NOTE: This essay was cross posted on the rabbinical blog of Temple Kol Ami.
Sitting in traffic on Highway 400, I decide that my six-year-old son has stared long enough at his iPod screen, so I try to make conversation:
“So, Yair, what are you looking forward to the most at camp?”
We are on our way, for the fourth summer in a row, to URJ Camp George, the regional Reform Jewish camp. I will serve as rabbinical faculty for the week, and he will be what is lovingly referred to as a “faculty brat” – shadowing the campers because he’s too young to be in a cabin.
Yair loves camp. He looks forward to it every summer. So I figure there are any number of possible answers to my question of what he is looking forward to most: sports; arts & crafts; swimming. His actual answer blows me away, and makes me laugh out loud.
“Well….” (He pauses to think.) “I think my favourite is…making challah.”
Making challah? Making CHALLAH?? Of all the things to do at camp, he chose braiding bread! This kid loves to run around; loves to swim and play… and his favourite thing is Jewish cooking! I love it!
And then it hits me. At age 6, he doesn’t differentiate between which activities are Jewish and which are not. He just knows that he loves all of the things he does at camp.
THAT is what Jewish camping is all about.
I am a product of Jewish camp also. I can trace my earliest and most formative Jewish experiences back to sweltering hot summers at Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where we prayed in Hebrew with a southern drawl, dressed in all white on Shabbat, and sweated our way through Shabbat song session. I have seen first hand, from having spent many summers in in many different camp roles, just how influential camping is on Jewish identity. Kids who grow up attending Jewish camp feel like Judaism belongs to them. They use Hebrew words naturally; they feel comfortable with services and ritual; and they integrate Jewish thinking and values into the everyday – moving seamlessly from swimming to challah baking, from eating meals to chanting blessings.
The camps are often referred the as the “crown jewel” of Jewish education in North America. They are a veritable Jewish identity factory, a hothouse of creative ideas and new approaches. Much of what liberal Judaism looks like today was born in its camps. I have no doubt that the liberal Judaism of tomorrow is being incubated there right now. Maybe even in the mind of my 6 year old son.
So I press further: “Challah baking? That sounds like fun. Why is that your favourite?”
He answers: ” I don’t know. I just like it.”
That’s OK. He doesn’t have to know yet. We can leave the philosophizing for later. For now, let’s just get to camp.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yesterday, my wife Shoshana and I saw the movie Boyhood. As most people know by now, the movie was filmed over the course of 12 years. You get to watch the child actors grow up and the adult actors grow older, right before your eyes. And equally as interesting, you get to watch the world and society evolve – from antenna phones to flip phones to iPhones, from Bush to Kerry to Obama. It’s a chance to remember everything that we’ve been through over the last 12 years, and all the ways that our world has changed around us.
It wasn’t until today that I realized the significance of that time period for me.
12 years ago I was about to start Rabbinical School. An intifada was raging in Israel, and my (then future, now past) classmates and I were debating whether we would spend our first year of school in Jerusalem, as all rabbinical students do. Shoshana and I were on the fence, leaning toward staying home because of the daily violence.
12 years ago today, I woke up inexplicably in the middle of the night, checked the news, and learned that our friend Marla Bennett had been killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. She was having lunch in the cafe at the Hebrew University, where we had eaten together so many times as students. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and her life was ended.
12 years. From antenna phones to flip phones to iPhones. From Bush to Kerry to Obama. That’s what Marla has missed. That’s what Marla never had the opportunity to experience or to contribute to. She has missed an entire “boyhood.” This world is so much poorer for her absence from it.
In the wake of Marla’s death, Shoshana and I made the decision to spend that first year in Israel. It was, in part, our way to honor her memory. But mostly, it was because we love Israel so much.
I thought of Marla earlier this year, when we brought our three children to Israel for the first time. The extraordinary joy of sharing the place we love most with the people we love most was intermingled with the sadness of knowing that our friend would never have the same opportunity. She would be glad to know that another generation is growing up to love the Jewish state. She would be devastated to know that more than a decade later, there is still not peace. Each day of my life, I pray for quiet and for peace, and that there may be no more Marlas, on either side of the border.
As we exited the movie yesterday, Shoshana and I walked right into a pro-Palestinian rally that was being held downtown. Amid cries of “Israeli apartheid!” and “No peace without justice!” she started to cry. She was thinking about Marla.
12 years. From antenna phones, to flip phones, to iPhones. From war, to war, to war. We are still caught in the endless cycle of violence and hatred that took Marla’s life 12 years ago. It is still taking lives. When will it end?
Both as a rabbi and as a parent, it is important to me that Judaism be inclusive of people with special needs. Today, more and more, young people who have Autism, Aspergers, Down’s Syndrome, and other similar challenges are being encouraged to participate to their full potential in Jewish life!
Purely by coincidence, I’ve had the privilege twice in the last 2 months to speak on this topic – first at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and then as part of a local Toronto panel organized by DANI. Both times, the topic was on the traditional Jewish law surrounding inclusion and on how to build the most inclusive Jewish community possible today.
For those who may be interested, here are the videos from those two events:
- Inclusion of Children with Special Needs in Halachah – March 2014 CCAR Convention
- Toronto Community Panel on Inclusion – May 2014 (This one is long – about 70 minutes. I start talking at 16:50.)
Thanks for watching!
He is a symbol of hope. Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.
