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Hineini: Celebrating Jewish Choices

October 1, 2017 Leave a comment

NOTE: This is the sermon that I delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5778 (2017). It gives the thinking behind my decision to begin officiating at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner.


 

In ancient times, long before they were synagogues or rabbis or prayerbooks, there was the shofar.

In those days, the shofar was sounded outdoors, in the Temple courtyard at the centre of Jerusalem. And it was meant to call the people to be present. When there was threat of war, the shofar was sounded and the people would come together to serve their nation. At festival times, it called them to gather at the Temple and celebrate. And at the New Year, it summoned them to be present because the holiest day of the year was approaching.

The High Holy Days are a time when we are called upon to be present – both physically be spiritually. The shofar calls us to mindful awareness. And the Torah portions for the High Holy Days reflect this idea as well. Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akeida – the very challenging story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son. Three times during that passage the patriarch’s name is called – once by God, once by Isaac, and once by an angel. And each time, Abraham answers “Hineini.”

The word Hineini literally means “Here I am.” But it signifies much more than a physical location. It is, according to Rabbi Gershom Barnard, a statement of “openness and responsiveness” to the other.[1] When Abraham says Hineini – to his son, to God, to anybody – he is saying “I am here with you and here for you.” He is opting into a relationship.

The Torah portion for this morning also speaks to that act of opting into relationship – this time on a communal level. In this parashah, our people are standing all together in the wilderness, and Moses says to them:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem.
Today, ALL of you stand before Adonai your God.
Men, women and children. Chieftains, wood choppers and water drawers. Even the stranger who lives among us.

And in so doing, he says, by being present today you enter into covenant.

This is a description of our people saying Hineini – entering into a relationship with God and with each other. One of the most powerful things about this parashah is how careful it is to make clear that the covenant includes everybody who is present – regardless of gender, occupation, socioeconomic status. Even regardless of religious or ethnic background, since the ger, the non-Jew is included as well. This is a purposeful choice. It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim – We stand together, everyone whose mother is Jewish.” Or “Atem nitzavim, everyone who keeps kosher and had a Bar Mitzvah.” It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim – “Everyone who eats bagels and knows how to swear in Yiddish” (though I’d like to read that Torah). It says that we all stand together – all of us who have chosen to be here.

In order to fully grasp the power of this statement, we have to recognize the fundamental truth that Jewish life is a choice. This has always been true to some extent, but it is especially true in the 21st century. Alan Dershowitz writes that “we are witnessing a significant diminution of the external factors that have traditionally” kept Jews insulated.[2] In past ages, anti-Semitic social exclusion and sometimes even legal requirement made sure that Jews essentially stayed within the Jewish community. But in 2017, there are no outside forces compelling us to affiliate or participate in Judaism. To be sure, we might feel guilt (most of us do have Jewish mothers after all). We might feel family pressure or social pressure. We might feel the weight of history. But at the end of the day, all of us are Jews by choice.

On the one hand, that’s a scary thought. Because it means that all of this is entirely voluntary – any one of us could simply stand up, walk out that door, and never return. And lots of people have. That’s why the Jewish community has been obsessing over this for 20 years – organizing conferences on “Jewish continuity,” and writing articles about the threat of assimilation.

But the other side of that same coin is the recognition that if Jewish life is entirely a choice, that means that millions of us are making that choice every single day.

That is something to celebrate.

Every person in this room represents someone who has chosen to participate in Jewish life. Every member of every synagogue and JCC, every donor to Federation or JNF, represents someone who has opted into Jewish community. And so, by the way, does every candle lit on a Friday night, and every dreidel that is spun, and every Seder plate that is lifted, and every child who is called to the Torah, AND…every couple that stands under a chuppah.

I believe that the role of the Jewish community in the 21st century is to celebrate and nurture Jewish choices – to recognize when individuals are saying Hineini, are saying “Here we are,” and to say Hineini right back to them. And along those lines, I’d like to talk to you about a change that I have decided to make in my rabbinic practice.

Over the course of my time in the rabbinate, I have been approached a number of times by couples who were seeking to be married in a Jewish ritual – who wanted to stand under a chuppah, to say prayers in Hebrew, and to be married by a rabbi – even though one of the partners was not Jewish. Up until now, I have always politely said no to officiating those ceremonies. Starting now, in many circumstances, I plan to say yes.

Saying yes to those weddings comes from a place of wanting to acknowledge – in fact, wanting to celebrate – the couple’s Jewish choice. It comes out of a firm conviction that interfaith families are Jewish families, especially when they are welcomed in and given the tools they need to live Jewish lives. And it comes out of my belief that opening our doors wider, creating a welcoming and inclusive community, is the best way both to nurture Jewish families and to build a Jewish future.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. This idea has been present in Judaism since the very first Jews.

The midrash teaches that Abraham and Sarah would keep their tent open on all sides so that they could greet guests and welcome them. They did so because Hachnasat Orchim – welcoming the stranger – is a fundamental Jewish value. But it turns out that it was also a pretty good way to build their tribe. The Torah says that when Abraham and Sarah first arrived in the land of Israel, they already had with them a whole group of people who had been welcomed in, with whom they had shared food and learning and ritual, and who had committed themselves to Jewish life and to the Jewish future.

In other words, the sharing of ritual and learning became an opportunity to foster a longer-term relationship through which people came to say “Hineini,” through which people opted to become part of the community. Of course, in those days people mostly converted to Judaism in order to opt in. And that’s often still the case. But more and more, we are blessed to have individuals who join our synagogues, who marry Jews and raise Jewish children, and who are seeking to be participants in Jewish life, but for whatever reason do not want to become Jewish themselves. I think it’s important to recognize all the ways that those individuals are opting in. Abraham and Sarah’s approach teaches us that by saying yes, by engaging them, and learning with then, we can foster a relationship.

