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!

Where did all this darkness come from? We can try to point to the recent presidential election, but it starts earlier.

Celebrating the resurgent conservatism of her time, in 1987, then-Prime Minister of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher gave an interview in which she claimed that there is no such thing as society: there are only individual men and women, and there are families. Comedian Russell Brand astutely observed that accepting Thatcher’s idea of the absence society made it so that “we are all on our own.” (Brand’s quasi-obituary of Thatcher on the Huffington Post is quite…tart.) It’s a very short jump from being all on our own to thinking that we have been made to be on our own—to think that we have been thrown to the wolves—and we may act that way, too.

When we reject the idea of society, we reject the prospect that something bigger than us can change things for the better. We lose social hope.

If you feel you’ve been thrown to the wolves, do you keep your union membership? Or, do you take what you can get from the efforts of others? Do you continue to believe that you can thrive in and because of society? Or do you think solidarity is weakness and society is a scam?

When we reject the idea of society, we reject the prospect that something bigger than us can change things for the better. We lose social hope. That begins a vicious circle. As we reject the possibility of change from the outside, we reject help when it comes because we think it’s a scam or won’t work, and the cycle begins again, disintegrating social hope over and over again.

If there is no social hope, whom can you rely on to make things better? The answer many Americans have reached—enough Americans in enough places to change the contours of American government and society—is simply that no one can be relied upon. And those who want to help? They’re chumps at best—and at worst, they’re parasites.

All of this—the resurgent prejudice, the meanness of our political discourse, the disintegration of a sense of shared good—is the logical ending point of Thatcher’s claim that the world is composed of individuals without society. It is just as Thomas Hobbes characterized a world without government in his Leviathan: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I believe a view of the world as only individuals and without society is wrong, and my evidence is in front of me.

Humanistic Judaism stands for the proposition that our hope is in us, not only as individuals, but as a community, together—not only as a collection of me’s, but as a unified we.

Society exists here. Social hope exists here—at Machar.

And it doesn’t only exist here. As philosopher Ronald Aronson notes in his recent book, We: Reviving Social Hope, social hope—the prospect that community can change lives for the better—exists in causes.

Social hope exists in the dazzling variety of private organizations that do advocacy and organizing work: in HIAS, in JStreet, in Jews United for Justice, in the Human Rights Campaign, in the Natural Resource Defense Council, in the NAACP, in the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the Secular Coalition for America, in the Sentencing Project, in EarthJustice, and in so many more causes—including a new initiative being launched by the Society for Humanistic Judaism, called Jews for a Secular Democracy.

Wherever people come together to work for something to become better for all of us, we find social hope.

Hope exists because there are people and groups who will fight for a common, better vision of us—even if we will never see that vision realized—because we see that, even a little bit, what we do together can make a difference when we as individuals cannot.

When we do this—when we work together—we create more social hope. And we can create hope even if we are sure that what we are doing will not succeed.

This is not only social hope—it is radical hope.

Philosopher Jonathan Lear, in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, describes radical hope as “directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” It is a hope that looks complete disaster and total uncertainty in their faces. It does not ask, “Oh, what ever shall we do?!” Radical hope instead asks this simple question: “What shall we do next?” Radical hope lies in the recognition that whatever came before, there will be some kind of future, and it is left to us to determine how to enter that future.

Radical hope recognizes that the goals we’re working toward may not be ones we achieve. Radical hope embraces the idea that we are working for a good we may never see ourselves. Radical hope grows from love for others—people we know, people we may never know—even if all we can do for others right now is to avoid a little bit of harm as we work to build an unknown future.

It is a hope that looks complete disaster and total uncertainty in their faces. It does not ask, “Oh, what ever shall we do?!” Radical hope instead asks this simple question: “What shall we do next?”

Radical hope is what you need when your entire culture is being threatened.

And I want to be clear: there are very real threats to the culture we recognize as ours. As Humanistic Jews, we place a premium on making reasonable decisions based upon facts. Our ethics are about identifying—from the facts—the possible outcomes of our decisions, and selecting the course of action that seems like it will have the best result while avoiding harms to others.

Our ideals are threatened by a climate in which whole-cloth fictions are asserted as facts and inconvenient truths are declared lies, because reality doesn’t give the answers people want. We share a culture of fact; we know we cannot make good decisions if we ignore what the world is really like. The environment around us has become increasingly a culture of fiction—a culture that cynically ignores the shared reality that allows everyone to live in the world.

When shared reality is under attack by that kind of cynicism, social hope is also under attack. Social hope is built upon a we that shares—a we that shares reality and a commitment to bettering that reality. Radical hope—action for a good yet unknown—must be our response.

