by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Monday, April 29, 2013
High Holidays Sermons 5758: The Turning 40 Thing
"The Turning Forty Thing"
by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rosh Hashanah - Day 1, 5758
Has my behavior seemed a little strange to you lately? Don't answer that... Well if it has, it can probably be chalked up to what some have called, "The Turning Forty Thing." Now this is not to be confused with the turning fifty thing or the turning thirteen thing, but I'm beginning to find similarities.
A friend of mine, who had recently turned forty himself, gave me some advice on the eve of my big birthday. He said, when a man turns forty, look out for three things: 1) he begins to work out; 2) he shops for a new car; and 3) either: a) he seeks a career change or. b) his eyes start to wander. I listened attentively and within a month I bought a new car. Actually, my old car had passed 100,000 miles and I'd been thinking about it for a while anyway. I started working out, well for a few weeks anyway. And, well, then I considered the Jewish view.
Among our sages, Rabbi Akiba was an illiterate shepherd until the age of forty, when he began to learn the aleph bet and went on to become the greatest scholar in Jewish history. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was in business until the age of forty, then he studied for forty years and finally taught for forty more. And a hero of our Torah portion, Isaac, according to some traditions, was almost forty when Abraham bound him on the altar on Mount Moriah. He was exactly forty when he married Rebecca a short time later, when he finally outgrew his youthful traumas, including the death of his mother Sarah.
It's somewhat ironic, because you'll recall that in today's reading Sarah tries to rid Isaac of immature influences by chasing away Ishmael, who had perfectly played the role of the sarcastic, mocking teenager in baby Isaac's presence. So Sarah sends Ishmael away and, having no teen role model, Isaac skips teen rebellion altogether. He walks placidly with his father nearly to his grave and doesn't actually grow up until he hits forty, when finally, his eyes start to wander beyond his mother's tent and lo and behold, Rebecca shows up and, well, according to Genesis, chapter 24, verse 61: "And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at evening time and he lifted up his eyes and he saw and behold the camels were coming." So Isaac at 40 is doing his evening workout, his eyes begin to wander and sure enough -- he sees a new car. Then Isaac finally notices Rebecca, but of course only after she gets out of the car, and he loves her and where does he take her; why naturally, to Sarah's old tent. Finally, forty year old Isaac is ready to grow up, to close his circle of prolonged immaturity, so he takes his new wife into his mother's bed.
The problem is, Isaac never really grows up. He can never escape his mother's tent or the shadow of his father's knife. For an entire lifetime, he hears the echoes of his brother's mocking laugh, his older brother Ishmael, who could have taught him the ways of growing boys, who could have led for him on those secret marches in the hundred acre wood, who could have taught him how to climb a tree, how to walk on grass barefoot without being afraid of ticks, how to scream at the top of your lungs at a place where no one else can hear, how to go through that Peter Pan stage of eternal youth and fly, indeed fly, so that he could eventually plant his feet firmly on the earth. Ishmael could have mentored for Isaac that swerving roller-coaster path from childhood through nature to adulthood.
Instead Isaac languished in an eternal infancy, where his wife was to become his mother all over again and his sons reincarnations of his infantile self. Later on, both Esau and Jacob were able to break the mold but only after they got away from home. At that point, the story of Israel could really begin.
Both Jewish and modern folklore consider 40 to be the age of maturity, but how can it be maturity if all we are concerned about at 40 is the same things that we were concerned about at 13: our bodies, our vehicles and the opposite sex? In fact, the only thing that changes between forty and fifty, if a new book about turning fifty is to be believed, is the addition of earlybird specials to that equation. There is essentially no difference now between the teen and the elder. Society expects us to be the same, we expect ourselves to be the same, we want to be the same.
In his book, "The Sibling Society," Robert Bly remarks that in looking at old photos of people attending a baseball game in the 1920's, the faces of the fans look more mature than the faces of fans now. Looking at those old photos, one sees men and women who knew how to have fun, but they had one foot in Necessity. "Walk down a European street these days," he adds, "and you will see that American faces stand out for their youthful and naive look. Some who are fifty look thirty. Part of this phenomenon is good nutrition and exercise, but part of it is that we are losing our ability to mature."