And interestingly enough, what the Patriarchs knew 3000 years ago has been corroborated much more recently by sociological data. Major surveys of the American Jewish population (since we don’t have any similar data yet in Canada), show that there has been an important shift in the habits of intermarried families over the last 25 years. I learned from Dr. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University that in 1990, only 26% of all intermarried couples that included a Jew were raising their children Jewish[3], but by 2013, the number had risen to 63%[4] – nearly 2/3 of those couples considered themselves to be raising their children as Jews.

That is a startling shift in 23 years – from 26% to 63%. So what changed during the interim? Among other things, the Jewish community shifted significantly in its attitude toward interfaith families. Led largely by the leadership of the Reform movement, congregations started working to become more inclusive, and to shift the discourse from the threat of intermarriage to welcoming interfaith families. And in turn, interfaith families began to opt in – to congregational membership, to religious school, to other forms of participation in Jewish life. In other words, when the community opened its door to them, they said “Hineini.” They said, “Here we are.”

Our congregation has been doing that kind of work as well. For years now, we have been thoughtfully exploring what it means to us to be an inclusive and welcoming community – through study sessions, and sermons, and Scholar in Residence weekends. Our Interfaith Committee, which many of you are aware of, is another very important manifestation of this valuable work. They have been working for a year now to learn about the experience of our members – both interfaith and otherwise. And they will be leading us in a series of discussions about community, ritual, and governance matters starting October 14. (The outcomes of these discussions, by the way, are not in any way determined. That’s why we need to have the discussions.)

I’m proud that Kol Ami has put inclusiveness at the centre of its identity. My decision – to officiate at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner – is one piece of a much larger puzzle, as we work to figure out our congregational approach to these important questions.

So let me tell you some of the specifics of what I’m planning.

First, I’m not making a blanket statement that I’ll officiate every wedding. I’ll have to work with couples individually to determine if what they’re interested in is what I do. I plan to perform a Jewish ceremony, one that includes the basic rituals and symbols of the traditional Jewish wedding, though with some of the language changed a bit to make it appropriate to a mixed couple). And I don’t intend to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy or to perform weddings that include blended religious symbols or rituals. But even more important than all of that, I want to take a page out of Abraham and Sarah’s playbook – I want to have the ritual be an opportunity for a relationship. Each time I perform a wedding, I will have spent the year before that wedding meeting with the couple, engaging in study, having important conversations – about Judaism and about what it is to build a home together. And at the same time I’ll be asking them to be part of the congregation, encouraging them to attend services and immerse themselves in the community. My hope is that we can transform a 20 minute ceremony into a lifetime of Jewish living and learning.

I also want to make clear that I don’t intend to remove conversion from the table as an option. Becoming Jewish is a beautiful process and a deeply personal decision. I look forward to continuing to work with those who choose that journey into becoming part of Am Yisrael, part of the people of Israel. At the same time, though, I believe that there should be an option for those for are seeking to be part of Jewish life, but for whom conversion is not the right decision.

Now I know that this is a big change. I know there will be questions and concerns, or you may just want to talk to me about how I made this decision and what it means. So I want to invite you to please reach out to me. You can call or email or make an appointment. I look forward to talking to you about it.

I have to share with you how excited I am about this change. I think it reflects the values our congregation; and for me personally, it truly feels like an expression of my beliefs and my rabbinic conscience. I believe that we have the chance to welcome and engage families who might otherwise feel marginalized, and to give them the tools to lead rich Jewish lives as part of a welcoming synagogue. And at the same time, to enrich our congregational life in immeasurable ways by embracing those who choose to stand beside us on this journey. As it says in this morning’s Torah portion: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem.We stand – all of us – as one community.

 

There is a widely circulated story about Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism who was a professor of homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently his practice was to give a sermon to the class each Monday, and then assign one of the students to give a sermon on the same parashah that Friday. And he was well known for his blistering criticism of every sermon.
So one Monday a particularly creative student copied down Rabbi Kaplan’s sermon word for word, and when Friday came, he simply delivered it back exactly as it had been given. When he finished, Kaplan stood up and thundered, “That was terrible!” To which the student replied, “Rabbi, that was the sermon that you gave on Monday.” And Dr. Kaplan responded, “Yes, but I have grown since then.”

As Jews, we are always growing and evolving. Always reaching towards new understandings, and striving for new answers to ancient questions.

This year, may we recognize that our community also grows in strength, with each new voice that is welcomed into it.

May we, like our ancestors, hear the call of the shofar as an invitation to be present for one another, to reach out to those who are sharing in this Jewish journey with us.

And may we say Hineini – may we say “Here I am” – to each other and to the Jewish future.

 

 


NOTES:

[1] http://www.nhs-cba.org/RH2-HereIAm.htm.

[2] Dershowitz, Alan M. The Vanishing American Jew. Page 29.

[3] National Jewish Population Survey, 1990.

[4] Pew Survey of American Jewry, 2013.

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From Human Doing to Human Being: A Yom Kippur Sermon About Mindfulness

October 1, 2017 1 comment

I’d like to introduce you to the philosophical treatise that has most influenced my life: Calvin & Hobbes. You may laugh, but anyone who’s ever read Calvin & Hobbes knows that it addresses serious questions about existence and values and meaning…all through the eyes of the world’s most precocious 6-year-old and his imaginary tiger friend.

In one of my very favourite strips, the two of them are sitting under a tree and Calvin asks out of the blue, “Why do you suppose we’re here?”
Hobbes answers, “Because we walked here.”
“No, no…” Calvin insists, “I mean here on earth.”
The tiger responds, a little nonplussed, “Because earth can support life.”
“No,” Calvin is frustrated now, “I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?”
Hobbes, looking perplexed at the question, replies, “Because we were born.”
To which Calvin sulks, “Forget it.” And Hobbes snipes back, “I will, thank you.”

