Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Beth Adam, Boca Raton

Here is my talk from Thursday morning:
Last night I was thrilled to have the opportunity to introduce myself to you and speak of the great joy that I feel sharing this holiday with you. I talked a little about the historical place of Rosh Hashanah and about how Secular Humanistic Judaism is the one way of being Jewish that allows us to be honest about why we are here, without the irrelevancies of traditional God-oriented themes to distract us.
I concluded last night by noting that as secular humanists it is our contention that all culture is human culture and must, therefore, serve human needs. As this has become sort of a mantra for me, I want to spend some time exploring this idea. I will first address the process by which we struggle to make Judaism relevant and then the implications our experiences might have for our whole society.
As secular humanistic Jews, we sometimes feel that we are the very first to ever pry Judaism apart from its obsession with God.
But this is not entirely true. In point of fact, our understanding of Jewish life has been developing for hundreds of years. I once taught a class for the Florence Melton School that I called “The Day Judaism Changed Forever” that traced the origin of our approach back to Benedict Baruch Spinoza. Maybe you remember from Renaissance history class that he was the 17th century Jewish philosopher who essentially put the first nail in the coffin of theistic absolutism. My students were truly thrilled to discover how Spinoza dared to question the divine authorship of the bible a full two hundred years before the rise of modern biblical scholarship. He was, of course, excommunicated for his troubles. And Spinoza was only the beginning. His philosophical following began as a trickle, but it rose to a tsunami that produced a world of secular Jewish and western culture.
There is, however, something that is brand new about the Secular Humanistic Judaism of modern times. It is the very first kind of secular Judaism to grow explicitly out of any kind of rabbinical soil. Our founders, Rabbi Wine and his colleagues were, like me, ordained in the Reform movement. They were interested in how Jewish ceremony could enhance our lives. In this sense it is fair to say that we are doing something completely innovative. This is not just another way to be a secular Jew. No other secular Jewish way of life has ever emerged that retained an organizational structure based on congregations and rabbis. They chose this vision because they believed in the power of ritual and celebration in our lives.
As a result, this movement has become an extraordinarily creative alternative for modern Jews. You can see that in these holiday services prepared so beautifully by BJ Saul.
But because of its originality and newness, the secular humanistic approach to Judaism has a large number of issues that it must address in every single sphere of Jewish life. We can leave no Jewish ritual or celebration unexamined. Nor can we make only the cosmetic or aesthetic changes propounded by Conservative or Reform Judaism. Our mission is much, much more difficult.
In our movement we have a unique duty to examine all the themes of this holiday and to judge their validity for preservation in a non-theistic environment. We must do so with the knowledge and confidence that our Judaism is just as authentic as theirs, and in fact, is more authentic for being more relevant and for being true. Let’s take a look at a central dogma of Rosh Hashanah to see how we apply this.
I mentioned last night that Rosh Hashanah does not go by this name in the bible. The Rabbis also gave it yet other names. For example they called it both Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgment – and Yom Ha-Zikkaron – the Day of Remembrance.
Here is a text that illustrates their view of the day:
…Israel is the people which knows how to win over their Creator with the blasts of the shofar so that He rises from His throne of judgment to His throne of mercy and is filled with compassion for them and turns His quality of judgment into the quality of compassion. (Vayikra Rabba 29:4)
Well, clearly we cannot adopt this theme of Rosh Hashanah! You don’t need my commentary to tell you that this is not a humanistic idea. And yet, consider just how central this theme is in the prayerbooks and celebrations of the holiday. This is not some minor leitmotif, but one of the key ideas of the entire holiday season. There are pages upon pages of poetry and prayer that are committed in one way or another to this imagery.
None of this has prevented us from blowing the shofar in our services. We simply have had to find new meanings for it. But again, it is not always easy. In preparing for this talk, for example, I searched through many different interpretations of the shofar. The 10th century sage, Saadiah Gaon prepared ten reasons and I could not adapt a single one for you! I came a little closer with Moses Maimonides who spoke about the shofar as a kind of divine alarm to wake us from our slumbers and remind us to change our ways and improve our lives. If we remove his many mentions of divinity, it is relevant. My point, however, is not really about the shofar per se but about the rebellious thinking that we secular humanistic Jews must, by definition, engage in if we are to participate in these holidays and rituals.
