couples, and Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism are both politically/socially liberal and theologically exploratory, what space is left for us?

A very important space. While we share many values with those other movements, our priorities are different. One of the easiest ways to summarize our approach to our personal beliefs and our Jewish practice is we say what we believe, and we believe what we say. We recognize that what we believe is different from what our ancestors believed, so we have decided that speaking our truth and celebrating our Jewish identity honestly and consistently is more important than saying the same words or performing the same rituals as our ancestors.

Others in the liberal Jewish world take a different approach. They argue (explicitly or implicitly) that continuity with the past and a deep connection to the language and liturgy of our ancestors is more important and therefore we must find a way to harmonize our personal philosophy with our religious liturgical inheritance. They are certainly free to pursue their attempts to redefine traditional prayers, or to try to re-frame traditional theology in modern terms, even if we find these attempts unsatisfying for us.

Words have meaning. And the God of the Bible—a God who cares what you eat and what you wear and rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—is far removed from the loving, fuzzy force of certain contemporary theologies. Is it reasonable to use the same word for both concepts/characters? Redefining “God” is itself a Jewish tradition, from the early rabbis who changed the primary worship ritual from animal sacrifice to verbal prayer after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, to the medieval Maimonides whose Aristotelian rationalism tried to harmonize philosophy and revelation, and to our own day. So who are we in Humanistic Judaism to break tradition?

The truth is that we are following a different Jewish tradition: the tradition of not speaking “one thing in the mouth and another in the heart” (ekhad ba-peh v’ekhad ba-lev) [Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 113b]. The rabbis who wrote those traditional prayers, who created those traditional rituals, were not doing so because they were trying to create something old; they did so because they believed in those prayers and rituals. Our Jewish ancestors refused to say words they did not believe, and they insisted on affirming what they did believe, despite adverse consequences. They changed and adapted Judaism over the centuries to respond to new circumstances and, yes, new beliefs; and as we change what they created we, in fact, honor them.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it very well in his last book Open Closed Open, drawing on the rabbinic legend of Abraham smashing his father Terakh’s idols in his monotheistic zeal (my translation):

We are all sons of Abraham,
But we are also grandchildren of Terakh, father of Abraham.
Perhaps now time has come for the grandchildren to do
To their father what he did to his father,
When he smashed his images and idols, his faith and belief.
But that, too, will be the beginning of a new religion.

Ours is the continuity of change.

Rabbi Chalom’s Four Month Sabbatical in 2022         

May/June 2022

Dear Members of Kol Hadash:

It is a great privilege and honor to be rabbi of such a wonderful community. We have weathered many changes over my 18 years here, evolving from the “wandering Jews” to permanent office space to our home at the North Shore Unitarian Church and expanding services, programs and classes. The work is challenging, interesting, stimulating, and inspiring, even more now than when I started. This Fall, I will officiate at the wedding of a woman who was one of the first Bat Mitzvahs I led at Kol Hadash; that only happens with a long and positive relationship between rabbi and congregation.

This summer, I will be taking a long-planned sabbatical this summer to allow me to rest and recharge, have some family time, and work on projects that never seem to make it to the front burner. It is not an accident that “sabbatical” and “shabbat” sound alike, since they both signify a temporary but meaningful moment of pause. From May 7 through early September, I will start stepping back from ongoing KH (and International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism) responsibilities. (You’ll still see me at a handful of May KH events, including our FUNdraiser Bocce social and a Bat Mitzvah)

Here is what we’ve planned to cover KH’s needs during June, July and August:

  • Our offices will remain open, with our amazing administrator Jeremy Owens handling requests, putting out KH communications, and keeping the lights on!

  • If a KH member dies or there is a family emergency, I will serve the family and officiate the funeral, if desired. I take those responsibilities very seriously.

  • If a KH member’s family who lives in another household dies, we have KH members who have been trained to lead memorial services. David Hirsch worked with our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman and has led services for KH members in the past, and Marla Davishoff will graduate this month from the IISHJ’s Life Cycle Officiant Program.

  • We are doing our best to schedule upcoming KH life cycle events before my sabbatical starts. I have also been working with B Mitzvah students who will be celebrating in Fall 2022 and early 2023 so their presentations will be in good shape by then.

  • To keep our community connected through the summer, Kol Hadash will run a reduced schedule of Shabbat celebrations, some in-person and some online. The technical details of running hybrid programs that are simultaneously online AND in-person are very complicated, so our summer events will be online OR in-person but not both. We have a very interesting lineup of guest speakers and programs – special thanks to our Steering Committee chair Victoria Ratnaswamy for taking the lead on organizing these events. Stay tuned to your May-June and July-August Shofar newsletters and weekly emails for dates, topics and speakers.