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/46/dd/aa/46ddaa802056af2143de2d276e2cafd1.png

Yom Kippur is kind of like the Jewish version of sitting under a tree and asking, “Why are we here?” It’s a time when we are supposed to do Cheshbon HaNefesh – to take an accounting of our soul. Dr. Richard Sarason writes that “We are challenged to reevaluate our lives in the light of what really matters: our ultimate values, our relationships, and our limitations.”[1]

It is a peculiar choice to start each year this way. In our secular lives, New Year’s Eve is a time for parties, New Years Day is a time of hangovers, and January 2 we are back to work. But on the Jewish calendar, the year begins with a 10-day period of contemplation and preparation. With asking ourselves hard questions and making plans for what we want to be in the coming year. It you think about it, that’s pretty smart. Before you start anything new, it’s worthwhile to take time out and prepare for it. Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Yom Kippur is our day to do the work of preparing for the coming year. But it’s not easy work at all. In fact, it goes against some of our most basic habits. Again, Dr. Sarason writes, “The pace of our lives today is very fast and only getting faster. We are often so preoccupied with the business of daily living that we don’t pause to consider the bigger picture.”

In another Calvin and Hobbes strip, the two of them are sledding downhill at breakneck pace, dodging obstacles and holding on for dear life. Calvin is once again asking philosophical questions: “Do you think people are basically good with a few bad tendencies or basically bad with a few good tendencies?” But Hobbes keeps interrupting him:
“Watch out for those trees.”
“There’s a rock up ahead! Look out!”
“Not so close to the ledge!”
“Aughhhh. I can’t look.”
Finally they crash into a tree and go flying. And then Calvin, buried in snow up to his eyeballs, grumbles, “It’s very rude of you to keep changing the subject after every sentence.”

That’s what life does to us – it keeps changing the subject after every sentence. We spend our lives busy, running around from one obligation to the next, from one achievement to the next. So much so that we begin to define ourselves by our obligations and our achievements.

The old joke goes that on Kol Nidrei night, the rabbi walked onto the bima, prostrated himself, and cried out, “Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!” Then the Cantor was so moved by this demonstration of piety that he threw himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cried, “Oh, God!  Before you, I am nothing!” Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor in the 17th row, prostrated himself in the aisle and cried, “Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!” At which point the cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, “Hey, look who thinks he’s nothing.”

We’re always trying to prove ourselves. And unlike the people in the joke, who are trying to prove that they are “nothing,” most of us are busy trying to prove that we are something – that our lives are worthwhile, that we have something to contribute to the world around us.

Dr. Lissa Rankin writes that we ”wear busyness as a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable.”[2]

I don’t know about you, but I have not one, not two, but six to-do lists! Aided by my iPhone’s handy-dandy list app, I keep lists for work, for home, for the grocery store, for personal things, clothes I need to buy, and house repairs. And while that may be my own special brand of neurosis, I don’t think most of us are so different. We evaluate ourselves based on how much we have to do and how much we have done.

But it’s not making us happier.

Dr. Brene Brown, the bestselling author and public speaker, says that busyness is a numbing technique that we use to ignore our own unhappiness, that maybe “if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.” All I know is that all of those lists and tasks don’t bring meaning to our lives. We may be busier, but we are also emptier. We may get more done more, but we feel less accomplished.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who is considered the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, sees this conundrum between seeking achievement and seeking meaning as being built into the human condition. In his classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” he points out that the Torah has two Creation stories, and thus two different descriptions of the Creation of human beings. In the first account, the story of the 7 days, Adam is created as a striver and a doer, the pinnacle of all Creation. This is the version of the story that says we were created in God’s image – we are also creators and achievers, like God.

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/NeULhhnui1Y/maxresdefault.jpgBut the Adam of the second Creation account, the story of Garden of Eden, is very different. He is a gardener and a caretaker. The focus of this “Adam the Second,” as Soloveitchik calls him, is on “understand[ing] the living world into which he has been cast…. encounter[ing] the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur.”[3]

These are the two sides of our nature, the two pieces to what it is to be human: the achiever and the contemplator; the master of the world and the appreciator of the world; the human doing and the human being.

We need both of these sides of us. Without Adam the First, we wouldn’t build society or create technology. We wouldn’t have the drive to envision a better future and work toward it. But Adam the Second is the one who puts it into perspective, who searches for meaning, who strives just to “be” – and to appreciate the here and now. We are not always very good at cultivating that piece of ourselves. And the result is the busy, stressed-out lives that we are living.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the renowned creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, writes that we spend much of our lives only “partially conscious.”

He writes: Because of [our] inner busyness, we are liable either to miss a lot of the texture of our life experience or to discount its value and meaning.[4]

Not long ago, I had a personal experience that taught me this lesson. On a visit to my parents’ house in New Orleans, I encountered a lizard sitting on a fence post. It was such an iconic scene that I wanted to take the perfect picture of it, so I took out my phone and started snapping pictures, looking for the right angle and trying to frame the shot perfectly. And then I was dreaming about all the comments I might get when I posted the picture on social media. And that was when it hit me, I wasn’t looking at or thinking about the lizard at all. I was looking at a screen while thinking about my Facebook account.

How much of the time are we really present? Try this experiment for one day: try to notice how you often your mind is focused on what is right in front of you, and how often it’s planning something, or worrying about something, or stressing about something that has already happened. We spend more of lives in the past and future than we do in the here and now.

https://i0.wp.com/lainiefefferman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/shofarblowing1.jpgMaimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, agrees that we spend much of our lives not fully conscious. And he believes that the High Holy Days are the antidote. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes sound of the shofar is intended to call to us “Uru yesheinim misheinatchem – Awaken from your sleep, you slumberers! Awaken and ponder your deeds!”

Have you ever done this? One day about a year ago, after having recently moved into a new house, I was driving home after Friday night services. I must have been lost in thought about something, because when I looked up I had driven – completely unconsciously – to my old house, almost 15 minutes away from where I was now living. I was so disoriented and confused that it actually took me a few seconds to figure out where I was. It was as if I had woken up from being asleep.

One of the tasks of Yom Kippur is to help us wake up, to help us cultivate mindful awareness and be present in the here and now. The idea is that for one day, the world stops – there are no obligations to attend to; the are no achievements to be made. There are only ourselves and the work we have to do.

