The following was, in substantial part, delivered as a sermon during the High Holidays celebration of the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle in Tucson, Arizona, on October 8, 2016.
First, let me start by thanking you all once again for inviting me back to spend the High Holidays period with you. I’m very, very glad to be back; it means I at least didn’t completely foul things up the last time around, and I’m looking forward to talking again person-to-person after our service today.
But it’s been a tough year all the way around, so let’s talk.
I have a secret to tell you: the system is rigged.
Or at least, that’s what we’ve been hearing since the beginning of the political primary season.
There’s a lot of this we could talk about–but we’re not here to talk politics today. Yet lurking underneath this “system is rigged” talk is a sense that things are out of our control. We tell ourselves this story a lot. But it’s not what Humanistic Judaism is premised upon.
This story—the story that things are beyond our control—is in some ways the traditional story of the High Holidays.
The traditional meaning of the High Holidays—the one carried down through rabbinic Judaism—was that they were about the power of Yahweh to forgive human transgressions of some sorts, and of human ability to forgive transgressions of other sorts. But it was seen as an imperative issued by Yahweh to both give and seek forgiveness, so that human forgiveness was tied up in divine forgiveness, and vice versa.
And that’s much of what we see in the Torah portions associated with Rosh Hashanah and, especially, Yom Kippur. We see sacrifices of animals in the dozens. We see, on Yom Kippur, the very strange episode of sending a goat to Azazel and slaughtering another goat as an atonement. We read portions of the Holiness Code in Leviticus, which lays out what does or doesn’t cause disqualification from offering sacrifices in the Temple, sets out the social laws of the time, and warns of the consequences of transgressing. Among those consequences is losing the chance to be forgiven.
And we read about Abraham’s near-slaughter of his son, Isaac, and of what stopped it, according to the Torah: not Abraham’s hand, but Yahweh’s action through a messenger.
Someone shared with me an essay a local Chabad rabbi wrote to the Arizona Jewish Post, in which the rabbi asked who we are voting for on October 3—the first evening of Rosh Hashanah on the traditional calendar. The idea of the article, of course, is that one should vote for Yahweh. A member of this community responded in a letter to the Post, which the Post published. Her letter voted for reason, for science, and for common sense.
The suggestion that we vote for God relies on three thousand years of tradition that wants to tell us that, really, the game is rigged. That people die because they are bad, or because they didn’t atone properly, or that they at least suffer on account of their transgressions.
But a glance at history—and at Jewish history—tells a vastly different story. The traditional story doesn’t stand up to reason, or to science, or to common sense. The story of the first three thousand years is the story of Judaism under God.
Our story—the story of a Judaism that votes for reason—is the story of Judaism beyond God.