Sunday, December 9, 2012

Humanist Hanukkah!

Happy Hanukkah everyone! While the stories behind this holiday are surely fraught with peril for secular Jews, I still love the rituals-- the lights, the songs, and the fried foods. This year especially, I am feeling the need for increasing light (especially since the sun is setting in Boston at, like, 4 pm these days).

If you are looking to light some candles for Hanukkah, and don't want to "Bless God" for "commanding us" or for "miracles," feel free to try out these blessings we're using, written by Rabbi Biber of Machar, the DC Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why I'm becoming a Health Educator

Note: I wrote this over a year ago, when I was just starting to look for work in health education. Today I start my first day as a 6th/10th grade health teacher!

            As a liberal religious educator, teaching has been all about facilitating the discovery of spiritual (= profound personal and interpersonal) truths for my students. Whether I am teaching Bible, ethics, or theology, my focus is always on creating space and excitement for engaged conversations about what our world/life seems to be, what our cares are within it, and how we can help ourselves and each other thrive.
            As this kind of “spirituality,” is rather universalistic, I am hoping to pursue work teaching it outside of Jewish contexts. The only setting that might actually pay me to do this work appears to be health education.

            According to my peculiar secular sense of spirituality, health education is very spiritual. Spirituality for me is largely about ‘tending’ to various fundamental aspects of human existence. My spouse Mimi Lowe Arbeit assures me that health education consists in the following topics:
  • Nutrition/physical activity
  • Alcohol, tobacco, drugs
  • Reproductive Health
  • Relationships
  • Social/emotional learning (mental health)
  • Violence prevention'
  • Environmental/community health
             As a spiritual educator, these topics all fall one way or another into three ‘spiritual’ categories: 
  1. Sense of self
  2. Embodiment
  3. Social living (including both interpersonal and societal levels)
If I could spend my life (or at least my work week) promoting healthy forms of the above categories, I’d feel pretty useful. As an educator, these categories have already been the focus of my classes—I’ve just been promoting them through Jewish content and themes. It’s time for new content to make the same point. I could address my specific spiritual interests far more explicitly in a health class. And with health education (if indeed there is work for me in it), I will be reaching a far more diverse audience—which satisfies me greatly as a Humanist.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why I identify as Male, part two

This is the last of four posts exploring my male identity and the challenges of male gender diversity. Check out 1, 2, and 3.

             Since I don’t believe there is an essence of maleness, obviously I cannot give one single reason that I identify as male. In this post, I’ll survey the variety of reasons I have, and assess how these reasons could help my ability to make mental (and social) space for male gender diversity.

            I identify as male because it “feels right.” I check off □male on surveys and forms, and it feels right. What feels right is based both on my experience of my own body, but also comfort with my social expectations and social position. At a deep level, I identify as male “because I just do.”
            I think this intuition level is important to dwell on, because it’s so personal and can’t be communicated. If I accept that my gender identity is ultimately ineffable, that should help me move past the need to understand that of an Other. If gender is so hard to pin down, my response to a ‘stranger’ should be to widen my understanding, rather than repulse them from a totally vague set of boundaries.

Cismale Biology, Heterosexual Orientation (Cis/Het)
            My male identity is not generic—it is specifically a cisgendered, heterosexual male identity. My genitalia are crucial to my male identity. My daily life as a heterosexual male living with a femme female plays a prominent role in my experience of being gendered as male.
            I believe my responsibility here is to recognize that cis/het male identity is simply one corner of male space. My particularity as cis/het means that, on many levels, I will find more kinship with other cis/het men. But by recognizing this particular male space as particular, I stop conflating all of masculinity with being cis/het, and open myself (and others) to a wider understanding of maleness.

I act like a guy.
            Yes, it’s constructed, and yes it’s essentializing, but still—I feel like a guy when I fulfill male stereotypes. Acting strong, unemotional, protective—these performances make me feel manly, especially when I do them instinctively (AKA I don’t call them performances). As a Jewish male, study, introspection, and the intellectual life is part of my masculinity. When I was religious, praying was part of my masculinity. As a male with the specific male role models I’ve had, making snappy jokes, knowing trivia, and shopping for groceries are all part of my masculinity.
            On the other hand, I have occasionally been told (to little avail) to “act like a man,” by people who clearly did not understand or accept my version of masculinity. What I call “acting like a guy” is wrong/unrecognizable to many men. Once again, I find that what I call being a male is actually just my corner of male identity. I find more kinship with people whose traits and behaviors overlap with mine,—but, as in the previous section, this train of thought once again teaches me to stop conflating my masculinity with all masculinity.

I have male privilege and power—and responsibility.
            At this point in my life, I am starting to identify more specifically as male but, as an extremely privileged person, I have previously identified simply as human. Lack of oppression has enabled me to avoid feeling like a target based on a specific identity, and so I have (as only a class-privileged, straight, white cismale can) felt one with all humanity. But I’m not. By identifying as male, I recognize my particularity, and can recognize that of others. By identifying as something specific, I allow for Others to emerge, and I become able to acknowledge and respect differences.
I am a specific kind of person with specific privileges in society. I can walk around calling myself “human,” but I benefit from ‘rich’, straight, white, cis, male privileges all the same. I may not oppress anyone directly, but I benefit from an oppressive society—and recognizing that fact motivates me to fight against that inequity. I did not create this system, but I can still take responsibility for it.
This brings me to my last point: I identify as male because, as a feminist, I am specifically a male feminist. In life and within the feminist movement, this has two implications: (1) I have to check my privilege and be receptive to having it checked for me—as a male I have both a unique perspective but also important blind spots; (2) I play a key role in promoting a culture of enthusiastic consent and fighting rape culture, because I can reach out to other men as a man. Ultimately, this is the most inspiring reason I have to identify as a male—by identifying as a male, I can work from within masculinity to fight misogyny, homophobia, and other perversions of human identity/society that hold men (and all people) back.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why I’m asking about gender now

This post is third in the series, following "Why I Identify as Male, part one" and "Why I Identify as Male, the prequel

              I joined my first Jewish men’s group about four years ago. At the time I had been living for two years in (what felt like) female-dominated spaces, and had not had a male social circle in about seven years. When I was invited to join the group, I jumped at the opportunity, excited to enjoy certain things that I associated with male socializing (assumptions ahoy!): measured conversation, good-natured joking, and an ease that comes with shared experience. The group met several times, and then lost momentum, and that was that.
             About two years ago, there was an attempt to start up a men’s group in my local community, the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline. By this point I had acquired my own regular group of guy friends, and had moved in with my female partner, no longer in a female-dominated communal living situation. I did not feel any personal need for the group, but attended gatherings anyway just to show my support. This time around, I found the group especially tedious, as all of our conversations kept getting tripped up on gender essentializing—any discussion of male role models, male challenges, or male relationships all begged the question of what it meant to be a man, and for the most part we fell back on patriarchal stereotypes, ones which I experienced as irrelevant. This group also eventually lost momentum and disbanded.
             So I was pretty cynical earlier this year when the Moishe Kavod Men’s Group was revived. Wary of joining another group that would fail to engage gender critically, I declared to the leaders that I was only interested in joining if there would be an effort to create an inclusive men’s group, that is, one that was welcoming and beneficial to any male-identified person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender history.

