Abraham, Robert Frost, and Kol Nidre

I’m back! Did you miss me?

First, what have I been doing? Well, the holidays completely wiped me out. Rabbinical classes at IISHJ started up again, and then we moved offices at my job, so it’s been a busy month or so.

Then, last weekend, I went to the board meeting for the Society for Humanistic Judaism. I’m not a board member per se, but was there in my capacity as co-editor for the Society’s journal, Humanistic Judaism. (I’m new–so new, that the first issue I’ll have been involved with isn’t due for publication until January.)

All of this means that I’ve not really done a heck of a lot of thinking about other things. But the Torah portion for this week, Vayeira, actually includes pretty much all of the material I discussed in my sermon in Tucson, Arizona, for the Rosh Hashanah services I led for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle there. Below, then, is the text I wrote for the sermon. The actual delivered version was not slavish to this text; I might make the audio of it available at some point, though I’m not in a terrible hurry to edit that much audio.

So, here’s the text. You’ve been warned: it’s long. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with other stuff!


A little after the shofar’s blasts—those shrill, piercing tones, calling us to hold ourselves accountable for the prior year—we shared a reading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a fixture of high school literature classes. And it is perhaps one of the few poems known widely among generations of Americans of many walks of life.

But for all its notoriety, it turns out that the poem has been a little …misunderstood.

The British newspaper, the Guardian, ran a story about four years ago that looked into how the poem came to be in 1913. And I’d like to tell you a little bit of that story.

Robert Frost was a struggling writer who just couldn’t make a go of it in the American literary scene. So he moved to London. Remember, this is before the careers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Williams, and other 20th century greats. London was, if you wrote in English, pretty much the literary place to be.

While in England, Frost met a poet named Edward Thomas. The two would go on walks in the woods together from time to time.

As it turned out, Thomas was indecisive when he got to a split in the path. He would hem and haw about which road to take. The beaten path?, or, as Frost put it, the road not taken. Keep in mind that it didn’t really matter which way they went. They would always end up at home.

Finding this at once amusing and perhaps a little annoying, Frost wrote a poem jabbing at Thomas’s indecision over this inconsequential choice.

The problem, as it happens, is that the only person who got the joke was Frost.

The poem was published, and Frost rocketed to literary fame. He returned to the United States for a time to do a literary tour and readings at American universities. Largely because of “The Road Not Taken,” people took Frost to be a very serious poet. And they took his poem to be a very serious comment on the importance of individualism.

Moving to London had exactly the effect Frost had hoped for his literary career.

Frost’s fame did not, however, come without consequences. You see, there was one other person who took the poem about Edward Thomas’s indecision very, very seriously.

That person? Edward Thomas.

As it happened, Thomas was more than a little insecure about his indecisiveness generally—forks in the road aside. And by the time Frost’s poem become popular, it was 1915. Thomas was British, and World War I had already begun swallowing millions of men of his generation.

German Zeppelins were already floating over the English Channel. It really was possible for bombs to fall on London.

Thomas was already insecure. And, in the midst of an unprecedented threat to England from abroad, Frost’s perhaps not-so-gentle nudge was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Thomas joined the army.

He was killed in battle two years later.

As we opened our service, we lamented that the year past was over too fast. We feel pressure—so much pressure—to decide now, to speak now, to do something. NOW.

How often do we hear, “Act now—tickets are going fast!”? Or, “I need this now”?

Very much in this vein, Thomas took Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to be an instruction to choose. NOW.

This Week

It’s been quiet here at the blog. Something that doesn’t get mentioned about the Rosh Hashanah-through-Simchat Torah rush? It takes a toll on the people doing the rushing for their communities. Add onto that some physical relocation at work and various other things happening over here, and I’m pretty wiped out. There’s just not been much extra energy for writing.

And what energy there might have been has been a little bit more diminished watching events in the Middle East.

I have no solutions for that. For various reasons, I’m not going to stake out a position on it here. I trust you can find your own resources, and form your own opinions. I’ll only say, at this point, that I hope we see at least a diminution in suffering soon.

I’m sure I’ll be back with something to say here soon, as always happens when I say I have nothing to say. Until then, wherever you are, stay safe.

The Forward Falls Behind…Again

Last week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced a policy change, stating that they would no longer refuse admission to qualified rabbinical students who were married to or in long-term domestic relationships with individuals who are not Jewish. (Here’s the press release.) RRC was characterized as the first such institution to make a decision like this; I suppose this is true, since IISHJ, where I am a student, has never had a policy precluding admission of rabbinical students married to or in relationships with non-Jewish partners. So we’ll call RRC the first to rescind the prior, exclusivist policy.

This week, The Forward has run an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, decrying RRC’s decision. Over in Humanistic Judaism World, we’ve had our fun poking at RRC for thinking itself first, and now at The Forward for getting bent out of shape. But I think it’s a good time to 1) blog again, and 2) actually address some of Eisner’s arguments, since Conservative and Reform clergy have started to make statements in support of Eisner’s missive. (Warning: logical fallacies are laid bare ahead. Also, if you think intermarriage is bad, you’re really not going to like what I have to say.)

Continue reading

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

“What is religion?” Part 2

Where’s Part 1, you ask? Here, in a post I had forgotten that I had written.

I’m not actually writing a continuation of that. (Deceptive title to this post, isn’t it?) But there was a huge run on that specific post over the last two days. And I can’t help but notice that this is midterm season at most U.S. colleges.

I don’t think it helped anyone answer their midterm exam question on “What is religion?” or on whether humanism, or Judaism, or Humanistic Judaism, or whatever else is a religion. But, in the event it did, I hope you used proper citation!

In other news, with the big cycle of fall Jewish holidays ended, I’ll be getting back to a more regular posting pattern.