  • Rosh Hashana starts the evening of September 25. If all goes well, we’ll be back to full in-person services, though we expect to still have an online viewing option. I’ve already spoken with our Music Director Ellen Apley about our plans, and I’m looking forward to a wonderful opportunity to reconnect and revitalize KH at the start of 5783.

Between May 7 and September 7, please contact our Administrator Jeremy Owens at 847-383-5184 or I am deeply grateful for the ongoing support KH has offered me and my family over the last 18 years, as well as this opportunity to recharge my batteries!

Inheritance and Authenticity         

March/April 2022

All modern Jews are heirs to Jewish tradition and culture. One of the challenges of being heirs is choosing from our inheritance while being authentic to ourselves.

The generations of Jews who came before us created their Judaisms in their own image, based on their own beliefs and values. In some areas we agree with them: we too would love our neighbor as ourselves and be kind to the stranger because we too have been strangers.  In other areas, however we disagree, sometimes vehemently: our values do not prioritize men over women or Jews over everyone else, and we do not feel commanded to praise and petition a cosmic King. It does not help our sense of self to deny our disagreements, or to squelch our discomfort with texts and rituals that clash with our commitments to equality, freedom and human agency.

We are entitled to living our own lives by our values; if we only did what our parents, our grandparents and their grandparents would have wanted us to do, then it would not be our life. Yet we also want to remain connected to them beyond genetics or adopted ancestry. We find meaning in celebrating the holidays they celebrated, using the menorahs and kiddush cups they used, singing melodies and eating foods that have been treasured Jewish experiences for generations even if we do not believe what they believed.

Naturally, different Jews today have different beliefs, so they will also have differing points of discontinuity with their Jewish inheritance. Yet even Jews who share core values and beliefs, like Humanistic Jews, may still differ on what they choose to do with their inheritance. Some are comfortable standing for a Torah scroll as a sign of respect for Jewish wisdom, others feel uncomfortable doing so because of objectionable content. Some may feel inauthentic wearing traditional religious garb like a kippah/yarmulke [skullcap] or tallit [prayer shawl], others see them as emblematic of Jewish communal life. Some may even find the terms “rabbi” and “congregation” too religious and thus inconsistent with their secular lifestyle, while others are comfortable understanding them functionally as “teacher/leader” and “community.”

Like scientists and scholars who agree on methods but not conclusions, we must each find our own balance of inheritance and authenticity. We agree that both are important, and we agree that there should be consistency between the two. The space between individual choices is our opportunity for meaningful dialogue and building community through diversity.

If you want to explore the topic of Inheritance and Authenticity further, join us for a panel discussion with Rabbi Adam Chalom, Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld and Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas on Saturday morning, April 23 – look inside The Shofar for more information! This program will be offered both in-person at Kol Hadash and online.

The Paradox of  “Love Your Neighbor"

 January/February 2022

There are many versions of the so-called “Golden Rule” in human cultures around the world; there are even many versions within Jewish tradition alone!

  • “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18
  • “The stranger living with you shall be treated as the native born, and  you will love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34
  • “You shall love the stronger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:20
  • “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” Rabbi Hillel in Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

Even if we assume that we DO love ourselves in a healthy enough way that we can be generous to others by caring for them as well, there is an inherent paradox in this commandment: how do we know how THEY themselves would want to be treated?

We could simply take the statement more generally – we should treat them as just as important, worthy of respect and care and consideration as we do ourselves and as we want to be treated by others. In that sense, these rules are early expressions of human rights, personal dignity, and social justice. We also know that these rules appeared alongside other, more objectionable laws and in societies that accepted slavery, gender discrimination, and further injustices.

The essential truth, however, is that no one person can think or feel exactly what another person thinks or feels. We can hear what they say and watch what they do, which we will interpret in our own way, which may or may not be close to what they meant. In the end, the individual freedom to say what one thinks, to express how one feels, and to pursue what one desires is vital to our treating them as we would be treated.

The paradox is that to truly love our neighbor, we have to let our neighbor be themselves and tell us HOW they want us to love them! Too often we think that caring for others is like magic – positive intent covers any unintended or unforeseen collateral damage, and we “just know” what is good for them even if they disagree. We may feel a need to give them a hug, but they may not want it – whose needs are we really meeting?

Rather than assume, we should first listen carefully, and then offer to help in the way they prefer; that is the best way to love our neighbor as themselves.

Advising Independence           

 November/December 2021

There is a paradox to being a Humanistic rabbi. On one hand, we are heirs to a legacy of Jewish learning, wisdom and authority. As such, people rely on us for guidance and advice, insisting on referring to us using our titles. On the other hand, our philosophy of Humanistic Judaism encourages each person to direct their own life, to define their own values, to create their own sense of meaning and purpose. At our best, Humanistic rabbis are authorities without being authoritarian, which can be a challenging line to straddle. The balance can be even more complicated when we try to guide people to find their own directions.