             In the spirit of this goal, I initiated and facilitated a discussion with the men’s group, revolving around two questions: (1) What are the positive benefits for us as men to having a specific gathering that excludes women?” (2) What would it mean to create an inclusive men’s group? The resulting conversation was heated, and the tension between my two framing questions became very clear.
             In response to #1, many of the members (including myself) talked about a desire for a ‘safe’ space in which to explore masculinity and its modern challenges, and how this process of enlightenment was going to involve working through a lot of difficult and offensive beliefs we currently held. We needed a space in order to make mistakes, around people who would not feel hurt or unsafe when we expressed our unenlightened opinions (much thanks to Stephanie Gauchel at Tufts for pointing out how this assumes a lack of diversity within a heterosexual, cisgendered men’s group).
              Clearly this response made the subsequent conversation on inclusivity more difficult. An inclusive men’s group would bring together groups of men who would not necessarily want to focus on the same topics (ex: sex/gender of our sexual partners), and whose diverse experiences of male embodiment and male privilege would bring societal imbalances and tensions into an (earlier assumed) equal space. Members expressed concern that they did not know enough about these other kinds of men to be able to ensure a safe space for them. Others remarked that the move to be inclusive would actually exclude their particular interests as heterosexual cis-men, and their desire for a place where they could grow without worrying about offending others.
             I came away from this conversation reeling, and since then have been thinking and talking a lot about the complexities of creating an inclusive men’s group, and the many issues surrounding male identity. I could say a lot more about the men’s group discussion, but this post is getting long, and there is one crucial piece left:

Why do I want an inclusive men’s group?
             First of all, it’s more helpful to express it as a desire for a diverse men’s group. What it means to be a man is something that varies man-to-man, depending on personal experience, social environment, and other factors. I want to be part of a group that respects this diversity, even if it is only diversity within a heterosexual, cisgendered (from now on: “het/cis”) men’s group. By placing respect for this diversity at the center of our group, we can begin to avoid dangerous (and tedious) stereotypes.
             Second of all, if we’re calling it a men’s group, let’s make it one for all men! If not, let’s call it what it is: a het/cis men’s group. It’s possible that the MKH group will be solely het/cis for a while, as people within that corner of masculinity may have specific issues to work out before feeling ready to handle diversity.

             Now just the plain truth: I find the mainstream het/cis/white image of masculinity that I’ve received to be personally unsatisfying and socially limiting. I don’t think we can truly understand masculinity until we begin to listen to the multiple voices of diverse men, until we encounter and understand the broad range of male experience in the world, and until we as men begin to take responsibility for the violence done in our name by those enforcing patriarchal masculinity. Perhaps a diverse men’s group can be a vehicle for healing among men.

             And for me to play a role in this diversity and that healing, I need to have a better sense of why I identify as a male.

Coming soon: "Why I Identify as Male, part two" (hopefully the conclusion of the series!!!)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I Identify as Male (the prequel)

            I thought that my initial post would clear away some issues and clarify the nature of my male gender identity, enabling me to write the second half of this series. Not a chance. Gender is indeed a curious (and curiouser) thing. So I thought instead it may be helpful to write out a brief gender history, which will explain how I came to my (expanded, limited) notion of masculinity, and why I have not asked this gender question until today.

            As a child and teenager, I had a love for reading, writing poetry, running, talking, music, comedy, and philosophy. I felt supported in these endeavors by my parents. They supported and challenged me, and continue to, so that I become more of a mensch and less of a nudnik. However, at no point have I ever felt like they were policing my gender, or that the state of my masculinity was something to be praised, questioned, or discussed. I was never told to “be a man.” Even when I “became a man,” at my Bar Mitzvah, it always felt like the pressure was to be more mature, to be more adult—not to be more manly.
            I have an older brother who shared some of my interests, but who also may be considered more masculine since he is taller, was never a vegetarian (unlike me, 2002-2008) and more into sports spectating (My fandom ended in 1994 when my favorite player was traded to the Jets, and I didn’t understand if loyalty dictated that I root for the Jets or the Redskins). But I was never made to feel that he was more of a ‘guy’ than I was—I think in my head I simply figured that we were different kinds of people, different kinds of guys.
            I was clearly not a jock, but I do think that my love (and former talent!) for running shielded me from feeling called to prove my masculinity. As a varsity runner in high school, I could express and demonstrate physical prowess, and thus not feel totally alienated from the competitive physicality often associated with maleness. But since running teams always have girls’ and boys’ sides, my athleticism never really felt gendered.
            Moreover, being a Jew meant that I had available diverse images of masculinity: I could be intellectual (like Maimonides), zany (like the Marx Brothers), serious (like Moses), confident (like my brother), and insecure (like Woody Allen), all without ever feeling like I was stepping outside of masculinity.
            Finally, I was in a Jewish high school fraternity, and while I was certainly exposed to (and perpetuated) a fair amount of misogyny and homophobia, my experience there allowed for enough male gender diversity that there was no thought given to what made us men.

            Do you see how all of these factors converged, such that I never once needed to wonder what “masculinity” meant? Without gender as a problem or a challenge, it never came up as a question. That’s a unique privilege that even cismales in more conservative (or religious, or other more hyper-masculine) regions of the world don’t have. But since gender has been so invisible in my life until now, it renders me particularly tone-deaf to many of the identity and political issues surrounding gender.

            Ok, I think I can get away with one more preparatory post before having to write part two. Next up: Why am I asking this question now?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why I Identify as Male, part one*

I’m writing this post because I’m struggling with understanding gender from my own position as a straight, white, cisgender male… so there’s a lot of blindness I’m working through.