It is sad, really. Adults try so desperately to remain teens so teens become defacto adults. Parents routinely sacrifice children at the altar of their own infantile needs and children carry with them the burden of having had to raise their parents. And it's only getting worse. Just as we appeared to be on the verge of convincing teens of the dangers of high risk behavior, such behavior seems to be rising dramatically -- among adults. Check out what's now in: Fatty foods, cigars, juiced-up caffeinated soft drinks, alcohol consumption, fast and reckless driving, "road rage" as it's now called, drug use and at least according to ABC, watching television.
In an attempt to draw attention to its fall shows, ABC employed a unique marketing strategy that feeds into a national inclination to indulge. Their "TV is Good" campaign, while tongue in cheek, is attempting to tap into what they perceive as our need to rebel against things that are really good for us, like reading and talking to our children. Hollywood images, like those of Julia Roberts chain smoking on the hotel floor in her film "My Best Friend's Wedding," are saying to us, "Go ahead; it's good to be a little bit bad; be that rebellious teen again, the one you never wanted to leave behind, the one you never really did leave behind."
One of the saddest aspects about the untimely death of Princess Diana was that this woman who taught us all how to be young, never had the chance to teach us how to grow old. I believe that at some point, her life would have settled down and she would have had wisdom to impart. But the world would not let that happen. This was a woman who was not allowed to get fat, so she nearly killed herself to avoid it; who was humiliated for having cellulite. She was supposed to stay eternally young so that we might have a fighting chance of doing the same.
And now she will.
She will always be 36, having blazed her way to immortal youth in a speeding car driven by a drunk evading or perhaps taunting a group of camera toting Hells Angels wannabees. It was a teen game of hide and seek being played out at adult speeds, and it was no game. And two kids have no mother because it was no game. And the world, which spent an absurd week looking for tears of anguish in the Queen's entrails and then guessing about who would sing at the funeral and who would wear what, never quite got around to understanding that it wasn't a game. I love the song but this was not about a candle that burnt too quickly in the wind. That candle didn't have to burn out long before the legend. Even life on the fast track doesn't have to crash land. Diana did a lot of good for the world and could have done much much more, if only everyone around her, had just grown up.
We are, let's just admit it, stuck at age 13, which was Ishmael's age when he was banished. Isaac got stuck because he lost his role model. We're stuck at that age because as we all know, 13 is a significant age for one reason above all: it's the age we stop going to Hebrew School. From time immemorial it's been the age of stunted emotional growth and the age of stunted Jewish growth.
It is my belief that we as Americans and as Jews, have got to grow up. And if we don't grow up now, we stand to lose everything: Our Jewish traditions and values, our precious state of Israel, our souls, our children, our lives. I intend to make a case for religious maturity during these next ten days, even as I am only beginning to grasp it myself. In the end it has little to do with turning forty, and everything to do with advancing past 13. We live in a flattened cultural landscape right now, where the thirteen year olds can be Home Alone, I ,II or III and the 36 year olds are considered lucky to die before middle age spread sets in.
So how can we grow up? Judaism makes it very clear that maturity is achieved through self control. "Who is a hero," asks tractate Avot? "He who conquers his own heart." Imagine my surprise when I heard virtually those same words uttered in the Disney movie "Hercules" by no less than Zeus. It was one of those precious moments of triumph, to hear Mr. Lightning Bolt himself echoing a basic Jewish concept expressed best in the Haftorah that we read on Hanukkah. "Not by might, nor by power but by the strength of My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts." What the Maccabees died for Disney has accomplished: Zeus is wearing tefillin. I nearly cried.
Other religions preach self control, of course, but not always as Zeus does here, as a moral imperative, the idea that doing good, sacrificing and giving to those in need, is of greater value than using power to indulge the self. If the Greek Zeus had really said those things, he'd have had to kick out half the gods on Olympus. Baccus and Narcissus would have been the first to go, but Zeus himself would not have been far behind.
