Lori Lipman Brown
Lori Lipman Brown was the first director and lobbyist for
the Secular Coalition for America. She served in the Nevada State Senate from 1992-1994. She is a lawyer and an educator. Brown currently works as a Project
Analyst for NES Associates in Alexandria, VA. This essay, that she submitted to us, explains additional reasons why she
is an honored friend.
What I Am is What I Am
by Lori Lipman Brown
In 1994, when I ran for reelection to the Nevada State Senate, my opponent attacked me based on religion. Most people,
when hearing about that campaign, assume I was attacked for my atheism. The attack was actually based on my being Jewish.
In 1994, I doubt my opponent even knew what a humanistic Jew was. Had she known this, I’m certain my lack of deity
belief would have been the key to her reelection. As it turned out, the key to her reelection was that she made a connection
between my Jewishness and a lie about my patriotism. The sad fact is that as late as 1994, this invented connection (more
popular during the 1940’s and ‘50’s) still worked.
As a secular and humanistic Jew, I (perhaps
surprisingly) felt comfortable participating in the opening prayers of the Nevada Legislature when they were nonsectarian
inclusive moments of reflection. Even when a god was invoked (nearly always), I could easily translate silently a more personal
responsibility to consider the hefty consequences of the decisions I was making for the people of Nevada. These moments did
not make me uncomfortable. Granted, were I to participate in god-prayers now, I might no longer be in my comfort zone. I
might even choose to sit out the supposedly inclusive invocations. But in 1994, the generic gods were palatable.
But during the last two weeks of a six month legislative session, the Lieutenant Governor who usually presided had to be
out of town. This left the more Theocratic arm of her party in charge, and for those two weeks, every prayer invoked Jesus
Christ specifically. I was the only Jew in the State Senate at that time. It shouldn’t have been all that different
for me to translate this specific deity the way I had translated the more generic one, but it was. The Jew that I was –
and still am – cannot feel comfortable praying to a Christian messiah. I still politely abstain from kneeling when
I visit my friends’ Christian churches, and of course I don’t take communion on those occasions. Why do these
things matter to me; a person who doesn’t believe there is any significance to any of the supernatural rites? They
affect me emotionally. I shall not bow to another’s god, stays with me for emotional reasons – not logical ones.
I suppose this is part of why secular Jews are still Jews. Most of us, even without the religion, maintain not
just the cultural but also the emotional ties to our “tribe.” But being a secular Jew was not enough for me,
because being secular does not require maintaining the ethical standards I aspire to. Humanistic Judaism brings with it the
moral dictates of treating each other kindly and caring about the world around us and future generations. It asks us to keep
the best of Jewish tradition. My favorite dictate of Judaism is the yearly requirement of atoning to those we have harmed
and forgiving those who have harmed us (during the high holidays.) Others often allow their god to forgive them and they
need never make amends to the actual recipients of their hurtful behaviors. It is important that we each take responsibility
for our own actions and not wipe them away via a third party. And it took me many years to realize how freeing it is to forgive
those who have harmed us. This was especially difficult for me regarding the four people who had lied to ensure that my opponent
won my State Senate seat. Even when each of them finally admitted the truth in a settlement of a defamation lawsuit I had
brought to clear my name, they all refused to apologize for what they had done. Yet, when I finally decided to let it go
(forgive if you will), it made my emotional life so much easier.
But by far, the most heartwarming part of my 1994
campaign came when every Rabbi in Las Vegas stood beside me at a press conference, attested to my patriotism, and decried
my opponent’s lies. One of the Orthodox Jewish Rabbi’s who attended told me, “Lori, it doesn’t matter
what kind of Jew you are, we are all Jews. We are in this together.” His sentiment is not shared by all Jews; many
have told me I can’t be an atheist and a humanist and a Jew. But I know from both my upbringing and from my personal
experience that I can be whatever I want to be. And what I want to be today (and therefore I am) is an atheist who is a Humanistic
Jewish feminist with Unitarian Universalist ties. Clear enough?