            The fact that I am male-bodied seems like a solid way to begin my explanation, and yet the fact that there are people born male-bodied who do not identify as male means that this explanation is not sufficient. My male genitals, testosterone levels, and secondary sex characteristics—a person could have all of these things and yet not identify as male. So, why do I identify as male?
For those readers who feel personally comfortable with the gender binary, I put it to you: Isn’t it weird that something can be so utterly socially conditioned AND simultaneously feel completely natural? My gender identity resides so close to my overall identity that it feels too obvious to explain. It’s instinctual; it’s gut-level. And yet, every time I try to explain why I feel like a male, I end up spouting off a bunch of socially-conditioned descriptors, like:

  • I look terrible in a dress.
  • I’m not entirely in touch with my emotions.
  • I’m not too concerned with my appearance (yes, I see how this contradicts my first bullet-point).
These reasons are pathetic, especially since there are women for whom they hold true, and men for whom they are inaccurate.
I can also supply a bunch of reasons that conflate maleness with heterosexuality, cisgender identity, whiteness, American-ness or even just privilege in general:

  • I’m attracted to women.
  • I feel like society is weighted towards my advantage.
  • I enjoy much of what’s considered “male humor.”
No reason listed so far is unique to identifying as male.

            So… why do I identify as male??? If I say “because I don’t feel like a woman,” I’m (A) reiterating all my crappy reasons from above; (B) taking the gender binary as absolute. Still, I don’t feel like a woman, and I also don’t feel gender queer. (Well, I guess if my family/social environment were more hyper-gendered, then I would feel gender queer. My white, liberal, Jewish, middle-class, east coast upbringing allowed me to have a somewhat broader sense of masculinity than if I were from other regions.)

            Do I identify as male? I mean, I pass as male, and I feel fine being treated as male (except when male is equated with some hyper-gender stereotype). I’m comfortable in my own skin (from within, and how others treat me). In general, I feel too privileged to call myself “queer”—the best I can aim for is “ally.”

            Sometimes I prefer simply to identify as a “dude.” For me, “dude” means I’m chill (of course, I’m not always chill), friendly, playful… and whatever else positive you associate with dudes. At the same time, “dude” is usually posed opposite to “chick,” and I have no aversion to many things usually labeled “chick stuff” (for example, quiche or romantic comedies).

            Ok, I’m getting nowhere, but I’ll end with my real complaint: Being a white, straight, cisgender (etc., etc.) person means that I’ve never had to defend or explain my identity as a male. And yet, I am currently trying to understand what a transman might mean when he identifies as male. That’s patently unfair—I can’t explain myself, yet I demand an explanation from him.

But I’m seeking this out because I want to understand in order to be an ally. It’s one thing to say “OK, you call yourself a male, so I’ll call you a male,” and it’s another thing to expand my notion of male identity when faced by a person who violates my learned ideas. I want to expand my understanding of masculinity, and yet my entire experience and understanding of masculinity is ingrained and (so it seems) irrational. If I don’t understand my own act of identifying as male, how do I go about understanding anyone else’s?

*I’ll write part two if I ever figure out Why I Identify as Male.

Friday, July 13, 2012


            Did you know that you are very limited? I’m not saying this to get you down. I’m sure you are aware, even more than I am, of your limitations. I want to talk about the wisdom of owning your limitations. The best way to do this is to point out a number of mine, and hopefully you will find some of my confessions true for yourself, or they will inspire you to own your unique limitations.
            I’m only one person. I have one body, one mind, one location, and one life. That means that I can try to have an effect on the world as a whole, but I can’t save it alone. That means I can try to serve my life-partner, but I can’t be their only person. It’s hard to be only one person, but since that’s not going to change, I need to re-shape my hopes and plans in order to work with this ‘solo’ reality.
            I have a particular perspective. Given my particular class, gender, race, orientation, religious heritage, ethnicities, geographical origin, parental upbringing, opportunities, experiences, and interests, I have a unique perspective—but I lack every other perspective. With the exception of my narrow outlook, I am surrounded by blind spots, and all of my worldly observations and values are shaped by these blind spots. If I am to gain any wider perspective on human life on earth, I have to learn to listen, and to put my perspective aside occasionally (not permanently though!).
            I have particular strengths and weaknesses. Many of these strengths I developed at the expense of the weaknesses. Other weaknesses played a key role in my strengths. A few examples: When I was studying philosophy and theology, I was failing to make a lawyer, doctor, businessman, or handyman of myself. I think that being short played a formative role in my desire to be intelligent/witty. The mistakes I made, including the ones that hurt myself and others extensively—even those have strengthened me as a person, cultivating my sense of selfhood, relationship, responsibility, and a myriad of other existential themes.
            I’m in process. Due to my own bad habits and reluctance to face my limitations, I feel like I got a slow start to seeking enlightenment/maturity. And due to my persistent blind spots and prejudices, it continues to be slow-going. It’s hard to grow, and there are so many forms of health to pursue, all at the same time: physical, intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, cultural, professional, social, societal, political, and ecological, to name a few. I can try each day to improve, but for the most part I will continue to lag in a number of dimensions. And I will even take steps backwards at points. My growth as a person is slow, uneven, and often ambiguous. I will continue to make mistakes.
            Nu, so I’m limited. It happens. By owning these limitations, I can accept them humbly, and try to flourish despite them strategically. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Grace for Humanists

            As a formerly religious person, I still have a great romance with religious language and tropes, and am often tempted to try to reclaim religious language for secular purposes. In previous posts, I have explored the secular potential for words like spirit and sacred. In this post, I want to make the case for a secular engagement with grace and gratitude.
            As much as I find him to be a smug so-and-so, I think it was C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity who turned me on to the concept of grace. In my understanding, “grace” signifies the fact that the incarnation and sacrificial death of God-in-Christ was a “free gift” from God—something that humans could never have earned or effected for themselves. One who truly appreciates the freeness of God’s gift cannot but respond with love and reverence.
            Of course, the general concept of gratitude is evident throughout Jewish prayer and ritual life. The practice of saying berachot (blessings) in daily prayer and life (eating food, using the bathroom, seeing beautiful sights) reflects the Jewish awareness that God, not people, is the ultimate Creator.
            Unfortunately, when God is removed from the picture (leaving an empty throne), secular/humanist folk often lose any structured relationship with grace and gratitude. OK, there are still secular holidays like Thanksgiving that could conceivably be used for reflection and literal thanks-giving. We can thank our family, our friends, our government (if you’re into that), our industries (if you’re into that), etc. But in general I’d guess that a secular individual is unlikely to think much about grace or gratitude in a ‘cosmic’ sense.

            So here’s my case: This world, and this life, are gifts, even if there is no giver. Even if there is no God as Creator, that does not make us self-made people. We cannot take credit for the fact of human life, or any of its blessings. We are recipients of something beyond us. And, if we see our lives as good things, then it seems like we should be grateful. We should be thankful.
            But whom to thank? Yes, you can and should still thank the various people that may be more immediately responsible for the goodness in your life. And, on an ecological level, I think we can and should show gratitude towards the Earth (not like it intended to create or dole out blessings or anything), especially since we may need to reciprocate that goodness for our own sakes/survival. Gratitude towards the Earth could be shown through words, although without caring actions/policies those words are empty/pointless.
            On a cosmic level, there is no one to thank; yet, I think cultivating the feeling of grace and gratitude makes us more sensitive—to the joy in life, to our luck, and to a sense of obligation to pass on the blessings. For myself, feeling grateful makes me feel good, and makes me feel magnanimous.
            So, humanists, you don’t need to thank God. But still, be thankful.