Our Jewish heroes, even before Disney, have been heroes of the spirit, and that has always been the key to growth and maturity. We must be as well.
But we here at Beth El already are.
Many of you recall the Ten Days Project initiated last Rosh Hashanah. You remember the challenge: go ten days without gossip, excessive anger and other forms of Lashon Hara, evil speech. Of course no one succeeded. I didn't either. Nor is it possible to succeed completely. But hundreds upon hundreds tried it. And all of us were suddenly more aware when we were hearing or spreading gossip.
Did the Ten Days Project change the world as I had hoped? Well, yes in fact. Within our congregation, board meetings were noticeably friendlier this year. Even as passionate arguments were presented, the tone never got personal; and gossip rarely went beyond acceptable boundaries -- at least while I was in the room. I sensed that at services too, and at other meetings and classes. Now it may not have been because of the sermon. Maybe people just got tired of bashing each other. Or maybe we lost tolerance for listening to verbal garbage. Whatever the reason, there was a marked increase in civility; we proved that we do in fact have self control.
So now I believe we are ready for the next step. The Ten Days Challenge: Part Two. Last year we focused on what comes out of our mouths -- this year I'd like us to focus a little more on what goes in. Not just literally what goes into our mouths, but in the more general sense of what and how we consume: specifically in three areas that have been in the news this year: smoking, eating and watching television. I'm not saying that we can never indulge, but in fact that we must redefine the notion of indulgence so that we might feel the same satisfaction in taking in the good things that we do when taking in the bad.
Our first problem is that we always seem to wait for the government to tell us that things are bad before believing it. And then when the government places regulations on those things, treating us as children, we respond as children and indulge even more. Now don't get me wrong: Those in the tobacco industry who have misled us for all these years should be tarred and nicotined, and advertising of their lethal product should be restricted so that children can't be seduced by them. But we adults should know better -- at least those of us who were not already seduced in childhood and have to spend so much energy fighting the addiction. Hollywood should know better too. Hillary Clinton has noted that 77% of all films last year had scenes glorifying smoking, as did every film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. There is a marked increase in such films since the 1970s.
I wish I could stand up here and say that our Ten Days Project this year is to stop all smoking. I know that that would be vastly unfair to those addicted and meaningless to those who have been duped into thinking it's cool. My purpose here is not to punish addiction, but to prevent it.
I can say this: From my vantage-point as a rabbi and as halachic authority for this congregation, I inform you that smoking is unkosher. And smoking when you are in a room with other people is immoral. And smoking when you have family members who depend on your being alive for them is immoral too. God tells us in Deuteronomy, "Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously," a verse from which the Talmud in tractate Brachot derives the principle that a person must scrupulously guard his physical health. Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah, "A person must distance himself from things that destroy the body." Jewish law also states that a person is not permitted to injure himself. And finally, the Talmud rules that regulations concerning a danger to life are to be more stringent than ritual prohibitions. Jewish law clearly prohibits smoking.
Why then do so many observant Jews smoke? Well, there were some Orthodox authorities who while admitting that smoking is not a good idea, resisted an outright prohibition of the practice. The noted Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was among them. He died in 1985. Ordinarily the Talmud discourages us from disagreeing with a prominent rabbi after his death since he cannot defend himself, but smoking is no ordinary issue. It is an issue of Pikuach nefesh, of life and death, which takes precedence over all other mitzvot. Whatever is going on in the courts and Congress, it must be made clear to ourselves and our children, smoking is a violation of the letter and the spirit of Jewish law. It is unkosher.
