Photo of a page of the Worms Machzor, with the Aramaic word "Kol" very large and the rest of the Kol Nidre text below

Is Kol Nidre Kosher?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered questions about Kol Nidre. Specifically, I’ve been asked whether Kol Nidre is “kosher” for Humanistic Jews. Indeed, I was asked that yesterday!

So…what say I?

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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.

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

Alexander Gierymski's "Feast of Trumpets," depicting taskhlikh, the ritual casting off bits of bread as a symbolic shedding of the prior years' sins. (1884)

“Talk to Me Tashlikh” – A Humanistic Reading for Tashlikh

Alexander Gierymski's "Feast of Trumpets," depicting taskhlikh, the ritual casting off bits of bread as a symbolic shedding of the prior years' sins. (1884)

Alexander Gierymski’s “Feast of Trumpets,” depicting tashlikh (1884)

One of the fixtures of Rosh Hashanah for many communities is tashlikh. Traditionally, tashlikh is a ceremony during which a community’s members will gather near a body of water on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah and cast off bits of bread. The bits of bread are representative of the transgressions of the prior year, which are swept away in the water. The ceremony is accompanied by recitation of a short set of texts taken largely from biblical verses. (The bread might be incidentally eaten by ducks and fish, though traditionally one is not to intentionally feed non-domesticated animals on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Do animals that eat crumbs from tashlikh become sin-eaters? The mind boggles a bit.)

(Incidentally, the title of the post is a paraphrase of a Yiddish and English saying, “Talk to me tachles,” meaning something like, “let’s get down to brass tacks.”)

What if your community isn’t doing tashlikh? Or what if you don’t have a community? Or ready access to a body of water? (That will be the case for the service I’m leading in Indianapolis.) Or what if you just want something specific to read for tashlikh as a way to recognize that the act is itself symbolic? Or perhaps you want a slightly subversive text that questions the wisdom of engaging in tashlikh at all, as though we can really cast off the ills and errors of the prior year that now inform our identities?

You can use this; I wrote it. It’s humanistic in focus. I claim no special gifts in writing poetry or the like (though I get a lot of “likes” on Facebook when I write limericks and haikus about my coffee habits). That said, if you use it in a group, reproduce it, distribute it, etc., please cite the source and my name. (The alternating bold/regular text is for use in responsive reading situations. I imagined this as congregation first, leader second.)

We arrive bearing the last year’s load of leaven.
Triumphs and failures,
Missed chances,
Joys and sorrows.

At tashlikh, we cast away the staler bits;
Throw aside our regrets,
Like so many breadcrumbs
Carried off in water.

If we cast away our ills, what do we lose?
Can we learn from mistakes?
Might good turn bad?
Might bad be made good?

This tashlikh let’s not cast our selves away.
We’ll keep the crumbs of our pasts,
Hold tight these few morsels –
The bread of our lives.

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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Photograph of the "heads" side of a penny, highly oxidized so that the copper has turned from red to green

Sometimes Bad Pennies Have Good Sides

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.

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Humanistic Blessing for Hanukkah

The top of a Hanukkah menorah with two candles lit

Our menorah for the first night of Hanukkah

(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

Why or why not?

Tablet Magazine ran an article earlier this week that I suspect drew quizzical looks from readers. Titled “Black Jewish Temples Get Their Own Prayer Book, After Nearly a Century,” the article is as much a short history of the Black Israelite movement as it is about the siddur itself.

Let’s bracket the kinds of historical concerns that we might bring into play discussing the Black Israelite movement. They’re not relevant to this post, because what I want to talk about is one reaction I saw on Facebook to the article. That reaction (paraphrased): “why do Black Israelites need their own siddur“?

The answer: because liturgy matters. Continue reading

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

Starting Points

As promised a while ago, I’m still here and will continue to post.

Posting will be a bit intermittent for a while yet, I think. We are, in some sense, trying to rebuild our lives a bit. And at a new starting point, I’m thinking about any number of starting points. This post is bit of reflection on that idea.