I know the title of this post is misleading, since I didn’t actually write a liturgical “Grace for Humanists.” Feel free to write one yourself in the comments section.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Honor of the Month of Tammuz (and the Jewish anniversary of my wedding)

(**Today being the beginning of the month of the Jewish/Babylonian month Tammuz, I am posting the speech I gave before my wedding last year, which also took place on the first of Tammuz. Sorry it's such a long post-- if you get more than two screen-lengths down, you'll have done better than I did at the wedding, as many people were rudely interrupting me with singing, l'chaims, and other interjections. ;) 

            Besides being the day I get married, today is also the first day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, also known as Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. While we chose this day because it was the Sunday of a three-day weekend, I have a few reasons to be pleased that it is also Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. First of all, while it is traditional for the bride and groom to fast on their wedding day, it is forbidden to fast on Rosh Chodesh. So I’ll drink to that. Secondly, Tammuz is traditionally considered a month of mourning, as it contains the 17th of Tammuz, a day commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the second Temple, which is three weeks before Tisha B’av, the day commemorating the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples. During the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’av, Jews are not allowed to hold weddings. So, by having my wedding on the first of Tammuz, I get to eat, and I get to have a summer wedding that doesn’t violate the three-week mourning period.
            But the most important reason I am glad to get married on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz is that it gives me a chance to give a d’var Torah about Tammuz. And by that I mean not the month, but the god. What’s that you say, you didn’t know that Tammuz is a name for God? Well it’s not a name for God—it’s a name for a god. A Sumerian-Babylonian god, to be precise.
            Now, believe me, I was as confused as you are. Why is there a Hebrew month named after a Babylonian god? But the fact is, all of the names of the months in the Jewish calendar were borrowed from the Babylonian calendar. The names we use were brought back to Judea by exiles returning from Babylon. You might wonder, were there original Hebrew names for these months? For example, what did the Hebrews call the first month? Well, what is the first number? That’s right—in the Tanakh, we find that months are simply given ordinal names. You might find it strange that the Jews used Babylonian names—but hey, cultural mixing happens. Even ‘Jesus’ used to be a Jewish name.
            Anyhow, each Babylonian month had a presiding deity, but only the month of Tammuz is named after its presiding deity. So, while all of the Hebrew month names are borrowed from the Babylonian, Tammuz is the only Hebrew month named after a Babylonian deity. And let’s face it, that is weird. So who was Tammuz, and can we make any Torah out of the fact that we Hebrews are entering the month bearing his name?
            Tammuz has two sets of literary traditions, one very happy and one very sad. In the earlier, happier tradition, Tammuz was invoked by Babylonian kings who were getting married, in a ritual known as “hieros gammos” or literally “holy sex.” I’m a little iffy on the details, but it sounds like these kings would get married, or at least have sex with a cult priestess, and they would do a bit of role-playing, that is, the king would declare himself to be Tammuz, and his partner to be Inanna, Tammuz’s wife. The idea was that, by taking the place of Tammuz and Inanna, the king was drawing down divine power which would bless their partnership, specifically making the queen more fertile, and most likely ensuring agricultural success too. Since Tammuz was a god of fertility, this ritual made a lot of sense. In fact, the majority of the early literature on Tammuz is explicit love poetry, similar to the biblical Song of Songs. In this poetry, Inanna offers herself and her various body parts, and invites herself to be plowed. We see here how this euphemism for sex as plowing really has some important pagan roots, as the fertility of women was linked with the fertility of the earth. This also follows the long-standing patriarchal tradition of identifying women with inert matter. Tammuz himself makes a connection between human and agricultural fertility by being a shepherd-king—his power to breed sheep is one more piece of his power over all fertility. Clearly there are some very patriarchal views of gender being promulgated by the myths of Tammuz. But I don’t think we should expect much else from the ancient near east.
            So can we make any Torah out of this sexually explicit material? None that I can see. The use of the god Tammuz for fertility, especially the part in which his role is re-enacted by a human king, is incredibly pagan. Furthermore, the story of his love with Inanna is explicitly connected with fertility, so, it’s not really love, it’s just breeding. If anything, their story reinforces the stereotype of straight people as “breeders,” one which I find offensive. While some societies may attach meaning to marriage only in its ability to produce children, I must insist that I’m only in it for love. If there are to be kids, that’s fine, but it seems rude to spoil a wedding by bringing them up.
            Now, I told you that there was a second half to the story of Tammuz, and I’m gonna spoil it by letting you know now that it is not a good piece of Torah either. Here it is: So Inanna, Tammuz’s wife, is apparently the lord of some world or another, but she is not the lord of the underworld. So she decides to take a trip to the underworld in order to seize power. As she descends, she can only cross through certain gates by removing bits of jewelry. By the time she reaches the underworld, she is naked and therefore, powerless. The present lord of the underworld promptly kills her and hangs her on a nail. Weak. However, it appears that Inanna expected something like this to happen, and cuts a deal that she can go free—if she finds someone to replace her on that nail. So she leaves the underworld with two demons at her side, and travels, searching for someone to replace her. Finally she finds her husband, Tammuz. He is wearing fine robes and sitting on her throne. Clearly, he is pretty pleased that his wife is dead. Inanna, in a fit of rage, chooses him to replace her in the underworld. On this account, most of the later texts about Tammuz are ones of mourning. Some of the stories have an epilogue, in which Tammuz cuts a deal in which he only spends half of the year in the underworld, being replaced by his sister for the other half. The story sounds a lot like the one of Persephone in Greek mythology.
            Pretty gruesome stuff, right? Certainly nothing to look up to in these stories. Tammuz and Inanna’s love is entirely focused on power and fertility, and Tammuz later dies after his wife gets mad that he has been celebrating her death. Clearly there are no good feminist role models in this story.
At least at this point, I can bring up the only biblical reference to Tammuz. The 8th chapter of Ezekiel opens with God lifting Ezekiel up by his hair, and bringing him to the temple in Jerusalem. God proceeds to show Ezekiel all of the various abominations that the Israelites are involved with. At verse 14, God tells Ezekiel to take a look at “the women, weeping for Tammuz.” We know now, of course, that they are weeping for Tammuz because he has been taken to the underworld. Why is this worth crying about? Well, if Tammuz, the god of fertility, is dead, good luck with any breeding or farming you need to do!
            At this point, I can take a step back and point out there is some overlap between Babylonian and Jewish traditions about Tammuz the month. Before the month of Tammuz was a month of mourning for the Jews, it was already a month of mourning for the Babylonians. Tammuz is a good month for farmers to mourn, as it always follows the summer solstice—it’s a time of the year in which the days get shorter, as well as hotter and dryer. If you are hoping for things to grow, the month of Tammuz will be a very sad month for you.
