Yom Kippur Sermon/Commentary: Civility, Certainty, Divinity, Diversity

Written for Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. This followed Stories of Transformation about Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.



At Rosh Hashanah we asked the question: can humanists be happy? (For those who weren’t there, the answer is yes or, at least, I hope so). The impetus for such a question comes from the fact that as humanists many of us have a natural inclination to be critically-minded. This is good — our world needs far more critical thinkers. However, we are sometimes too critical of ourselves and others. And then it can be not so good.

Honesty time: Have you thought someone — a political figure or someone in your life — to be one of the following in recent months: an idiot, completely without moral compass, unworthy of your time/interest, less than human?

Here’s the thing, we are living in an incredibly polarized time politically and socially. And think of how this thinking is applied to “the other side” in many ways: a person is an “idiot” because they are a “left-wing snowflake” or a “right-wing ideologue.” A person lacks a moral compass because they can’t see that refugees need a safe place to land. Or they are without that moral compass because they can’t see the strain on resources that are already at capacity and the vulnerable people here who need support now. People are unworthy of our time or interest because they are in circumstances of their own making, poor because they live in the wrong communities, don’t pursue an education, use drugs and alcohol. Or people are unworthy of our time or interest because they have no sensitivity towards exactly the kinds of people described in these terms so, why bother trying to engage? I’m sure none of us wishes to admit that we see others as less than human. That last one is tricky but we sometimes fall into that trap of dehumanizations unwittingly whether calling someone else  “an animal,” referring to them as certain body parts — you know the ones I mean, or calling them a “basket of deplorables”.

I wish to avoid false equivalence here. I do believe sometimes ideas and actions are unjust and cruel. I’m not saying “everyone has a right to their opinion.” I’m saying everyone has their opinion, and we are more effective when we seek to understand that person and how they came to think in the way they do.

What we have is a bizarre turn where we are so convinced of our position and perspective, and the stakes are so so high — literally to many of us matters of life and death — that we become very ugly towards each other.

What I love about the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story is not so much her fierce pursuit of justice, or her brilliant ability to articulate her dissensions in both powerful words and poignant fashion. I love those things, of course. What I love about her most of all, however, is her deep and close relationship with Justice Scalia, a political foe but a personal friend. To me this suggests more than her rise in the face of sexism, more than her astute legal mind, more than her awareness of the significance of her bench, it showcases her deep humanity. She is able to see the person behind the politics; she is able to retain her humanity and the view of her opponent’s humanity, even when fervently disagreeing. And the stakes are high. It is precisely because they are high that we need this focus on the whole person, on their humanity, on speaking to and even loving someone whose values you may find deplorable but whose human value is not in question.

I want to admit to you publicly on this day that we account for our souls and make public declarations of where we falter: I am terrible at this. I am not sure I could have dinner with Scalia. My own brother and I have certain discussion topics that we intentionally avoid so that we don’t try to throttle the other over dinner. I have no-go zones that I simply will not discuss, debate, or, frankly, develop a personal connection with someone if they hold opposing views. I’m sure you have some of these red line issues as well. For some it’s women’s rights. For some it’s Israel. For some it’s climate change. I guarantee you two things: there are people in this room who disagree with you on one or more of these issues. And they are here for the same reason you are: to use this opportunity given to us each year to reflect, to pursue self-betterment, and to foster a more meaningful life.

If we could find a way to dialogue, even when we disagree, we could open our minds and hearts in ways that we can’t accomplish just sitting and listening to the rabbi, engaging though she may be ;)

I’ve been working on this dialogue across difference thing. One of my red line issues is being pro-choice. I so strongly disagree with the anti-choice perspective, finding it rooted in misogyny, religious fanaticism/fundamentalism, and basic scientific misinformation about issues of gestation. I will admit to having thought thoughts like “these people are idiots with no moral compass who are not worthy of my time who are — insert name of body part, or item from the basket of deplorables here.” I would either not engage with the anti-choice segment or, if I passed them with their graphic signs, for example, I might shout out an expletive or insult. I would never really engage.

Please understand, I still feel just as passionately and strongly about this issue and still, if I’m honest, know in my heart that I’m right. The challenge is that they know in their hearts that they’re right too, even though our ideas are diametrically opposed. So, what to do?