When I applied for my first full rabbinic position at age 25, I was asked how could I help people deal with the challenges of life given my age. It was a fair question: I was unmarried with no children, my parents were all alive and fully independent, I had never bought a house or even my own new car. I was not even ordained – that would happen the next year! How could I possibly counsel couples getting married, parents grappling with children and money and adult life, adult children dealing with aging parents, or anyone facing the pain of loss and grief? I offered two answers: “I’m getting older as fast as I can,” and “One of my most important jobs when helping people is just to listen – to be a caring ear and shoulder and embrace, to offer support and encouragement. If I can find parallels in my own experience or what I have learned about life through reading and listening, that can be helpful. In the big picture, though, my job is not to tell them what to do; it is to help them figure out their options so they can choose for themselves.”

Twenty years after my ordination, I certainly have much more of my own life experience to draw on, with my own teenage children, bought and sold houses, mourning a parent and making it through 19 years and counting of my own marriage with our own unique challenges and triumphs. And twenty years of rabbinic work also provides a wealth of insight into the human condition. Rabbi years, with all of our contact with death and loss and marriage and life, are a bit like dog years, worth multiple years of ordinary human life. If nothing else, gray hair and a beard add a bit of gravitas if that is what people are looking for.

With all that, I still see my job as pastoral counselor the same way as I did at that job interview – to listen, to support, to encourage, to uplift, and most important to empower. It is your life, not mine, and telling you bluntly what I would do will not help you steer your own ship. If I can provide a new perspective to understand the challenge, motivation to face it, and encouragement on your chosen path, then I have met my goals on your way to meeting yours.

2021—High Holidays — 5782 After Disaster         

 September/October 2021

We respond to tragedy through mourning and learning. After what seemed like disaster after disaster over the past year, how best to move forward? We are told that asking questions, and answering questions with questions, is very Jewish. What must we ask and answer today, now, in this moment?

The Plague
Rosh Hashana Evening     September 6, 7:30pm

While the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, most of us have re-emerged from fear and isolation. What have we learned about ourselves and our society from this stress test of ethics and institutions? We must discover what failed, what succeeded, and what we need today. Past Jewish experiences rebuilding after disaster may offer lessons for our future.

Hatred and Indifference
Rosh Hashana Morning     September 7, 10:30am

Are we really “all in this together?” As active personal prejudice recedes, structural inequality has been revealed. Racism and antisemitism are both officially rejected and more complex than ever to understand and address. Our challenge remains choosing active empathy when indifference is easier. The Jewish New Year invites self-examination and self-correction.

The Jewish House Divided
Yom Kippur Evening     September 15, 7:30pm

Last century’s American Jewish unity faces multiple fractures in 2021. Diaspora Jewish responses to Israel range from support to frustration to anger to disengagement – sometimes within the same person. Divisions between the Orthodox and everyone else now extend to politics, lifestyle, and cultural values. As the Jewish family becomes ever more diverse, will we stay one people?

The American House Divided
Yom Kippur Morning     September 16, 10:30am

“The People’s House” was torn apart on January 6, making angry divisions in America impossible to ignore. As we learn more about dark sides of our history, the depth of our current divisions and radically different visions for our shared future, what can we do to bind up our nation’s wounds and steer our ship towards light and truth?

The Many and The One
Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding     September 16, 3:30pm

The reality of over 600,000 American COVID-19 deaths is overwhelming enough. Each individual loss was a world of relations, connections, and love. During the Jewish year just ended, any loss was made more challenging by distance and isolation. This year, as we gradually reunite, we feel the full weight of the many and the one.

We Are Not Alone

 July/August 2021

Sometimes we all need to hear the phrase, “We are not alone.”

I do not mean this in the sense of extra-terrestrial life, though public conversations about UFOs have been in the news. I do not mean this as an affirmation that a cosmic personality is watching over us or personally connected with each and every person. And I do not mean “we are not alone” as a linguistic tautology – “we” as first person plural generally refers to a group, unless one is royalty, divinity, or egotistical.

As we gradually exit our pandemic-fueled isolation from other people, I suspect there is a quiet epidemic of pent-up loneliness. There are those who lost loved ones who did not have the opportunity to mourn surrounded by caring companions at memorials or shiva visits, and who now must adjust to re-emerging without their partner at their side or their parent to visit. There are some whose community of friendship and support was strengthened by in-person gatherings (health clubs, neighborhood activities, even attending congregational services) that did not do as well during quarantine. And maybe there are cumulative effects of not being with people for many months: from crowd anxiety to socialization withdrawal, we are reminded to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it.

