The Unforgivable Government

(This was delivered at a HIAS event in DC on September 24, 2019. The event was co-sponsored by several congregations, including the one I serve, Machar.)

I’d like to ask you this question: What can we do when our government does something unforgivable?

We are here to support refugees in 5780 — and in all years. Many of us are here because our families were once refugees. Without the protections this country used to give to those fleeing persecution, without the chance to prosper the United States once gave the oppressed and downtrodden, many of us would not be here. I know I would likely not be here: my great-grandfather would probably have been dragged into the Czar’s army, consumed like so many other young men by war, revolution, or starvation.

Rousing the rabble at the DuPont Circle fountain

But today, our government rejects the very best of the American character, enacting upon others the very worst of its treatment of the oppressed, rejecting them and consigning them to lives of despair because of who they are.

And so I ask you to think about the question: What are we to do when our government, with little more than the stroke of a pen, commits acts of callousness, cruelty, and discrimination? When it does so in our names? What forgiveness can there be for the suffering of millions imposed in our names?

Jewish tradition tells us that when our people transgress, even if we ourselves have not committed the same offense, we are responsible. The Al Cheit that many will recite during the High Holidays says, over and over, al cheit she-chatanu — for the sin we have sinned — even if no one in the room has committed the listed sins. The Vidui — the confessional recited by many on Yom Kippur — has each member of the community take upon themselves the misdeeds of others. The Vidui reminds us v’hirshanu — we have caused others to do evil.

Turning red errors to white hopes

We may not be guilty, but we are all responsible.

We do not have the luxury of saying “not in my name” or even “not my president.” The High Holidays remind us: say what you must. Disapprove of what you will. It matters not, for our country’s cruelty is upon all our heads. Fixing what we can is upon all our shoulders.

What can we do when our government commits unforgivable acts of cruelty?

What can we do?

Millennia-old Jewish wisdom’s answer is simple: we own this. We may not be guilty, but we are responsible. We must treat our government’s transgressions as our own and do what we can to atone — even if there can be no forgiveness.

We must take action to bring love where there has been cruelty. We must shout, pitchu li shaarei tzedek — open up the gates of righteousness for me — to make it clear to all our representatives that we, as a country, must. Do. Better. For refugees, this means fighting to keep our country’s doors open. Win or lose that fight, opening the gates of righteousness means supporting refugees in our communities. It means showing true love of the stranger in our land so that they are strangers no longer, but are truly our own.

Whether we have transgressed, these transgressions are ours. And so, I ask that you resolve this with me, in the spirit of tochekha, of loving rebuke:

In 5780, may we act to correct our society and our government. May we speak out against the cruelty of 5779. May we act to open the doors to refugees. May we act to make refugees truly our own people. May we act to straighten our path and our nation’s path. And may we thus atone — even if we might not be forgiven — so that justice and kindness light our path forward and guide our future.

And let us say together, Amen.

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Purim and Religious Freedom

Franc Kavcic’s “Esther Before Ahasuerus”

We’re coming quickly to Purim. Yay, noisemakers and parties and costumes and drinking ad lo yada (until you can’t tell the difference between blessed be Mordecai and cursed by Haman), right!?

As an introvert, Purim as a big party is pretty hard for me to get into. I’m thinking about wearing a suit and saying I’m dressed like a rabbi. (Get it?!) But Esther, the book many communities read on Purim and which almost all communities at least talk about during the holiday, is an interesting read. (There’s always some way to make lemonade from lemons!)

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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.

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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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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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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.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

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!

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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

Where Will You Be in 5778?

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will soon be upon us. Where are you spending your holidays?

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

If you’re in the Washington, D.C., area, you have options. One of them is to spend them with me at Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Tickets (right-click or tap-and-hold to open in a new window or tab) are affordable compared to many other congregations, and if you’re a secular Jew, you can say what you believe and believe what you say! There are family-oriented services for families with children, and Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur day will each feature a different speaker. We also will be conducting a Tashlikh service on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah.

If you live elsewhere and are interested in a secular or humanistic way to celebrate the High Holidays, stop by the websites for the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations to find a community near you.