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.

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

The Confession of a Tish’a B’Av Truther

Tish’a B’Av (or Tisha B’Av, or Tisha Bov, or…) will soon be upon us, on the evening of August 13. I’ve previously discussed the holiday a bit, and so I won’t revisit the basics here. (Revisiting the basics, especially how the holiday is viewed from a Humanistic Jewish perspective, is what the first of those two links is for. The second link is sort of connected to how the rabbis of the Talmudic period understood the causes for the destruction of the Second Temple, which to some degree plays into their understanding of Tish’a B’Av.) And perhaps the word “truther” in the title of this post isn’t the best description for what I’m about to say, but hey, we all need a little clickbait in our lives.

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

Francesco Hayez’s “The Destruction of the Second Temple”; from Wikimedia Commons

So, here’s the thing. We continue, into the 21st century, to commemorate with some form of lamentation (pun intended) the destruction of a building that literally enshrined a view of the Jewish people and, for that matter, the entire universe that clashes with our modern conceptions of these things. We don’t generally think that the large-scale slaughtering of animals, scattering their blood on a stone altar, burning some of them whole and only parts of others, and pouring wine or meal or honey on an altar effect atonement.

And yet we mourn the loss of that sacrificial cult.

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That Pesky Shehecheyanu!

A while back, I was struggling with a humanistic replacement for the traditional shehecheyanu blessing that celebrates doing something for the first time–the first day of a holiday, etc. I encountered the same problem at Hanukkah again in December, and I needn’t have done so.

Because I had forgotten completely about the problem having been fixed in April last year! (Why “having been fixed” rather than I fixed it? You’ll have to keep reading to find out.)

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A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

A Convenient Jew

I don’t do politics here, but I do worry about Jewish identity here. I put that disclaimer in

A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

Shmura Matzo – Creative Commons Licensed Image

because I’m going to talk about a political person, but not a political issue.

I encountered someone’s opinion on Bernie Sanders’s perceived authenticity as a Jew that, frankly, has me uncomfortable–not for its political content, but for its take on what it means to be Jewish.

On a Facebook post on a friend’s wall, a friend of this friend said that Sanders always seemed to be a “convenient Jew.”

This critique, for some reason, just struck home with me. I mean, it’s a logical fallacy wrapped in a larger one: whether he was or was not correct isn’t affected by the sort of Jew he is (that’s the “big” logical fallacy–an ad hominem argument), but there’s also the suggestion that Sanders isn’t Jewish enough (that’s a “no true Scotsman” fallacy). It’s that second one–that maybe Sanders isn’t Jewish enough–that struck me.

What exactly does that mean?

I think, picking away at the paint on the statement, what we’re really talking about is something like this: Sanders’s statements on Israel (the comment was in response to an article on Sanders’s statements on fatalities in Gaza) aren’t…something (?) or something enough (?)…and so Sanders’s Jewishness is a thing that’s convenient to trot out when it serves his purposes, but otherwise is not important to him.

That definition makes it so that Jewish identity’s primary arbiter is not the sum of one’s attachments and actions. It’s…something else. A demand that a Jew in public life be loud and proud about her or his identity? I’m not sure.

But ignoring the whole person’s attachments and actions with respect to Jewish life is a problem.

Secular Humanistic Judaism has long held to the following definition:

In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

See http://www.shj.org/humanistic-jewish-life/issues-and-resolutions/who-is/

If you meet this? You’re good with me. And we ought to be opening the gates wide, mindful that it will soon be Passover: “All who are hungry ― come and eat. All who lack ― come celebrate Passover.”

All the rest is commentary.

And if this makes me an INconvenient Jew? Well, I’m good with that, too.

(Also: I’ll mod the living beeswax out of your political comments on this post. I’m not having a political discussion here. To paraphrase Lesley Gore (also Jewish!), it’s my bloggy and I’ll mod if I want to.)

Two boards of matzah

What Makes This Night…

…Different from all other nights?

Two boards of matzahAnswer: You can spend it with us at a Humanistic Jewish second-night Seder in Indianapolis! The Seder will focus on participation rather than being led, and will include discussion and singing. Come out participate in a human-centered, ethically-based approach to Pesach!

The cost for attendance is $10 per person, and dinner will be included. Please let us know if you have dietary requirements, including vegetarian, gluten-free, nut-free, or other dietary needs.