Speaking of Kosher, one day late in the summer I picked up the New York Times, turned to page seven and thought the Messiah had come. These were the headlines, all on the same page: "Chief of RJ Reynolds Says Smoking Has Role in Cancer;" then next to that, "Warning on Raw Oysters," and finally, and this one really made my day, "No Burgers for Burger King." For this non-smoking Kosher vegetarian, who by the way has also never inhaled, it was a like dream come true. Judaism has always said that you are what you eat, and our laws of Kashrut are based on a value system that sanctifies life, limits the pain of animals and understands that our body is a temple, that we are each walking Beth Els, houses of sanctity. Smoking is unkosher and so is tainted meat. So are miracle diet drugs that cause heart valve damage. So is binge eating. Jewish tradition frowns on eating while standing up. Kosher means enhancing life and avoiding things that harm us. And most of all, Kosher means self control. It means becoming the master of our mouths, not consuming before looking at labels, and not eating everything we lay our hands on. To be Kosher, in the truest sense is to be a grown up eater.
One of my biggest thrills in Israel this summer was, walking along Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and seeing within a few blocks: Burger King, Pizza Hut, Sbarros and Kentucky Fried Chicken and they were all Kosher. Finally, at long last, I thought, Colonel Sanders has discovered our secret recipe for the sanctification of life.
(Drink from Hebrew McDonald's cup)
I'm not saying that ecoli bacteria can only be found in treif food (though there does seem to be a correlation). I'm saying that ecoli bacteria is treif. I'm not saying that one has to become completely Kosher to be a mature consumer of food; I am saying that it helps. But I know I've overstepped my bounds here: Whoever heard of a rabbi preaching to his congregation that they keep kosher? What chutzpah! How about for ten days? How about no Burger King for Ten Days (unless you're in Jerusalem)? How about looking at labels for Ten Days? How about eating real meals for ten days, without standing up? How about no diet pills for ten days? How about no smoking for ten days? How about no TV?
Ah, television. I did a terrible thing to my children this summer. We went on a week's vacation - and didn't bring along any videos. We watched a little TV, I must admit. But we also played charades. And Bingo. And we talked. And we did family things we otherwise would have been less far likely to do. A recent survey says that the average American father spends ten minutes a day talking to his child. I think the estimate might be a bit high. We know by contrast that in certain parts of Russia, earlier in the century, the Russian father spent more like two hours engaging in what they called "soul-talk," a verbal bath of grown up conversation going far beyond ball scores and "what happened in school today" and "who's got the remote?" We don't even have a word in our language for soul-talk.
Against this backdrop ABC is trying to have us believe that TV is good for us and that even if it isn't, it's all the All-American thing to do what's bad for us, just as all-American as getting sauced on beer from the Rockies 'cause that's how you get the girl and sipping Absolut Rosh Hashanah because they have sophisticated ads. Alcohol is the number one killer of people under age 24 and of princesses of age 36. It's really too bad that some of the heaviest hitters in the alcohol, tobacco and television industries are also some of the greatest supporters of Jewish causes, otherwise you might hear more Jewish leaders saying what I'm saying now. Take control of the bottle, of the driver with the bottle, of the leaf and the drag, of the pill and the patty of the remote control and of your life.
We now have various new ratings systems for the garbage that's on TV. So do I. Kosher and non Kosher. If it's Kosher it generally enhances the sanctity of life, if not, it stifles growth and numbs our moral senses. There are programs on TV that I would consider Kosher. Let's each of us make our list. We can include a few that are just plain fun. OK, I'll give myself Monday Night Football. Especially this week. TV's not all bad. Great events like Kennedy's assassination, the moon landing and Yitzhak Rabin's funeral became shared events in our global village, thanks to TV. There is some comfort in knowing that in our diverse society we can sit next to someone on a train and discuss an episode of Seinfeld or an interview on Nightline. But for the next ten days, let's pledge to reduce our TV consumption by at least two thirds. Let's monitor what we and our kids are watching and take control of our lives again.
I can hear Ishmael and he is laughing. He asks me, "When did you stop growing?" I tell him, "It is when you left. I made it to 13, just as you were, but then I lost the way." He laughs some more and tells me that I didn't need him to show me the path to maturity -- I only needed to become the master of my own heart. The path is laid out for all of us this day: for the next ten days:
1) Avoid consuming things that could kill you: if you can't seek help immediately.