It is entirely understandable that our orbit of concern contracted during a period of great stress, fear and challenge. Parenting during online school, grandparents unable to visit grandchildren, adult children unable to care for their aging parents as they would have liked – while some took advantage of Zoom and no work commute to reconnect with old friends, others constricted their circle to its essentials. At the same time, part of a mature Humanism is both to understand human nature and also to choose to act differently if our values or other people’s needs require it.

This month, we will be returning to in-person services. It will be wonderful to see our congregational family again that we haven’t seen in person for so long. It will also be a time to make new connections, to reach out to those we don’t know well, to open our doors to those seeking a community of meaning that celebrates human power and responsibility through our cultural Jewish inheritance.

The first chapters of Genesis state a universal human truth: “It is not good for humanity to be alone.” There is no guarantee that we will not feel lonely; it takes human attention and effort to make “we are not alone” ring true.

What Do We Learn 

  May/June 2021

As one of the strangest Sunday School years I have ever experienced (aside from last year!) draws to a close, I noticed a fortunate calendar conjunction: our last day of Sunday School falls on the eve of Shavuot, which many years takes place after the Spring conclusion of our youth education programs.

Shavuot [“weeks”] is celebrated 50 days after Passover – a “week of weeks” or 7 days x 7 weeks. Historically Shavuot was the summer harvest holiday, paralleled by Passover in Spring and Sukkot in Fall. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot was a major pilgrimage festival to the Temple in Jerusalem until its destruction in 70 CE. And as happened with other harvest- and Temple-focused holidays, rabbinic reinterpretation added a new layer of meaning by connecting Shavuot with the giving of the Torah from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Over time, this last layer led to a tradition of late-night adult Torah study on the eve of Shavuot, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

So what can Shavuot mean for Humanistic Jews? Most of us do not harvest more than a modest backyard garden, and the Jerusalem Temple has been gone for 2000 years. And we believe that all Jewish literature and thought, including the Torah, was created by human beings. However, that last detail is what opens Shavuot to new possibilities.

Our Sunday School teaches Jewish cultural literacy, which means exploring Jewish life in all of its diversity and creativity. Yes, our foundational myths and literature, but also stories beyond the Bible and art and music and celebrations of life and food and everything else that gives Jewishness its unique textures and rhythms. They were all created by human beings, and they are all available for us to learn from at any age, on Shavuot or any time of year.

And our learning must be more than for learning’s sake alone; our study should lead to doing good and better in the world.

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza's house, in Lydda, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: "Practice is greater." Rabbi Akiva answered saying: "Study is great, for it leads to practice." Then they all answered and said: "Study is greater, for it leads to action." (Bablyonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b)

Last year, the Society for Humanistic Judaism organized an online Shavuot learning program as one response to the isolation of the early months of the Coronavirus pandemic. This year, we are preparing for our second – stay tuned for more details as the program comes together. The first year something new is innovation, even heresy; the second year it becomes a tradition!

Inclusion and Exclusion       

 March/April 2021

What is the right balance of inclusion and exclusion?

Kol Hadash prides itself on being an inclusive congregation. We welcome families and individuals of every variety: young and old, straight and LGBTQ, multi-heritage/intermarried and single, born Jewish and “Jews-by-choice”, and any location now that our programming is online! One of the reasons we created our Contributing Membership was to eliminated the economic exclusion of rigid membership dues.

We also celebrate the Jewish pluralism of individual choice. Some of our members choose to fast on Yom Kippur, while others do not. We create Values in Action community service events as opportunities rather than guilted obligations or mandatory participation. Some host family seders, others only celebrate Passover with Kol Hadash if at all. We had and will have no formal dress codes for in-person services or required (or prohibited) ritual clothing. And we try to include a variety of elements in our shared services: English balanced with Hebrew and other Jewish languages, prose and poetry, music and silent reflection.

But there is a limit to our inclusivity, because we do have shared core values as a congregation of Humanistic Judaism; we are not just a social club of our members. If someone insisted on having the congregation gender-segregated or reciting traditional Jewish prayer liturgy, it would be right and proper for us to respond, “You are welcome to find communities that practice their Judaism like that, but that is not who we are.” If we do not stand for something and never say no, then we do not stand for anything.

It may feel contradictory, but both of these statements are true for us:

· Individuals are free and encouraged to make up their own mind about their beliefs and Jewish practice.

· Some of those beliefs and practices may not be consistent with Humanistic Judaism.

