Close-up photograph of an iron chain running from the lower-left to the upper-right corners of the frame

The Game Isn’t Rigged – A High Holidays Sermon

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.

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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

On Kol Nidre

I’ve recently returned to Indianapolis from Tucson, Arizona, where I spent the weekend with the members of the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle, leading their High Holiday service and giving a public talk on Humanistic Judaism. The following was delivered as an introduction to a violin performance of Kol Nidre during the High Holiday service on Saturday, October 8, 2016.


What is it about Kol Nidre that keeps bringing us back to it, year after year?

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

The core of the Kol Nidre text is a kind of legalistic finger-crossing: an acknowledgment that we will make promises we cannot keep. It’s a disclaimer, a sort of “I mean well, but I’m going to fail” warning intended to apply to various sorts of ill-advised and impulsive promises—generally ones made to oneself or with respect to certain religious matters.

But that melody. That melody says something else. Why does it strike us so deeply?

The Kol Nidre melody, I think, expresses more than our regret for past failures—it reflects our fear that we might not fulfill future commitments. It’s not the words that matter to us so much as the pain of failure that comes from a frank assessment of the year gone by. And as it happens, our tradition preserved as part of Yom Kippur a reading that matches that pain and that acknowledges our frailty.

The tradition preserved the book of Jonah.

We read that Jonah, a prophet, is commissioned by Yahweh to preach in Nineveh so that the city—the capital of the Assyrian empire, peopled with idolaters and thus the very center of wickedness and sin—will repent of its evil ways. Jonah, having been told to go east, instead hops a ship to go as far west as he can. Yahweh, angered at the disobedience, roils the sea until Jonah volunteers to be thrown off the ship. He is swallowed by a sea creature of some sort. Jonah, deep in the belly of what the Hebrew characterizes as a “big fish,” prays, promising to fulfill a vow to Yahweh.

We read Jonah’s prayer as he sits within the fish. He cries out “from the belly of Sheol”—the very depths of hell—before Yahweh will let him back onto dry land.

Kol Nidre connects to the language of Jonah’s prayer, which includes this line: “And I, with a voice full of gratitude, shall sacrifice to you that which I vowed I would fulfill.” The swearing of a vow is, here, nadarti—I swore. One swears a vow—a neder. And Kol Nidre means, “all vows.”

Jonah seeks to repent by renewing a vow.

The vow works. The big fish takes Jonah to the shores of Nineveh, and spits Jonah out. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches, warning the people that Yahweh will destroy them for their wickedness. Nineveh repents, and Yahweh relents; Nineveh is not destroyed.

Jonah is, as a bit of understatement, rather put out by this—he expected hellfire and brimstone and a nice fireworks show. Rather than see Nineveh saved, Jonah says he would rather die, and so he leaves the city.

And as Jonah waits—no doubt hoping that Yahweh may yet follow through and destroy Nineveh—Yahweh makes a tree grow to give Jonah some shade. A little passive aggressively, on the following day, Yahweh causes a worm to kill the tree. Now Jonah is put out that the tree has died, and says that it would be better that he die than live; better to die, says Jonah, than to live without shade and see one’s enemies redeemed.

Jonah is greatly aggrieved over the tree—which he did nothing to create or grow—yet he would deny repentance to humans who, in the story, are guilty only of not having learned what it means to be a good person. Not having learned, at least, until Jonah taught them. And yet, Jonah still has not learned the lesson; he begrudges others their chance at atonement.

The character of Jonah is, in short, an arrogant jerk who has decided that ignorance merits death. And he’s not the only one.

The Talmud tells a story about one of its greatest rabbis, Rav. The story goes that Yom Kippur is fast approaching, and Rav has had a longstanding conflict with a butcher. Rav, realizing how close the end of the atonement period has come, takes it upon himself to help the butcher out. Rav goes to the butcher’s shop so that the butcher can see Rav, remember what he has done to Rav, and atone.

The butcher does indeed see Rav. But the butcher is apparently still angry at him. The butcher swings his cleaver—perhaps a bit too forcefully—and cuts a chunk of bone that breaks off and strikes him in the neck. The butcher, rather than atoning, falls to the floor, dead.

We can say, well, that’s what arrogance and a refusal to acknowledge one’s wrongdoing will get you.

But perhaps the arrogant person here is Rav! This is exactly what the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggests. Levinas argues that Rav took it upon himself to force the issue with the butcher, and in doing so brought more harm.

Rav was so sure he was right. Jonah, we are told, was so sure he was right. And yet, in their stories, they were both wrong. Rav, in his arrogance, demanded something to which he may not have been entitled. Jonah, in his arrogance, is portrayed as having missed the entire point of his trip to Nineveh, because he simply hates the Ninevites and expects them to be slaughtered.

All of this human frailty is embodied in Kol Nidre. That plaintive, trembling melody speaks to our deeply-felt anxieties; its halting start and up-and-down, tremulous lilt echoes our uncertainties. Kol Nidre is pregnant with our own fears of guilt and of failure—not only our regret for the expectations we know we didn’t meet, but our regret for the expectations will know we will fail to meet. And more than that—Kol Nidre reflects an inner fear that we might be wrong when we think we are right.

After all, the broken promises disclaimed by Kol Nidre are rooted in our being wrong—wrong about our true intentions, wrong about our abilities, and wrong about the needs of others. We cannot help but be ignorant; we worry not only that we will be harmed by others’ ignorance, but that our own ignorance will, like Jonah, reveal our failings.