2) Cut television consumption by at least two thirds: if you can't, watch reruns of "Green Acres" for ten hours consecutively. That will cure you.
3) Spend that extra time in mature conversation with loved ones.
4) Add to your life, on some level, the wisdom gained from the practices of Kashrut.
Ten days. That's all. The choice is ours. We can choose to follow the path toward maturity and enlightenment, or we can stay right where we are at age 13, rebelling against a parent who probably doesn't care anymore and a tradition we never really understood, disintegrating comfortably on our easy chairs, remote in one hand, doughnut in the other, Home Alone. It is time for us to get beyond Hebrew School, whether or not we liked it (get over it!) and get on with life. Being inscribed in the Book of Life by itself is not enough. On this Rosh Hashanah, may each of us be written into our own Book of Growth.
Rosh Hashanah - Day 2
You might recall that yesterday I explained that during these Ten Days I'd be stating the case for religious maturity. Yesterday I spoke of the need for greater self control in the ways we consume. This morning, we'll move on to a different sort of growth, that of a spiritual nature for American Jews. On Yom Kippur we'll turn to questions of religious growth in Israel, as well as how to grapple with our own fear of change.
I stated yesterday that Isaac was 40 when he finally began to mature, and that even then he had trouble escaping the dark shadows of his traumatic childhood, including the hasty departure of his only sibling Ishmael when Ishmael was thirteen and Isaac a mere tot. Thirteen and forty went on to become key ages of development in Jewish tradition. Thirteen was seen as the age of mitzvah, when one becomes fully responsible for one's own deeds. Forty was considered the time when one is developed enough to begin to follow the spiritual quest beyond all boundaries, to the greatest depths of understanding, to grasp the secrets of the universe. At forty, one is allowed to begin the study of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.
Now that I've finally gotten there, I understand that we need to change the timetable. The spiritual quest cannot wait that long. Ideally it should begin at infancy, and be nurtured throughout childhood, then intensified at thirteen, rather than cut off abruptly at that point. Everything up to 13 must be what advertisers call a teaser, so that the child understands that the good stuff comes later. Just as one cannot expect a child of thirteen to elect a President, not to mention clean his room, one cannot expect that child to grasp the secrets of the universe. A new survey done by the Wilstein Institute informs us that while Jewish education up to 13 lays a solid foundation, it pales in significance as a barometer to future Jewish involvement, when compared to the profound impact of teen activities, especially Jewish youth groups and camps, Israel tours and Judaic programs in college . The whole day school versus Hebrew school question has become almost moot -- it's what happens after 13 that matters most, because that's when real religious questioning begins. The mystery must be allowed to unfold throughout life.
In his new essay called "Restoring the Aleph: Judaism for the Contemporary Seeker." Rabbi Arthur Green recounts a story from the Zohar, that great source of Kabbalistic wisdom, about how Israel was accompanied into exile by God's name, "EHYEH," which also means "I am" or "Shall be." The name, however was broken. The alef of ehyeh remained in the heavens while the three remaining letters, heh, yud and hey, joined themselves to Israel. Without the alef, what was left was the verb "to be," but only in the past tense. The alef in Hebrew is what changes first person verbs from past tense to future. Without the alef, Israel retained a concept of God, but one that relied on the past, the memory of past glory, of past intimacy with the Holy One. What was lost was a sense of divine presence. What was lost was the future. What was lost was hope. Green speaks of the crying need now to restore that cosmic alef to American Jews, because, in spite of our successes in this country, we feel hopeless and godless.
If Judaism is to survive here, Green continues, it will do so because it meets the needs of new generations of American Jews. These include the need for small community and intimacy in the face of mass society; for safe day care for toddlers and high quality squash courts where Jews can socialize and exercise. But above all the need is a spiritual one.
