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.

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.

A Community Al Chet

It’s Yom Kippur! Who’s excited?

Okay, probably not a huge number of us. In any event, I’m back from leading services and giving a talk in Tucson for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle there, and I wanted to take a quick moment to share a short, humanistic Al Chet I composed for the Rosh Hashanah service in Indianapolis. (Plain-text lines are for the leader of that reading; Italicized lines are read responsively by the rest of the group.)

Let this be our confession. Continue reading

Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Celebration Poster for Indianapolis in 2015

It’s Rosh Hashanah – L’Shana Tova u-M’tuka

To those celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Happy 5776!

If you’re at home, or for some other reason do not have access to synagogue services, there are some options you may want to take advantage of.

Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Celebration Poster for Indianapolis in 2015

Sept. 15, 2015 in Indianapolis – Rosh Hashanah Celebration!

First, the Birmingham Temple–the starting place for Secular Humanistic Judaism–has YouTube videos of last year’s Rosh Hashanah services, led by Rabbi Jeffrey Falick. The evening service is here; the morning service is here. It’s not the same as being at services personally, but schedules, health, and many other factors can conspire to make the regularly scheduled programming difficult for many to attend.

Second, there are various bits floating around on the web, including on this site (each of those words links to a different page), that you can use for personal reflection if watching a video isn’t appealing, or if you just don’t have time for it. You might also want to check out RitualWell, which has some humanist-friendy materials.

Finally, if you’re in Indianapolis, I’m going to–one more time!–shamelessly plug the upcoming service we’re doing tomorrow night. (No RSVP required; the reservations are closed on EventBrite, but still open on Facebook and Meetup.) We have challah (standard and gluten-free) and apples and honey; I can personally assure you that the apples were freshly-picked by myself, Mrs. Humanistic Jew, and Humanistic Jew, Jr., just yesterday from a local orchard.

Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Celebration Poster for Indianapolis in 2015

Holiday Administrivia

I’ve had several teachers who used the term “administrivia” to refer to the stuff related to getting things done: due dates, etc.

This post is entirely administrivia, I guess.

First, a reminder, then an announcement.

Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Celebration Poster for Indianapolis in 2015

Sept. 15, 2015 in Indianapolis – Rosh Hashanah Celebration!

The reminder: Tuesday–this coming Tuesday, September 15, 2015–the first organized Humanistic Jewish Rosh Hashanah celebration ever in Indianapolis. 6:15 – 7:45 p.m. at the Nora Branch Library, in the Auditorium. RSVPs are nice, but not necessary. We’ll have challah (I’m going to get the gluten-free recipe down!), apples (we’re going apple-picking this weekend, so they’ll be “real” instead of store-bought) and honey, the shofar, etc., as well as a brief service introducing Humanistic Judaism to those in attendance. Kids are welcome, come as you are, yada yada yada.

The announcement: the next event will be a sukkah-less Sukkot celebration on October 4 at 2:00 p.m. at Holliday Park in Indianapolis; more details (where to meet, etc.) will be forthcoming. Shake a lulav and etrog, take a nature hike on the park’s trails, tour the nature center, or do pretty much whatever the park provides!

Come on out if you’re in the area–in the vein of Big Tent Judaism, you’re welcome to our events.

Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Celebration Poster for Indianapolis in 2015

What a Humanistic Jew Does on Rosh Hashanah

Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Celebration Poster for Indianapolis in 2015

Sept. 15, 2015 in Indianapolis – Rosh Hashanah Celebration!

It’s less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah begins this year. What do Humanistic Jews do?

Last year, I posted a bit on that subject. (As a disclaimer, I haven’t gone back to check the validity of all the links.) I’ve also blogged in one way or another about related topics:

But I realized that the post linked to a lot of sources, without explaining what it is Humanistic Jews actually do. Let’s correct that oversight, shall we?

There is something that is key to all of this for Humanistic Jews. We say what we mean.

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A Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Round-Up

Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown on Wednesday this week. I’m likely to be occupied with other items this week (not the least of which is two days of continuing legal education in a facility that charges about $40/day for “real” WiFi) and thus won’t end up with an original, dedicated Rosh Hashanah post. Instead, I’ll provide links to materials from others in the Humanistic Jewish world (and some of my own), as I know this would be a helpful consolidation of resources for some of my readers who have looked for resources but sometimes find their searches coming up short.

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