            The translation of mourning for Tammuz the god to mourning the destruction of the Temple is a pretty simple one. On an agricultural level, Tammuz served the same function as the Temple—both were necessary connections to the divine power to make things grow. The Yahwist cult in the Temple spent much of its lifespan insisting on itself as the sole connection to divine growing power. As we can see from this passage in Ezekiel, they did not always win this competition. That is the sad irony of the image of women crying in the temple over Tammuz—they are crying because they have lost their connection to the god of fertility, even while they stand in the Temple of Yahweh. No wonder, then, that God ends the chapter by promising pitiless fury—what is the point of having a Temple to share His presence and blessing, if people are using it to mourn the passing of strange gods?
            There is also an interesting disconnect between the Babylonian and Jewish traditions of mourning in Tammuz. If we are to take Tammuz’s epilogue seriously, then the women who mourn for Tammuz know that he will be resurrected. Pagan mythology follows nature, meaning, it’s cyclical. If a god of fertility dies because the summer becomes too intense, no doubt this same god will be reborn… probably around the winter solstice, if you had to place a bet on it. While Tammuz’s resurrection is good news, let’s not forget that his death will always come again, right around the summer solstice. The women mourning are just performing an exercise in agricultural magic. Contrast this, then, with the meaning of the destruction of the Temple. While a second Temple was built again after the first Temple, by no means could we say that the Temple is destroyed and rebuilt in cycles. Unlike Tammuz, who is just a story, the Temple is a historical reality. The traditional Jewish hope for a third Temple is not something that comes and goes with the seasons. Any Jew today who waits for the Third temple is also waiting for Moshiach, the messiah, and a subsequent end to history. Unlike the pagan, Jewish mythology is linear and historical. In mourning the Temple, Jews mourn their exile from the promised land, and the exile of God from the focal point of His presence on earth.
            Just to be clear, I am not waiting for the Third temple. As a former vegetarian, I find ritual sacrifice to be a ghastly way to connect to God, and as a secular Jew, I can only imagine what political effect the coming of the Messiah would have on my liberal and secular Jewish brethren in Israel. Personally, my entire existence as a person and as a Jew would not be what it is without the exile and the diaspora, so I find it hard to mourn the events which set them in motion. Similarly, I am not mourning for Tammuz. If your wife descends to seize power in the underworld and doesn’t return, it is neither smart nor sensitive to celebrate her death, especially by sitting on her throne. Also, Tammuz is a fictional character.
            So is there any meaning in this? I’m beginning to understand why no one has ever given a d’var on Tammuz before, especially on their wedding day.  I’ll try one more time to make some sense.
            At the end of the ceremony today, my bride and I will break a glass underneath our feet. No one really knows why Jews do this—some say we are scaring away demons who might come to get us during this transitional state between wedding and consummation. Others say that it’s a symbol—just as the glass cannot be put back together, we should not be undone as a couple. Does anyone realize that the symbol is the opposite of the reality here? The glass is broken up, so we shouldn’t be? It makes no sense. Anyhow, there is one reason for breaking the glass that is relevant to my talk—some say that we break the glass to temper our joy, in memory of the destruction of the Temple. While today we celebrate a wholeness that my bride and I are achieving, there is still brokenness in the world.
            Do you see what I did just there? I started out talking about the destruction of the Temple, but by the next sentence I had generalized it to “brokenness in the world.” This is a common liberal Jewish move—to take Jewish particularism, especially whatever is associated with intense religiosity, and extract from it a universalistic sentiment, one that even non-Jews can appreciate. The question is, when we break the glass today, what will it represent? Will it represent our mourning of the Temple? Our mourning the broken state of the world? Will we be mourning for Tammuz?
            Ok, definitely not the last one. At the very least, I take solace in the paradox that I am celebrating my wedding in a month traditionally associated with mourning. Because it is good and healthy to remember that life is mixed up with death, and death mixed up with life. The women mourning for Tammuz have a confident hope that he will return. Jews mourning the destruction of the Temple have a confident hope that it will be rebuilt. We all know that joy and mourning go hand in hand, if not immediately, then eventually. Our decision then, is to make sure that we celebrate and mourn appropriate things. There is a tradition that Tisha B’av, the day both Temples were destroyed, also marks the day that the Israelites were condemned to wander the desert for 40 years. This happened after they were convinced that they could never conquer Canaan, and they all cried. The version I’ve been told is that God saw them crying and found it inappropriate, giving them this punishment saying “I’ll give you something to cry about!” We see a parallel with the story in Ezekiel 8—after God sees the women weeping for Tammuz, he assures destruction, so that they will have something real to weep about. The lesson, if there is one, is to choose what we celebrate and mourn wisely.
            Well, now it’s time for me to go get married. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be near the front. To summarize, what have we learned today? We learned that Babylonian gods make great names for Jewish months, but poor Torah for Jewish weddings, especially feminist ones. We learned that “breeder” is an insulting term for straight people, and that neither marriage nor women should be thought of as synonymous with fertility. We learned that it’s silly to cry for a god who will return in six months only to die again six months later, but similarly silly to mourn for a temple that you are not in a rush to see return. And we learned that, if you don’t connect to a Jewish ritual, just universalize the theme and blur the back-story. Oh and if your wife descends to the underworld, don’t sit on her throne, because she very might well come back. L’chaim l’chaim.

Friday, June 8, 2012

God as Everything or Nothing

**Wrote this recently in response to a student's final assignment at Prozdor:

"Ein Sof," which literally means "without end" is used differently in different Jewish contexts. 

In Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), Ein Sof signifies God's utter infinitude, but within this infinitiude is the more traditional (Creator, Revealer, Redeemer) image of God in Judaism. 

In Richard Rubinstein "death-of-God" theology, he uses Ein Sof somewhat in the way you describe-- that we live in an infinite space/void that provides the stage for all reality, while not participating or directing the course of anything.

So, for some Ein Sof means "God is everything, and then some" and for others Ein Sof means "God is the void."  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Return to the Folly of Wisdom - April Fool's 2012

            Good afternoon, and welcome to my seventh annual observance of April Fool’s Day. I had the idea for this observance some years ago while feeling foolish, and it seemed like the foolish thing to do would be to celebrate that feeling. The paradoxes and tensions that make us feel foolish seem to be built into human life, so I think it can be simultaneously liberating and frustrating to take some time to honor them. Similarly, you may find this speech liberating and frustrating—that tends to be the result of any effort to shed light on confusion; seeing the fog better is a bittersweet improvement. Also I might lie and contradict myself a little.
            The speech, from this point, is 11 minutes long. My longest one yet, so I thank you for your patience.

