It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.
The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man” But the Rebbe insisted.
So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.” But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”
So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”
And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.” And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.
It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.
We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.
The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.
I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”
That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.
And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:
- Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
- I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
- I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
- I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.
I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!
And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.
Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.
I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:
- “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
- “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
- “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”
We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.
We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”
And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!
This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can’t we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?
It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:
It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.
Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.
And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.
And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”
But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”
At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai – My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)
My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.
And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.
Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.
Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”
In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.
It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.
I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.
To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.
To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.
To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.
These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives. Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.
The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it’s not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.
And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days – questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values – these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.” In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.
When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.
So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?
Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”
We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.
In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.
May we celebrate our choices and our values.
And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.
 Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.
 Ibid 123.
 B. Shabbat 112b.
 “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)
 Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.
 Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.
They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.
This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.
The main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet. Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.
Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.
Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.
Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.
And appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.
By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.
May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.
Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!
“I have been a stranger in a strange land.” (Exodus 2:22)
I am an American living in Canada.
It’s not a major culture shock. Sure, there are differences – social, cultural, linguistic, political – between my country of origin and my country of residence. There are things that take getting used to; cultural assumptions that surprised me. But the two countries are deeply aligned in their values and ways of life. (In fact, when we moved here five years ago, my then-seven year old son confided in me how disappointed he was that it wasn’t “more different.” He thought moving to a new country would entail the wholesale adoption of a new way of life!)
And yet, Thanksgiving Day has always been hard for me. In Canada, of course, today is an ordinary day. I dropped my children at their school buses, and I sit at my desk in my office. And I am aware that “back home,” people are sleeping in, preparing meals, watching football, celebrating a holiday. It is a day on which I feel separated from friends and family, on which I feel far from home. So it’s a small reminder to me that it is not always easy to make a new life in a new country. And that I have been very, very lucky.
Thanksgiving is, at its core, about immigration. It is a celebration of the experience of coming to a new country, being welcomed, and making a life.
That is a message that we need today, perhaps more than ever. Right now, millions of refugees around the world are seeking new countries and new homes. They are seeking to start over, to rebuild their lives in a place of safety and security. Just as the Pilgrims did nearly 400 years ago. Just as my Jewish ancestors did 3 generations ago.
Jewish tradition knows well the experience of the refugee. The Torah tells us that we were slaves in Egypt and sought a new life in the Promised Land. The Passover Seder reminds us that “Arami oveid avi – Our father was (literally!) an Aramean/Syrian refugee.” And it was less than 100 years ago that our own people were the asylum seekers, desperate to escape the dangers of their countries, too often labeled as subversives or security threats.
And so, I am proud of this Jewish community’s response to the current refugee crisis. My congregation has raised thousands of dollars toward resettlement. Some local congregations are actively “adopting” refugees. Some close friends here in Toronto are literally preparing to welcome a refugee family into their own home if necessary. These are our Jewish values at work.
I don’t begin to answer the political questions. I know there are potential security risks. But I also know that there are real people – real families – “yearning to breathe free.” And I know that if there’s anything my country of origin and my country of residence have in common, it is that they are societies of immigrants – great, diverse communities made stronger because they are composed of people whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came from somewhere else. We North Americans know what it is to be a stranger. We know what it is to wander, and we know what it is to build a life in a new home.
On Thanksgiving Day, of all days, we ought to remember that.
NOTE: this entry was cross-posted at Jewish Values Online.
The great Rabbi Akiba used to tell this story:
A fox once spotted a fish darting to and fro in the water. He asked the fish, “From whom are you fleeing?”
And the fish answered, “From the fisherman’s net.”
So the crafty fox offered, “Would you like to come up to safety on dry land?”
To which the fish responded, “Aren’t you a clever one! If I am in danger here in the water, how much more so if I remove myself from it.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b)
In Judaism, water is a symbol for Torah. The lesson of the story is that we are strongest when we surround ourselves with the Torah and its learning. Reform Jewish life is based on this idea: We read from the Torah weekly; we study it regularly; we seek ways to incorporate its teachings into our lives.
So who wrote the Torah?
