Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hillel’s Lessons in Word and Deed

About a month ago I officiated a Bat Mitzvah celebration for a young lady named Na’ama. It was not your typical Bat Mitzvah celebration. (If you have not yet noticed, typical is not what I am really into…) The celebration’s focal point was Na’ama herself leading a study session on the topic “A Celebration of Multiple Identities and the American Spirit”. She discussed how her namesake, the queen of Israel, exemplified the celebration of multiple identities and how George Washington in his letter to the Jews of Newport emphasized this very same idea. The gist of what I shared with her and her guests, in my personal remarks, follows:

What do we wish for our kids? Well, we hope that along with the inevitable mistakes they will make, and the lessons they will hopefully learn from them, they will on balance make the right choices. The million dollar question is, what qualities do they need to have so this does, in fact, happen?

For starters, they need intelligence and creativity, which I can tell Na’ama has. The thing is, that that is just not enough. After all, the financial crisis we are still in was caused by a bunch of really intelligent and (overly) creative people. They used those very qualities in spades, made some really bad choices, and got us all into a huge mess.

So what else is crucial to make sure that you can mostly make good choices? Well, you need a few qualities, that again, from spending time with Na’ama, I can tell she has: a caring attitude towards others, a sense of true humility, and the understanding that most issues are not black and white, rather gray.

There is a wonderful story in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a) that exemplifies just this point in word and deed:

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot”. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, now go and learn it.”

Shammai shows that he is pretty much a black and white kind of guy. It is my way or the highway with him, and it is difficult to say that he is acting humbly or in a caring manner. Hillel, on the other hand, has one hard and fast black and white rule – treat others as you want to be treated. Now, says Hillel, go figure out the details on your own; life is mostly gray, after all. This demands true humility, because when you tell someone to go figure it out, it means they may find different answers than you did. They may end up using a slightly different measuring stick, when it comes to the nitty-gritty. Hillel is totally OK with that. Hillel, in his actions, shows that he is not just talk, he actually is very caring. He treats others as he would want to be treated. He lives what he preaches.

The postscript of this story, and the very fact that it has one, is fascinating. The Talmud is a book of discussions, and it goes back and forth, back and forth. Many times it does not give clear and consistent rulings even on issues of law. Not here. The Talmud uses a Paul Harvey “rest of the story” type of postscript to pass clear judgment on which of the rabbis was in the right, and which was in the wrong. It gives two more examples of how Shammai treated “interesting” potential converts with his black and white uncaring approach, and how Hillel acted in caring manner, and was willing to meet them where they were. It then tells us:

Some time later the three met in one place; said they, Shammai's impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel's gentleness brought us under the wings of the divine presence.

So, Na'ama, hold on to that. Continue to follow Hillel's path. Continue to show a caring attitude towards others, continue to exhibit a sense of true humility, and hold on to the understanding that most issues are not black and white, rather gray. This will put you on Hillel’s path of success in a way that truly matters. You will, on balance make good choices, and will truly make a difference in the world.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Seven Jewish Wedding Blessings – a Secular Humanistic Version

Many interfaith/Jewish weddings include the Seven Blessings . I was recently asked to officiate a ceremony, with a Secular Humanistic non-theistic Hebrew/English version of the Seven Blessings. I searched for a Hebrew version (I found only one or two), and nothing I found felt right, so I resolved to write one myself. It was important to me to preserve most of the original words, which would give it a traditional feel, and enable me to chant the blessings in the traditional tune. I also decided to try to write in a way that each of the six blessings (the seventh is the standard blessing over the wine) would parallel one of the six principles of the Humanist Manifesto III .


Baruch hamaskil ba’adam hamaiveen sheha’olam lo nivra lichvodo.

Praised be the enlightened one amongst humans, who understands that the world was not created for him.

The traditional blessing blesses the deity for creating everything for his glory; humans are not the reason for creation. Humanists agree with the latter. The first Manifesto principle states that, “knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis”. It is these very tools that have made it clear that the vast Universe, was not created, and certainly not with us in mind.