Kids are welcome!

RSVP on Meetup.com.

Wood Dreidel. Imma Marín's private collection.

The Irony of Hanukkah Ascendant

I’ve posted an awful lot about Hanukkah on the blog over the last couple of years. I have an outsized affection for the holiday generally, I suspect. Not unhealthily outsized–I’ve not festooned the HJinI household in silver-and-blue tinsel and lights, put up a Hanukkah Harry lawn ornament, and issued cheesy holiday sweaters–but, you know, I like Hanukkah.

Wood Dreidel. Imma Marín's private collection.

Dreidel–symbol of assimilation? By Marionaaragay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More than that, I just find the background and its subsequent history fascinating. A lot of that has to do with Hanukkah being one of the very few Jewish holidays for which we have an awful lot of really rich source information from relatively close in time to the events that gave rise to the holiday. With all that stuff–so much more than we have for many other holidays–there’s a lot more complexity that comes through the historical record.

One of the more interesting aspects to me–and I’ve posted about it before–is the tension of modern Jewish life celebrating the Maccabees versus the Maccabees as they were. But a lot of that writing has been about the history behind Hanukkah.

Today, what I find myself particularly enjoying is the irony of the celebration itself.

Think of the traditional story of Hanukkah: the evil king tries to force Jews to abandon Judaism in favor of idolatry. A brave band refuses, fights back, and wins freedom for the Jews. They send the Greek king and his assimilating Jewish flunkies packing. If you’re not doing the theologically cleaned-up version of all this, you think Yahweh made this happen. And maybe you talk about the oil lasting eight days. Nes gadol hayah sham, and ta-da! Hanukkah, which we now celebrate by buying cheesy sweaters at Target, marketed alongside cheesy Christmas sweaters.

No, I really haven’t bought any cheesy sweaters. I promise.

Even (especially!) liberal Jewish leaders fret persistently about assimilation. Yet what are our Hanukkah celebrations, really? A winter holiday where we light candles to fight off the dark near the solstice. A kind of gambling game adopted from Germans, who in turn adopted it from the Irish or British in late antiquity and transported it to continental Europe. Now, gifts, though that’s not “original” to Hanukkah.

These are all things done mostly at home. Unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the daily schedule is basically unaltered. Even in the Orthodox world, work continues, school continues.

In other words, Hanukkah–the anti-assimilation holiday–facilitates Jews being pretty much like their neighbors.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

Maccabees, Shmaccabees

Hanukkah starts in just a few days. (If you’re in Indianapolis and are interested in cultural alternatives in Jewish life, consider coming to the upcoming Havdal-ukah event!) Last year, I shared some thoughts I had at the time about Hanukkah, and suggested that what we miss in modern celebrations is that the thing that most makes our own time similar to Jewish life in the Maccabean period was the sheer diversity of Jewish life then and now.

This year, I want to take a closer look at what I think liberal Jews, in particular, need to keep in mind about the history of the Maccabean revolt and how that should play into Hanukkah celebrations.

To cut to the chase for those who don’t want to read on: we aren’t the Maccabees, we aren’t their heirs, and our holiday celebration should reflect that.

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Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

Havdal-ukah: A Humanistic Havdalah and Hanukkah Celebration

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

After the seriousness of my last post, it felt like it was time to have a little fun. And, of course, Hanukkah is coming soon!

I posted a few resources last year, including this post with humanistic blessings, some thoughts about Hanukkah for humanistic Jews, and some general resources on Hanukkah for secular and humanistic Jews.

BUT…

If you’re in the Indianapolis area and you’d like to come to a Humanistic Jewish Hanukkah celebration, have I got the event for you! Havdal-ukah!

Why Havdal-ukah? Because it’s Havdalah (the end of Shabbat) and the seventh night of Hanukkah wrapped up into one package! We’ll do a brief Havdalah celebration, light our menorahs (you can bring your own!), have latkes and other treats, and learn a little about the meaning of Hanukkah for modern (especially secular and humanistic) Jews.

So come on out! We’ll be meeting at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 12, 2015. The Church Within has graciously allowed us to use their space at 1125 Spruce Street, Indianapolis, in the historic Fountain Square area. You can RSVP on Meetup.com or Facebook and get a notice when there’s a change.