We have no Inquisition; we have no interest in pursuing “thoughtcrimes” or enforcing a new secularist orthodoxy on anyone. We have some members who, in their homes, choose to use both Humanistic and traditional Hanukkah candle blessings because of nostalgia, emotional attachment or Jewish literacy; and other members only use Humanistic blessings because of their desire for integrity and consistency. We have many varieties of theological belief that call our community home. When we celebrate together, we meet on the shared ground of Humanistic Judaism: a focus on this world and this life and what we can do together to understand and improve it, and a celebration of Jewish culture as the creation and re-creation of people over the centuries.

For some, it takes getting used to, balancing acceptance of pluralism with maintaining self-definition. But most of us would not have our community any other way.

More Light is Coming         

 January/February 2021

It’s not an accident that many cultures light lights as the days get shorter and the darkness grows. Perhaps it stems from imitative magic, wanting to show the sun how to burn brighter and brighter – and it works every year! Or maybe it was an early psychological insight that human creation and effort can counteract the indifference of nature. If there is less light outside, we can make light ourselves to be a little less cold, a little less dark, a little less alone.

So there are deep human roots and needs behind Hanukkah, and Diwali, and Christmas lights, and Kwanzaa, and the Roman festival of the Unconquered Sun (marked on December 25, by the way) among others. As we face a challenging winter in 2021 between COVID spread, shutdown blues, economic difficulties and political turmoil, we could use some reminders of light and hope and future.

Despite the rising cases, there has been some progress in dealing with the coronavirus – better treatments for those infected, progress on a vaccine in record time using revolutionary new techniques, and thus a light at the end of the tunnel from shutdowns and isolation. It may still be another year until we can gather together again “like normal,” but there is a horizon. Now if only we can convince more people to keep their distance sufficient and their masks on for that time….

We have also seen millions of people do the right thing – cancel family events, avoid taking trips, wearing their masks, walking around us in grocery store aisles. We remember the jerks, the viral videos, the hypocritical politicians telling us to stay home….from their vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (see Mayor of Austin, TX). But the large numbers of people being considerate of others and staying safe get less attention than they deserve.

There are all those people working to help others – the hospital and nursing home staff, essential personnel, teachers facing novel challenges whether online or in-person, grocery store employees, and so many more. Some of us may be retired, or able to work from home relatively easily, so our lives may have been more limited but not more dangerous over the last several months. But we would be helpless without the help of others in more ways than we even know.

And there is the power of life. People are still getting married, and sometimes more people can attend online than would have been able to celebrate in person before the pandemic! Children have still been born and adopted and fostered, pets have found new homes, gardens have been planted and harvested. We still have sunny days and starry nights and brilliant moons, and while we live and breathe we can laugh and sing.

The darkness is real, but so too is the light we create, alone and together. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Jews and Democracy

November/December 2020

Which kind of society is truly “good for the Jews?”

There are risks to every system; anything made and run by people can fail. Historically, capitalism has created wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs, misery for factory workers, and antisemitic accusations against both
“Jewish-owned” capital and “Jewish-inspired” labor unrest. Socialism officially banned antisemitism but has also accused Jews of being “bourgeois nationalists,” “European colonialists” in Israel, and stubbornly particular in Diaspora in opposition to internationalism.

At times, dictatorships have been nicer to Jews than popular will might have demanded – the Tsar of Bulgaria
refused to deport Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, and the Shah of Iran was certainly nicer to Iranian Jews
and the State of Israel than Ayatollah Khomeni and his revolutionary successors, who were much more
popular. By the 20th century, democracies had finally granted Jews rights as individual citizens, though it was
the democratic Weimar Republic that collapsed into Nazi Germany. And, as we have seen in recent years, free
speech and the right to bear arms can be used for evil as well as good.

Still, it is not an accident that the overwhelming majority today’s 15 million Jews live in democracies: over 13
million are in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and
Argentina. While some of these democracies give Jews communal recognition with chief rabbis and
government funding, others prioritize free association and the separation of religion and government. In all of
them, Jews can vote and serve in public office, they live and work without legal discrimination, and they
advocate for causes they value.

There is no traditional mitzvah to participate in democracy; no one ever voted for God, Moses, the Torah or
the Talmud. Much of traditional liturgy, reflecting the politics of its era, suggests either monarchy or theocracy
is the ideal - rule by a human king from the line of King David, or rule by a divine King of Kings as managed by
his deputies (aka the clergy). So the fact that Jews vote in higher numbers is a learned behavior from recent
centuries of democratic experience. It is also a reflection of not taking those rights for granted, or assuming
they will always be there. Most important, it is a reflection of modernization that has dignified the individual,
their free choice and their voice in what happens to themselves and their society.

So when you feel fed up with democracy and its flaws, or campaign season and its ridiculousness, recall the
words of a recent hymn to democracy: “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” {Hamilton}

A New Year Unlike any Other

September/October 2020

Sometimes adversity really is opportunity in disguise.