            The Book of Proverbs is found in the final third of the Jewish Bible, and is considered one of the primary books of ancient Jewish wisdom. As a book on wisdom, it has much to say about fools, including this gem: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” (26:11) Lovely image, right? The metaphor illustrates how a fool doesn’t learn from their mistakes, and so persists in doing the same harmful activities over and over, despite the experience of harm. I begin my speech today with this verse because I intend to reveal myself equally foolish as the dog—my speech today is on the exact same topic as the one in 2007, and so I call it “Return to the Folly of Wisdom.”
            As a warning, this speech covers a lot of ground, and definitely leaves a lot to be said. I am in the process of ditching the word “spirit” as a rallying point, and seeing to what extent I can organize my teaching around the word “wisdom.” I’m also really early in this process. So consider this speech somewhat of a survey of tensions in “wisdom,” with a focus on the question of how someone might go about teaching wisdom.

            When I spoke on this topic five years ago, I was concerned with defining wisdom so that I could then find it. I now understand how that particular effort was doomed by assumptions I was making about the nature of wisdom—I believed that wisdom was tied to truth, and I believed that truth was monolithic. All one had to do was grip some fundamental, unchanging truth about reality, and all wisdom would follow from that truth. The Book of Proverbs endorses this approach, repeatedly informing us that there is a beginning to wisdom, and it is fear of the Lord. (1:7, 9:10) Without this initial, true reckoning with God, all attempts at wisdom will fail.
            I no longer hold this view, because I’ve lost my faith in monolithic truth. I don’t think wisdom must come from an absolute knowledge of ultimate reality, because, to me, both absolute knowledge and ultimate reality are ultimately elusive. All I get to have, as a human on earth, is personal and shared knowledge gleaned from life and lives. Wisdom is constructed from this ever-shifting, always fragmented body of knowledge.
            So what is wisdom? I can’t give a full definition, but I can point out two aspects of wisdom that I’ve noticed since the last time I spoke on this topic:

1)      In general, I would define wisdom as “advice that leads to success in life.” As a philosopher, I want to add an extra layer to this definition by also defining wisdom as “existential observations through which we understand the nature of life and of success.” To be wise means not just knowing how to get the job done, but also knowing which jobs are worth doing. This double definition of wisdom is clear when reading Ecclesiastes, another piece of biblical wisdom literature. While the advice in Proverbs is mostly practical, the speaker in Ecclesiastes mixes practical advice with sweeping statements about absurdity, time, death, and meaning. Someone who would be wise must be sensitive to life-as-a-whole, in addition to matters of everyday life.

2)     The currency of wisdom is the proverb, the wise saying. The power of the wise saying is in its broadness and brevity; it’s easy to remember and can be applied to many situations. The weakness of the wise saying, of course, is its broadness and brevity; it fails to acknowledge exceptions and never tells the whole story. This is why wise sayings have to be piled-together in order to become wisdom. “Look before you leap” is wise but incomplete advice, as is “Just do it.” A person wielding both of these proverbs is wiser than the individual with only one. And a third proverb is needed to mediate between these two, probably something like “Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.”

Ok, so far so good. If these two points do anything, they make sure you understand how complicated wisdom is. Wisdom is about achieving success, but it’s also about questioning the meaning of success. Wisdom is composed of bits of wisdom—proverbs— all of which are fragments, and many of which contradict. To throw on one more complication, I’ll point out that one can be wise in work, in money, in love, in family, in health, and in many other realms, or one can be foolish in some, and wise in others. We can see already that the attempt to become wise is foolish because there is simply too much to be wise or foolish about, and in too many ways! In this life, the odds are likely that I’m going to be foolish about a number of things, on a number of levels.

            Ok, ok, I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that all of this was just an introduction to the general idea of wisdom. The real folly comes out in a riddle, which I will express as two questions about wisdom: How is it acquired and how is it transmitted? I hope you can see that these questions are two sides of the same riddle.
            The first question, taken alone, actually has some obvious answers. Most wisdom is acquired through experience. If I had to make a formula out of it, I’d say that obtaining wisdom equals experience plus reflection. This explains why wisdom is most often paired with age—the longer someone has lived, the more chances they’ve had to learn about life, about themselves, and about what works and what doesn’t work. Wisdom isn’t just knowing; it’s ‘knowing better,’ and a person usually is able to know better after many opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. You can see here why reflection is key; the fool repeats mistakes, while one both is wise and becomes wise through a commitment to learning from experiences.
            Experience appears to be the most powerful teacher of wisdom, and this point exposes how wisdom is never purely intellectual. Like Bob Marley says “Who feels it knows it.” I like to think of wisdom in terms of the Kabbalistic term da’at, which is metaphorically represented not by the head or heart, but by the spine. Wisdom is truth about life that is ingrained in a person, fixed there by hard-won lessons.
            I’ll share two bits of wisdom that I earned the hard way, both in my senior year of college. Now, I’m going to be vague about the stories behind these lessons—they were powerful experiences, but often that also means they were very private.
The first one is “Being smart is different than being good.” If this is an obvious point to you, then way to go—I spent most of my life thinking that my intelligence would keep me from harming myself or others. At the beginning of my senior year, I learned this wasn’t true; I learned just how much I had the ability to hurt other people, despite my book smarts. This was a humbling experience, one that made me more sensitive and self-critical—these two traits, essential to wisdom, are difficult to obtain without difficult experiences.
My other bit of wisdom goes like this: “Embrace your incompleteness.” At the end of senior year, I felt simultaneously triumphant and ridiculous. I had learned so much but was only just beginning to grow and mature as a person. And the only way to continue growing was by being honest with myself and others about all of the information, skills, and maturity that I lacked. To hide those failings meant to protect them; only by exposing them to the light of day could I begin to overcome them. This is a hard piece of wisdom, because the instinct is to hide or ignore our weaknesses, and certainly never to allow others to point them out.
            So, really, it’s easy to say how to become wise—live life, reflect on experiences, and be open to growing and learning.