Those of us who have spent Yom Kippur in Israel have witnessed the national manifestation of this. Almost the entire country shuts down – no one drives; no one goes to work; things are quiet. There simply is nowhere to be except here and now. Living in the diaspora we have to work a little harder to make this happen, by spending the day in thoughtful prayer and study. But the idea is the same.

And beyond this one day, this can be a larger model for our lives – a practice of taking time out to be in the here and now. Practitioners of mindfulness are familiar with what’s called the body scan – the practice where you lie still for a period of time (often 20 to 30 minutes), and attentively shift your focus from one part of your body to another. How do my toes feel today? What are my shins experiencing right now? When you do this, what’s amazing is that you often become aware of sensations or feelings that you hadn’t noticed before – things that you were actually experiencing, but that you were just too busy to take note of.

When we cultivate that kind of mindful awareness – on Yom Kippur or any day of the year – we become more attuned to our own experiences. And we become more grateful for them as well.

The Dalai Lama was once asked what a person should do in order to develop their own happiness. He answered, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life and I am not going to waste it.”

In fact, this is not so far from Jewish practice. Traditionally, we are supposed to start each day by saying “Modeh ani l’fanecha” – God, I am grateful that you have returned my soul to me this morning.” And then we continue with a series of blessings for seemingly mundane acts – opening our eyes, sitting up in bed, putting on clothing, taking steps. When we sanctify those little acts with a blessing, they aren’t little acts anymore. They are miracles.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel tells the story of a boy who ate a delicious sandwich and thanked his mother for it. But she replied, “Don’t just thank me. I only prepared the food.” So the boy went and thanked the baker who had made his bread. But the baker said “I only bake the bread; I don’t make the flour.” So next the boy when to the miller and thanked him, but the miller sent him to thank the farmer who had grown the wheat. And when arrived to thank the farmer, he was told “I only plant the seed and harvest the grain. It is the sunshine, and rain, and the rich earth from God that make it grow.”[5]

The Chassidic masters were particularly adept at cultivating that sense of radical amazement – the sense that everything in the world is a miracle. They believed it brought us closer to God.

I think it might also bring us closer to ourselves. All of the evidence shows that people who cultivate gratitude on a daily basis feel healthier and happier, and better equipped to weather life’s difficult moments.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains why:
Consider the mindset of a grateful person: ‘Look what [this person] did for me; he really likes me. Look how [such and such] helped me; she really cares about me.’ As we cultivate the feeling of gratitude, we also cultivate a feeling of being loved.[6]

When we feel loved, we can love others. When we feel cared for, we are more capable of reaching out to care for others. When we feel secure, we can live by our own values.

Return with me for a moment to Maimonides. In the Mishneh Torah he says that the Shofar calls to us:

עוּרוּ יְשֵנִים מִשְנַתְכֶם – Awaken from your slumber!
וְחַפְשׂוּ בְמַעֲשֵיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִתְשׁוּבָ – Examine your deeds and return in repentance.[7]

It is a not only a call to awaken – not only a call to awareness. But also a call to examine our deeds and consider our best selves. The shofar is an invitation to self-awareness.

Ultimately, the goal of this day – and really the goal of every day – is to live a life driven by our own values, a life that we are proud of and that reflects our deepest sense of self. This is something that you can start to plan for on Yom Kippur, but it has to be cultivated on a daily basis.

In mindfulness there is another practice called STOP. It is a short practice – about a minute or less – that involves taking stock at any given moment of the day. The word STOP is an acronym that stands for:

Stop
Take a Breath
Observe
Proceed

The idea behind this practice is to bring mindful awareness to what we’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing in a given moment. What is motivating our actions? What is causing us to behave in a certain way? When we are aware of our motivations, we have a greater amount of agency over what we do.

That’s exactly the work of Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah – exploring your own motivations and actions so that you can shift them in ways that are in accordance with your values.

When we are just rushing around getting things done, likely to be reacting to whatever’s going on around us. But when we stop and consider, then we control your own destiny. As Stephen Covey writes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Yom Kippur is that pause in the rushing river of life. It is the moment in which we stop to consider our actions and our choices, and whether they are in line with our own values. And it can be a model for the way we live our lives each and every day.

By slowing down, by cultivating a sense of gratitude and awareness, we open up that space to live our own lives, to focus on what matters rather than on what presents itself, to shift ourselves from frenzy toward meaning, from busyness toward happiness.

In the final comic strip of the Calvin and Hobbes series, the boy and his tiger step out the door to find a world blanketed in snow.

“Wow,” they say, “It really snowed last night! The world looks brand new! A new year… A fresh, clean start!” Then they sit down on their sled and prepare to shove off, and just before they do, Calvin looks at his friend and says, “It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy. Let’s go exploring.”

May we, too, spend the New Year exploring – exploring this extraordinary gift of a life we’ve been given; exploring our true selves and the selves we would like to become. And may this Day of Atonement – this day of awe and dread and aching and opportunity – be the catalyst that spurs us toward greater awareness, toward greater thankfulness, toward a greater commitment to serve others. Toward the happiness that we are capable of achieving.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3d/7e/15/3d7e157acdb594873738c8ac53729121.jpg

 


NOTES:

[1] Sarason, Richard. “Why Do We Need This Day of Atonement?” Mishkan HaNefesh, p. xx.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/owning-pink/201404/are-you-addicted-being-busy

[3] Ibid 17.

[4] Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living. Page 10.

[5] Rossel, Seymour. When a Jew Prays. Page 48.

[6] Telushkin, Joseph. A Code of Jewish Ethics. Page 96.

[7] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4.

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: A Sermon For Rosh Hashanah 5778

September 21, 2017 1 comment

Does anybody else here remember the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?

It’s about a kid named Alexander, about 4 or 5 years old, who is not having a good day.  He gets gum in his hair, and drops his sweater in the sink, and gets criticized by his teacher, and loses his best friend, and finds a cavity, AND has to eat Lima beans for dinner. It is such a bad day, that Alexander spends a whole lot of it thinking very seriously about just moving to Australia.