The only Jewish New Year in my rabbinic experience remotely comparable to this one began on September 17, 2001. Just six days before, the world was turned upside down by 9/11, and we had to change everything. I had already written a sermon based on the metaphor of tearing down the old foundation to build anew – that definitely had to go! And what people needed to hear was very different from whatever we had planned before.

This Jewish New Year, we had 6 months’ notice that things would be very different. We might not have realized how different immediately at the Ides of March, 2020, but by now we are very familiar with the rules: no large gatherings in person, no group singing, lots of video time, and learning to do things differently.

Of course, Zoom existed before COVID-19, so we could have been doing online programming all along. And some celebrations may be permanently changed – the Zoom Passover seder bringing together family across the country may be here to stay. The challenge of new circumstances has often sparked Jewish creativity in the past, as the rabbis adapted to Judaism without animal sacrifices after Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and new beliefs and opportunities led to “reforming” Judaism to adapt to the Enlightenment and Emancipation.

So we at Kol Hadash will be definitely doing Jewish VERY differently this year. We are preparing gift bags for each member household with creative items to mark the New Year, from suggested foods to reflective readings for each of the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to apples and honey. Thanks to our Values in Action volunteers, these should arrive a week or so before Rosh Hashana, along with a printed booklet for our special online High Holiday services and other goodies.

We could have created this all along, of course, but the distance we predict we will feel when we are not in the same room to hear Kol Nidre demanded extra effort to reach out and be connected. These may become a long-term tradition in some form too – only time will tell.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and safe Shana Tova/New Year.

A Thousand Words  

August 2020

In the language of multiple intelligences, Humanistic Judaism is usually a verbal approach to Jewish life.

Howard Gardner’s famous educational theory described various intelligence and learning styles: verbal (reading, writing, talking), spatial (drawing, design, engineering),  mathematical (calculation, counting), kinesthetic (body awareness, movement), and musical intelligences. This approach is a wonderful way to understand the diverse value of individuals and to push yourself to think differently. I am terrible at drawing, decent at calculations, and given my professional choice and love of crossword puzzles most inclined towards the verbal. Yet I love to experience the talent of someone who is differently brilliant.

Humanistic Judaism has historically been very word-focused – we care what we say in any language, we use English poetry and prose in our services to find inspiration, and we have tried to explain who we are and why we do what we do at length for over 50 years. For some, those words resonate deeply and they come back for more. At the same time, we have to find ways to celebrate that speak and sing to more than just the verbal.

Music has been an important part of Kol Hadash from its founding, and because of our verbal inclinations we have also put extra effort into our design and aesthetic presentations. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, especially in the age of Instagram. If we can’t explain our Humanistic Judaism in visual vocabulary, our outreach will remain limited.

Hopefully you’ve already noticed the fruits of some of our Social Media work with Sarah Best Strategy – in addition to helping us with messaging and posting on Facebook and Instagram, they are sharing their visual expertise to help us express ourselves visually. In 2020, a complicated celebration of the Fourth of July required more than platitudes (see for the poem referenced in the image).

When it comes to communication, sometimes less is more – fewer words, more meaning. Be sure to follow our Facebook page and “Insta” (as the kids say) over the coming months!

Being Alone, Together    

 June/July 2020

Some years ago, I realized that when I was training to become a rabbi twenty years ago, I never expected to spend as much time in front of a computer screen as I actually did. Little did I know…

Centuries ago we were told to beware the Ides of March, but the knives we face are much harder to see and avoid than those used by Roman senators to kill Julius Caesar. We have learned to live with a level of fear in our daily lives that we never anticipated, and this stress has affected our rest, our dreams, our relationships, and the very act of leaving our houses. We know more about epidemiology, supply chains, cleaning methods and our rate of toilet paper consumption than before. Technology that already existed and was already infringing on our reality has become omnipresent through our children or grandchildren’s e-learning, our own business and social lives, and most forms of entertainment. I count it a victory that my children enjoy playing cards with me – real, physical, tangible playing cards with no screen!

We have also had new insight into ourselves. Some couples and nuclear families have drawn closer together through the challenges and enforced isolation, while others are uncomfortable spending so much time together – it may depend on the particular day which one of these your household is! We can get used to almost anything, from leaving more space in the grocery store to wearing masks to protect others. Even the introverts and people used to living alone are starting to miss seeing people in real life.

No doubt, this has been a difficult few months so far, with more difficult months to come. There have been a few nonfatal cases of COVID-19 in our Kol Hadash extended family, and deaths not connected to the disease whose mourning processes have been affected by our isolation. And as we move forward, there will be more challenges, more illness, and possibly returning to more restrictions after a period of more freedom. Returning a limited life would be both easier and harder than experiencing it for the first time. And there are many more new experiences yet to come – a socially-distanced summer and then High Holidays and a national election and more.

