Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

“Inclusion and the Soul of a Synagogue”

A quick note: I’ve recently had an article that was printed in the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents published online. Entitled “Inclusion and the Soul of a Synagogue,” you can read it here.


A Museum Review for You—A Review of the Museum of the Bible

You may or may not have heard that a Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, D.C. I have…feelings about putting a museum like this across the street from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a block from the FBI’s headquarters and from the U.S. Department of Education, and catty-corner from a State Department facility. The symbolism of that choice ought not be lost upon those of us concerned about separating church and state. (If you think it’s some neutral facility with no axe to grind, I have lovely real estate in the Everglades to sell you.)

Looking for field trip opportunities for the students at the congregation’s school, I went with our school director to the Museum to see whether and, if so, how students from our school might benefit from a field trip. Since we did the legwork, it seemed like a good idea to write up my impressions.

And, having written it up, why not share it with you?

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Hanukkah is Calling

(A substantially similar version of this was delivered as a Hanukkah meditation at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church’s Spirit Experience: Winter Holidays & Holy Days event on December 16, 2017, in Kensington, MD.)

Hanukkah is kind of a weird holiday.

Even if you know that it’s not “Jewish Christmas,” the story of Hanukkah is probably a little fuzzy to you.

Many Jews celebrate Hanukkah as a holiday about freedom. In fact, some of the founders of the State of Israel imagined themselves as modern-day Maccabees, the freedom fighters of the Hanukkah story.

But it’s not a holiday about freedom—not really. Even if you really like Peter Paul & Mary’s “Light One Candle.”

It’s a holiday created by Jewish religious zealots after they defeated a coalition of Greeks and Greek-friendly Jewish allies in a war. Once in power, those religious zealots became as corrupt as any who came before them. They weren’t so religious any longer, and turned out to be just like any other bunch of kings: out for themselves.

One of the last descendants of the original Maccabees invited the Romans to Palestine to resolve a family squabble. That ended any form of Jewish political independence for 2000 years.

Oppressive tyrants who manage to lose their country? Hanukkah as freedom festival sounds a little silly after all that.

Or there’s the story of the oil in the Temple. Sometimes we tell a story about how, when the Maccabees—the religious zealots—regained the temple in Jerusalem, they only had enough oil to keep the temple’s lamps lit for one day. But miraculously, somehow, the lamps stayed lit for eight days, long enough to make more oil.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rabbis of the middle ages didn’t really think this story was the point of Hanukkah. They told it in order to remind children about the basics of the holiday. The real miracle, as far as the rabbis were concerned, was that the Maccabees—the Jewish Taliban of its time—could defeat the Greeks. They were certain that this could only happen through divine intervention.

So Hanukkah wasn’t really about the oil, or freedom. For centuries, Hanukkah was about divine intervention. That makes a lot of sense if you’re victims of pogroms and persecution, but it’s not something that speaks as clearly to many Jews today.

So if the stories we usually tell about Hanukkah aren’t quite right, and if the history of Hanukkah isn’t a nice one, why have Hanukkah? What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is often called, in Hebrew, the chag urim—the Festival of Lights. Before Hanukkah—for perhaps a thousand years of Jewish history!—Jews had no winter holiday. There was no celebration of the solstice. We had no way to chase away the darkness with our own light! Our Roman neighbors had Saturnalia; our Greek neighbors had Dionysia; we had…nothing.

Nothing—until we had Hanukkah. And then we had a festival of lights. Each night of Hanukkah we could light one more candle, bringing more and more light into a world getting increasingly dark as the winter solstice—the darkest, shortest day of the year—drew near.

Hanukkah is also called chag Chanukat ha-bayit: the festival of rededicating the Temple. Hanukkah is a holiday of dedication. That is what Hanukkah means in Hebrew—dedication, or rededication. The Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after Greeks took it over and used it for their form of worship, and gave Hanukkah its name.

Hanukkah: festival of rededication, and festival of light.

Eight nights long, Hanukkah demands dedication—not of a physical temple, but of ourselves.

The days are getting shorter, the nights longer, the wind colder. But it is when it is darkest that even a little new light shines the brightest.

In the darkest days of the year, in dark days for justice and for righteousness and for love, on this Hanukkah I invite you to hear yourself calling.

Hear yourself calling upon you to bring a little new light, so that it may shine in the darkness. Hear your inner self calling you to dedicate yourself to making sure that the warmth of new light is not overcome by the cold winds that trouble our times.

And so, I offer this blessing—this dedication for our celebration of light: May we find in this deepening winter the light within ourselves that needs so desperately to brighten the darkness, and may we find the strength to let our light shine for all. Let us dedicate ourselves to doing the work needed to bring forth better, brighter times—speedily, and in our days.

