On every rabbinic ordination certificate are the words “to teach” and “to judge.” That’s the core of what rabbis in every movement do.
First, we teach. But before we teach, we have to learn. Secular Humanistic rabbis learn Jewish history and language, about holidays and life cycles, about Jewish texts and about pastoral care. We teach adults and children in formal settings and as part of our holiday and life cycle observances.
But we also teach by example. We uphold Secular Humanistic Jewish values by visiting the sick, by exhibiting kindness and patience and humor, by speaking out against racism and violations of human rights. We hope that when you see us embodying these values, you’ll also be inspired to act.
This kind of teaching is what all rabbis of all movements do. But Secular Humanistic rabbis also teach about the diversity of the Jewish people. We help you to find your place in the Jewish world by showing you that what you believe and what you are interested in exist in the Jewish universe and that your way of being Jewish is just fine, not less, not other, but perfectly legitimate. We teach you that you belong.
The second job of the rabbi, to judge, is different. Religious rabbis judge both ritual and ethical questions, from whether your chicken is kosher to whether someone has cheated at business. Secular Humanistic rabbis – along with some rabbis of other liberal denominations – help you to judge. When you come to us with an ethical dilemma, we know how to ask the questions that allow you to explore your own feelings and ideas about how to act. We are not the authorities on the answers you should come to – we are the guides to help you find your own path to answers.
Although “smikah” – rabbinic ordination – gives the authority and responsibility to teach and judge, modern rabbis, particularly Secular Humanistic rabbis, have the responsibility of creating and supporting community. Our primary connection to our Jewishness is not a relationship with a god, it’s a relationship with our community. It’s really hard to be Jewish alone – our job is to make sure you are not alone, that you have a welcoming and supporting Jewish community that accepts and enjoys you and your family just as you are.
If you don’t do what I say, then I’m going to hurt someone you don’t care about! Does that sound like a good way to force someone to do what you want? No? But that’s what happens in the story of Pesakh (Passover).
Ancient Egypt was ruled by an absolute monarch who owned all land and whatever it produced. The entire populace worked for him. We read in Genesis that all the grain in the country belonged to the Pharaoh and that the people who grew the grain then had to pay the Pharaoh if they wanted some to eat. Clearly, the Pharaoh did not care about the residents of Egypt.
The story tells us that after Moses asked the Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave and the Pharaoh’s refusal, 10 plagues befell Egypt to force the Pharaoh to accede to Moses’ request.
Why didn’t the first 9 plagues work? Water pollution, frogs, lice, wild animals, livestock disease, boils, hail and locusts devastated ordinary Egyptians. Even if the locusts ate the crops, whatever was left went to the Pharaoh. Giant hail didn’t hurt the Pharaoh’s palace as it might the homes of poorer people. Livestock disease meant that the ordinary farmers had nothing to eat and didn’t have livestock to sell to buy food from the Pharaoh. All these terrible plagues did nothing to change the Pharaoh’s mind because they happened to people he did not care about. Not until the 10th plague that killed his heir did he relent.
So, why did the authors of the story have the god send the first nine plagues, these destructive natural disasters? It was pretty obvious that they wouldn’t work to affect the ruler. They only hurt ordinary people who weren’t responsible for the economic system of the country.
Well, I don’t really know why the authors included this story – although one can assume it was to show the power of their god – but I do know what we can learn from it because we see the lessons playing out in our time. We see that natural disasters devastate ordinary people but that big shots like, say, US Senators, can always escape them. If we’d paid attention to the plague story, we’d have been less shocked. We see that economic sanctions that countries put on other countries really hurt only the ordinary people – not the Ayatollahs or the Putins. If we’d paid attention to the plague story, we’d have known this.
So let’s remember when we try to influence other countries that hurting ordinary people is not the best way to achieve our goals. And let’s remember that we should elect officials who actually care about ordinary people.
For Tu B’Shvat, all TVCJ members received a package of parsley seeds, along with instructions on how to plant and care for them. The seeds we planted then are growing nicely, and will be a wonderful addition to our upcoming Passover Seder.