I would like to say that not all of our challenges are this difficult, but in fact, most of them are. Whether we like it or not, all of the prevailing options in Judaism today are filled with the same intensely theistic and other-worldly ideas that have characterized Judaism for thousands of years.
Our movement chooses to preserve the very same Jewish culture that was and is rooted in a religiously supernatural context. We are willing to make the effort because we seek to celebrate Jewishly and humanistically.
The ideas, rituals and celebrations that we have inherited from Jewish history are certainly not monolithic. They were, however, by and large supernatural. Unfortunately for us, while Spinoza spent a great deal of effort attempting to uncover the scientific and philosophical truths of the universe, he did not spend even a minute of his time trying to adapt the shofar or apples and honey to a non-theistic understanding of Judaism. No…we are the very first to do that and we have only just begun.
So once again I return to my theme that all culture is human culture and as such it must meet human needs. I want to push this idea a little further now and explore it within the context of the intriguing new intellectual developments we are witnessing emerging from scientists and thinkers.
It seems that we are living in a time of great opportunity for humanists and secularists and the lessons we have learned from our transformation of Jewish ritual should now have an even larger possible audience.
In the last few years there has been a plethora of books and studies about the state of religious faith. The studies have noted that the fastest growing demographic in this regard are those who, like us, are non-theistic.
The mounting piles of books by the so-called “New Atheists,” authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have eloquently made the case not only for the irrelevance of theism, but the dangers inherent in it as well. Just this week one of the world’s pre-eminent physicists, Stephen Hawking, joined the fray with a new book that says that the laws of the universe offer no need for a deity. Scientists and rational thinkers are finally taking up the challenge to call for a secular society based upon humanistic principles as at the same time they demolish ancient arguments for the existence of God.
The opening up of this discussion and the efforts to bring reason and rational thinking to the forefront of our value system affords us a great opportunity. It is time for we secular Jewish humanists to let the world know what we have to offer and to share with them the significance of our innovation. We must exploit this chance to show that we have something to offer that goes even beyond the rejection of theism.
We must begin to speak loudly about the fact that humanism offers a real alternative grounded in science and reality. This realization was the genius behind the creation of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The founders of this movement spoke not only about what we reject, but about what we embrace. We must take advantage of the popularity and attention that this crop of intellectuals is providing for us. They have laid some fine groundwork for us to do so. For instance, I recently heard Richard Dawkins address this very point in answer to a question at a lecture. He said:
If it is the case that people find consolation and comfort in religion then I’m not in the least surprised but … what is comforting and what is true are two different things…. [W]e need to replace the roles of religions…to the extent that humans do need ritual, do need public meetings….I don’t see any reason why we should not put on secular equivalents of the religious ceremonies that mostly dominate our lives at the moment. …Dispense with all prayers…retain music…retain poetry…..
It is not enough to put aside the supernatural. Atheism, ignosticism or skepticism are not belief systems. Humanism is a belief system and it must be enhanced by ritual and celebration. Earlier I mentioned Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation and the soon to be released book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Here’s what he had to say in a recent article:
We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.
Isn’t this exactly what we secular humanistic Jews have been doing? Is this not precisely our agenda? For over forty years this movement has worked overtime to make this message known. It has been difficult, to say the least, particularly in the religious milieu of the United States. Last night I shared a bit of my background. Consider how long it took me, a person committed wholeheartedly to reason, rationalism and science, to apply this simple truth to my Jewish identity. Others like BJ and Rabbi Miriam Jerris, who will speak here next week on Yom Kippur, have been working tirelessly at this for years.
We must now build on their labors. Now is the time for us to take this message to the larger Jewish community. We must actively recruit the rabbis and other professional leaders who agree with us. We must encourage Jews to consider alternatives to a religiously-based Judaism that simply does not match the way they live their lives. We must join hands with other humanists and urge them, too, to take up this challenge on a widespread basis far beyond the confines of the Jewish community. We must be open and honest about our ignosticism, agnosticism, atheism or whatever non-theistic approach we take and let people know that they can be good without God and that they can flourish spiritually without prayer and other meaningless rituals; that they can replace them with rituals that are meaningful and human-centered.