It may not be who you think. This week’s Torah portion tells the story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his family. After being sold into slavery, after sitting in prison, after using his own skills to ultimately become second in command over all Egypt, Joseph meets up again with the brothers who wronged him so long ago. But this time, he is the one in charge.
We know the story. He plays some mind games with them; accuses Benjamin of stealing a royal goblet. But ultimately, he reveals himself tearfully to them in a scene that is unlike anything else in the Torah.
Joseph is an extraordinary character – not only for his brilliance, for his powers of persuasion, but also for his ability to grow and change and accept others. This is the same Joseph who we met 2 weeks ago as an arrogant shepherd boy. The same Joseph who lorded over his brothers, and tattled on them, and must have hated them after what they did to him. And he finds it in himself to forgive them, for the sake of his family and his future.
And even more extraordinary, he is not the only one that does that. The parashah begins not with Joseph, but with his brother Judah. It says וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה – Judah approached Joseph (who he didn’t know was Joseph) to plead for his brother Benjamin. He says:
“Please, my lord…. ‘The boy [Benjamin] cannot leave his father. One [of his sons] is gone from [him]… when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die….Therefore, please let [me] remain as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers” (Genesis 44:18-34).
Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, writes that “Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later is not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave.” (Quoted from chabad.org.)
So the reunion of Jacob’s family is made possible because both Joseph and Judah have grown. Both Joseph and Judah are willing to compromise, to put aside anger and personal hurt in order to achieve reconciliation.
It’s a rare combination: the vision to see a better world; the stubborn refusal to let go of dreams and hopes for a better life; and the humility, the pragmatic willingness to work with others to see those dreams to fruition. It’s a rare combination that we see perhaps only once in a generation: Joseph; Abraham Lincoln; Winston Churchill; Mahatma Ghandi; Nelson Mandela.
Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.
The Globe and Mail wrote yesterday morning that “It is hard to imagine that anyone alive today would be more widely mourned than Nelson Mandela.”
He is mourned, of course, for the role he played in transforming South Africa.
And he is mourned for the enormous skill with which he manoeuvred not only a transition in government, not only an implementing of rights and freedoms for all citizens, but also a reconciliation between neighbours who had previously seen themselves as enemies.
A member of our congregation told me that growing up white in South Africa, “you weren’t always cognizant of the struggle of the other.” It was Mandela who brought that struggle to the fore, because he was willing to be imprisoned to change it, and because he was so committed to a nonviolent, that non-polarizing transition – both during the years of struggle and once he was actually in power. Mandela was once asked about prosecuting the power brokers of the apartheid regime, and he replied, “Prosecution? I’m not interested in prosecution. I’m interested in building a nation.”
This is a theme of his career and of his life. Just as Joseph had to leave behind his anger, his resentment toward his brothers in order to build a future, so did Nelson Mandela teach us, in his own words, “that resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
He spoke often about the choice to abandon anger and work for reconciliation. He said famously:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
And, we might add to that statement, South Africa might still be imprisoned by hatred, racism, and divisiveness.
Most of us never have to fight against oppression. Most of us never go to jail for 27 years for standing up for our own rights and freedoms. But we can learn from someone who did that there is little to be gained by harbouring old grudges and seeking revenge for old wrongs; and there much to be gained by working together – even with those that we don’t agree with. That’s what we hope for Israel and the Palestinians. It is what we hope for ourselves and our own families. It’s what we can learn from Joseph and Judah and from Nelson Mandela, zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing.
Two thousand years ago, there were two great rabbis – Shammai and Hillel.
A man once came to Shammai with a religious challenge. He said to the rabbi: “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Well, of course you can’t possibly learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. So Shammai – who was not known for his people skills – picked up a stick and chased the man out of the room.
Next that same man went to Hillel and said the same thing: “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one foot.” And Hillel didn’t chase him away. Instead, he answered with a single sentence: “What is hateful to you do not do to anyone else. That is the whole Torah. Now go and learn it.”
Usually, when we tell this story, the lesson is about Hillel’s quote: the idea that Judaism is based around the golden rule. But this time, I’d like to invite us to look at the story differently. I’d like us to think not about what Hillel said, but about what he did. When an outsider showed up at his doorstep looking for knowledge and looking for acceptance, it would have been easy for him to turn the man away, to slam the door in his face.) After all, that’s exactly what Shammai had done.) But Hillel didn’t. Hillel welcomed him in; Hillel taught him; Hillel opened the door wide.
Our tradition tells us that we come from a long line of door openers, stretching all the way back to the very first Jews. Abraham and Sarah are said in the midrash to have kept their tent open on all sides so that they could “go out and bring wayfarers into their home,” welcome them, feed them, and share with them.
Judaism was born out of Hachnasat Orchim – the value of welcoming the stranger. Judaism grew up under slavery in Egypt, which taught us what it is to be a stranger. And in every age in history, Judaism has been strongest when we have opened the doors of participation and inclusion to all of those who want to be part of us. We have learned over the centuries that an inclusive Judaism is a healthy Judaism.
Now the truth is that while Abraham and Sarah may have kept their tent open 3000 years ago, it has really taken until the modern era for the doors to open for some in our community. The Reform movement has been a leader when it comes to breaking down barriers, especially with regard to the role of women in Judaism.
On this Rosh Hashanah morning, the haftarah is the story of Channah, the mother of Samuel. We read about how she longs for a son, how she travels to the shrine at Shiloh to pray, how she becomes the mother of a great prophet. She sings:
Alatz libi B’Adonai, ramah karni B’Adonai.
My heart exults in God. My pride has been exalted through God.