This is where Green -- and I -- part ways from Alan Dershowitz, and join with Elliot Abrams, Barry Shrage and others who claim that American Jewry will flourish in the next century only with an intensified return to the life of the spirit. Dershowitz makes many excellent points in his new book, but he like so many is so wrapped up in a tunnel vision that can only see Jewish religiosity on an Orthodox model. He fails to understand that the spiritual side of Judaism can be expressed in manners that do not force the seeker into life patterns that, in style of dress, treatment of women, style of leadership and rigid interpretation of law, are simply unacceptable to most Jews on the eve of the 21st century.
Young Jews are seeking spiritual answers. They find the world a dangerous and alienating place to live and they want comfort and connection, yet they have gone beyond the fringes of Jewish communal life and don't know how to get back in, or simply don't think we have the answers. They achieve high levels of financial and personal success and find that wealth, status and glamor do not in themselves bring happiness and fulfillment. They take the accomplishments of science for granted but no longer see it as a saviour. So they seek something more, in a word, spirituality.
Our job as a seeking community is to restore that missing alef to the heart of every Jew. It is the alef of "ehyeh," of hope and holiness, and the alef of Avraham, the father of all seekers. We must do it through outreach, especially at difficult times in people's lives, when they are most hopeless and alone, most in need of that alef. We do it by taking God seriously, by struggling as we seek and by seeking as we struggle. We must do it with a sense of urgency, in that so many have allowed the inner life to grow cobwebs since Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We do it out of fear, we in our often cold, sterile suburban synagogues and churches have ceded the spiritual landscape to fundamentalists and millennial crazies who could send 39 people to their deaths seeking alien life behind the Hale-Bopp comet. The worst thing about that disaster, aside from the deaths, was that it made the rest of us petrified of our own souls and afraid even to gaze in wonder at a most awe-inspiring comet. It is noteworthy that one of the key actions taken by our Executive Committee this year was to go outside on the front porch and bless that comet. It's in the minutes. We must restore that alef because the world is in need of redemption, and because deep down we all know that there has to be more to life than the undulations of the stock market and more to Judaism than knishes and guilt.
To restore that alef, we first must understand that it is missing. We must wake up each morning and see the glass not as half full nor half empty, but as shattered, in desperate need of repair; broken, yet filled to the brim with holiness, if only we could see it. We have numbed ourselves to the eclipse of God. We go through our day to day lives in utter anesthetized denial. We have to restore the alef.
We have to reintroduce ourselves to God and reinvigorate prayer. If Judaism is to grow in us and in our community, it is time to grow beyond 13 and to give up paying lip service to a model of divinity that almost no one really believes. The vertical metaphor of a God up there, who answers prayers like a Jewish Santa, who inflicts punishment wrathfully and rules from some heavenly throne, that image is essentially infantile and stifling. It may have had its day, but for all intents and purposes that day ended between 1933 and 1945. That image of Santa God is our crutch, our security blanket to protect us from the fear of death, the ultimate separation. But few Jews believe it.
A modern scholar of Jewish mysticism named Daniel Matt recently wrote a fascinating book entitled "God and the Big Bang." He brings us to a more Kabbalistic understanding of divinity, one that is based on age-old tradition also strikingly apt to modern ears. He also happened to be the one who taught me how to read Torah when I was in fifth grade. Rather than seeking a God wholly separate from us, he says, we should see ourselves as part of God's Oneness, as a wave in a divine ocean. It is that Oneness with God that the seeker seeks, not knowledge of or favor from a distant God far above us. The Hebrew word for one, Ehad, and the Hebrew word for love, Ahavah, are of equivalent numerical value. Together, using gematria, they add up to 26, which is the numerical value assigned to the Divine name. To be spiritual, then, is to cultivate an appreciation of Oneness and to be open to the possibility of love.
We live in a shattered world, where separation endures. But whenever we forge connections, we sense that mystery unfolding. When we are reunited with loved ones, we feel a pull that cannot be explained. I was away in Israel for two weeks this summer, and by the end, I was ecstatic beyond words to be reunited with my family. When we are enraptured by a sunset, or a lover's touch, when we look at a piece of Torah text and discover to our wonder that it was talking about us all along, this is where we find God. God is not up there. She is right here, in the bark of a tree, in a friend's voice, in a stranger's eye, both within us and beyond us. In the words of the Zohar, "There is no place empty of God's presence."