For most Reform Jews, Torah is not the literal “word of God.” That is to say, we mostly don’t believe that it was penned by God and handed down in its complete form to Moses at Sinai. In fact, critical scholars have taught us that the Torah contains many different voices and views. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two very different – and in some ways opposite – stories of the world’s creation. Genesis 6-9 seems to be a blending of two different stories of Noah and flood. And the many different names for God apparently represent different expressions of Jewish spirituality in ancient Israel…and they don’t always agree with each other!
So where is God in all of this? If the Torah was written by human beings, what makes it so special?
Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes in the introduction to his classic Torah commentary:
God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds. (Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition. Xxxviii.)
Judaism has always taught that God is to be found through the actions and ideas of human beings. In Avot 3:3, it teaches that “When two people exchange words of Torah, the divine presence rests between them.” In other words, “Torah” is not only a book, but an action – an act of study and learning, an act of seeking the divine amidst the mundane, an act of trying to bring the holy into an ordinary world.
And the book we call “The Torah” is no different. It is a divine book, but was written by human beings. It is the human side of an ongoing conversation between our people and God. To quote Rabbi Plaut again, it is “a book about humanity’s understanding of and experience with God.”
This makes the Torah different from Aesop’s fables or the writings of Shakespeare, because it is an attempt to express not only universal truths, but divine truths.
This also means that as liberal Jews, we have to read the Torah on two levels – as a literature that comes out of a certain time and place, AND as a timeless literature that speaks to our lives as well. To ignore either of those levels would be to sell the Torah short, to deny part of its essence.
Most of all, it means that we are called upon to surround ourselves with words of Torah like fish in water. Talmud Torah – Study of Torah – is our opportunity to engage with the ways that our ancient ancestors found God in the world, and it is our opportunity to add our own voices to that eternal dialogue.
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
For three years there were disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai claimed “The law agrees with us,” and Beit Hillel claimed “The law agrees with us.” Then, a voice came from heaven and said: “Both are the words of the living God, but the law agrees with Beit Hillel.
Once we were slaves. Now we are free.
Shabbat is Zecher Liy’tziyat Mitzrayim – a reminder of our Exodus from slavery. On Shabbat, we are meant to embrace freedom, to throw off the shackles of the things that enslave us.
As a Reform Jew, I take seriously the mitzvah of Shamor et Yom Hashabbat – safeguarding Shabbat by refraining from work. Traditional Jews refrain from all manner of “work” on the seventh day: driving cars, flipping light switches, cutting paper, sewing buttons. But these are not the activities that enslave me. These are not the activities that eat away at my time, or from which I need to be liberated.
No, what enslaves me is something different. Something less solid, but more ubiquitous. It is the constant connectedness to the outside world, to my professional life, to the everyday needs and tasks that assault me through the device that I carry in my pocket.
In the 21st century, we are surrounded by information in ways that previous generations could not have fathomed. It’s exciting: technology keeps changing; screens keep getting bigger; download speeds keep getting faster. But the danger of the information age is in the blurring of boundaries. Where previous generations would “leave work at work,” we carry our work with us. Where our parents and grandparents differentiated between office time and leisure time, we struggle to draw that distinction. Our professional obligations have the power to permeate every place and every moment… just like the Egyptian taskmasters of old.
I’d like to say that on Shabbat, I turn off my cellphone. I’d like to say that one day a week, I disconnect from the outside world. But I don’t: I text with friends; I occasionally check Facebook; I am available for congregational emergencies. As a genuine technology addict, I cannot bear the thought of being without it for 25 hours. (And actually, connecting with friends is an important part of Shabbat.) But I CAN bear the thought of being without my work email, of tuning out the ordinary needs and tasks that rule my life on a daily basis.
And so that is what I have begun to do. Every Friday, as the sun begins to set, I open the email settings of my iPhone and simply flip the switch from “on” to “off.” It is the most liberating, most empowering, and perhaps holiest moment of my entire week. It is my way of fulfilling the task of Shabbat, l’havdil bein kodesh l’chol – to distinguish between holy and ordinary.
It is a start.
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.