Now obviously, this is a kids’ book, and it describes kids’ problems. But I think we can all relate. We have all had days like that, where everything seems to go wrong, where things just aren’t as they should be. And I believe that we also experience something like this collectively, as a society. There are moments in history when things feel harder, when things aren’t as they should be. And for many people, right now is one of those moments. We turn on our TVs and we see massive hurricanes; flooding affecting millions; the storms getting bigger and the world getting warmer. We see wildfires in western Canada, an earthquake in Mexico, white supremacists marching through the streets of Virginia, and world leaders posturing over nuclear weapons in Korea. And it feels like the pages of a very scary children’s book – like our world having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Actually, it feels like another book too – the one you’re holding in your hands. This morning when we read the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, did anyone else feel like they were listening to this summer’s newsreel: Who is going to be hit by fire, and who by water? Who by war, and who by hate?

Un’taneh Tokef is Judaism’s traditional answer to why these kinds of things happen. And it’s not a pretty answer: It says that God is sitting on high for the next 10 days and making decrees. It says that your fate is being decided for you:

‏כבקרת רועה עדרו – As a shepherd makes the sheep pass under his staff,
so do You (O God) consider every soul, and decree its destiny.

This is an image of almost absolute helplessness, where we are the sheep, and the very hard things going on around us are God’s decrees. It’s a really troubling idea – that God decides the measure of your suffering while you sit in the sanctuary begging for mercy, that we are essentially passengers in a world where forces beyond our control are deciding our fate. We struggle with this passage every year. Some rabbis just skip that paragraph. We don’t want to hear it. We reject the notion of being so helples

Which is ironic, because we often do feel that way.

Recent studies have consistently shown that our stress levels are going up. For example, teenagers in Ontario are feeling anxious and depressed more than ever before,[1] and the numbers aren’t so different for adults. A Pew survey found that large numbers of younger Canadians are feeling pessimistic about their future – especially about finances and about climate change.[2] And south of the border, millennials are reporting losing faith in the very institutions of Democracy. Meanwhile, we are being told by scientists that climate change is pretty much inevitable, that the best we can do now is to try to minimize the damage. And for good measure, we are all watching the nuclear war games going on in North Korea.

It feels a little bit like someone is sitting on high and decreeing our fate. I don’t get to control whether a wild fire reaches my house. I don’t get to control whether a hurricane floods my city. I don’t get to control what the leader of North Korea does, or whether China implements pollution controls, or the rise of white supremacy in Virginia, or the incidence of anti-Semitism in downtown Toronto. These are things that happen around me, that happen to me.

And in that sense, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer actually describes beautifully how many people really do feel. It taps into a deep seated sense of helplessness – a sense of being small and powerless in a big, scary world.

So what do we do about that? How do we dispel that sense of helplessness? Well, we can start by trying to understand it.

The psychologist Martin Seligman has written extensively about a phenomenon he calls “learned helplessness.” He discovered through much experimentation that people (and animals) became “passive in the face of adversity [after] experienc[ing] noxious events that they could do nothing about.”

In other words, if something bad happens to you and can’t do anything about it, you tend to assume that won’t be able to do anything about it going forward either.

In one experiment, volunteers were separated into groups and subjected to an unpleasantly loud noise. One group was able to turn off the noise by pushing a button, while the second group couldn’t. Then, in part 2 of the same experiment, the volunteers were again subjected to the noise. Here’s the interesting part: those who had been able to turn it off in part 1 generally tried to do so again. Those who hadn’t been unable to turn it off in part 1 typically didn’t even try the second time around. They had learned from their past experience to feel helpless to solve the problem (Even through, by the way, they could have turned it off if they had tried.)[3]

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/full_width/public/thumbnails/image/1-bluemarble_west.jpg?itok=hRooa_1oIt’s not hard to see how that could generalize on a global scale. Problems like climate change, and racism, and nuclear war lend themselves – by their sheer enormity – to that sense that there’s nothing we can do. We might say to ourselves, “I recycle every week and I even bought a hybrid car, but the world is still getting warmer.” Or we might say, “I voted for the other guy, but I can’t stop this government, Chief Rabbi, this prime minister, this president from doing what they’re doing.

We feel a version of that all the time. But Seligman’s point is that the sense of helplessness is not actually related to the solvability of the problem. It is related only to past experiences. It is a learned response. And we can unlearn it.

The way that we unlearn helplessness is by shifting our thinking. By focusing on the things that we can change.

The business guru Stephen Covey says that each of us has a sphere of influence and the sphere of concern. There are a lot of things that we care about, and a much smaller number of things over which we have influence. And spending your time worrying about the things you can’t control is a recipe for feeling helpless, or dejected.

So what is our sphere of influence in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad? Which things do we have control over? Interestingly enough, the Jewish answer to that is found in the very same prayer that posed the question. A few lines after “who shall live and who shall die,” we read:

U’teshuvah ut’fillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagzeira.
Repentence, prayer, and acts of righteousness temper the severity of the decree.

Sometimes when we read this line it feels patronizing – if you pray hard enough and vow to change your ways, then God might forgive you. But that’s not what it says. What it says is that there are harsh realities in this world, but that repentance, prayer, and righteous acts have the potential to mitigate them. It says that these are the weapons in your Tikkun Olam arsenal, so to speak. These are the things you have control over when you go to repair the world.

Teshuvah, T’fillah, Tzedakah – Repentence, Prayer, and Acts of Righteousness

The Chasidim tell that a Jew once came to his rabbi and said “I’ve tried so hard to repair the world but it’s still broken.” And the rabbi replied, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself.”

Teshuvah, repentence, is the process of starting with yourself. It is the act of seeking to understand why we are the way we are, and how that influences the way things are around us.

And it turns out that teshuvah is good for your health. Literally.