Kol Nidre could have been just another text the rabbis would have had everyone recite to themselves. Instead, it is perhaps the single most notable part of the Yom Kippur service. The stories of Jonah and of Rav point out a crucial piece of what Kol Nidre is about—being aware of our weaknesses and those of others, and being forgiving of both. After all, their error is the same: a self-righteous assumption that they were correct. Jonah’s story is of someone so sure he was correct that he expected not repentance but destruction; Rav was so sure he caused another’s death. Even when we are right, we may be wrong—and we may realize it too late.

Hearing Kol Nidre as a community underscores the importance of that lesson. More than perhaps anything we can say today, the Kol Nidre melody echoes our own sense of calling out from the depths of despair, of guilt, and of regret. As we turn our attention to renewing ourselves for the coming year, may we heed the warning of the Kol Nidre melody: that however smart we may be, we will at times fail others. And may we remember that if we are not tolerant of others’ failings, we might not merit others’ tolerance of our own.

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.

Photo of an ancient cobblestone road

Cane-Users Need Not Apply

Civilization, writ large, has a complicated history when it comes to dealing with neurodiversity, disability, poverty, and any number of other perceived differences.

Photo of an ancient cobblestone road

Ancient cobblestone road: stumbling blocks?

Indiana hasn’t always been at the forefront of advancement in these areas: it was the first U.S. state to enact a eugenics law calling for the forced sterilization of certain persons, on the notion that poverty, criminality, and other perceived defects were a result of genetics. On the other hand, in 1921 the Indiana Supreme Court struck the 1907 law, even as in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court would say such laws were permissible under the federal Constitution, in part on the conclusion that “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 (1927).

Jewish culture is no exception to such problems. This week’s Torah portion, parshat Emor, gives us a not-too-subtle reminder of that.

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Pencil drawing of the biblical prophet Samuel Cursing King Saul after Saul has attempted to spare King Agag, the Amalekite - by Hans Holbein the Younger

Drek and Amalek

It’s still Jewish Disability Awareness Month, but I read something related to Purim that I found provocative. Though maybe it wasn’t provocative in a good way.

Over at Mosaic, Atar Hadari has an article in the “Observations” section of the site, “What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance.” It’s about the Haftarah for this Shabbat, Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim. As Hadari says, the Haftarah is from I Samuel 15:1-34, the story where Saul decides to forego fulfilling Yahweh’s instruction to kill the Amalekite king, Agag; Samuel steps in, slaughters Agag, and informs Saul that his monarchy will soon come to an end.

Hadari says the story is a study in character and leadership styles: Saul vs. Samuel, or outer- versus inner-directed leaders.

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“It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

Well, it’s been a bit of time since I did a post on the weekly parashah. Let’s break that trend.

This week we have Parshat Vayigash, the second-to-last Torah portion in Genesis. Vayigash starts with the story’s big reveal: Joseph yet lives. His brothers and father come to Egypt to live during the famine.

Hooray, right? Well…there’s this, in Genesis 47:19:

Buy us and our land with bread.

It turns out that the Joseph story puts the narrative’s enslavement of the Israelites at Joseph’s feet. Surprised? Read on.

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Let’s Make a Deal

I have heard it suggested that the biblical book of Genesis is really just the story of a fractious family. That’s basically true, I suppose, and the family story told by the biblical text keeps on rolling this week in Parshat Vayishlach, telling the story of Jacob and Esau’s meeting to bury their father, Isaac.

It’s also one of a number of Torah portions in Genesis that includes a negotiating session. This one is, in some sense, a life-or-death dispute: the time for Jacob to reckon with Esau over the lost birthright has finally come.

I’m not all that interested in the story itself at the moment. I want instead to talk about something that legal education has made me sensitive to: bargaining practices. Let’s look at the negotiations that appear in Genesis and how the conduct of those negotiations gives readers literary clues and a bit of heightened drama in the associated stories. Continue reading

Who’s Your Daddy?

First, I hope those who celebrated Thanksgiving had an enjoyable holiday. If you haven’t read it yet, I posted a pre-Thanksgiving piece. I think it’s worth a read, though you may disagree. (If so, tough patootey, I guess.)

On to other things, then.

The Torah portion this week continues on with the adventures of Jacob and Esau–and adds in the adventures of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Laban. There’s a lot of interesting narrative that deals with the complications of dealing with fathers.

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A Simple Kind of Man

This week is, as far as I’m concerned, momentous. The Torah portion under the traditional reading cycle brings us to Parshat Toledot, which marks the Torah’s transition in Genesis to narrating stories of Abraham and Isaac to the stories of Jacob.

That’s not what makes it momentous to me. Rather (and here I let slip my age), twenty-five years ago, I chanted part of this parashah at my bar mitzvah. At the time, I could chant the Hebrew from memory but didn’t understand it; now, I can understand the Hebrew but I don’t remember the tune.

You didn’t come here to stroll down Memory Lane with me, though. Instead, I’ve got a d’rash for you involving the story of Jacob and Esau.

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It’s Negotiable

Wow, we’re getting busy here at the blog!

Actually, I’ve been sitting on the topic for this post for a while; well, not a while, but for a little over a week. But it was in the mental background on some of the other recent posts.

I’ve written before on the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 that purports to tell of Abraham’s near-slaughter of Isaac because Yahweh said so. (On a related note, we really should be careful of what we think is happening when we hear voices in our heads.) Last week, Rabbi Hannah Dresner wrote a post at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the Akedah; the post is titled, “God Likes a Counter-Offer,” and views the story of the Akedah as acquitting Abraham of his near-sacrifice of Isaac because he makes a counter-offer in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.

I don’t think the plain sense of the narrative there supports this view. It extends the version of events Rashi and other commentators provide about Abraham forestalling Yahweh’s overtures to sacrifice Isaac by “playing dumb.” It’s a midrashic approach–and that’s fine. But let’s admit that the text doesn’t quite portray that episode as a negotiation.

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