The holiest moment is not Yom Kippur; the holiest moment is now. The Sh'ma, our declaration of oneness, is not talking about a God out there, but of a universe of which we are a part. That is one reason why we turn inward while saying the "Sh'ma," covering our eyes to increase intensity while remaining seated. In Daniel Matt's words, the Big Bang didn't happen somewhere out there, outside of us. Rather, we began inside the Big Bang; we now embody its primordial energy. With no cosmic parent watching over us, we have to care all the more for one another. When we speak of belief and trust it is a trust that we are part of something greater, a web of existence that is constantly expanding and evolving. When I hear God, it is through the still, small voice of conscience; when I see God, it is in your eyes.
With this changed model of God, how do we approach prayer? A tale is told of one who sat in study before the tzaddik Rabbi Mordechai of Nadvorna and before Rosh Hashanah asked permission to leave. The tzaddik said to him, "Why are you hurrying?" He replied, "I am leading the service and I must look into the prayer book and put my prayers in order. Said the tzaddik: "The machzor is the same as it was last year. It would be better to look at your deeds and put yourself in order."
The purpose of our prayers is not to teach theology but to spur us to reflection and action. The Hebrew verb for praying," "hitpalel," is reflexive, signifying a turning inward, a self examination. I have no problem distilling from our traditional prayers meaning that can nourish my inner spiritual life -- the yellow source book is in fact an attempt to reinterpret the machzor for post Holocaust souls but not to supplant it -- and there is nourishment simply from the act of reciting prayers that my parents and grandparents recited. We don't need to change the prayer book to restore the alef.
But we do need to re-evaluate everything we do with regard to prayer. Over the past five years we've been constantly working on our Shabbat morning services, trying to find the right formula that could reach as many diverse spiritual seekers as possible while being true to our traditions. We want to reach people at different weigh stations along the journey, and I'm very proud of what we have accomplished. We now include a healing prayer, where congregants come up to the front to recite names of loved ones and our collective concern is marshalled on their behalf. It is a singularly powerful moment. Our Torah discussions are getting deeper all the time, to the point where we are now going to extend them to Sunday mornings, beginning on October 26 when we return to Genesis.
And this year, the attention has turned to Friday nights. For the past four months we have been outdoors nearly every week. The Hazzan and I created an experimental prayer book that includes intensified congregational singing, Hasidic meditations, and reflective moments of silence. We've added an element of informality, with casual dress and sitting in a semi-circle. We've brought the experience of God into our services in a very real way, and your response to this has been unbelievably and unanimously positive. Although we return indoors tonight at 8, you'll find that our outdoor format will be for the most part retained and we'll be leading the service from off of the Bima.
And, in mid December, our congregation will have a chance to link souls and take part in a special Shabbat of renewal. We recently decided to maximize the potential and minimize the cost of this program by holding it here rather than going up to a Jewish retreat center. We want as many as possible to be part of this Shabbaton, complete with delicious meals, song and dance, discussions and workshops for all ages groups including children and teens, and creative prayer alternatives. I implore you to register your entire family for this experience.
People often speak about how Beth El is changing. It really isn't changing, in that I'm doing what I've done here for a decade, trying to reach out to others as I stretch my own spirit. But I do sense a coming of age in this congregation, a Jewish maturation that far outpaces my own. I sense here a deepening that has only made me deeper, a growing that has helped me to grow. I can actually now pray at services here! I don't have to be worrying about all the distractions that used to get in the way. I can even leave the pulpit sometimes to pray. And I nearly always leave to pulpit for discussions, rather than giving sermons from up on high. In fact I think I'll come down right now.