Radical hope tells us, chazak ve’ematz—be strong, and have courage (Josh. 1:9)—because we can change the world for the better, even if we don’t know how it will change.

Radical hope tells us that we can join together to create change—even though we are probably going to fail on the larger goal we set for ourselves.

With radical hope, even if I think I may fail, I act: not because I believe we should act in vain, but because love makes me want to make things better. If nothing else, what I do can help build hope so that, next time, others act with me.

If I act together with you, we can make a difference. We can feed a refugee, or help put someone who feels lost back on their path—perhaps through nichum aveilim, comforting mourners, or helping someone find employment. We can be allies who amplify the voices of those to whom society will not listen. We can let others know that they are not alone, that we are with them, even if we do not fully understand and can never experience how deeply they suffer.

With radical hope, we create social hope that inspires others.

Radical hope—hope that expects to fail? That’s hope a pessimist can get behind!

Find one more thing you can participate in that expresses a social goal you feel strongly about.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed his belief that the arc of the moral universe was long, but that it inevitably bent toward justice.

As Humanistic Jews, we believe the arc bends only when we bend it. What is inevitable is that we must do the work. I doubt the arc will bend fully in any of our lifetimes. In fact, I think the arc will never bend completely. Humanity will forever need to contend with itself to try to make the world just.

But if we want to bend the arc at all—if we want to create any more justice at all—if we want to make the world even a little better at all—if we want to create more social hope—we need to engage in acts of radical hope, together.

And so, this Rosh Hashanah—this time of return and renewal, where we take stock of the year gone by and set out on our paths for the coming year—my challenge to you is this: find one more thing you can participate in that expresses a social goal you feel strongly about.

Perhaps you’ll donate to refugee relief efforts, or civil rights groups, or a criminal justice reform organization.

Or perhaps you’d like to participate in efforts Machar is involved with. Our community has prioritized local climate changes issues and immigrant and refugee work with groups like HIAS, for which we are a Welcome Campaign Community. And we are planning a project to assist a refugee family that you’ll be hearing more about in the coming weeks—an important project, to coincide with a major milestone: the fortieth anniversary of Machar’s founding.

But my challenge to you is this: Whatever it is you take on—whatever new thing you can do—make sure you are doing it as part of a “we.”

Why? Ronald Aronson puts it this way: “any social hope is all of hope.” An individual can act. But when each of us acts with others as a single “we,” our actions compound, and others can see their way to becoming part of us. The more we act, the more people will be able to see that there is hope.

This is easy to remember. As Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who founded Humanistic Judaism in 1966 wrote in Ayfo Oree, “where is my hope? My hope is in me—and in you.”

Whatever you do, make sure it helps build up your hope, too. It can be demoralizing to put in the work without seeing any change. Make sure that what you are doing shows you the importance of what you have done—even if all you see for your efforts is your name listed among those of other volunteers or donors, or even if the satisfaction you derive is simply from having done the right thing by marching in the Women’s March, speaking out at a rally, or participating in an organized lobbying day. And remember: joy is itself resistance to injustice.

All of this is work. And when we are afraid—whether afraid of failure, or afraid for ourselves—action requires outer courage, what Rabbi Wine described as acting while we are still afraid. It takes force of will to act, because we are not wrong to be unsure of success. But sometimes, you just have to “fake it until you make it.”

Radical hope—the hope that builds social hope so that we work for a common good we may never see—requires us to act while afraid. Radical hope calls upon us to act according to what we would will, even if we might also fail. Radical hope calls upon us to act from love. Radical hope reminds us of the two-thousand-year-old declaration by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, “It is not up to you to complete the work—but neither are you permitted to desist from it” (m. Avot 2:16).

Radical hope is work.

I stand before you today, your new rabbi, on the first of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe—the Days of Fear. And I am afraid.

I know that others are also afraid. Radical hope won’t make everything better. But it is when we are most afraid that we can create the most hope.

If the last year took up Leonard Cohen’s challenge to kill the flame, let us remember what else Cohen wrote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Even in the most broken of times, there is room for hope—because every wall has a crack. I hope that you’ll join me in making the crack bigger and letting in more light. I hope that you and I, together, through the Machar community, will become we, so that our hope can grow others’ hope.

While we cannot complete the work, none of us are exempted from doing our part. And so, though this is a fearsome time—though I stand before you afraid—I will act with courage nonetheless.

Because my hope is in me, and in you—in this community: my hope is in Machar—tomorrow.

You, too, will find hope—here.

Shanah Tovah.