In short, for human culture to meet human needs, ritual and cultural celebrations must be de-coupled from the supernatural and from fantasy. As secular humanistic Jews we can set an example for all peoples of the way in which a religious identity can metamorphose into a reality-based yet spiritually meaningful approach for our secular age of science and truth.
So let us celebrate this holiday loudly and proudly and let all of our fellow Jews and our fellow humanists know that this is the way it can be done. Let us blow the shofar, putting aside the ancient and irrelevant interpretations, and make it a clarion call for an age of reason that is also an age of the human spirit. That is our duty to our children and to humanity. The Jewish people needs us and the world needs us. We have the truth on our side…a truth based on evidence, not faith…it is our responsibility to share it with others.

Erev Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Beth Adam, Boca Raton

Here’s my speech from Erev Rosh Hashanah:
Just a few short years ago, I stood before a crowd of synagogue attendees on Rosh Hashanah and, as I had done for more than two decades, led them in a worship service. Few of those in attendance were regulars at synagogue worship. In fact, given their general lack of participation I couldn’t imagine that many had been to a synagogue since last year’s holidays, the odd bar or bat mitzvah excepted. Most rabbis are bothered by this and invest a great deal of energy trying to sell the experience. I’m not like those rabbis. Because what most of those once-a-year Jews could not have known and what I could not then freely admit publicly, is that I was actually one of them. Aside from the high holidays services that I had been hired to lead, I had not regularly attended services in many, many years.
In preparing for my remarks this evening and tomorrow, I realized that I would have to introduce myself to you in a way that I have never done for any previous congregation on these holidays. And not only because you and I do not yet have a relationship, but also because it is personally important for me as an individual to explain how it is that I arrived here in this secular humanistic congregation for this holiday. So please indulge me as I very briefly tell you about my path to Secular Humanistic Judaism.
I was trained as a Reform rabbi. Although I grew up in an essentially secular Jewish environment, Jewish identity – including a strong attachment to Israel – was central in our home. So when I joined a temple youth group and found that I was inspired by the rabbi, the attractions of becoming a professional Jewish leader grew very strong.
After attending the University of Texas, I moved to Jerusalem and then Cincinnati for five years of rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
And it was there that I began to have my first doubts. We still had rabbis/professors who would help me to articulate these doubts, including one whom I really admired, Dr. Alvin Reines, who railed against “theistic absolutism.” And though I wanted nothing more than to be a believer, it was beginning to dawn on me that I was not. I simply couldn’t find any sign of God in our world. The stories of the Torah and the rabbis of old had meaning for me historically and, on occasion, afforded me great insight into the human condition. But the character of God left me cold. I found no consistency, relevancy, reality or comfort in this literary creation of our ancestors. Every sermon I delivered and every class I gave concentrated on the role of humanity in bettering our condition.
In those days, the entire Reform movement was undergoing a sort of “revolution” that is long since complete. Reform Judaism had entered a period of religious revival accompanied by a new adherence to Jewish law, rituals and prayer. Everything old was new again. In many places it was impossible to define the differences between Conservative and Reform Judaism as the one became more accommodating and the other more traditional.
The wave of the future was a return to tradition…traditional language, traditional garb and traditional prayers. I found myself riding that wave.
After ordination, I made my career first in the world of university Hillel Jewish student centers and then as an educator and senior administrator in a JCC where I work to this day. All along I struggled tremendously with my approach to Judaism, feeling that religious language and constant appeals to God were empty to me.
It was the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan that changed me forever. Many of you may recognize his name. He was a prominent scholar at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and founded the principles which led to the establishment of Reconstructionist Judaism.
Rabbi Kaplan was also a humanist. In fact he was a signatory on the second Humanist Manifesto published in 1973 alongside Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of our own movement.