A social psychologist named James Pennebaker conducted a series of experiments in which he asked people to write about upsetting or traumatic experiences, for 15 minutes for 4 days. There was a control group that was asked to write about something completely different. Then Pennebaker followed the participants’ medical records for a year, and get this – the people who had participated in the writing actually got sick less. They were literally healthier because of just 60 minutes of writing about challenging things they had been through. The catch was that only the people who had spent time analyzing and trying to make sense of the events had the health benefit. Those who spent the time venting, or writing about other things, saw no benefit at all. [4]

I don’t think the reason is mysterious. Those who have thought deeply about why things happen are more likely to seek support, or to try to shift things, and therefore more likely to feel better. We are better equipped to change what we have sought to understand.

The High Holy Days are a time to ask hard questions – about ourselves and about our world. And they are a time to find ways to change things. This is true every Rosh Hashanah and every Yom Kippur, but it is especially true when there are challenging things going on in the world.

Last week I was driving with one of my kids, listening to news about Hurricane Irma barrelling down on Florida. I come from a Gulf Coast family, so these things are personal – we worry about the people we love down south. My son and I were talking about how the storms seem to be getting more severe, and how scientists are telling us it’s related to climate change, and to human burning of fossil fuels. And then I pressed the accelerator and looked down at the dashboard of my gas-burning car, and I realized that I was contributing to that very problem even as we were talking about it.

That’s not a great feeling, but it is an opportunity for change. I don’t yet know how I might change my life as a result of that realisation – it’s hardly the first time I’ve realised it. But I think sometimes we need to realize things more than once in order to shift them.

Teshuvah – repentance – isn’t about beating yourself up. It isn’t about feeling ashamed. It is about making sense of our actions and our motivations, and of how they relate to what goes on around us.

And if teshuvah is the act of looking within ourselves for answers to hard question, then t’fillah, prayer, is the act of looking beyond ourselves.

There is a wonderful line in Fiddler on the Roof where the townspeople ask their rabbi for a “proper blessing for the Czar,” and the rabbi answers “May God bless and keep the Czar…far away from us.”

Prayer means seeking answers from something larger than ourselves. Sometimes it involves asking God to do things and change things. But often it’s more about seeking the strength we need to be agents of change.

Last month, as neo-Nazis were marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a group of clergy and faith leaders who marched as well. Arm in arm, singing and praying and trying to spread a different kind of message. In some cases they actually held back the white supremacist marchers. And wherever they went, they brought a sense of hope to an awful situation. One of the participants wrote, “They had their guns and shields. We had our songs, our faith, our love. And we had each other.”[5]

Wherever we pray, whether in the chaotic streets of Charlottesville or in the safety of our sanctuary, it can help lend us strength to persevere through difficult times. And maybe equally importantly, it can bring us together as community.

There is a story in the Talmud in which a Rabbi writes a new prayer, “Eternal my God, guide me in peace and direct my steps.” But his colleagues object that it should say “Eternal our God, guide us in peace and direct our steps.”[6] There is a power in togetherness that can transcend even the most difficult moments in our lives.

Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated my home city of New Orleans, people were scattered across the south just before the High Holy Days (not unlike what we’ve seen this year). One of the first actions taken by rabbis was to reorganize their synagogues in exile. Bringing people together to pray allowed them to seek some measure of healing.

George Odell wrote:
We need one another in our defeats
And [we need one another] in the hours of our success.

But those clergy who gathered in Charlotteville weren’t just there to pray or to be together – they were there to demand tzedek, to demand justice and righteousness in society.

When tragedy strikes, one of our first impulses is to want to give. Whether it is a hurricane, or an earthquake like the one that happened yesterday, we want to know what we can do to help make things better. That is tzedakah.

But interestingly enough, the Hebrew word Tzedakah, which our prayerbook translates as “charity,” actually means something different. It comes from the word tzedek, justice, and is a command to work for a fairer world. This could encompass charitable giving, to be sure, but it might also include volunteer work, community activism, and other concrete steps we take toward Tikkun Olam.

In a sense, tzedakah results FROM teshuvah and t’fillah – when we clarify our values, when we come together with others who share our vision for a better world, then we are equipped to do things to actualize that vision. The haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon teaches just that – that the High Holy Days aren’t only about what we do in this sanctuary. The real point is what happens after we leave these seats. The prophet Isaiah asks:

Is this the fast I desire, a day to starve your bodies?
No, the fast I desire is to unlock fetters of wickedness;
To share your bread with the hungry, and take the poor into your home. [7]

As we gather together on these holidays, we could ask ourselves as well about the larger meaning of what we do here. Do the prayers we chant here inspire us to go out and change things? Do the sermons we hear and the introspection we do send us back into the world ready to make it a better place?

The Reverend Alvin Edwards is Senior Pastor of Mt Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, and the creator of organization called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The group was founded in response to the 2015 church shooting in nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Rev. Edwards worried about what would happen if something similar happened in his community, and so he started to bring together clergy of different denominations to meet, pray, and cooperate on social justice. And when the time came, it was some members of that group, together with reinforcements, who marched arm in arm during last month’s violence. And beyond one difficult weekend, the group is making a regularly doing social justice work. [8]

It shows that there is still room in the world for people to make a difference. And I think we are doing similar work as a congregation. I’m proud of the connections we’ve created with Christian and Muslim congregations. I’m proud of our blood drives, and our work in feeding the homeless and advocating for refugees. I’m particularly proud of our emerging relationship with members of Canada’s Indigenous community – the work we are doing to put that issue front and centre.

https://i0.wp.com/www.chabad.org/media/images/157/Nezo1576755.jpgBut there is always more that we can do. I want to challenge us, as a congregation, to continue to focus on Tzedek – on righteous acts and building a just world. I’ll invite you to take a look at the work of our Social Action Committee, and to consider committing to one act of social justice this year. After all, if we don’t repair the world, who will?

King Solomon once challenged his advisors to find a magical ring – one that would make a sad person feel happy and a happy person feel sad. The advisors scoured the kingdom until they finally found what they believed the king had in mind. They brought it before Solomon who looked at it and smiled. For the ring bore three simple Hebrew words: Gam Zeh Yaavor – This too shall pass.