            The second question is what turns this whole wisdom-venture into a riddle: Can wisdom be transmitted? That is, if one person has a bit of wisdom, how can they successfully give it to another? I’m doubtful that this is possible, and so I have reason to suspect that the would-be teacher of wisdom is actually a great fool.
            For the moment, let’s think of wisdom as simply this internal perspective that enables wise behavior. In terms of how this perspective is acquired, it seems like “experience” “reflection” and “proverbs,” are arranged in a very specific order—experience and reflection produce the perspective, and the perspective can then be expressed as a proverb. Do you see the problem? The proverb comes after the wisdom, and never before. So using a proverb to try to make someone wise is foolish. Any proverb I ever appreciated was one I already knew, or one for which I had the kind of experience that enabled me to appreciate it as soon as I heard it. Any proverb for which I was too young or foolish would bounce right off me, or more likely, disappear into me, waiting until I had enough experiences to activate it. For example, I heard the expression “You get what you give,” for years and years before I had the wisdom to understand it. In this way, it seems like wise sayings are not worth much—the foolish can’t hear them, and the wise know them already.
            The other major reason that teaching wisdom is foolish is that young people are punks. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they assume that you must not know what you’re talking about. If it doesn’t make sense to them, then it doesn’t make sense at all. Lousy punks. Of course, I am also one of them. I trust my own eyes, my own reasoning, and my own sense of the world. When someone tells me something that negates that, I naturally repulse it.
            The problem is that there seems to be no proper place for skepticism in the traditional model of giving wisdom. According to the book of Proverbs, only a fool would reject a proverb. And yet, even the book of Proverbs has a term—simpleton—to refer to an individual that believes everything they hear. I think there are some wise sayings in the book of Proverbs; two of my favorite are “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a distressing word stirs up anger” (15:1) and “Iron sharpens iron, as one person’s mind sharpens another.” (27:17) Great sayings. Then again, Proverbs tells us “Don’t fail to discipline your child; though you beat him with a rod, he will not die.” (23:13) Interpreted literally, this is a horrifying proverb. But if I am merely a student of wisdom, do I have any right to question the wisdom that’s given to me? After all, what do I know? The Book of Proverbs repeatedly discourages the listener from “appearing wise in one’s own eyes.” (3:7, 26:12) Of course, given this expression, it seems like there should no wisdom literature at all—who would be foolish enough to think they had wisdom to give? Can any wise person have the strong-headed confidence necessary to present themselves as a wise person?

            Ok, this is running long, so I’ll sum up. Wisdom can’t be taught because proverbs are only for those who already understand. Wisdom can’t be taught because the wise student learns to think for themselves, rather than simply accept the authority of others. Wisdom can’t be taught because wisdom is gained through life experiences and personal reflection, rather than lectures and proverbs. Wisdom can’t be taught because anyone who would pose as a wise person exposes their foolish lack of humility. The attempts to teach the wise virtues of humility, listening, and discernment are all undone by the teacher’s lecturing and desire to be taken as authority.  
            This is the folly of teaching wisdom. I hope you’ve all learned something. The best I can recommend, if you find that you simply must offer your wisdom to others, is to expect failure. Expect your words to be unappreciated, at least in the short term. Maybe years down the road, when your listeners have gained their own wisdom, they will appreciate yours. As for myself, I will continue exploring the potential for the concept of wisdom to be a rallying point for virtue and values in a secular sense, and I will return again and again to the work of teaching wisdom. Thank you.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What makes a ceremony Humanist? What makes it un-Humanist?

            This post is intended as an initial survey of possible answers to the above questions.

            What makes a ceremony Humanist is relatively simple—if it affirms the values of Humanism I’ve been invoking for the last three posts (or others from the Humanist Manifesto III), then it’s a Humanist ceremony. Here’s what that might look like: 
  • Common elements: strictly naturalistic language, family/communal gathering, invocation of cultural-historical heritage, symbolic activity, the intention to “tell the story” of the life-cycle as it plays out in individual lives (“Everything we do creates a story. Let’s tell the story we want to tell.” – Rabbi Jerris)
  • Baby-welcoming: meaningful name-giving, symbolic welcoming ritual, and public profession of shared responsibility and hope
  • Coming-of-age: ceremony marking transition into maturity, possibly involving a talk on personal philosophy or the culmination of a meaningful project, with words and gifts relating to maturity given by adults
  • Wedding: focus on the couple as individuals and as a unit in larger chain of life; affirmations of promises and shared goals made by the couple;  invitation to all witnesses to lend support; acknowledgement that marriage effected by life and commitment rather than by pronouncement
  • Funeral/Memorial Service: framed as part of a process of loss and grief; looks at a person’s full life authentically, and “begins the legacy” of the person through a “celebration of life”; embraces the finality, tragedy, and universality of death
             The more controversial question ends up being “What makes a ceremony un-Humanist?” This question raises the difficult issue of determining the boundaries of Humanism—what’s in, what’s out? Over the course of the weekend training, the discussion of each life-cycle ceremony had its own testing of boundaries:
  • General challenges: To what extent can a secular Humanist ceremony borrow language, actions, or objects from its religious counterparts? To what extent should a Humanist celebrant welcome, tolerate, or discourage religious, traditionalist, or nostalgic elements that may compromise their own values as a Humanist? To what extent should a Humanist ceremony explicitly define and endorse Humanism as a philosophy and life-stance?
  • Baby-welcoming: Is circumcision rationally or morally defensible? Is there such a thing as a Humanist baptism (or, in general, a Humanist baby-welcoming water ceremony)?
  • Coming-of-age: Is it good/right to pressure a child to produce a coming-of-age project? Are coming-of-age rituals little more than indoctrination? 
  • Wedding: How feminist must a Humanist wedding be? Can a bride be “given away” at a Humanist wedding? What structures (or traces) of patriarchy can be brought into a Humanist wedding in good conscience?
  • Funeral/Memorial Service: Is there a ‘more Humanist’ way to dispose of a body, and how much should environmentalism play a role in considerations?

 **STAY TUNED! Writing concise thoughts on these last five bullets points is going to take awhile.**

Why would Humanists hold a life-cycle ceremony?

            Before I get bogged down in philosophy, I need to acknowledge the glaring, more concrete reason I’m drawn to life-cycle rituals—I was raised in a (Jewish) culture of them. They were the signposts of life as I grew up, experiencing some ceremonies for myself, and witnessing countless others. This is the autobiographical basis of my attachment to ritual.
I begin with this point so as to highlight how an individual’s connections to ritual are often largely culture-driven (aka from nurture), and this is cause for great diversity in secular attitudes towards ritual.  If a Humanist has strong roots in a particular religion and its ceremonies, those early experiences can set that individual’s image of what meaning-making is supposed to look and feel like. And if a person was raised without much attachment to rituals, there’s a great chance they won’t develop a taste for them later in life. So, when it comes to Humanist ritual celebration, some people just will never be that into it. Some people are academic or activism humanists, but not song-and-dance humanists.

            So I won’t say Humanist life-cycle ceremonies are for every Humanist, or every human.