Kein yehi—may it be so.

Listen up!

I’m happy to announce (after recovering from Thanksgiving) that rabbi school is done and I’ve been officially installed as the rabbi at Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

As part of the graduation/ordination process, which occurred during Shabbat services on November 10, 2017 at the Birmingham Temple (the founding congregation of Humanistic Judaism), I gave a talk, which you can watch below:

The talks of three madrikhim/ot (a lay leadership/para-rabbinic leadership program) graduates, another rabbinical ordination, and a posthumous honorary ordination, can also be viewed.

The following weekend, I was installed at Machar. I gave a talk there, too, and if the video worked as planned, hopefully I’ll be able to post that, too.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

A Stumbling Block

So, there’s a joke that’s funny to rabbis and cantors (and almost no one else!) that their favorite day is Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month) Cheshvan, the first day of the second month of the Jewish calendar year. Why? Because Cheshvan has no holidays–finally, a break!

Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan is on Saturday. 🙂 Not that I haven’t been or won’t be busy. Just that, you know, it’s a little bit lighter of a schedule in theory.

More seriously: presently the US social and political system is in a state of ongoing chaos, and it’s definitely the case that there are so many serious issues to address in an urgent manner that you can experience decision fatigue just trying to figure out where to place your efforts, or you can spend your time jumping from issue to issue and gaining little traction. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I have another issue for you to be aware of.

Let’s talk about stumbling blocks.

Leviticus 19:14 conveys as a law for Israelites, “and before the blind (Heb. v’lifnei ivver) do not put a stumbling block.” Thus, in Jewish tradition, this principle is called lifnei ivver. The rabbinic tradition takes this principle and expands it beyond its literal meaning to include cases of deception based on bad information. Rashi explains lifnei ivver to mean that one should not put a stumbling block “before the person who is blind with respect to the [particular] matter: do not give him improper advice. Do not say, sell me your land and take for yourself an ass: for you are skirting around him and taking it [the field] from him.” In a sense, then, the rabbinic tradition regarded the plain sense of lifnei ivver as being completely obvious. Of course you don’t put a stumbling block before someone who is actually blind; the Torah doesn’t bother with the completely obvious stuff. It must, they thought, mean something deeper.

And now, let’s talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Enacted during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the law placed affirmative obligations upon (among others) places of public accommodation to ensure that their premises and services were accessible to individuals with various forms of disability. This was to be done by means of “reasonable accommodation.” Heaven and earth need not be moved, but reasonable steps must be taken to ensure access.

How does one make sure this happens, since the federal government wasn’t going to send out inspectors to measure ramps, assess sound levels, test gas pumps, etc.? One of the enforcement mechanisms in the ADA permits lawsuits by individuals affected by the failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The fact of inaccessibility, together with proof that there were no reasonable accommodations made, is enough to succeed in many of these cases. The ADA permits the payment of attorney fees for the plaintiff who succeeds in such cases, but otherwise no damages are assessed; instead, the business is required by the court to remedy the situation.

But that was 1990, and this is 2017.

This year, Representative Poe (TX), with several others, has introduced H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. (See bill details here.) I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. It would amend the ADA to bar a lawsuit unless notice has been provided and a fixed period of time (60 days after notice for a reply, plus another 60 days for implementation of an accommodation) has passed without compliance by the possible defendant.

Understand precisely what this does. This kills an enforcement mechanism of the 1990 law.

“Why?,” one might ask. “After all, it’s giving the business a chance to fix the problem.”

Here is what the notice must be: “written notice specific enough to allow such owner or operator to identify the barrier.” And from the date of the notice, the owner or operator can’t be sued unless they “fail to provide [within 60 days of the notice] … a written description outlining improvements that will be made to remove the barrier,” or “fail[] to remove the barrier or to make substantial progress in removing the barrier” within 120 days after the notice.

Questions to ask:

  • How specific is specific enough? What does “identify” mean? What does “barrier” mean? (In case you’re wondering, the law doesn’t actually define “barrier,” and ordinarily uses “barrier” in conjunction with physical or institutional features of premises.)
  • What kind of description outlines improvements? Is a written statement of, “Yeah, we’ll take care of that” enough? What does “outlining” mean?
  • What is “substantial progress”? And if you start, do you have to finish? Or can you point to your progress and stop there?

So, let’s sum up: your average person is not going to be able to meet a lot of these requirements. They need a lawyer to make that happen in many cases.

Lawyers usually want to get paid so they and their families can eat. Under the ADA, the lawyer gets paid in a successful suit or – only if the client has money – because the client pays out of pocket.

And now, here are hundreds, and maybe thousands of dollars of legal work that has to be done on spec, because lots of persons with disabilities don’t have money to pay a lawyer.