Channah sings: for herself and her family; and she sings for the generations of women whose voices are hidden in the texts. Traditionally, she is one of seven Biblical women who had the power of prophecy. Among them are Miriam and Debora: prophets and judges, teaches and leaders, who cry out to us from the text that the voices of woman deserve to be heard in Judaism. And now, finally, after more than two millennia, we have started to listen.
In 1987, I was a camper at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the URJ camp in Mississippi, the sister of our Camp George. That was the summer when our counselors introduced the chanting of the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the amidah. Effectively, they transformed the “Avot” into the “Avot V’imahot” that we know today. And at the time, many of you may remember, the Jewish world went up in arms:
“It’s changing tradition!” we said.
“What’s next, rewriting the Torah?”
And for a decade afterward, there was discussion and debate in our congregations about whether to include the matriarchs in our most central prayer.
But in 2013, nobody is debating anymore.
Last year, the Jewish world celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the rabbinical ordination of Sally Priesand – the world’s first woman rabbi. In 1972, her ordination was really controversial; it was trend setting; it was head turning.
But in 2013, more women than men were ordained as Reform rabbis. And nobody is turning their heads anymore.
It is hard to believe that only 40 years ago there were no women rabbis. It’s hard to believe that only 25 years ago, our movement was deeply divided over “Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah.” It’s hard to believe that only a generation ago it was not clear to us that girls should read Torah, that Bat Mitzvah was equal to Bar Mitzvah, that women should stand on the bima and wear a tallit. But it is clear to us now.
Our member Karen Paikin recently told me a funny story about her son Jesse who is in rabbinical school now. Jesse grew up at Kol Ami in the 90s, and so of course his picture of a Rabbi looked like Nancy Wexler. And so, when 8-year-old Jesse visited another synagogue for a family bar mitzvah, he was really confused by what he saw there. He turned to his mother and said, “You mean, men can be rabbis too?”
As it always is, the new generation knows little of the controversy, little of the turmoil of change. What was once a spark in a tinder box has become a non-issue. What was once a debate has become a consensus. Today, it is universally recognized that Reform Judaism is stronger, and more diverse, and has a brighter future because of the many female voices that can be heard both from the bima and from the board room.
To paraphrase an old commercial: “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
Our movement has embraced the voices of women, and the Conservative and even modern Orthodox have followed suit! Oh, there is still work to be done: the recent rabbinic salary survey showed that women rabbis don’t have the respect or the compensation of male rabbis. And the Women of the Wall have shown that the struggle to let women’s voices be heard has moved across the ocean to the Jewish state.
But at the same time, the women’s movement has become an inspiration and a model to other communities that are working toward inclusion within Judaism. One of them is the Gay and Lesbian community. And while this year’s news in that arena is coming out of the Russian Olympics and the US Supreme Court, as far as Reform Judaism is concerned, Canada set the tone for this discussion a long time ago.
Many of you saw the cover story in last month’s issue of Reform Judaism magazine. It was written by Judge Harvey Brownstone, who is Canada’s first openly gay judge, and a Reform Jew. He talked about the experience of growing up gay and Jewish:
My adolescent years…were very difficult times, as there were no “out” role models. I was also very mindful of the admonishments in Leviticus…. So I kept my feelings to myself….
In the 60s and 70s, synagogues were not friendly places for gay and lesbian people. A whole generation of young people grew up feeling ostracized and separated from the houses of worship that should have brought them comfort and community. But the last 40 years have seen the doors slowly begin to open. In the mid 80s, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ordained the first openly gay rabbis, and our seminary quickly followed suit. In 1990, our Movement passed a resolution declaring that lesbian and gay Jews were full and equal members of our congregations. Next year, our Rabbinical Association will inaugurate its first lesbian President. Guided by the principle of B’tzelem Elohim – that all people are created in God’s image, Reform Judaism has been increasingly enriched as it has helped to shepherd a creative and influential community toward the mainstream of religious life.
I say toward because, here as well, there is still work to be done. It is the case that our congregations have opened their doors to gay and lesbian Jews. And it is the case that here in Ontario, same-sex marriage has been legal for a decade. But as a movement, we have not yet fully officially addressed the question of Jewish same-sex marriage in a halakhic context. In fact, the last time our Reform Responsa committee weighed-in on that issue was, believe it or not, 1995. At that time, the movement was so deeply divided, that the committee couldn’t create a unified statement. Instead, it produced a majority opinion opposed to rabbinic officiation, and a minority opinion that granted autonomy to the individual rabbi, but cautioned against calling same sex marriages Kiddushin – the Hebrew word for marriage. In other words, it created an automatic differentiation between gay marriage and Jewish marriage.
So what’s changed in 18 years? Leviticus hasn’t changed. But as liberal Jews, we know that Torah must be read on the one hand with the knowledge that it was written in a specific time and place, and on the other hand with the conviction that it must speak to our time and place. And as public opinion about same-sex marriage has evolved, so has our understanding of what Torah has to say about it. And here I turn to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of the great halakhic minds of the Conservative movement. He points out that while Torah does have something to say about certain types of relationships, but it also says “יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך – Let your neighbour’s dignity be as precious to you as your own.” The value of human dignity has long guided the Jewish approach to human rights and it should guide our approach to the gay and lesbian community as well.
And Rabbi Dorff even goes a bit further, to show that in a modern context, Torah could conceivably give its blessing to a marriage between two men or two women.