I recently had the opportunity to try build and flex this dialogue across difference muscle when I posted publicly on social media my “top ten things to say to abortion protestors” and, unsurprisingly, received some comments that were from the anti-choice side. I resisted the urge to name-call, to dismiss. I engaged. There was one person in particular who said some things that were filled with contempt for women. I asked him to consider that contempt; I said I’m sure his heart was in the right place but to me these issues are about women’s rights and autonomy, things I care passionately about. That’s right — I used “I” messages instead of simply criticizing him and his point of view.

Do I think I got through to him? No. But often these discussions, especially when occurring in public, are not about the person on the other side of the argument. It’s about the people watching from the sidelines, either looking for models who share their point of view, or who are open to being convinced by the opposing one.

In being resolute in my argument, but respectful in my discussion, I affirmed his humanity and, importantly, my own. Part of what I was doing was saying “Hey, look. I’m a woman. I’m intelligent. I’m worthwhile. My rights matter.” It’s much easier to dismiss someone’s humanity when they are dismissing yours.

I noticed something after that discussion. I felt lighter than I usually do when entering into arguments, especially online arguments! Could it be that treating someone else with respect actually feels good? At Rosh Hashanah I discussed the false dichotomy between righteous indignation and happiness.

I want to tell you — in that moment, I felt super righteous. I had been cool and convincing. I also felt happy at how I had handled myself. There is an adage that I find very true: there is no such thing as winning an argument. We need to be civil with each other.

Let’s talk about the notion of civility for a moment: on the one hand it is a no-brainer and, on the other hand, it is a most dangerous proposition. The root of “civil” is “civis” for citizen. Who counts as a citizen though? Does it include the immigrant or the refugee? Does it include the Indigenous peoples? Think of the brutal history of colonization globally: a civilizing mission; a mission driven by the idea that the people indigenous to the majority of the planet were not fully human yet.

Indeed, today, there is such an interesting use of the word civil. A few months ago, when the US started separating immigrants and refugees from their children, and then placing those children in cages, the spokesperson for the White House reminded people to be “civil” when discussing it. I was struck by how that term is still being used to oppress, to suppress dissent, to whitewash. It’s not dissimilar from the approach of the colonizer who took seriously what they called the “white man’s burden” to civilize others.

Let’s not forget the role religion plays in these civilizing missions. Colonizers across the continent of Africa used it to “civilize” the people there. People seeking refuge in North America now are catalogued by religion and treated accordingly. The idea of the citizen is very fraught indeed.

And yet I take seriously what it means to be a citizen — of my country and of the world. I dislike it when politicians refer to their constituents as “taxpayers.” I am a taxpayer but does this buy me access or a voice? My children are not taxpayers, but they are citizens. Same for some elderly people, some people with disabilities, some people down on their luck. As citizens, we deserve equal protection under the law — exactly what Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her life and career fighting for.

To me, what it means to be a citizen is to fight for those rights. To stand up for my fellow citizens, of my country, of the world, and be serious about the equal protections we are owed. It’s why I care about abortion access, climate change and environmental justice, anti-Black racism and the treatment of Indigenous peoples across our country and the world. I have a responsibility to engage — I am a citizen.

I am also a Jew. And Jews have often been called uncivilized. We have been subject to the same types of categorizations and civilizing missions that others have experienced and continue to experience. Part of the idea of the uncivilized Jew is simply a reflection of deep antisemitism. It is garbage. I want to rescue part of the image, however. Jews have been known as a “stiff-necked people,” meaning that we are stubborn. Part of our stubbornness is our refusal to bow before leaders and gods with whom we don’t agree or in whom we don’t believe. For Humanistic, Secular, atheist, agnostic Jews, we keep in line with the very Jewish tradition of refusing to bow before what we perceive to be false gods. It is in our ethos as a people and as individuals. I value our stiff-neckedness. I want to be stubborn where it matters. I have my red lines. I don’t think that makes me uncivilized; it does make me an engaged and vocal citizen.

This idea that the cagers of children should call on their opponents to remain civil really throws into harsh relief how dangerous the term can be. Some of these same people are incredibly disrespectful, discourteous, and dangerous in their attacks on their political opponents, calling them all manner of things including “snowflake,” “Pollyanna,” “Fake news.” I notice a trend for people to call for civility in exactly the moment that they are violating civility, and undermining the humanity, of others.