Starting Point, the First – Crisis

For those who’ve read the blog for a while, you’re aware that my son, Secular Jew, Jr., (let’s just use SJJ here for now) is autistic. (If you’ve not been reading for a while, you now know.) Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen a number of setbacks for SJJ–dramatic aggression, lost coping skills, lost communication skills–that in retrospect appear somewhat tied to medication issues, but that also seem to have been building for the last year or so until reaching a breaking point in late April. He’s been hospitalized in inpatient treatment centers twice in the last month, with the total inpatient plus waiting-in-the-ER time coming to about two weeks. The last of the two stays overlapped with his tenth birthday.

It’s been a horrifyingly difficult time for us–for him, unable to get across his needs and sometimes being ragingly angry, and for us, unable to do what parents are supposed to be able to do: to fix it. And the gap in services–medical, mental health, therapeutic, etc.–has been frightening and frustrating and enraging and depressing, because there are so few resources for parents dealing with autistic children in their extremes. Fortunately, we had enough support and resources to start to get back on track. Lots more behavioral therapy coverage has been approved by our insurance company, a new doctor is involved, and family was in town to help absorb some of the emotional blows of an earlier-than-expected release from the second inpatient facility. (And I’m beginning to wonder whether my insurance card will just spontaneously combust at some point from overuse.)

In short: we’re at a new starting point. Full-time therapy, no public school, no summer camp, a new schedule, and new challenges.

Starting Point, the Second – Identity

But putting SJJ into hospitals twice, with very limited visiting hours (generally an hour per day) during those visits, allowed Mrs. Secular Jew (MSJ) and I time we ordinarily would not have. And so, I had time to consider my own starting points.

The first time I had to consider these was when we checked SJJ into the first hospital. Hospitals ask about your religious preferences when you are treated inpatient, so they can (if you want) match you with a chaplain. Both hospitals just had an open box with religious preference–you write it in.

So, what would I put? (Somehow, though I insist to MSJ that just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean I’m good with paperwork. My job is more involved with tearing paperwork to shreds than with filling it in. Yet still, I do most of the paperwork.) None? Humanist? Jewish? Something else?

My decision: “Jewish (humanistic).” And I declined chaplaincy services. To my knowledge, there aren’t many humanistic Jews in the Indianapolis area, and I know who the Jewish chaplains in the area are and just didn’t feel like I would want their services. And SJJ, who has limited communication skills, wouldn’t get much from chaplaincy services in any case.

Mishnah Berurah - halakhic text (photo of book)

Mishnah Berurah

Did I write what I wrote because that was the easiest thing to do? Probably–the likelihood of it just confusing chaplaincy staff and encouraging them to let us be drove some of that decision. But the answer reinforced for me that, wherever I end up, I know where I start: with Jewish sources.

Starting Point, the Third –  Coping

Continuing on, it turns out that when your home life is oriented almost entirely around raising a special-needs child, you actually don’t know what to do with yourself when that child is gone. Or at least, we didn’t. So combined with the fears and concerns we had, all centered on a child who has suddenly changed in a dramatically negative way, we were faced with a vacuum in the conduct of our daily lives.

So we went out to dinner. We visited SJJ every chance we had. But when you’re accustomed to waking up to find that your child is in bed with you (again!), and wake up in a different state, it’s very disorienting. And it’s guilt-inducing to intentionally do things that are fun, because it’s not what you think you should be doing at that moment–even though you know you need the break.

I was in some ways almost paralyzed into anxiety and introversion by all this change. Decisions just didn’t matter, and I didn’t have a lot of interest in making decisions anyway–our son wasn’t home, and we were both exhausted. Yet I was waking up several hours before I needed to leave for work.

This is where I reached another starting point. I had to remake a daily routine that would at least begin to fill in gaps. I didn’t really know what to do with that time in a way that wouldn’t leave me perseverating on the troubles we faced–that our happy, funny kid had turned almost overnight into a desperately unhappy, angry, raging, violent person.