“The verses in Leviticus,” he writes, “should be understood to prohibit only those… relationships that offer no possibility of marriage [as in ancient times]. In an age when gay marriage is permitted by some jurisdictions…the Torah’s ban is no longer universal.
So in a place like Ontario, where same-sex marriage is legally recognized, the possibility of Jewish same-sex marriage is very real, and some rabbis are already performing them. And while the Conservative movement has not yet taken the next step of formally tackling the issue of Jewish same-sex marriage, our Responsa committee is in the process of doing so right now. And it’s very likely that this new statement will grant rabbis the autonomy to perform these marriages, and also create grounds for calling them Kiddushin, calling them Jewish marriage.
This is excellent timing for me, because last month, I performed my first Jewish same-sex wedding. I have to tell you what an honour it was to stand under the chuppah with two partners who so deeply love each other. What a pleasure to live in a place where it is legally possible for me to give my rabbinical blessing to their union. It allowed me to finally formulate in my mind – and this is my own opinion – that I believe a marriage is a marriage. That Kiddushin – that Hebrew word for wedding which is related to the word Kadosh/Holy – should apply to all Jewish marriages.
On this issue as well, there is a bit of a generational divide. I don’t have another good Jesse Paikin story, but I did have the opportunity to talk this summer with a group of teens at Camp George, and with our own Confirmation class last year. Their reaction can be summed up along the lines of, “What the big deal?” For our young people, our 40-year struggle with the question of Jewish same-sex marriage is already essentially in the past. And they are looking to Judaism to lead the way into the future. As Reform Jews, as recipients of the prophets’ vision of a better world, we should do everything possible to open the doors of inclusion and acceptance to all Jews who want to practice Judaism and who want to be part of Kehilah – of a Jewish community.
Kehilah – community – is the core of who we are. And as we talk about opening doors, it is important to recognize that there is a third group who are part of our community and who are seeking acceptance within the Jewish world. They are our interfaith families.
It wasn’t long ago that families broke apart over marriage between Jews and non-Jews. When Tevya tears his clothes and sits shiva for his daughter, he represents what was the norm for our not-too-distant ancestors.
Of course, things are different today, and things are very different within these walls. Here at Kol Ami, interfaith families are an important part of the community. Their children attend our religious school. They sit on our committees and help plan our programs. They are a part of us.
One of our members recently sang praises of inclusiveness to me about Kol Ami:
As an interfaith family, we did a lot of searching, and we didn’t always feel comfortable at other synagogues. But at Kol Ami, it feels warm and inclusive. The shul has made a huge difference in my kids’ life.
Now, there’s no question that we are not perfectly inclusive, but we should be glad to know that this has been the experience of many of the interfaith families within our midst. It should dismay, however, us that this is not in any way the universal synagogue experience – particularly here in Toronto.
A few weeks ago, I had a call from a father who was interested in Religious School for his children. He said to me timidly: “There’s a little problem. My wife isn’t Jewish. Can my kids even come to school here?”
Well, of course the answer is: Yes! The answer is that Jewish families come in all shaped and sizes and from all backgrounds. But that was news to him.
And it is news to many of the interfaith couples who call this place each year practically expecting to be rejected. It should make us wonder how many families out there don’t even bother calling us.
What makes Reform Judaism unique is the willingness to meet people where they are. We are a Jewish community that is prepared to embrace people for who they are. And we know just how much we have been enriched by the diversity within our ranks.
I wonder if the interfaith families who are members of Kol Ami realize just how much they strengthen and invigorate our congregation. Our non-Jewish spouses and parents bring their children to Religious School and stand alongside them as they become Bar and Bat Mitzvah on our bima. You participate in our Torah study discussions and Shabbat services. You sing the songs and prayers. You bring talent and passion and caring to Kol Ami.
And this is nothing new – the Jewish community has been enriched by interfaith families ever since the original interfaith family – Moses and his Midianite wife Tzipporah. (By the way, have you ever noticed that she was the one who made sure their kids had a bris?)
We should honour those individuals who have chosen to lend their voices to our people’s song. Whether they enter the mikveh or not, they are building the Jewish future and strengthening the Jewish present.
It is time for our Jewish community to find a way, without diminishing the integrity of our religious traditions, to let interfaith families know that we value them as Jewish families. That they are not only accepted or tolerated, but welcomed and appreciated here. That their children are as Jewish as any other, and that this is a place where they, too, can be part of Kehilah Kedoshah – holy Jewish community.
As it says in the book of Isaish, “Ki Beiti beit t’fillah yikara l’chol ha-amim – My house [says God] shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
So, Mr. Goldstein from Montreal was visiting China, when he stumbled onto an old synagogue. A synagogue in China, he thought? But since there was a service going on, he put on a tallit and sat down to pray. He noticed, though, that the people there seemed confused by his presence. After the service, an elderly Chinese man came up to Mr. Goldstein to welcome him. “We are so happy to have you here,” said the man. “But tell me, how to you know the words of the Jewish prayers?”
“Well,” answered Goldstein, “I also grew up with these prayers. I chanted them at my Bar Mitzvah.”
The old Chinese man peered at Goldstein for a moment. Then with a shrug of his shoulders, he replied, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
In the 21st century, the very face of the Jewish people is changing. In the 21st century, we must move beyond bagels & lox and beyond stereotypes of Bubbe and Zayde, and see Judaism for what it is: an ancient and complex tradition that is enriched by people and ideas of all kinds.