One of the lessons of Judaism is that things do pass. The way the world feels in one moment may not necessarily be the way it feels in the next. As Alexander says at the end of his terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, “There are days like this, even in Australia.” And part of our job is to reach into our inner resources and understand that the world still can be better, and that we still can play a role in making it so.

This year, may we be agents for good. Through our prayers, through our honest introspection, and through our acts of justice and kindness may we bring light into a sometimes dark universe. And may we do Tikkun – may we strive to bring healing to our souls and to our world.

Amen.

——-

[1] https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/number-of-ontario-teens-with-psychological-distress-rising-at-alarming-rate/article31042541/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

[2] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/only-37-of-americans-believe-todays-children-will-grow-up-to-be-better-off-2017-08-22

[3] Seligman, Martin. Flourish.

[4] Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 147.

[5] https://thinkprogress.org/clergy-in-charlottesville-e95752415c3e/

[6] Berachot 29b-30a.

[7] Isaiah 58.

[8] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-church-leaders-in-charlottesville-prepared-for-white-supremacists.

Causeless Hatred and the Jewish State: Have We Learned Our Lesson?

July 31, 2017 7 comments

What, I’m not good enough to be blacklisted??

Those were the words with which I jokingly feigned righteous indignation last month when the Israeli rabbinate released its “blacklist” of rabbis from whom they will refuse letters of Jewishness for new immigrants. Others of my colleagues had similar amused responses: congratulating those who did make the list, creating multi-step plans for getting onto the next one.

But the truth is, that list ought to horrify us. Especially today.

Kotel.jpg

Tonight begins Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On this day, we mark the traditional anniversary of the  destruction of the ancient Temple by Rome in the year 70. This is a seminal event in Jewish history: the beginning of a 2000-year exile; the loss of sovereignty that left us wandering around the world and vulnerable to antisemitism and persecution for centuries.

Like any event, the fall of Jerusalem resulted from a number of geopolitical factors, among them increasing animosity between the Jewish population and the Roman power structure, and General Vespasian’s need to prove himself in his bid to become Emperor. But interestingly enough, the Rabbis of the Talmud – the leaders of the Jewish community in the centuries immediately following those tragic events – did not put the blame on those factors. Rather, they placed it squarely on us: on the fact that we Jews couldn’t get along with one anther.

A story in the Talmud tells that the Temple was destroyed as a result of a grudge-holding socialite and a vindictive curmudgeon named Bar Kamza, who hated each other so much that one of them informed on the other to the Romans and brought the wrath of the empire on Jerusalem. Did that story actually happen? Probably not. But what did really happen is that the Jews of the 1st century were deeply divided into political and religious factions that despised one another. That they fought amongst themselves. That the Jewish factions burned one another's stores of food in the besieged city, making its residents vulnerable to Rome and hastening the destruction.

In other words, Rome didn't do it. WE did it. We destroyed ourselves by trying to delegitimize one another. The Rabbis call this Sinat Chinam – "Causeless Hatred" – and they credit it with bringing down the ancient Jewish state:

Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time [Jews] were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and righteous giving? Because of causeless hatred. This teaches that causeless hatred is considered to be as grave as the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed combined. (Talmud, Yoma 9b)

It is a stinging indictment of ancient Jews for infighting and mutual delegitimization. Too bad we are doing it all over again.

The last month has seen, among other events, the Israeli government’s decision to renege on its agreement to create an equal egalitarian section at the Western Wall, the release of the now famous rabbinical blacklist, and escalating attacks on women praying aloud at the Kotel.

Sadly, these events are no longer surprising. They are part of a pattern of behaviour on the part of both the ultra-Orthodox community (as encouraged by its leadership) and a government (in particular the sitting Prime Minister) that relies on Haredi support to stay in power. But we must not let the fact that such actions have ceased to surprise us mean that they no longer horrify us. Make no mistake: those Jews who shove women at prayer, who campaign against the recognition of liberal rabbis, who actively work to delegitimize Jews who are not like them, are following in the footsteps of the ancient Zealots who burned the stores of wheat. They are loosening the bonds between Jews around the world; sowing the seeds of causeless hatred amongst our people. They are, slowly but surely, bringing down the Jewish state.

It has been argued that since the vast majority of liberal Jews live in the Diaspora, they are (as non-Israelis) not entitled to a say in Israeli internal affairs. And yet there are many thousands of liberal Jews living in the state – both those who affiliate with the Reform and Conservative movements (a small but growing number), and the many more whose values align with those movements. Does any Democratic country have the right to discount the needs and rights of a minority population based on its smaller numbers? And even if this were not the case, the fact is that Israel is the only Jewish state, and has been entrusted with the care and administration of Jewish holy sites on behalf of the Jewish people. That gives it a responsibility to cast the net widely when it comes to defining legitimate Jewish practice and identity.

I love Israel with all my heart. I believe the goodness of having a Jewish state for the last 69 years is unparalleled in the history of our people. And I believe that we are capable of better than Sinat Chinam. Let us learn from the past, and work together to build a Jewish state that is a home for all Jews. One that is a political embodiment of K’lal Yisrael – the entire Jewish people.

Why I Walk to Shul: Shabbat As Mindfulness

https://i1.wp.com/churchillpolarbears.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/DSC_0078.jpgIt’s raining outside today, which has me thinking about an old joke:

Q: What does a bear do when it rains?
A: It gets wet.

Let’s contrast that to what I do when it rains:

  • First, I check the weather with Siri to see exactly what time it will be raining and for how long. Sometimes if I need more complete information, I go into Google because it also gives the chance of rain (by percentage) for each hour.
  • Next, I agonize over whether to wear my nice shoes or not. (I really don’t want to ruin them in the rain….)
  • Then, I search for an umbrella. It could be in the front closet, or somewhere in the foyer, or (most likely and least usefully) in the car.
  • Most often I don’t find the umbrella so I make a run for it. And then – just like the bear – I get wet.

We modern people tend to see nature as “other” – as a resource to be mastered, or a nuisance to be dealt with. This has been part of the human experience ever since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. We plant seeds and reap our crops, and then we make food and clothing and shelter out of them. We live on this planet, but not exactly in harmony with this planet. And we see ourselves as something higher, something other.

