Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

Hanukkah Is not Your Cell Phone

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

By אליעד מלין (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At least two organizations, PJ Library and JewBelong, are floating around memes about Hanukkah that have me…unimpressed. Basically, they tell you that your cell phone with a near-dead battery lasting for eight days is what Hanukkah is about. (I put these two memes at the bottom of this post.)

I can’t even with this idea. (And yes, here’s a preliminary “get off my lawn.”)

Let’s talk tachlis here. (“Talk tachlis” = Yiddish phrase that’s pretty equivalent to “let’s get down to brass tacks.”) These memes basically peddle the idea that modern, educated Jews should rest assured that their knowledge of the story of “the miracle of the oil” is enough to understand Hanukkah. It’s like when your cell phone is going to shut down, but somehow manages to just keep on plugging.

Um…no. Continue reading

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Dancing at Three Weddings — A Rosh Hashanah Talk

The following is the written version of my Rosh Hashanah talk at the congregation I serve, Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that goes, “With one tuchus, you can’t dance at two weddings.” That makes sense, except maybe for when twins get married at the same time.

So what happens if one tuchus tries to dance at three weddings? I’ll give you a hint: look around. The answer is in this room.

You get Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Secular, humanistic, Judaism. Three weddings. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, says it’s two weddings. I’m not so sure it’s just two.

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Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

Living in a Long Tisha B’Av Moment — Tisha B’Av 5778

I’m going to come at this the long way around.

I spent last weekend — really, not even 36 hours, including an overnight stay at a hotel — in Philadelphia at a training on organizing and activism that Bend the Arc Jewish Action conducted. Some of the training was a little duplicative of things I had encountered or learned elsewhere; some of the training deepened my ability to do things I already knew about, or expanded my thinking on things. I met people — even people who live here in the D.C. area — whom I might not otherwise have met.

And we talked about Tisha B’Av.

We sort of understand Passover as quintessentially tied to the idea of refugees and journeys to freedom. In some respects, Tisha B’Av is the dark mirror of that.

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One Credible Statement

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in his essay “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” wrote of efforts at post-Holocaust theology, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

I agree with almost none of the rest of Greenberg’s theology, but I agree with that statement.

If you are capable of seeing the reports of children ripped from their parents at the U.S. border, of seeing children fenced in cages, of hearing a child scream for her mother, and are capable of then saying, “But…,” you have violated Greenberg’s dictum. If you cannot acknowledge that this is an absolute moral wrong, you have violated Greenberg’s dictum. There is no, “But why aren’t you talking about Hamas?” There is no, “What about North Korea?”

Children are being torn from their parents and left in camps, huddling under blankets, behind chain-link fences below lights that never turn off. Cruelty is being used as a tool. Cruelty is being made into policy for cruelty’s sake.

This is, as Bend the Arc has declared, a “moral emergency.” It takes no special understanding of the Torah or of anything else to recognize this.

If you are a Jew (however identified) living in the United States, let me be clear to you: this is the moment. This is the moment when “Never again” actually puts an obligation upon you to act. Because this is a moment Jews have known for centuries.

We have seen this before. We know where this can go. It doesn’t matter that “it probably won’t” or “this is different.” This is our government committing ethical wrongs because it can and because its leaders relish the ability to do so.

This is your fight. This is our fight. This is our obligation to prior generations’ burning children.

Need a starting point on how to fight? Here’s one.

There is one credible statement to make in the presence of burning children: “We are fighting this. We will fight this. We can’t promise we will win – but we will fight. Once we couldn’t – now we can. And we are, and we will.”

I’ll see you on the protest lines.

Step Forward

Rev. David Breeden, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Humanist, recently wrote an article on Medium that included the following explanation of Humanism:

As a set of ethical principles, Humanism’s core value is that people matter more than ideas. Humanists see people as of central concern not because of our specialness as a species but because of our capacity to both heal and destroy ourselves, the planet, and all living things. Devotion to nature and life is a core value.

Since Humanists do not speculate concerning an afterlife, we focus on growing beyond systems of oppression here and now. These systems include race, gender, nation, location, class, patriarchy, and hierarchy. In other words, any boundaries that damage the human heart and mind or prevent the full expression of each individual to be fully human.

Humanist commitments are always both individual and communal because human beings can’t be fully human in isolation.

I’ve been dwelling on these three paragraphs as my congregation enters b’nei mitzvah season (we do group ceremonies that tend to be concentrated toward the end of the school year). Some of what has made it stick is that it’s just well expressed, and catches some of what I want to make sure my congregation conveys to our students.

But the greater part of its stickiness for me is connected to the daily reminders that our current political and social climate is simply an affront to human dignity, which is the bedrock of Humanism. The revelation of the U.S. government’s policies of separating, upon apprehension, undocumented immigrant parents from their children is the latest example, and is perhaps the most individually grotesque and dehumanizing of the Trump administration’s policies.

It is unquestionably cruel to knowingly adopt legislative measures that have the obvious consequence of destroying individuals’ ability to obtain health care. But in some ways, it’s exactly the sort of thing governments do all the time: it’s anonymized, almost automatic distribution or redistribution of money. It’s heartless, and it’s cruel, and it’s bad policy and bad governance from both a financial and a human perspective.