Let us be the Hillels and Abrahams of today, opening wide the doors of inclusion to those who are interested in learning with us, or praying with us, or raising their children with us, no matter who they are or where they come from or whom they love. To those who are interested in throwing in their lot with the Jewish people, let us say, in the words of the Passover Seder:
Kol dichpin yitei v’yeichul:
Let all who are hungry, all who are searching, come here and here find sustenance.
Let those who are in need, who have been rejected or oppressed, come here, and here find acceptance and celebration.
In the new year, may we continue to work to build a Jewish community that is a worthy descendant of the tent of Abraham and Sarah.
May our congregation welcome the stranger and embrace the searching; may our tent be open on all sides while at its centre, the fire of tradition burns brightly.
May we recognize just how much we are enriched by our diversity, and may we listen closely to hear Kol Ami –the many voices of our people.
 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
 Avot D’Rabbi Natan 7:1.
 Brownstone, Harvey, “I Now Pronounce You Wife and Wife,” Reform Judaism , Fall 2013, p. 20.
 Avot 2:10.
 Consvervative Movement Responsum: Dorff, Reisner, and Nevins. “Homosexuality, Human Dignity, & Halakhah,” p. 5.
 Isaiah 56:7.
There was a cartoon going around Facebook last week that I really related to. It showed Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard. But instead of writing “I will not pull my sister’s hair” or “I will not eat my homework,” this time, Bart had a little kippah on his head, and he was writing: “I will not count the pages left in the machzor.”
I loved it because it reminded me of my childhood – flipping through the book, counting how many pages were left. (Then starting my stopwatch as the sermon began so that I knew precisely how many seconds of my life I lost to the rabbi.) I suspect those practices hasn’t disappeared, although I’m not asking for a show of hands….
This is the time of year when we get up close and personal with the prayerbook. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we hold a siddur or a machzor in our hands. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we read from it, pray from it, sing from. And never more than during the High Holy Days do we struggle with the ideas behind its words.
Yom Kippur is hard for us – not only because we’re hungry and services are long – but because so many of us are uneasy with what the prayerbook has to say about God. We struggle with God as creator of the world. We struggle with Torah as divine word. We certainly struggle with the book of life and the idea of God rewarding and punishing for sins. And so we are left counting the pages of the machzor.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where does God live.” He answered, “God lives wherever we let God in.”
And as nice as those words sound, the truth is that in today’s world, more than ever, we struggle with God. We are, after all, the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust and of the Enlightenment, and those event which have forever changed our ability to believe in what traditional Judaism tells. And because we struggle with God, we struggle with the prayerbook and with the act of prayer itself.
Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme write:
Today, there are large numbers of Jews who avoid speaking about God altogether. Unable to accept the notions that have been presented to them as authoritative, they read themselves out of their religion in a theological sense.
But struggling with God doesn’t have to mean rejecting God. The beauty of Judaism is that it has always given us the freedom to form our own beliefs.
According to tradition, there was one moment in history when God appeared to all of our people. At Sinai, our ancestors are said to have heard God speaking. But the Midrash doesn’t tell us what they saw and heard. In fact, what it tells us is that the 600,000 people present that day had 600,000 different experiences of God. No two people saw or heard the same thing.
Elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim. Two differing opinions can be reflections of the same God.
Earlier this year, a group of our congregants learned a similar lesson, as we undertook to study what are termed “radical” Jewish views on God. We learned about God as found in nature; about God who is accessed through morality and through relationships. What we discovered was that the radical wasn’t so radical. We discovered that the God that we sometimes have trouble grasping is not the only Jewish possibility. We discovered that we struggle because, to paraphrase an old song, we’ve been “looking for God in all the wrong places.”
Today I want to share with you the ideas of three of those thinkers that we studied. I do so in the hopes that we modern Jews can begin to view our own beliefs as authoritative and authentical. I do so in the hopes that perhaps we can stop counting pages and start seeking new meaning in the act of prayer.
There is a story of a man who was told that he would find God at the top of the highest mountain. He climbed to the top and began to wait. After what seemed like a long time, he noticed a sunset: reds and purples and blues filling the sky. But the man raged at the sunset, “Stop distracting me! I am waiting to see God.” And the colors were silenced by the night.
Sometime later, a flock of birds flew directly overhead. Their sound filled the earth like the music of an enormous orchestra. But again the man raged, “With all of this noise, I will never hear God.” And he scared the birds away, and continued to wait.”
And again time passed, until the man felt a tap on his back. He turned around to see that his family and friends had come to be with him. But he was angry – “You cannot be here. I am waiting to encounter God.” And his family left. And the man continued to wait.
After much, it was time to descend the mountain. Disappointed, the man returned home and lived out his life – but he never found God.
The tragedy of the story is that the man looked God in the face and didn’t know it. He didn’t find God because God is not to be found in some high up and far away place. As this morning’s Torah portion says, Lo Bashamayim Hi – Not in the heavens, but inside of you, inside your heart.
Mordecai Kaplan was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the middle 20th century. He is best known for being the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. And whether you know what that is or not, odds are that what he had to say about God has probably influenced your own beliefs.
He taught that God is to be found in nature. But not only in the way that we might think – in the beautiful sunsets and the vastness of the universe, but specifically in the human ability to make sense and to make meaning out of that universe.
God, he said, is “the sum of everything in the world that renders life significant and worthwhile.” God is “the Power that makes for the fulfillment of valid ideals.” God is “the Power that impels man to become fully human.”
For this great thinker, and for many of us, God is not an all-powerful creator and enforcer, but a power in the universe that gives meaning to our lives.