Notwithstanding his humanism, Rabbi Kaplan used theistic, God-based language. He even wrote a prayerbook. But he taught that the word God was nothing more than a metaphor for the sum of all natural processes that allow humans to become self-fulfilled. I, too, saw myself as a humanist. I, too, was immersed in God language, especially when I served at a Hillel where I led services just like any congregational rabbi. I needed that God language to have meaning for me. I needed to feel that my words were not empty and that my prayers were not lies. So for two decades I stood on the bimah of various synagogues and Hillel centers and chanted the traditional tunes – praises, blessings and benedictions – to Mordecai Kaplan’s God-as-Process. Have you ever tried praying to a process? It’s like discussing philosophy with a dog. Actually it’s like to discussing philosophy with an imaginary dog. Try doing that for five hours at a shot.
Just as our own Rabbi Wine rejected Rabbi Kaplan’s approach, it slowly dawned upon me that there was another way to express my Jewish identity and that it could be consistent with my atheism. It was a way that did not require me to pretend to pray to or petition a naturalistic process. It did not confuse me with metaphors about a god that I did not believe in. It was Secular Humanistic Judaism. So here, several years later, I am the newest member of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis delivering my first talk in that role to you. And let me tell you what a relief that is!
So in celebration of this great opportunity, I want to formally open my talk by posing the question that I always wanted to ask at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services.
Each year when I would lead services – for thousands of young people and faculty members at university Hillels – I was tempted to begin my annual sermons with the question, “Why are we here tonight?”
But I couldn’t ask this. Because the answers that I was expected to give would not have been true.
Traditional answers to this question would require me to talk about the high holidays as a time of getting right with God, repenting, finding forgiveness and so forth.
And while I’m sure those themes were on their minds…after all the local newspapers said that’s what the holidays were about…I knew that the real reason that both they and I were there was much, much more important!
We came together every year not to talk to God, but to talk to each other! There was no other reason that overrode that singular truth. For the vast majority of our Jewish community, the high holidays are heavily attended because they are a wonderful time to get together. Every community and culture in the world has these special times when they gather in large numbers. Regardless of any religious or supernatural pretext for doing so, the real reason is that we proclaim our group identity and because that makes us feel good.
It feels good to dress up a little and get together with the community. It feels good to see our neighbors and friends doing the same and wishing each other happiness in the coming year. It feels good to invite each other over for special meals and to eat the apples and honey and the sweet challah. It feels good to acclaim and affirm our sense of belonging to the Jewish family and to Jewish history.
You would think from the enormity of attendance at these services and their centrality to the Jewish holiday cycle that Rosh Hashanah must be a very important subject of the Torah. You would be wrong! Let’s reflect a little on the history of this holiday.
Rosh Hashanah is not referred to by name even once in the entire Hebrew bible. In fact, when this holiday is referred to at all, it’s called Yom Teruah – the day when the horn is sounded. There is no reason given for it whatsoever. That’s pretty weak stuff for a holiday that is considered one of the top three on the Jewish calendar.
Moreover, even though we are sending cards and shaking hands and giving hugs that wish each other a happy new year, Rosh Hashanah does not even take place in the first month of the Jewish year. The date tonight – no doubt borrowed from the Babylonian calendar – is the first day of Tishrei – which is the seventh month of the year!
It is always difficult to re-create the origins of a holiday when our source material is so sparse, but in the case of Rosh Hashanah we have some hints. One of them comes from the fact that there was a parallel holiday in Babylon.
Just to refresh your memories of Jewish history, I’ll remind you that in 586 BCE – that’s 2,596 years ago – much of the population of Judah was taken into exile by Babylonians who lived where modern-day Iraq stands today.
They weren’t the first of our forebears to go into exile. Their sister Jewish kingdom, called Israel, had been taken by the Assyrians a few hundred years earlier. They were the so-called Ten Lost Tribes and we never heard from them again. But this exile was different. The Babylonians had a policy of bringing the world’s elite together in their beautiful city of hanging gardens and letting individual cultures do their own thing. The Judahites – or Jews – not only set about codifying the religion of their ancestors, but also borrowing tons of stories and concepts of the Babylonians.
Now these same Babylonians had legends about gods competing for divine leadership and for a coronation on…you guessed it…the first day of the seventh month; what we call Rosh Hashanah. Without getting too detailed, suffice it to say that their holiday helped to inspire the final form of our holiday.
