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.

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.)

PD2_1461-Edit

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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