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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

"WE ARE OUR BEHAVIOR" — EVEN (ESPECIALLY) WHEN WE DISAGREE

In our continuing look at the new posters in our lobby, today we turn to the one that says "We Are Our Behavior."


Though I could not find this in a direct quote from Rabbi Wine, there is little doubt that it was among his central teachings. As my colleague Rabbi Miriam Jerris put it in a January guest commentary, this wisdom teaches "a whole new way of evaluating people and their true intentions. Don’t just listen to what people tell you, watch what they do."

 

What is true of individuals must also be true of their institutions. If we want to understand what they really stand for, we must watch what they do. Over the past several months this has become a central concern for our congregation.

 

As the Israel-Hamas war now approaches its sixth month, there are some in our community who have advocated that our congregation take a stand by writing a statement. As many of you know, I have opposed issuing any kind of statement either in support of or in opposition to Israel's actions. Though I have an opinion—and by now it is no secret that I have expressed sympathy for Israel's general conduct of the war—my opposition to issuing a statement has very little to do with that.

 

In fact, if I held the opposite view, I would oppose issuing such a statement just as energetically.

 

This is because the reason I oppose issuing statements of this kind derives from my judgment that Humanistic Judaism must make space for those who oppose the war, those who support it, and those who—possibly a majority—are conflicted. The idea that Humanistic Jews are of one mind concerning this war is belied by reality.

 

This may bring discomfort to some humanists, but when it comes to issues of war and peace, there has never been a unified humanistic approach. Some humanists believe violence should always be avoided. Other humanists hold that sometimes war is the only way to prevent greater harm. There are strong and legitimate arguments to be made on both sides.

 

In the past few months I have heard from those who take issue with support for the war that it is "impossible" or "unacceptable" for a Humanistic Jew to support it. I have been told that a position in support of Israel's conduct of this war is "barbarism which is the opposite of humanism." I have been urged to support statements along these lines or, at the very least, to refrain from opposing them.

 

Now it is true that I disagree with these statements. They don't reflect my thoughts and they don't reflect those of others in our community. However, I would oppose such a statement even if my position concurred with them. For that matter, I would oppose (and have) issuing any statement that agrees with my position.

 

This is for the obvious reason that humanists have never reached consensus on the efficacy of war in general. And because—in like manner—Humanistic Jews have not reached any consensus on this war in particular. There are, on the other hand, some beliefs on which we powerfully agree.

 

One of these is our commitment to what we call freethought.

 

In the 19th century, the towering humanist Robert G. Ingersoll wrote rapturously of his adoption of secular humanism which, back in his days, was generally called freethought:

 

When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space.

 

I was free; free to think, to express my thoughts ... free to use all my faculties, all my senses ... free to investigate ... free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free!

 

Our freedom to come to our conclusions, informed by experience, by reason, by evidence, and by civil debate is truly among the most sacred (if I may use that word) of our humanistic beliefs.

 

If we desire to live in a community where we are free to judge and determine for ourselves what our positions should be on issues in reasonable dispute, then we must refrain from making divisive "consensus" statements. We must instead show people what we really believe. Even under the greatest duress, even accompanied by the strongest personal convictions that our own conclusions are correct, we must remain loyal to this central tenet of humanism.

 

What, then, of peace? Can we do anything to collectively advance it?

 

Yes, we can. To differ in our points of view about this or any particular war does not prevent us from working for peace.

 

Despite our differences, humanists are united in a commitment to promoting peace, first and foremost, by working for it in our lives, within our communities, and among the nations. Where should we put our collective efforts? Well, for one thing, we are joined by the belief that nations committed to secularism and real liberal democracy are best suited to promoting the kind of dialogue that reduces tension and increases mutual understanding. Our congregation and movement have worked tirelessly to realize that vision in our own country.

 

The poster says, "We Are Our Behavior." Words are important but people will always come to know us best through what we do.

 

Among our most dearly held beliefs is the freedom that each of us claims to reach our own conclusions about matters open to reasoned discourse. When we show each other and those outside our community that this is what we do, they will understand why we have not imposed an artifice of uniform consensus on our community. The answer will be obvious.

 

We believe in each other.

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