Close-up photograph of an iron chain running from the lower-left to the upper-right corners of the frame

The Game Isn’t Rigged – A High Holidays Sermon

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.

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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.

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.

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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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)

The Run-Up to Rosh Hashanah

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)

It’s been quiet here…again. That’s entirely on purpose.

At the moment, in addition to the usual things I do (work, parent, spouse, student), I’m writing a service for the first organized Humanistic Jewish Rosh Hashanah event in Indianapolis…like, ever…writing a sermon for services I’ll be leading the following weekend for a community in Tucson…and planning out a talk I’ll be giving the day after the service in Tucson.

So, you know, busy.

If you’d like to go to the Indianapolis Rosh Hashanah service, you can visit this post for links and more information.

If you’d like to go to High Holiday events in Tucson, you can visit the website for Tucson’s Secular Humanist Jewish Circle for more information.

If you’re looking for Humanistic Jewish High Holiday events in your community, please visit the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s website to find a local group.

I’ll be back. And as I’ve observed before, that probably means that tomorrow, after I’ve resigned myself to not having anything to post about, I’ll see something and feel compelled to write.

Which I guess means, stay tuned.

A pair of hands (the author's) holding a shofar (the author's) - a ram's horn hollowed out and used as a trumpet on some Jewish holidays.

Humanistic High Holiday Celebration in Indianapolis

Big news, I think. (I’ll admit to bias and a little self-promotion.)

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My hands and my shofar! Photo by Paul D’Andrea.

The very first organized, community-accessible Humanistic Jewish High Holidays celebration for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be conducted on September 15, 2015 in Indianapolis! We’ll be in the auditorium of the Nora Branch Library at 8625 North Guilford Avenue, and the celebration will run from 6:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.

There will be no charge–no tickets needed, all may attend, and kids are welcome. We’ll have some music, some talk, challah, apples and honey–and of course, the shofar! (Though you’ll probably have to endure my shofar stylings. You’ve been warned.)

Details/RSVP (nice but not necessary) at EventBriteMeetup.com and Facebook. (These links may require registration.)

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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Jewish Disability Awareness Month

Did you know that it’s Jewish Disability Awareness Month? It’s also North American Inclusion Month.

(Also, did you know that JDAM stands for both Jewish Disability Awareness Month and Joint Direct Attack Munition, which is a kit that upgrades ordinary bombs into smart bombs? Lots of odd trivia today.) Continue reading

Your daily dose of bubbe-meise

(Mrs. Secular Jew has already heard this, so she can tune out)

For the current rabbinical school seminar at IISHJ, we read sections from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (“KSA”), a mid-to-late 1800s halakhic collection compiled by R. Shlomo Ganzfried. It’s a code in the sense that it follows the general scheme of R. Joseph Karo‘s Shulchan Arukh, but KSA is not generally intended to be used in reaching halakhic decisions as much as it is intended to serve as a guide for the average person in observing halakhah.

In any case, KSA at 128:13 has a description of what one should do on Erev Rosh Hashanah when visiting the graves of tzadikim to seek additional merit for one’s repentance during the Days of Awe. Setting aside the complications involved with this sort of intercessory prayer (one isn’t supposed to pray to the tzadikim so much as to God seeking the benefit of their merit, or, if you’re a Chabadnik, to ask the tzadikim to pray on your behalf), there’s an interesting bit of minhag in there: “When placing one’s hand on the grave (i.e., the gravestone), one must put only his left hand (on it), and not his right.”

Neither printing of KSA that I own (the Metsudah version with English translation on facing pages and an all-Hebrew edition from 1987 or thereabout) has any annotation or commentary about this. Some online searches on this didn’t turn up a rationale either. Those searches actually turn up only KSA as the source for this practice. (See here and here.) And the cross-indexing in the back of the Hebrew edition of KSA, which points to the relevant sources in the Shulchan Arukh and Mishnah Berurah, didn’t lead to any enlightenment–those sources don’t give any hint.

Which means that this is likely entirely minhag. Not just that, but it’s kind of bubbe meise.

Ask yourself: why the left hand?