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Shalom From Rabbi Chalom

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 https://hjrabbi.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-jewish-american-dream/ 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.


Sat, October 31 2020 13 Cheshvan 5781