We have to do this better. It is frustrating, believe me I know, to be the one who remains calm, poised, and, yes, civil, when the other side is the opposite of all those things. But there is no winning an argument. And the stakes are high. We have to dialogue across difference and “they” will never be civil to “us” if “we” can’t be civil to “them.” You can’t see the scare quotes I placed around all those words - us and them. But they are there. Because, ultimately, there is no us and them. As I said, we disagree, even in this room, even where we agree on so much. Ultimately, finally, there is only us — we humans, fallible and frail, trying to live out our lives. Being citizens of the world we must share.

This talk is entitled “Civility, certainty, divinity, diversity”. I think civility is challenged by the other three ideas. Our certainty. My certainty that I’m right and your certainty that you’re right. I’m part of a cohort of Rabbis Without Borders — rabbis reimagining how to make Jewish life meaningful and relevant for our people. One of the books we discussed together was by Rabbi Brad Hirshfeld, entitled You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right.” In it, he discusses the violence done to Jews and Judaism when we are shouted down, ostracized, made to feel ashamed for who we are. Many of us in this room have experienced that from outside and inside Judaism. We are subject to antisemitism. We are subject to people telling us we’re not “real” Jews or we’re “Jewing” it wrong. We are subject to questions about our choice in partner or the validity of the Jewishness of our children if we are intermarried. We are subject to the sting of feeling a lack of belonging - with our people, without our people. What if we agreed that someone doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right?

Jewishly, what if we agreed that it makes sense to worry about Jewish continuity even if and as we celebrate intermarriage?

What if we took seriously the idea that the person who votes differently to me has very real concerns that they care about and that’s what compels them to vote the way they do?

What if instead of calling each other snowflakes, deplorables, and worse, we actually listened to each other?

For us to retain our civility we must sometimes question our certainty. And when we feel certain we must acknowledge that the other side does too.

Civility, certainty, divinity... well, if you’re here in this room you are probably suspicious or skeptical of the idea of the divine. I don’t believe that any supernatural force, certainly not the God of the bible, is going to counsel me on how to navigate these tough times. I am extremely anxious, as are many of you, about the certainty that comes with the belief that one’s ideas are divinely inspired or inscribed. There is just no arguing with someone who, yes, conveniently, yes, sometimes uncritically, believes that their political and social points of view all happen to match up perfectly with their religion or god they worship. I advocate for dialoguing across difference; I’m still working out how to dialogue with divinity. What I have in place of a belief in the divine is a belief in my fellow humans. This belief, like all beliefs, gets tested. It wavers. But it is foundational to how I move through the world. The very meaning of what it is to be humanistic is that we place our faith in each other. We often hear about the “divine spark in every person.” I like that metaphor, not because we are made in the image of a god. I like it because, to me, humanity is holy. It’s the only phenomenon on which I can place my belief. I’m not saying people are gods. I’m saying if we treated each other like we could see the spark of divinity inside each person we’d be living in a better world.

Civility, certainty, divinity, diversity. I’d love my political opponents to get a little more comfortable with diversity. I am so proud to be part of this community that meaningfully and truly celebrates diversity. There are Jews here of all skin tones and backgrounds, Jews by choice, Jews by birth, Jews by marriage. There are people here who are intermarried, in-married, and unmarried. Some of you awesome folks are LGBTQ, some are allies. And, yes, we are diverse politically too. Members of my staff and board here vote differently than I do — I admit I find it astonishing. And yet, we love each other.

Right now, I find that civility is threatened by certainty and the divinity of humanity is strengthened by diversity. I want us to hold fast to our beliefs, and at the very same time, reconcile some of these contradictions and challenges.

When in doubt, ask yourself WWRBGD? What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg do? I think we can agree that she’d remain civil, even when certain. She’d acknowledge the divinity in her fellow human and celebrate the diversity of humanity. On this day of atoning, of accounting for our souls, of acknowledging our faults and faultlines, and of actualizing our goals of who we wish to be moving forward, she’s a pretty great role model. I don’t believe the year ahead is going to be a particularly easy one. We face many challenges as a community and as individuals. What I wish for you is what we spoke about at Rosh Hashanah. Find ways to let joy in. Try to occupy the nexus between what’s meaningful and what’s pleasurable. Seek out ways to elevate the sense of your own humanity and that of those around you. Love yourselves and love each other. Even if the year ahead is filled with challenges, may it be a meaningful, rewarding, good, and yes, sweet year.



My shirt for Yom Kippur: Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah. Shirt by and in support of T’ruth: Rabbis for Human Rights  

My shirt for Yom Kippur: Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah. Shirt by and in support of T’ruth: Rabbis for Human Rights