That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. Human civilization is the result of this kind of thinking. Morality comes from the idea that we are more than our animal impulses. And if we didn’t understand ourselves as the masters of nature, we could never have accomplished the things that we have – there would be no medicines, no cell phones, no space travel, and no gourmet recipes.

But the other result this kind of thinking is the otherness of nature. Rather than just getting wet like the bears, we spend time figuring out how to cope with, and mitigate, and change the natural world around us. How to remake it in our own image. And we tend to forget to stop and just appreciate it.

One “antidote” to this in the Torah is the Sabbatical year. The book of Leviticus teaches that every 7 years we should leave the land to lie fallow for one year, without planting anything. We do this because it’s good for the land – it allows it to refresh and regenerate. But we also do it because it’s good for us. It helps us to foster the thinking that we don’t always have to be trying to master nature. That we are a part of the world, and not apart from the world.

That’s a lesson we need much more often than every seven years. Which is why, fortunately, we get it every seven days.

Throughout Jewish literature, Shabbat is framed not only as a cessation from work, but as a cessation from creative work. In Genesis, God spends six days creating the world – shaping and forming and building – and then stops to rest. In fact, the traditionally forbidden forms of work – including sowing, reaping, baking, cooking, and cutting – are the processes by which we harness natural resources and use them for our own purposes. It’s not about exertion (God wasn’t “tired” after 6 days) – it’s about the fact that it’s good for us to stop trying to master the world and instead focus on appreciating it.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Sabbath that Shabbat is a day to “turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” In other words, to stop creating for long enough to appreciate what has already been created.

In modern language we call that mindfulness. It is the practice of being where you are. Not planning for the future; not worrying about what has not yet been accomplished; but being conscious and aware of what IS. This is not easy to do – the human experience is by nature a creative one. But there is also goodness in practicing appreciation.

https://i1.wp.com/static2.businessinsider.com/image/57d6fbcfb0ef97c5098b508f-1190-625/these-are-hands-down-the-most-comfortable-dress-shoes-youll-ever-wear.jpgThat is why I like to walk to shul on Shabbat.

It’s not that I think I have to – as a liberal Jew, I believe that I have the choice. But I am aware that I spend most of my life trying to get quickly from place to place. And when I’m speeding up the road at 60 km/hr, I’m not taking the time to appreciate the world around me. But one day a week I can slow it all down. I can see the sights, and hear the sounds, and walk through parks, and notice things I haven’t noticed before.

Do I always walk to the synagogue on Shabbat? I do not. Sometimes I’m running late; sometimes I’m in a hurry to get the kids out the door. But having it as an aspiration reminds me to think differently, to be more mindful and more appreciative. It helps me see the world around me not only as a nuisance, not only as a resource, but as a gift.

 

Go Ahead and Try: Why Pesach (and Judaism) Aren’t All-or-Nothing

April 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m going to risk the wrath of the Star Wars gods and disagree with Yoda.yoda_lulav

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is required to lift his ship out of the Dagobah swamp using only his mind. Skeptical of his own ability to wield the Force, Luke says, “Alright, I’ll give it a try,” to which Yoda famously responds: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

OK, Master Yoda, I get what you’re trying to teach us: Luke needs to believe in himself if he’s going to be successful. He needs to set his bar at “do” and not just at “try” in order to send himself the message that he’s capable. I can buy that in theory. I definitely agree with the notion that if you believe in your own ability, you have a great chance of success. But here’s the problem: What if Luke fails? Does that mean he’s hopeless? If “there is no try,” then Luke might think he should just give up.

I think we do that in our religious lives all the time.

We are two days into Passover, and I’ve already seen at least 3 Facebook posts that said something like “Damn, I forgot and ate a bagel. Guess Pesach is over for me,” or “Got tempted by pizza – better luck next year.” These are really natural and human responses – we try; we fail; we throw in the towel. It was “do or do not” and we did not.

But what if Judaism isn’t “do or do not?”

Why do we keep kosher for Passover? For that matter, why do we perform any Jewish ritual – praying, wearing a tallit, saying a blessing, lighting Shabbat candles? https://i1.wp.com/crossfitkernersville.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/no-bread12.jpgThe traditional paradigm was one of obligation – you fulfill it because God commands it. (That’s what the word “mitzvah” means – commandment.) But for most progressive Jews today, ritual is about more than ticking off a box on God’s big mitzvah list. We do these things because we gain something from them. They connect us with one another and with our ancestors; they help promote gratitude and mindfulness. These benefits don’t disappear when our observance is “less than perfect.”

It might be helpful to think in terms of “practicing” Jewish rituals rather than “fulfilling” them. Jewish living really is meant to be a practice – something that evolves and changes, and that teaches us things. In that sense, it’s very much like sports, academics, and meditation. In our academic and athletic lives, we understand failures as learning opportunities: when you strike out at the plate, it makes you a better batter. If you get a D on a physics text, it shows you what you need to learn more about.

I think it’s the same with our Jewish practice. Failing to live up to our own religious standards, and evaluating the feelings that come along with that, can give us a sense of what matters to us: what is important, what is edifying, and what is sustainable in our lives. And that can help us build a more meaningful ritual life for the long term.

(For what it’s worth, I actually think Yoda knew this – he had 900 years of accumulated wisdom, after all – but he conveniently left out for Luke that you can’t always “do” on the first attempt.)

When we have an all-or-nothing view of Judaism, we will be more likely to be afraid of failing, and maybe more likely to refrain to participating entirely. But you can’t “fail” Judaism. As long as we are thoughtful about our practice, and as long as we continuing to learn and grow and challenge ourselves, then we are doing exactly what Judaism demands of us.

“Not Very Religious” – A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777

October 13, 2016 Leave a comment

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.[1]

 

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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.

Amen.

——-

 

[1] Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.

[2] Ibid 123.

[3] B. Shabbat 112b.

[4] “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)

[5] Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.

[6] Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.

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