Friday, September 26, 2008

Product Placement: a Rosh Hashanah Message

At this time of year, rabbis are inundated with e-mails, web links and superbly constructed PDF files, as organizations aim to get “air time” during our High Holiday sermons. See A Different Kind Of Kosher Sermon from the Jewish Week to get an idea of what I mean. As organizations have become more marketing savvy, they’ve come to recognize that the High Holidays are much like the Superbowl, the one time of the year when people of all generations come together, and therefore all demographics can be reached. Now if only we got what the networks get for a minute of air time during the Superbowl, we’d have it made.

Not only do we hear from national organizations, but many local institutions also get into the act. Some bring over pamphlets and flyers, others ask for an announcement to be made. Of course, these are often the same organizations that balk at promoting our events, but never mind. We’re community-conscious, so we do what we can.

And we get lots of freebies. calendars, circulars, canned sermons (some of them quite good) and books. Lots of books. I might get more than some of my colleagues because I also get review copies sent to journalists. If the book arrives on time (read: just a few hours before I hit the beaches on Cape Cod), a reference just might slip into one of my sermons. It’s not exactly Oprah’s Book Club, but everyone is trying to recreate the gold standard set by “The Red Tent,” Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel that was floundering on the shelves until someone had the bright idea to send it out to rabbis before the holidays. The rest is history. I can tell you that next week I’ll be featuring recent works by Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Stay tuned.

I was thinking that synagogues might want to utilize the same kind of product placement techniques that work so well in movies. Imagine, during a raucous, tear-jerking sermon, having your rabbi pause, reach for and gulp down an ice cold Coke. On Yom Kippur, we would have to be a little more creative. Maybe I could say something like, “This hour of fasting is brought to you by Tums, the perfect companion for those going out for Chinese food tonight.”

This year, the “hot” topics include, appropriately, global warming (and see a nice JTA article on the topic of the Shofar and Environmentalism). There is also the major new initiative of the Conservative movement calling for an ethical “Good Housekeeping Seal” alongside Kashrut supervision. See Hekhsher Tzedek Launches High Holidays Drive for more background, and Rabbi Eric Yoffe’s op-ed in the Forward, indicating just how much support the new initiative has received from other movements. Even the Orthodox are now following suit with something similar of their own.

Darfur remains a huge concern. This week a letter was released: 275 Rabbis Urge Secretary Rice to Expand Sudan Arms Embargo. See the letter here and note that I am a proud signatory.

One thing I have not signed on to is “Rabbis for Obama.” (see Rabbis Launch Pro-Obama Group). This unprecedented move has been a source of much discussion among rabbis. There are significant institutional risks for a pulpit rabbi who endorses candidates. I never do, although I have no problem calling it as I see it when the need arises (as happened this year in our local Democratic Congressional primary when one of the candidates was an out-and-out anti-Semite). I won’t hesitate to say publicly, for instance, that the anti-Obama smear e-mail campaign directed at Jews, particulary older Jews in Florida, is despicable, because it uses deception to push all the fear buttons. But that still is not sufficient reason to endorse a candidate. I also know that the Obama campaign hasn’t been completely innocent in its depiction of McCain’s record. I also know that Sarah Palin, unfiltered, pushes my fear buttons all by herself. No need for all the e-mails you’ve been sending me!

A prime concern, and for me THE prime concern, is the threat of a nuclear Iran. Israel is central to our identity and destiny as Jews and Israel and the world are in grave danger. I was at the anti-Iran rally last Monday and was disappointed in the canned nature of the presentations and the lack of real concern felt in the (not too large) crowd. Even leading lights like Sharansky and Wiesel seemed like they were giving the same speech for the umpteenth time, and all the speakers lacked passion, given the urgency of this moment. See more on this in the Jewish Week editorial, “Rethinking The Rally.”

All that having been said, don’t expect me to get overtly political next week. Certainly not partisan. Also, don’t expect me to dwell on this one cause or the other. Many of them are most worthy - and I’ve neglected to mention the victims of recent hurricanes and of course, the current economic crisis. I have prepared a Social Action packet dealing with some of these worthy causes, which will be available at services this weekend and next week. I’ll make passing reference to a few of these matters during the sermons.

But I’ve always felt that the High Holidays are about the Big Themes. They aren’t about single issues; rather they help us recognize the unifying threads of a much larger narrative. They are about Life and Meaning and Purpose and Hope. They are about Teshuvah – our annual return to what we thought we were and a chance to re-imagine the dreams of what we hope to become. They are about community coming together to define itself and refine its vision. They are about human beings reaching out to one another, masks off, vulnerable and shaky, with compassion and love. They are about seeking God and finding one another.

So there will be nothing canned coming from this pulpit, though I’m indebted to a multitude of teachers and sources for the ideas I will share. When I lift my voice from the pulpit next week (and speak into our amazing new sound system), there will be no commercials, no product placement, nothing fake. The only product that I will place before you is my life, the wisdom I’ve gained (much of it from you) and the visions that need to be shared.

My best wishes to you and your loved ones for a year of sweetness and fulfillment.

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