Baruch hamodeh al yitzeerat ha’adam.

Praised be the one who is thankful for the evolution of humans.

The traditional blessing thanks the deity for creating humans. The second Manifesto principle states that “humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.” This does not belittle our existence. On the contrary, our existence is something that Humanists celebrate and marvel at, feeling lucky to be alive in such a wondrous world. Hebrew does not have a word for evolution, so I preserved the word, yatzar, which does not have a definite ex nihilo tone to it.


Baruch ha’ohev kol ha’adam kitzalmo kitzelem dimoot tavneeto ki’ezro kol echad vi’echad. Baruch hamodeh al yitzeerat ha’adam.

Praised be the one, who loves all humans as one’s self, as one’s very own self, and loves every human as one loves one’s spouse. Praised be the one who is thankful for the evolution of humans.

The traditional blessing thanks the deity for creation in his image, the Mosaic rationale for according each human respect. The third Manifesto principle states that, “Humanists … are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity”. The Humanist sees no need to ground respect for fellow humans in anything beyond the Golden Rule. We treat everyone, as we would want to be treated or want our loved ones to be treated. The Hebrew word tzelem, in this context, means “himself”, rather than “his image”.


Sose tasees vitagail ha’akarah bikeebootz baneha litochah biseemcha. Baruch hasame’ach eem tziyon bishoov baneha.

Let the barren (city) be joyful and exulted at the ingathering of her children into her midst in gladness. Praised be the one who shares in the gladness of Zion at the return of her children.

The fourth traditional blessing prays the barren Israel/Jerusalem, will one day (anthropomorphically) rejoice in the Jewish People’s return. The fourth Manifesto principle tells us that meaning is not imposed by the deity. We “animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies.” We can derive meaning from human history and culture. As Jews, we are proud that we rose from the ashes, and fulfilled the “2000 year old hope”, returning to Israel, which serves as a beacon of democracy and Jewish culture.


Same’ach nisamach re’eem ha’ahuveem kiseemchat gan eden meekedem. Baruch misame’ach chatan vikalah.

Let us gladden the loving couple, (so they may enjoy gladness) like the legendary gladness of paradise. Praised be the one, who gladdens the bridegroom and the bride .

The fifth traditional blessing implores the deity to gladden the couple, as he gladdened Adam and Eve. The Humanistic blessing is explicit about the non-factual nature of this couple, but still embraces the idea of two people feeling like they were made for each other. The fifth Manifesto principle reminds us that, “humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.” The peak of human relationships is that of true lovers. The ending of #5-6 emphasizes that it is we who should gladden the couple.


Brucheem hamarbeem sasone viseemcha chatan vichalah geelah reenah deetzah vichedvah ahavah vi’achvah vishalome vire’oot. Mihairah bichole ha’olam yeeshama keev’arai yihoodah oochvichootzote yirushalayeem kol sasone vikol seemcha kol chatan vikol kalah kol meetzhalote chataneem maichoopatam un’arim meemeeshteh nigeenatam. Baruch ha’misame’ach chatan im hakalah.

Praised be those who increase, joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, exultation, song, pleasure and delight, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May there soon be heard, all over the world, as in the cities of Judea and as in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the happy shouting of bridegrooms from their weddings and of young men and women from their song filled feasts. Praised be the one, who causes the bridegroom and bride to be glad together.

The sixth traditional blessing thanks the deity for creating happiness, and implores him to hasten the day, where liberty may return to Israel, so weddings may regularly occur thereii. The sixth Manifesto principle also discusses happiness and liberty. It tells us that, “working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness”, and that we must “minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability… so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” To get there we must, “uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties.” The return of our own right of self determination as Jews, coupled with Israel’s democratic nature, inspire us to work towards a world where all people live happy and free.

I hope these blessings will enhance future wedding celebrations. In the words of the Manifesto, may we be “guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience”, and, through that “live life well and fully.”

© Copyright 2010 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved – First published on