The idea of a divine coronation spoke to the Jews of the time and they applied its ideas to their own god, Yahweh. It developed into a day of his coronation and by extension, the beginning of a time of his judgment. The fact that Rosh Hashanah was also the beginning of the rainy season in Israel gave it a double wallop because rain – or the lack thereof – was associated with the pleasure or displeasure of their god.
The ancient rabbis in Jewish legal works such as the Mishna and the Talmud further developed this idea of a season of judgment associated with God’s coronation. They called the period the Ten Days of Awe. They composed poetry and prayers that asked divine forgiveness and stirred up feelings of guilt and a desire for return or repentance. They made these holidays the “high” holidays that they are today.
These themes are now irrelevant to us as secular humanistic Jews. This was well expressed by Rabbi Daniel Friedman, who together with Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism. He was very honest about why these holidays are really important to the average, non-Orthodox American Jew.
With some amount of humor he noted that:
Jews need a public, community-wide, traditionally sanctioned infrequent event on which they can renew their Jewishness in a reasonably convenient manner.
He went on to say that if we didn’t have such an event, we’d probably invent one…which, of course, we have actually done. Rabbi Friedman also pointed out that the sociological drive to get together on these days is so strong that Jews are willing to pay an enormous price to do so. That’s true from a financial point of view and even more so in terms of the investment in sitzfleish – the ability to sit for so long in one place – that many are willing to make.
In this regard I think we humanistic Jews are much luckier than many others in our wider Jewish community. It may have been a while since you sat through four to five hours of a traditionally based Rosh Hashanah service, but it hasn’t been that long for me; in point of fact, I actually stood through them. And let me tell you, if I was suffering through them I can’t even begin to imagine how the congregation endured them. I will say that folks seemed to appreciate the humanistic commentary that I applied to the service, if not the endless prayers, that I chanted. If I hadn’t been so busy with the mental gymnastics necessary to translate the language inside my head into something – anything – coherent and applicable to my life, I might have doubled over in laughter as I watched the congregation squirm through hours and hours of it.
I firmly believe that most American Jews are really secular humanists at heart. Religious faith and the existence of God are irrelevant to them. Few modern non-Orthodox Jews behave any differently from us. They are, in my favorite Sherwin Wine coinage, ignostics, meaning that for them God is basically irrelevant. They do not rely on the supernatural for salvation or to provide meaning in life. To the extent that they’ve even given it much thought, their concepts of god range from the openly atheistic to those who might find comfort in the idea of god but place little to no importance on it otherwise. Like us they define their own morality based upon consequences and common sense. They look to no holy book or supreme authority to teach them right and wrong.
But unlike us, they are tonight sitting in services where in many cases their rabbis are preaching to them, sometimes even berating them, about talking to God and asking God for forgiveness. And even where the rabbi is a humanist at heart, the language of the machzor – the high holiday prayerbook – is filled with the irrelevancy of theistic themes that picture the deity in terms that are as unsophisticated and childish as our Iron Age ancestors. You can pick up any of these prayerbooks and see what I’m talking about. This is highlighted by hours of singing about, reading about and chanting about the same.
I, for one, am thrilled to be in a place where I can be very open and honest about why I’m here. I’m here because it’s fun…and meaningful…to get together with members of my community and to eat the apples and honey, wish each other happiness, hear the shofar and even to reflect upon the year that’s passed and the one that’s coming. I suspect that’s why we’re all here and why Jews are gathering across the world. The difference is that here in this place we make no pretense that it’s anything else.
As secularists and humanists we understand that all culture is human culture. We understand that all rituals, ceremonies and celebrations must serve human needs. We accept that gatherings such as this are essential human needs and require no supernatural pretext to justify them. As Jews we understand that all Jewish culture is also human culture and so when we gather on this day, we want to serve our human needs. Tomorrow I will expand upon this theme and address the crucial need for Secular Jewish Humanism to take up the challenge of leadership for secular Jews and others as we find new ways to celebrate and mark our holidays and our life cycles. I will call forcefully for us to take advantage of a new era of intellectual secularism that is beginning to emerge. I hope that you will join us.
Until then, I wish you a very joyous holiday and a very happy new year. L’shanah Tovah!