What, then, is prayer? Prayer is our attempt to acknowledge that there is meaning in this seemingly chaotic universe, even if we have to make it ourselves. Prayer is a source of strength in difficult times, and an expression of our thankfulness in good times. It is an act of looking inward.
Believe it or not, the Talmud actually expresses a similar idea. It teaches us that not only do people pray; but God also prays – for mercy and fairness. To whom does God pray? To Godself, of course. Who else is there?
For us as well, prayer can be an act of self-training and self-discovery, an act of finding meaning in our own lives and our own choices. This is a particularly powerful message during the High Holy Days. What is it we hope for by the end of Yom Kippur? Not some vague sense of forgiveness from on high, but rather the strength to better ourselves and our lives.
It has been said: “Those who rise from prayer better people, their prayers have been answered.”
But it would be selfish to say that prayer is all about us. And would be self-serving to assume that God is only inside of ourselves. In fact, for many of us, it is in relationships with other people that the divine is to be found.
As a teenager, I once heard a rabbi tell a story about his own life that stays with me to this day. He told about being in a terrible car accident. He told about being in pain, about the deep sense of fear as the paramedics lifted him off the ground into a brightly lit ambulance. And he told about a man – probably one of the paramedics – who accompanied him into the ambulance. Who held his hand and stroked his head and whispered “It will be OK.”
“That man,” he said, “got me through the terrible ordeal. I don’t know who he was, and I never saw him again. But as far as I am concerned, I met an angel of God that day.”
It has been said that God is not in you and not in me, but in the space between us.
It was Martin Buber who taught that God is what we encounter when we enter into true relationship with others. That there are two types of relationships, he said. One is the type in which we see other people as “It,” as serving some function in our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We need people to bag our groceries and deliver our mail and fix our cars. But every once in a while we enter into a relationship in which we see the other person not as “It” but as “Thou” or “You,” not as a function but as a human being. And every Thou, he says, “is a glimpse of the Eternal Thou,” that is God.
Rabbi Larry Kushner puts it a different way:
Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Everyone carries with them many pieces to [others’] puzzle[s].
And when you present your piece
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High
The Hebrew word for messenger is malach, or angel. So in truth, Judaism tells us that we are all angels, all messengers of God. When my rabbi told me that an angel spoke to him in that ambulance, I believe he meant it quite literally. Think of how many people have touched your life in different ways. How many people have taught you something or given you something or sacrificed something for you?
Every person is a reflection of the divine. And it is by gathering together in community, by praying together, by striving to see people as people, and by working together that we bring God into the world.
We bring God into the world.
The Bible tells of another Jew on a spiritual quest, much like the one in our original story.
In the book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is told to stand on a mountain and to find God.
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks; but God was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake — fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12 )
Elijah found God not in the great and the loud and the terrible, but in the still small voice that told him what was right and what was wrong. For us as Jews, God has often been in the still small voice. The still, small voice that told Abraham to leave his home and set out for the land of Canaan. The still small voice that told the prophet Micah that we needed to do a better job doing justly and loving mercy. The still small voice that told Herzl that “If you will it, it is no dream.” The still small voice that told Rabbi Heschel to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a voice inside each of us telling us wrong from right. Where is God if not in that voice?
It was the great philosopher Hermann Cohen – one of the fathers of Reform Judaism – who wrote about God as the “ground of the moral universe.” Within each person, he says, there is is an innate knowledge of morality, an unlearned and un-learnable ability to tell right from wrong. That, he said, is where God resides.
And if God is found in the difference between wrong and right, in the difference between this world and the world as it should be, then prayer exists to motivate us to go out and repair the world.
When we say “Sim Shalom – Give us Peace,” we are really saying, “Give us the strength to make peace ourselves.
When we say, “Kol Nidrei Ve’esari – may my unfinished promises be forgiven,” we really mean, “Give me the ability to complete the work that I have begun.”
Page after page after page in the prayerbook we beseech God to do things that are really our job. Visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved, feeding the hungry, repairing the world. God is found in the actions of those people whose actions make the world a better place.
Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields,
Nor mend a broken bridge,
Nor rebuild a ruined city;
But prayer can water an arid soul,
Mend a broken heart,
And rebuild a weakened will.
The Talmud tells that the great Rabbi Joshua once met the Messiah. He asked him, “When are you coming to redeem the world.”
The Messiah said, “Hayom – today.”
So Rabbi Joshua returned to his yeshivah and he told his students to stop studying, stop praying, stop working, because the Messiah is coming! But the Messiah didn’t come that day. And so Rabbi Joshua returned to ask him why not.
And he answered: “You didn’t let me finish. If you had, you would have heard me quoting Psalms – ‘Hayom im b’kolo tishma’u’ When will the world be redeemed? “Today, if only you can listen for God’s voice.”
It is in our hands to bring God into this world. God is not on top of a mountain, or in the depths of the sea…. but rather in each moment, in each person, in each day… if only we can listen closely enough.
Where is God? Wherever we let God in.
May we hear God’s voice in the wonders of this world, and in the command to build a better world.
May we see God’s face in the people we love and in the mirrors that reflect our true selves.
May we do God’s work through our loving relationships and our acts of Tikkun Olam.
And may the pages of this prayerbook be for us a wellspring of tradition, a source of inspiration, spurring to spend the new year building, and seeking, and loving, and dreaming, and searching for God in the moments of our lives.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.
