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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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.

Um…no. Continue reading

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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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 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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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.

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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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.