Through all of this, I draw strength from the resilience of the Jewish people, who have adapted to new challenges and circumstances many times in their long history. I am inspired by the hard-working people who are performing the real miracles: feeding the hungry, curing the sick, helping all of us to survive and even thrive. And I am grateful to be part of a caring and concerned community which asks often how and whom it can help, a community that draws strength from each other. Though we are alone, we have been and will be alone, together.

If context matters, then we need to both understand this new context and then be flexible enough to change and adapt – as Judaism always has.

Context Matters

April/May 2020

For most of Jewish history, Judaism was a portable tradition. While there were ancient ties to a far-off promised land, Shabbat could be celebrated in Poland or Algeria or Central Asia or the American Midwest. Of course, sleeping outside in a sukkah [festival hut] in mid-October might have been more comfortable in Algeria than in Poland. And in their dispersions, Jews were always influenced by the peoples and cultures around them. We know they mixed personally by how different Jews look from different parts of the world, and we know they mixed culturally by the wide range of Jewish language, foods, music and clothing they used.

Context matters. Celebrating Passover with its traditional ending of “Next Year in Jerusalem,” would feel very different if it were done in Israel versus in Chicago or in Poland (or on a cruise ship – yes, people do that for Passover now!). And the gathering makes a difference – these days, non-Jewish family and guests change the dynamics of most Passover seders. In Israel, the national Yom Ha-Shoah/Holocaust observance later that Hebrew month includes two minutes of public silence while an air raid siren sounds. Outside of Israel, it is generally an optional observance in the private spaces of synagogues, community centers museums and memorial events.

Context matters. We are working to create community for the 21st Century Jewish family, not the Jewish family of 1950. So old ideas like what it means to “look Jewish” or “sound Jewish” need to change – they were often “ashkenormative” [acting as if all Jews are Ashkenazi/European] ideas anyways. The new concept of “doing Jewish” being open to anyone and including a wide range of activities beyond prayer and Torah study fits well with our Humanistic Jewish approach to cultural Jewish identity celebrated through individual freedom and choice. And we have great experience celebrating partnerships and families who are “Jewish AND” other cultural and religious heritages.

Yet the context today is not always in our favor: an era of declining religious identity may also mean a decline in community attachment, less curiosity about one’s family past, and the attenuation of immigrant memories. To survive and thrive, our Jewishness needs to be more than nostalgia, and in the internet era of free and new instant and individualized, it can be hard to turn the ancient ship fast enough.

If context matters, then we need to both understand this new context and then be flexible enough to change and adapt – as Judaism always has.

Values Voting

February/March 2020

Ready or not, here comes another national campaign year. Primaries, debates, rallies, fundraising appeals, op-eds and Facebook posts. And finally, long after we have had enough, a chance to vote and put an end to our misery. Or perhaps to see a new misery begin.

Ever since election pundits coined the term “values voters,” it has been applied to religious and social conservatives who vote based on their “values” of opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Every year the Christian fundamentalist Family Research Council hosts a “Values Voter Summit” with an explicit goal: “to preserve the bedrock values of traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government that make our nation strong.” In 2016, then-candidate Mike Pence called it "the greatest gathering of conservative pro-family Americans in the nation.”

All of this rests on the false belief that people need religion to be good people, and that religion defines the complete set of positive, socially-desirable values. It is feared that without the belief that a god commands you to love your neighbor as yourself or to care for the widow and orphan or thou shalt not kill or steal, the alternative is amoral anarchy of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” [Tennyson] And so people who vote with their values, it was assumed, must be religious since they have values.

We all know that this is not true. Secular people, and for that matter adherents of liberal religions, DO have positive values and beliefs, even if they differ from those of traditional and fundamentalist religions. We believe in the dignity of human beings to choose how they live and whom they love. We believe in equal treatment for all, and thus see through a ploy to use “religious liberty” to continue discrimination and disparate treatment. We are “pro-family” – we have a broader definition of “family” (see illustration, except for “Batman” example). We value scientific literacy, and cultural diversity, and much more.

So if and when you choose to vote, feel free to vote your values. After all, you too are a values voter.

Time and Space     

 December 2019/January 2020

As some of you know, I live near the site that was formerly Congregation Bnai Torah in Highland Park. After the congregation closed, it has sat there vacant for many years. As of this writing, the demolition has begun. In a few months, new arrivals to the area will not know what used to be there, just as many people driving on Deerfield Road just west of I-94 only see an apartment complex. They cannot imagine the Congregation Beth Or building that was there for 40 years, a site of Humanistic Jewish celebration and memory for most of its lifespan. Time moves on, and so do we; time has no memory, but we do.