The Architect Frank Lloyd Wright tells about a memory. He was nine years old, and he was walking across a snowy field with his no-nonsense uncle. The boy wandered this way and that, collecting reeds and taking in the scenery, while his uncle walked straight across the field. Upon reaching the top of the hill, to two looked back. Uncle John pointed to his straight line of footprints, and then to Frank’s meandering path and he said sternly, “There’s a lesson in that, you know.”
Frank Lloyd Wright later said that that moment had shaped his philosophy. While Uncle John had intended to teach about the virtues of avoiding distraction, “I determined right then not to miss [out on] life, as [he] had.”
Life is too precious to miss.
Life is too precious to be spent looking down rather than around, to be spent working rather than playing.
But it seems today our world is constantly throwing at us new ways to miss out on life. New devices that teach us to look down rather than out. New excuses to bury ourselves in our work and our daily tasks and forget about what really matters.
On the High Holy Days, we take time to reflect on our lives and our choices. We ask ourselves: Do my daily actions reflect my values? Am I living the life I would like to be living?
Today, it seems that the boundaries between our work lives and our real lives are being constantly eroded. “Work-life balance” is the buzzword of the day, because balance is the thing that we are all missing. It used to be that our parents and grandparents would get in the car in the morning and drive to the office. Today, we carry our offices with us. Today, we can edit digital documents at the dinner table, answer emails from our beds, and text our colleagues from red lights (though it’s illegal, thankfully). With our smartphones in our pockets and our Bluetooth devices on our ears, we are accessible 24/7/365. We spend more time looking down than out; we spend more time working than living.
According to a government survey, “one in four Canadians works 50 hours per week or more.” Ten years ago it was one in ten. And those of us with smartphones – forget about it! – they put in an extra 365 hours a year. That’s 15 days a year that we spend answering emails on our tiny little screens when we’re supposed to be paying attention to our families and ourselves.
In the 21st century, our technological advances and our lifestyle changes have blurred the line between our work lives and our real lives. And it’s our real lives that are suffering.
This may seem like a uniquely modern problem, but our texts tell us that even our earliest ancestors struggled to balance their obligations with their private lives – some with more success than others. In fact, the Torah gives one example of a Jewish figure who became so completely all consumed by his work that his family fell apart. Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name is Moses.
We know Moses as the great prophet and leader of our people. But it’s easy to forget that he was also a human being with a family. And we forget with good reason, because according to Torah, for much of his life, Moses’ attention was focused anywhere but on his family. Here is a man who was so important, who had so many responsibilities, that they consumed his entire being.
According to Exodus 18, Jethro had to teach Moses how to delegate so that he wouldn’t try to do everybody’s jobs for them. According to the previous chapter, Moses sent his family away for extended periods of time. According to Exodus 4, he forgot to circumcise his own sons. The Torah doesn’t even mention the birth of his second son Eliezer; it’s not clear that he was even there.
In fact, the text calls Moses’ family not by their names but as “Ishtecha Ushnei Vaneiha – your wife and her two sons.” Her two sons, taught Rabi Hiyya, because she, and not Moses, had raised them.
In that sense, Moses is a tragic figure: one who achieves extraordinary things, but does so at the expense of his private life. Moses is undoubtedly the greatest teacher, prophet, rabbi, judge, and leader in the history of our people. But as a husband and father… he was kind of lousy! In fact, the Torah is full of prominent people who mismanaged their personal lives because they were too busy doing great things. There’s Abraham, whose dedication to his mission manages to estrange both his wife and his son. There’s Joseph, who gives up his Jewish identity in Pharaoh’s court. There’s Isaac, who sows seeds of discord between his children that last for generations.
And although these stories are extreme, we may be able to see glimpses of ourselves – of our bad habits, of the choices that we wish we were making differently. And if we look closely, perhaps we can find solutions as well.
Rabbi Larry Kushner writes about a friend of his, an Episcopal minister, who – like many of us – had a desk full of papers. Once a month, the minister would take every piece of paper, and throw it away! So Rabbi Kushner once asked his friend, “What if there’s something important on your desk?” The minister explained, “If it’s important, it’ll come back.”
The problem with our lifestyle today is not that we have too much to do. The problem is that that it’s hard to remember what matters most, when you are constantly inundated by all the details.
Before going any further, it needs to be said: From a Jewish perspective, there is nothing wrong with working hard. Hard work and a fulfilling career are great virtues. Why else would the Torah tell us that David was a shepherd and Adam was a gardener? And many any of the earliest Rabbis were known by names like “Rabbi Yochanan the Sandle-maker” and “Rabbi Hillel the wood-cutter.” (By the way, I’ve always wanted to be known as “Rabbi Micah the Rock-Star,” but it hasn’t taken off yet.)
So our earliest rabbinic role models also defined themselves around their careers. But the reason they were great rabbis is that they found time for personal study, for teaching, and self-betterment. That’s not easy to do.
Rabbi Meyer Twersky wrote:
The Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) works hard to keep us too busy. That way we have no energy left to think, to reflect, to better ourselves.
Fortunately for us, there is an institution in Judaism that was created precisely for the purposes of thinking, reflecting, and bettering ourselves… and it occurs every single week.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.
It is said that very Friday night 2 angels follow us to our doors. If they find a home prepared for Shabbat, a meal ready to be enjoyed, a family spending time together, then they bless us, saying, “May it always be so.”