But destroying the private insurance market is orders of magnitude different from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents stripping parents of their children and planning to place those children in detention areas on military bases. This isn’t detached enactment of changes to federal taxation and expenditure provisions; this is requiring that humans tear other humans from one another.

There’s no excuse for this. Even if you (erroneously) believe that the U.S. economy cannot sustain additional immigrants, and even if you (erroneously) believe that immigrants take jobs from other Americans, we can perhaps discuss legitimate policy questions about how much immigration is appropriate. But if you believe that tearing children from their mothers and potentially warehousing them on military bases is in any way appropriate policy simply because of undocumented immigration status, or is in any way not needless trauma upon those victimized and even upon the rank-and-file ICE and CBP agents who are tasked with engaging in this behavior, we have nothing to talk about.

Tearing children from their parents because their parents are undocumented immigrants is oppression. It damages the heart and mind of each person wrapped up in the system – victim and perpetrator alike. It damages the social structure as well as individuals.

If you claim to be a Humanist, you have an obligation to speak up and to try to find ways to help.

If you are Jewish, you likewise have an obligation to speak up and to help. Our obligation as Jews is even greater, because our history is one of wandering and of children being torn from their parents. Ours is a tradition that had this pain forced upon it time and again for the better part of two millennia. If you are willing to claim that your father was a wandering Aramean – if you are going to declare that your forebears were slaves in Egypt or anywhere else – you are doubly obliged to step forward and to say “No.”

So, what can you do?

  • At the very least, you can sign this ACLU online petition
  • You can contact your Congressperson, your Senator, and executive branch agencies and demand this practice end
  • You can donate to organizations like the ACLU and its allies, who are pursuing litigation to stop the practice
  • You can donate to organizations like the American Immigration Council and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are stepping into the breach and providing attorneys to represent detained immigrants – because there’s no right to appointed counsel in most immigration proceedings

Step up and take action. Human lives and human dignity hang in the balance.

A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

10,000 Lawyers for Shavuot

Tomorrow evening marks Shavuot. Among many Jews, Shavuot is called z’man mattan torateinu, the traditional reckoning of the day when the Torah was given to the Israelites at Sinai (literally the time of the giving of our Torah).

In some respects, the biblical story tied to Shavuot is more foundational to Judaism’s self-understanding for much of the past 2000 years than is Passover: engagement with the text and the rules laid out in the Torah is in large part what gave Judaism its shape after the destruction of the Second Temple. Many Jews mark Shavuot with some amount of Torah study, including the notable practice of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which is more or less an all-nighter of Torah study.

Finding special meaning in the rules of the Torah on account of the idea of revelation – which is what Shavuot essentially celebrates – isn’t much of a Humanistic Jewish pastime, and so the traditional understanding of Shavuot doesn’t fit easily for many Humanistic Jews. There’s a historical foundation underneath Shavuot that connects to the first fruits of the harvest in the land of Israel, and that connection to nature moves many Humanistic Jews. Others take the idea of study and broaden it out, so that Shavuot ties to the broader ideas of Jewish learning and the vast expanse that is Jewish literary history.

This year, however, I’ve found myself centering the ideas of Torah and covenant – though not revelation – in my own understanding of Shavuot. And I promise that, by the time we’re done, you’ll understand the title of this post.

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Of Sex, Leprosy of a House, and Humanism

(NOTE: The following was the script I prepared for delivery as a d’var Torah, aimed at folks who had never encountered Humanistic Judaism before, at a special Humanistic Jewish Shabbat service I led at Sixth & I Synagogue on April 27, 2018. As it happens, I forgot to print my talk, and delivered substantially the same talk – but not in these words. So, here’s the prepared speech that went…sort of…undelivered.)

If you follow the Torah reading cycle – and actually, even if you don’t, because it turns out calendars don’t ask for our opinions – this week is a double Torah portion: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are usually pretty high up on the list of Torah portions that, if you’re having a bat or bar mitzvah, you really don’t want to get. They’re not quite as apparently boring as last week, when there are multiple chapters on what to do about leprosy. There’s even a process for what happens if your house gets leprosy!

Even if they’re not as weird as all that, this week’s Torah portions aren’t exactly the easiest topic-wise, because they touch on all manner of rather adult topics: other than setting up the process for Yom Kippur, these portions spend a lot of time talking about forbidden sexual relationships.

In fact, when you double-up Achrei Mot and Kedoshim, you double-up how much time you spend reading about forbidden sexual relationships. I mean, sure, there’s also a sort of affirming chunk in Leviticus 19 that seems to restate some of the really basic, “everyone agrees murder is bad” rules. Do we really need both Leviticus 18 and 20? Do we really need to read twice about the people you’re not permitted to have sex with?

But, I’m actually sort of excited to talk about this section of the Torah. As seemingly weird as some of these laws are, they’re actually really important – even if you don’t follow any of them. Continue reading

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.