And so I did something I hadn’t done in years. I laid tefillin.

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

“Wait!,” you might say. “You did what!?” (At least, if you’re a secularist/humanist/Yiddishist/etc.) So, let me explain.

I needed some kind of thing that would structure the day. That thing was usually helping get SJJ ready for school in the morning, but that wasn’t happening. I was up several hours early. And I needed a way to use the time to get my head screwed on right so that I could do the work of the day. I needed quiet; not the quiet that came with a suddenly empty house, but a reorienting quiet where I could work out my own “stuff.”

Meditation Room Window - stained glass nature image

Meditation Room Window

The building I work in has a meditation room. It’s labeled that way. I know, I know, it’s a chapel, right? But no crosses, or stars, or crescents. Some secular artwork? Yes. There are Bibles and Psalm books on some shelves in the back. But there are no religious services conducted there, other than the occasional employee-organized Bible study or prayer circle. Our employer does nothing in that space; a private organization separate from my employer maintains the room.

In short, it’s a quiet, warm room with some chairs. It’s not often used early in the day.

And I start from a Jewish point. It’s what I know and where I’m comfortable. So I constructed a weekday ritual around laying tefillin in the morning. I sometimes used a siddur, but engaged in a significant pick-and-choose process: I’d say one thing, omit another, change another, to express what I wanted to express. Or I would study something–part of the weekly Torah reading, or some halakhic text in Hebrew–to still my mind and transition from the trouble of home to the focus of work.

What I wanted to express was just the hope that we would be reunited with enough improvements to move forward. I didn’t ask anyone or anything supernatural to intervene, and I didn’t expect it. I still don’t. I didn’t pray. I still don’t.

But I needed a thing to do, and I needed a place to do it. I still love the core liturgical texts as poetry. I love Hebrew. And so doing something that would look to an observer like a very “traditional” Jewish thing to do–after all, tefillin were found at Qumran!–was what came naturally.

Starting Point, the Fourth – Moving Forward

Where does this all leave me now? Laying tefillin and studying a Jewish text–part of the siddur, or the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch yomi, or Mishnah Berurah yomitmost weekdays has become kind of centering for me. Even on days when I don’t lay tefillin, which has taken up a kind of “worry beads” meaning for me, I study one or both of the daily Kitzur or Mishnah Berurah in Hebrew. They’ve had no normative effect on me–I don’t do anything different, and many times I recoil at what the texts say about treatment of non-Jews. And, as before, I continue to try to read the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew, as well.

What am I not doing? I’m not praying. I’m not keeping kosher, observing Shabbat in a halakhic manner, or observing yom tov. When I’m burned out, I’ll stop without guilt, because what I’m doing isn’t something I perceive as being commanded in any way. It’s a balm.

MSJ and I talk about my new practice as “davvening,” since that’s what it looks like to the outsider. But it’s not what’s happening on the inside–and, if you look closely, you see that it’s not what’s happening on the outside. But it makes me feel better, and it lets me stay connected to parts of Jewish culture and history that resonate for me emotionally, though not intellectually or normatively.

And that’s what I need right now as a starting point.

Leavening

So, finally, I’m jumping on the “Jewish bloggers blogging about Pesach” bandwagon.

I know, I know–I’m late to the party. I can live with that. I’ve always been a bit of an outlier and, in the spirit of the festival, mah nishtanah.

And, like many, I’ve been seeing or receiving the various Haggadah supplements that are going around. I’m going to be a bit of a contrarian about Haggadahs for a moment. Specifically, I’m going to complain about text.

As in so many other things, Judaism has largely developed to have a “fixed” text for the Seder. A script, with stage directions. Many of these are important, of course–if you don’t know the Kiddush, you need the text, assuming that doing the Kiddush “right” is something you want to do.

But what if it isn’t? Or, put another way: should it be?

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