So, we have 1) delays, 2) inability to hire lawyers, and 3) a law drafted so poorly that maybe nothing ever really has to be fixed.

In any case, I think Sen. Tammy Duckworth has it right:

This offensive legislation would segregate the disability community, making it the only protected class under civil rights law that must rely on “education” — rather than strong enforcement — to guarantee access to public spaces.

Take the time to read her op-ed, as she explains how unnoticeable differences become stumbling blocks that she didn’t recognize and never would have – until she herself became a person with a disability.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and legislators who no doubt parade their adherence to “biblical principles” are sponsors of this bill. Rep. Poe, the principal sponsor, “is a student of the Bible, and loves the Old Testament.”

Leviticus 19:14 is in “the Old Testament.” Perhaps Rep. Poe forgot? Or perhaps Rep. Poe and others care more about business’s desires than individual persons’ needs.

What can you do? You can contact your representatives and the members of the House Judiciary Committee and, if you oppose this bill, let them know.

And there you go: no break for Cheshvan.

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons"

“Give Us an Inheritance”: Patriarchy and the Five Daughters of Zelophehad

I had reason recently to read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Number 27 and 35, and…

I lost you right there, didn’t I? Because you’re thinking, “Zelo…who? I can’t even say that.” (Ze-lof-e-had. Now you can say it.)

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from

The Daughters of Zelophehad from “The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons”

Right, so, back to his daughters.

In Numbers 27, we find a story in which Zelophehad has died without any sons, but with five daughters–Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. No surviving sons poses a problem for inheritance purposes: who gets the land if there are no sons but there are daughters? Israelite law is constructed around inheritance through sons, after all.

Zelophehad’s daughters go to the tent of meeting (we’re still in the wilderness here–this is before the story of crossing the Jordan River in the book of Joshua) and, we are told, say to Moses and Elazar (this is also after Aaron’s death, and Elazar is his son and successor), “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the group that rebelled against Yahweh–among Korach’s group. He died on account of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from among his family [i.e., his specific tribe] because he didn’t have a son?! Give us an inheritance among our father’s brothers.” In other words: our father died, but our family shouldn’t disappear–so give us the portion of land our father would have received.

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Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Finding Hope, a Rosh Hashanah Sermon

(Written as a Rosh Hashanah sermon at Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism; delivery slightly different from the written product. Who doesn’t improvise a little?!)

I’ve become convinced that there’s a Leonard Cohen lyric that can work in almost any situation—especially for a pessimist like me. One of Cohen’s last songs—the title track to his last album—speaks to an absent god through the words of the Kaddish and at each chorus asks, “You want it darker? We kill the flame.”

The last year took it upon itself to act out those words.

Charlottesville reminded us that antisemitism never really went away.

Racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and nearly every other prejudice we can name have found new strength. Even as ocean levels rise, understanding and acceptance of climate science continue to fall. Public discourse on almost any issue is as hostile as many of us ever remember it.

Charlottesville reminded us that antisemitism never really went away. A recent data set from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, shows hate crimes nationwide rose about 5 percent from 2015 to 2016—with Washington, D.C., alone seeing a rise of 62%. 2017 looks to be as bad or worse. White supremacism is alive and is doing far too well.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Capitol at Dusk by Martin Farbisoner – CC BY-SA 3.0

And now here we are, only a little more than a month after Charlottesville at the High Holidays. These days are called, in Hebrew, Yamim Nora’im—the days of awe. The nora part of that means awe, but it also means fear. And fear is a pretty good description of how many of us feel about the current state of affairs.

“You want it darker? We kill the flame.”

I told you I’m a pessimist!

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Photo of a page of the Worms Machzor, with the Aramaic word "Kol" very large and the rest of the Kol Nidre text below

Where Will You Be in 5778?

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will soon be upon us. Where are you spending your holidays?

Photo of a page of the Worms Machzor, with the Aramaic word "Kol" very large and the rest of the Kol Nidre text below

Kol Nidre in the Worms Machzor

If you’re in the Washington, D.C., area, you have options. One of them is to spend them with me at Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Tickets (right-click or tap-and-hold to open in a new window or tab) are affordable compared to many other congregations, and if you’re a secular Jew, you can say what you believe and believe what you say! There are family-oriented services for families with children, and Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur day will each feature a different speaker. We also will be conducting a Tashlikh service on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah.

If you live elsewhere and are interested in a secular or humanistic way to celebrate the High Holidays, stop by the websites for the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations to find a community near you.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Name Change

Yesterday, the question was, “What’s in a Name?” Today, I settled on an at-least-for-now name: A Humanistic Jew Goes to Washington.

Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s that famous movie, and what am I playing at? I thought it was cute.

But now I need to change the background away from the cornfields.