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.
Yehuda Bauer and others have observed that genocide, while inhumane, is not foreign to humanity at large. Humans are remarkably good at ignoring the prospect of punishment for their misdeeds–they were long before Hitler, and they have continued to be so–assuming, of course, that they viewed their murders as misdeeds. The field of genocide studies suggests some perpetrators did not view their actions as moral wrongs. And humans are remarkably able through cognitive dissonance to ameliorate or obliterate their own personal senses of guilt.
Specific genocides are special. But genocide, no matter where it occurs, though evil, is also thoroughly human. It is up to us to prevent and stop it, though we may never see its end.
Thoughts this Yom Ha-Shoah, the 70th anniversary year of the end of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.
To make sure I read a least a little Hebrew every day, I subscribe to a Kitzur Shulchan Arukh Yomi service. Each day (except for Shabbat and certain holidays), I receive a text message designating a passage from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, an abbreviated quick-reference guide to the everyday aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) as they might confront an observant Jew living in the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe. (In case you’re wondering, the messages double-up on the day before Shabbat or holidays with similar restrictions.)
I don’t ordinarily read the entire passage; I didn’t do so yesterday, either, but that is because the first couple of paragraphs caught my attention and I just didn’t move on from there. And I think that text provides some nice ideas for our own time.
(Note: updated 12/21/14 to add vocalized Hebrew and transliterations. If you observe errors or have questions, please feel free to drop a comment below. Also, see other Hanukkah posts here, here, and here.)
In Secular Humanistic Judaism, we put a premium on saying what you mean and meaning what you say when it comes to liturgy. I point this out because it has implications for what one says on holidays and in other liturgical contexts If you follow that guidepost of Secular Humanistic Judaism, the traditional blessings for Hanukkah won’t do.
There are established alternatives within the movement, and we used two blessings last night for the Hanukkah candles. Continue reading →
The short answer? There are such individuals. Some of us are called Humanists. Read more. (Coincidentally, Patheos has an article about atheism and values.) To paraphrase Turk from Scrubs, we do what we do when we do what we do:
(And on a related note, what I am is what I am, are you what you are, or what?)
We don’t simply define ourselves by the single issue of belief vel non in a deity. We define ourselves as seeking to do good without a god–or better, I think, without respect to the question of a god, because it’s just not an interesting issue for some of us. And the author of that NPR piece, speculating about what ifs, missed the chance to help address the very problem she brought up.
So here’s my small effort to fix that.
I am not saying that all atheists are Humanists, or vice versa. Many Objectivists are atheists, and Objectivism is largely incompatible with Humanism. But the post’s author seems to bemoan that labels are necessary without looking to see what labels and affiliations are out there.
If we’re realistic about the world we live in, we acknowledge the necessity of labels. It’s a shame the NPR piece didn’t take a harder look at the issue.
On the one hand, I agree with him: “Are you ______?” and “Which synagogue do you belong to?” are essentializing, unhelpful questions in many cases. Asking how you “do” Jewish may be a better place to start.
On the other hand, I cannot agree with him on his premise for the question, because he writes out portions of the Jewish community.
If you pay attention to what goes on in the world of atheism/humanism/secularism, you’ve probably seen scuttlebutt about a number of accusations of sexual misconduct by Big Names in that corner of the world. There has also been some significant worry about what these accusations and the response to it mean for the future of these movements. Questions like, “Why is it that the population of conferences on secularism are overwhelmingly male?,” and whether some Big Names who aren’t accused of misconduct are making matters worse by minimizing the problem and engaging in casual sexism and victim-blaming.
There is also the on-again, off-again furor Sam Harris creates every time he talks about Islam. Harris seems to me to have taken up the mantle left behind by Christopher Hitchens as a kind of gadfly, poking at the ability of any form of religion involving any kind of belief in any kind of divinity to be “good.” (For the record: I loved how Hitch wrote, but often hated what he had to say.)
I’m not going to talk directly about any of this–not because I don’t think these questions matter, but because they are symptoms of another problem: secularism has taken on a reactionary color that sometimes makes secularists a mirror image of those whom they cast as their enemies. The reactionary problem drags along with it gender and sexual issues, and issues about talking about religion, and it is biting the secularist movement in the ass.
We’ve come into the month of Elul, the lead-up to the High Holidays in the traditional Jewish cycle of the year. Elul is traditionally viewed as a time for repentance, which Jewish tradition understands as not only seeking absolution but for making changes to avoid ever again committing the sins of the past.
A podcast I listened to recently tied in nicely to one of the ideas that comes with Elul: thinking about the value of what we do.