Shabbat is Judaism’s answer to the challenge of finding balance in life. Once a week, we Jews are commanded to withdraw from the working world – to go 25 hours traditionally without cooking, mending, lighting fires, working at our professions, or in any way trying to control or own the world around us. It is through Shabbat that Judaism attempts to give us freedom from our enslavement to our everday obligations. In fact, you might say that the Jews invented the weekend.
But there’s more than that. Shabbat is, at its core, a matter of human dignity. It is a concrete manifestation of the idea that every person deserves to rest. It’s a reflection of the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, since God also rested on the seventh day. Most importantly, it is the way that we as Jews are meant to care for ourselves, so that we can better care for the world around us.
The story is told of a woman who would walk back and forth each day between her home and the well of water outside the town. She always carried two buckets – and one them had a hole in it. And while many people believed it was just broken, it most definitely was not. Each bucket had its own job, the woman would explain: with one bucket she cared for own needs – she carried water to her home. And with the other bucket, the one with the tiny hole in the bottom, she shared her water… with the earth, the animals, with the plants that needed it. And if either of the buckets had ever been lost, the whole task would have been rendered useless.
We cannot care for our world unless we care for ourselves. We cannot be at our best in our jobs and our schools and our communities unless we have taken the time to rejuvenate our bodies and our souls. Shabbat is a gift to help us find rest and strength and balance in our lives.
“Big surprise!” you’re thinking. “The Rabbi is giving a sermon on Shabbat.” But before your eyes start to glaze over, let me just say that I’m not giving the sermon you think I’m giving. This is not part of the sermon where I’m going to tell you to come to shul more often, or to read more Torah, or to start saying more blessings.
No, this is a different sermon. Because I believe that a new century calls for a new approach. That instead of the same old same old, it is time to find fresh ways to celebrate Shabbat – ways that make sense in our world. That is the Jewish way.
There’s an old joke that tells about Moses standing on top of Mt. Sinai, and God enumerating the commandments:
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: Does that mean we shouldn’t eat any dairy with milk?
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “So, we should have separate dishes for milk and meat meals, and then another two sets for Passover?”
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “Got it — we should have two separate dishwashers. And we should wait eight hours after eating brisket before having any cheesecake.”
God: Fine, have it your way.
As Reform Jews, we recognize that Jewish practice has changed through the ages. And that means that it must continue to change, continue to evolve, in order to meet our needs. All joking aside, our movement has put a lot of thought into redefining some of the important institutions of Jewish life. Our belief in egalitarianism led us to redefine what it means to be a rabbi. The environmental crisis led us to redefine what it means to keep kosher. And in the information age – in a time of unprecedented access to technology and unprecedented demands on our time – we will need to redefine and reclaim Shabbat as our own. We need it too much to let it go.
A few years ago the Union for Reform Judaism released a set of Shabbat cards with ideas for ways to make Shabbat meaningful. Not the traditional ways, but new ways. I’ll read a few:
- On Shabbat, I have something special for lunch. Our favourite is falafel with salsa.
- Whenever possible, we spend Shabbat outdoors: hiking, gardening, or skateboarding.
- Unlike the rest of the week, our children aren’t allowed to wake us up on Shabbat morning.
- I do not run errands on Shabbat.
- I don’t open mail on Shabbat.
- I turn off my Blackberry on Shabbat.
All of these are things that ordinary Reform Jews around North America are doing because they recognize just how powerful that Day of Rest can be. And what makes these ideas so powerful is that they address real needs in our lives. The Talmud doesn’t know about smartphones, but they are certainly the greatest intrusion on our time. The sages would have told us that gardening wasn’t approproate on Shabbat, but in a world where we are so disconnected from the earth, what better way to get back to nature. As Reform Jews, it is our right and our mandate to find modern and meaningful ways to live our Jewish values.
If Judaism says to eat your favourite food on Shabbat, and you like sushi better than chicken soup, then have sushi for Shabbat dinner. (And then invite me!) If Judaism tells us to appreciate nature, then for God’s sake go tobogganing on Shabbat afternoon. Our Shabbat may look completely different than our great-grandparents’ Shabbat. It may even look completely different from our own preconceptions, But it will be just as authentic, just as real, just as meaningful, because it addresses the real lives we are living.
I’m proud to announce that this year, Temple Kol Ami will be launching an initiative called “Reclaiming Shabbat.” It is a challenge to ourselves to find meaning in Judaism’s oldest and most important holy day. I’m challenging each member of our congregation to celebrate 2 Shabbats a month – on in sul and one at home, and to find creative ways to do so, beyond coming to services and Religious School.
So starting this morning, I want you to start brainstorming, about how you can Shomer Shabbat – how you can observe Shabbat in a way that will work for you and your family, and we’ll share those ideas with each other – through the Voice, through the Kol Ami blog, and on the bulletin board outside this door. Maybe it’s a weekly trip to a favourite restaurant. Maybe it means DVRing your favourite TV show and saving it for Saturday afternoon, or writing haiku on Friday afternoon about the events of the week, or, like Frank Lloyd Wright, taking a meandering walk through a snowy field – not to get from one place to the next, but simply to enjoy being where you are.
Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat, he said, is the institution that has kept us Jewish. It has set us apart, it has sustained us, it has made us holy. It’s time we return the favour.
Let us resolve in the coming year, not to miss out on our lives – not to spend our precious minutes looking at screens and focusing on things that, in the end, do not matter. Let us resolve to spend one day a week, or one hour of one day, building relationships, rejuvenating ourselves, living the life that we would like to be living.
 Quoted from Rabbi Evan Moffic at blog.rj.org.