This is likely the last Shofar column I will be writing in our offices in Lincolnshire, which we have occupied since 2006. Most of our members have no idea where the Kol Hadash offices have been, unless they have come to an adult education class or a Steering Committee meeting, or met with me for a wedding or a funeral or just to talk. Most of the time, it has been our administrator Jeremy and I, and all the High Holiday services and Sunday School supplies, and our congregational library (yes, we have a small congregational library), and our shabbat services, and our files and files and files.

Our space is not been fully defined by our things, of course. What makes a house a home is more than clothes and dishes. There are also the phone calls and the emails, the sermons written and the ceremonies created, the emotions felt and the memories made. The art on the walls, the view from the window, even the annual luncheon hosted by the office building where we see all of the other businesses that work in their own worlds the rest of the year.

My next Shofar column will likely be written in our new offices in the North Shore Unitarian Church, where we held our classes and Shabbats and High Holidays for the last several years. This will put our behind-the-scenes office space and committee meetings with our public events and programs, and it will certainly simplify administrative work to organize everything. Still, transitions are worth noting, and I have no doubt that this next stage in our congregational life will be an important step forward.

In the future, if you drive by the corner of Olde Half Day Road and Milwaukee Avenue, maybe you’ll remember that once upon a time, there was a space in the office building behind the Walgreen’s that was the home of Kol Hadash. We do not need an historical plaque if we remember to remember.

Doing Jewish

May 2018

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

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

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

So what is meant by “doing Jewish”? It could be reading Jewish literature, from Torah to today, for insight and discussion. It could be preparing Jewish food for a holiday or special occasion. Singing Jewish music, studying Jewish history, traveling to Jewish sites – all the activities that Humanistic Judaism has emphasized count in addition to more conventional examples like attending Jewish services and studying Jewish texts. Anyone, no matter their personal heritage or self-identification, can “do Jewish” in these ways; what’s changed is extending that openness to Jewish services and celebrations, and also how we do them.

I still see a place for “being Jewish” as having a positive place in Jewish community life. For some, identifying with their people and heritage is meaningful. For those who have become Jewish, the “being Jewish” is clearly important to them. Yet I also see the shift from “being” to “doing” as very consistent with our Humanistic approach to life in general – what you think and feel are important, but what you DO is just as important to express your values and reinforce your beliefs.

Pedigree is less important than performance, and hope without action does little. It’s why we sing, “Na’ase shalom – let us make peace.”

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

So let’s get doing!

Being Traditional

March 2018

I sometimes wonder if people really know what “tradition” means. They say they want a “traditional” Jewish wedding, or they say in their family’s Jewish life they “keep the traditions” – but they never mean that they follow the kosher dietary laws or avoid turning on lights or using money on Shabbat. (after all, Jews that do that are unlikely to come to ME for their celebrations!) By “tradition” they usually mean the episodic traditions of Hanukkah and Passover, or they are looking for the visible symbols of a Jewish wedding like a huppah [canopy], sharing wine, and breaking a glass.

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

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

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

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

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

Values in Action

February 2018

One of the major attractions of Humanistic Judaism is our relevance. We focus on what people can know and do to understand and improve their lives. Our attention is on this life, this world, and real human experience. Our celebrations emphasize action and responsibility, the need to make a positive difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. When we are asked, “If you don’t pray for divine intervention, what do you do?” we can answer, “we DO.”

As simple as “we do” is, the devil is often in the details. “We” are a community of individuals, and we would not want to be part of an organization that demands we agree on every important issue. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we should avoid telling them exactly what to think!

There are also legal limits on what congregations can do in the public square: advocacy on specific issues related to its organizing philosophy is kosher [acceptable], but endorsing or opposing specific candidates or political parties is trayf [forbidden]. And this extends to using congregational resources; an endorsement or opposition in this column, even if only in my name and not officially by the congregation, could jeopardize our tax-exempt status, aside from also being divisive and exactly the kind of religious meddling in politics we object to when others do so.

So how can we balance being involved in the wider world with our legal and philosophical commitments? We can create a clear set of guidelines for the kinds of issues that emerge directly from our Humanist and Jewish perspectives: protecting religious freedom and civil rights, opposing antisemitism and discrimination, promoting peaceful debate and the like. We can create a process to create consensus rather than division before acting on behalf of the congregation. And we can encourage members to connect with each other while making sure we remain a community of Humanistic Judaism rather than a vehicle for political organizing.

To be sure, this approach is more complicated than either abstaining from public affairs entirely or diving in to take stands on every current event. It requires contemplation, conversation, and willingness to live with disagreement. Yet these are all key elements of both Humanistic philosophy and a pluralistic Jewish culture. To put our values into action, we need to live our values as well.

Mon, September 25 2023 10 Tishrei 5784