            For myself as a Humanist, I am drawn to life-cycle rituals by a need to mark time, to live intentionally, and to gather with others—and to accomplish these things by use of the symbolic in word, object, and act. Rituals develop our sense of meaning and purpose, our capacity for wonder and reverence for the triumphs and challenges in life. Our life-cycle ceremonies honor our relationships and celebrate our intersubjectivity. And we express these meanings and values by drawing on (and often creating afresh) the rich heritage of human cultures.
*(I’m just borrowing a lot of the language from the Humanist Manifesto III in this whole paragraph, but I think you’ll agree it echoes a number of the Existential/Feminist themes I mentioned in my last post.)

            As a Humanist, I would want to hold a baby welcoming ceremony in order to make explicit and public our joy, hope, and solemn sense of responsibility in welcoming new life and growing a family.

As a Humanist, I would want to hold a coming-of-age ceremony in order to give adolescents an opportunity to be recognized in their transition from childhood to adulthood, to be honored for developing and sharing their own thoughts and values, and to feel supported in finding new roles in the community and society.

As a Humanist, I have held a wedding because as a human in love, I wanted to make explicit and public the commitment, joy, and hope that follow from that love, and to be supported in this endeavor by friends and family. I held a progressive, Humanistic wedding in order to honor the egalitarian values over those of patriarchy which plague human relations.

As a Humanist, I will want a funeral or memorial service because the people I leave behind may need that ritual to help process their loss. And because, as an Existentialist, I believe it is healthy and meaningful for humans to engage with mortality—“It is better to go to the house of mourning… for that is the end of all men (sic), and the living will lay it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Humanism as a philosophy, Humanism as a life-stance

            Humanism is a philosophy and a life-stance. As a philosophy, it is commonly agreed that Humanism eschews the supernatural, understands human goods as derived from human need, and embraces the human development of knowledge, ethics, community, and meaning-making. As a life-stance, Humanism is the individual’s and the collective’s living expression of the philosophy of Humanism.
            I tried to make the above description as diplomatic and broad as possible, but I also think that Humanism (as philosophy and life-stance) more often is crafted on a much smaller scale, by each individual and group according to their understanding of what it means to engage and pursue ‘the good’ in a naturalistic world. Personally, I tend to conflate Humanism with my take on Existentialism (with a focus on concrete existence, meaning, freedom, responsibility, anxiety, death, relationships, authenticity, social criticism, nothingness, the limits of rationalism) and my take on radical Feminism (with a focus on egalitarianism, social criticism, relationships, experience, authenticity, self-critical analysis, and social justice activism). My Humanism is a commitment to human flourishing insofar as it is pursued through all of the Existential/Feminist themes I listed. No doubt other secular thinkers will mold Humanism in the image of their own constellation of non-supernatural priorities and ideals.
            All well and good so far, but I’ve really only discussed Humanism as a philosophy. Humanism as a life-stance is all about what one does with their Humanist philosophy. A person could pursue Humanism in their career, in their politics and activism, or in their communal-cultural practices. I have mixed feelings about whether a self-proclaimed Humanist necessarily must pursue Humanism in all realms of their life—on the one hand, I don’t want to be the one to set or demand a standard; on the other, I personally find it difficult to see career, politics, activism, community, and culture as non-overlapping realms.
Regardless of how it is implemented, I think it is developing Humanism as a life-stance that is the main goal of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. Developing Humanism as a life-stance is the best expression of the truth that Humanism is more than just atheism, which itself can only serve as the philosophical frame or foundation for a lifestyle. Humanism, as a progressive philosophy, includes the requirement that it be lived in order to be affirmed. Developing Humanism as a life-stance requires the creation of opportunities for people to actualize their Humanist values—in work, in activism, and in life and community with other Humanists.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why I spent last weekend training to be a Humanist Celebrant

            This weekend I was fortunate to be part of an exciting and fascinating training on Humanist Celebrancy, facilitated by Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and hosted by the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. For about three days, Rabbi Jerris talked us through the principles and pitfalls of facilitating the production of Humanist life-cycle rituals, including baby-naming/welcoming, coming-of-age, weddings, and funerals. We also had brief conversations about crafting ceremonies for name changing, sex/gender changing, coming out, and “coming-of-wisdom” (hat-tip to Rev. Q). I found the entire experience electrifying, and hope to write more about my thoughts and hopes following this training. For now, I will just explain why I attended:
            My primary motivation in attending this training was professional. I am hoping that my experience and aptitude as a teacher, workshop-facilitator, and Fabrengen leader means that I could have success officiating at meaningful life-cycle ceremonies, and I was looking to add this training to my credentials. After spending three days with a veteran celebrant like Rabbi Jerris, I do feel this training provided me with a fuller sense of each ceremony's structure and substance, in addition to raising my sensitivity to the philosophical and logistical minefields built into such events.
            I was also driven to attend by my passion for philosophizing about Humanism, rituals, the life-cycle, and general meaning-making. There were plenty of opportunities for that! Foundational philosophical questions dogged every discussion. While these questions were debated on and off all weekend, we never addressed them directly or comprehensively—a necessary frustration for a weekend training. Still, these are the questions that have kept my head spinning from Friday afternoon through this afternoon:

            “What is Humanism?”
“Why would Humanists hold a life-cycle ceremony?” and
“What makes a Humanist ceremony Humanist; what makes it un-Humanist?”

So many issues sprout from these questions, I don’t yet know where to start, and it will certainly require much more writing beyond the space of this blog-post to flesh out my own theory or approach to the subject of Humanist celebrations.
            While my thoughts on these questions remain uncertain and unorganized, my ultimate motivation to attend this training was my love and commitment to the generation and popularization of modern, secular, meaningful life-cycle rituals. Lack or loss of God does not, and in my opinion should not, signal lack or loss of meaning. Perhaps it’s my conflation of Humanism with Existentialism and radical Feminism, but I think all humans deserve (and can benefit from) opportunities for personal and collective meaning-making throughout life.  
And, hopefully, more Humanist celebrants will lead to more secular individuals having those opportunities.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"The Empty Throne" got name-checked on a podcast!

Rabbi Adam Chalom's "Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation Podcast" is great. You can find it on the itunes store, and search the archives for a podcast title that sounds interesting to you. Rabbi Chalom is an excellent and humorous speaker, a confident and educated voice for Humanistic Judaism. And he referenced this blog on his podcast! Specifically, it's title, and the first post ever, in which I explain the title of the blog. While he doesn't exactly do the title justice (Yes, Rabbi, there should be a throne, and it should be left empty-- the beauty of an aniconic symbol), it's still pretty cool that he mentions the blog.

Listen to the episode in which he references The Empty Throne here.