The TVCJ annual community Seder will be held virtually on Sunday, March 28, 2021 at 5 p.m via Zoom. Everyone will participate in the comfort of their own home. Our progressive, secular humanistic Seder includes English-language readings highlighting the power of community and the value of freedom, along with songs in English, Yiddish and Hebrew. The hour-long ceremony is followed by optional schmoozing time while your family eats the dinner that you’ve prepared in your home. The event is family-friendly. We will provide a shopping list for your seder plate, suggested recipes, and the Passover Haggadah. We ask non-member adults to give a donation of $10 if you are able to support our programming.
If you have any questions or if you would like to be put on the evite list for this event, please email email@example.com
I was eight years old. My family, uncle, aunt and cousins sat at my grandmother’s dining room table set with her plates and bowls made of green Depression glass. Food sat on beautiful platters in the middle of the table. But we couldn’t eat it yet. It was another one of those Jewish holidays where we had to read from the thick prayer book written in Hebrew with Yiddish supplements until midnight before we could eat. My grandfather had passed away when I was one years old but we felt his presence. My grandmother took over the reading of the prayer book and kept a kosher kitchen. My mother had grown up in this home full of tradition and culture. My father sat impatiently while awaiting his meal, helping my brother and me sneak food. Other than those little tidbits, we just had to sit there hungry, listening to grown-ups recite words we couldn’t understand. Not a great motivator for us to be really into the religious part of Judaism.
My father’s parents were both Jewish, but he was raised with a Christmas tree and celebrated Christian holidays. His mother thought it was easier to do what everybody else did around them. I decided that I enjoyed the culture and traditions of Judaism, but I chose not to practice it as a religion.
My husband was raised Protestant and is also not religious. When we had our daughter, we decided that we would raise her as Jewish and teach her Jewish culture and traditions. When we moved to the Tri-Valley, I attended a local festival where Tri-Valley Cultural Jews had a booth. I learned that Tri-Valley Cultural Jews is a secular organization where my daughter could learn about Jewish culture, history and traditions without being religious. Our daughter attended Jewish Culture School where she learned about Jewish holidays, Jews from Around the World and cooked traditional Jewish recipes. She also participated in community service projects, learned about Jews during the Black Plague, and researched Jewish authors and read their books as part of her preparation for her Bat Mitzvah. She had a beautiful Tri-Valley Cultural Jews Bat Mitzvah that celebrated her coming of age in accordance with Jewish tradition. We continue to be part of the Tri-Valley Cultural Jews as our daughter goes off to college because we enjoy the feeling of community that it provides.
What does it mean when you hear “mazal tov” or “yasher koakh” or “l’chaim?” Tri-Valley Cultural Jews’ Rabbi Judith Seid teaches you these Yiddish and Hebrew expressions for happy times and celebrations.
In these busy and trying times, it can feel like we are always ‘on’. With adults telecommuting and kids distance learning or homeschooling, the usual barriers between work and home are blurred. Work takes over spaces and times that should be reserved for family, and the kids can walk in during work meetings.
One solution to this conundrum is to clearly mark time – instead of separating in space, we separate in time. My family has recently found some comfort in observing the Jewish traditions of Shabbat and Havdalah to help us do this. The symbolism of these rituals resonates with us and gives us something to look forward to.
Shabbat marks the end of the working week. We light candles, bless the wine, and bread–All good Jewish celebrations feature fire, wine, and food! These remind us to carry a light within ourselves, to rest, and to honor the earth and the workers that provide our food. We also honor our children and remind them how they honor us. The weekend is the time to slow down and connect with family.
Havdalah marks the end of the Sabbath. We light a braided candle to signify how family, friends, and community burn brightly together while still maintaining their own identities. We pass around wine and spices that represent the fragrant beauty of all that is good and true in life and sustains us for the entire week. During Tri-Valley Cultural Jews regular community Havdalahs (which have gone online for the time being), we then share any special or notable events that have happened during the last week. These can be anything from our littlest members losing a tooth, to someone getting a job promotion. We then extinguish the candle in the wine, transferring its spark to our hearts to carry forward into the week. Community Havdalahs are then frequently followed by games (or movies and pizza, in less socially-distant times). Connecting in this way has helped me and my family stay sane and make stronger connections in the community. We hope to see you at a Havdalah sometime soon!