(Place bear on table) I'll place a token of rabbinic presence here for those who can't get used to the thought of a rabbi descending to earth. Call him Mitzvah Bear or Bear Mitzvah... (The Golden Calf was booked).
Just as we now have less of a need for the Santa God of the 13 year old, we now have less of a need here for the Superabbi who stands mightily above and the Superhazzan who prays his heart out for our passive listening pleasure. Now, at every Shabbat service, at least five congregants read from the Torah. Every week. Even at Bar Mitzvahs. I cannot tell you how proud I am of this congregation, which has come of age so much that we recently held a leadership retreat: On what topic? Not on how to survive financially but rather on how to improve the spiritual inner lives of our congregants more, through in-reach, through prayer and through youth programming. My God, I thought. They get it! I turn 40 and they get it!
You see, there is change here, but it isn't toward Orthodoxy or Reform. If you think that, you're looking at the wrong map. There are two kinds of synagogues on the American scene today, congregations of memory and congregations of choice. Both types cut across the old denominational lines. The synagogue of memory typically contains people who are there because that is where their parents prayed, or it at least feels like the place where they grew up. But people who join a congregation of choice choose to be there not because it reminds them of what was, but because it has a clearly defined vision that people believe in and can articulate. Comfort is not the primary goal, but rather challenge, and change is the operative mode rather than preservation.
For many decades almost every Conservative congregation in this country was a congregation of memory. As Jews became Americans, in a process that took three generations, what they wanted most was to maintain those ties to the past, to feel at home in a strange new world. Now that is changing. While there are still many congregations of memory that have large memberships, they are not the future. The congregations that are showing the most phenomenal growth are congregations of choice.
And now, for the first time in our history, a rabbi of Temple Beth El can say that we are a congregation of choice -- as of last May 21. That was the historic day that you voted for a vision, a strategic plan that all of you had a chance to craft. Now it so happens that our vision contains components of a congregation of memory: it wants us to be heimish and an extended family, a wide umbrella that reaches out. And we are. But don't be fooled, because the vision of Beth El goes far beyond heimish comfort. It empowers our leadership not only to provide excellent service to congregants but also to have expectations of them. It sees the Temple not as a catering hall or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah mill but as a holy community in formation. It is able to ask individual congregants make sacrifices for the sake of the whole and expect it, because we have a stake in one another. This is a Beth El that can hand out two kinds of pledge cards in a single week, one for needed funding and the other for your time, an equally precious commodity, and expect its membership to come forward, and to do so with enthusiasm. It is a Beth El that can set reasonable standards of academic performance and Shabbat attendance of all its students, as the Board did last month, and thereby not allow an essentially meaningless Bar/Bat Mitzvah to take place. It is a Beth El that wants people to be here because they buy into our vision, even when they disagree with some of it. It's OK to disagree because part of our vision is that we are pluralistic, embracing diverse opinions.
We have become a community of choice, a heimish one sure, but one that will never allow itself to become mired in memory. And I see this as our best response to the Alan Dershowitzes out there who say that Jews are disappearing. Ultimately, I believe that congregations of memory will disappear. Congregations of choice will thrive. We should all understand that, with the knowledge that there are still many less demanding, less challenging and perhaps more comfortable places to go in the New York area, places where a rabbi wouldn't dare descend to earth, places that will continue to lull Jews to sleep. Some of them might seem larger or more stable, but we've begun to discover the alef, the living God.
If the headline of yesterday's sermon was "The Body as a Temple," today's might be, "The Temple as a Body," because whether we realize it or not, we are linked together in a manner not that different from the way various systems of our body are linked. But the rabbi is no longer the brain or heart of that body. One might say that he is a key artery or maybe the conscience. Some might quip that the rabbi is a cosmetic or deodorant: helps us to look and feel good, until we notice that we are just as beautiful without it. I might also call the rabbi the tongue, the one who tastes new trends to make sure they're OK, and the one who speaks for the rest of the body, given strong signals from the brain.
You are the brain, you are the body; you are the soul. The era of rabbi as Big Daddy is over, and in its place we've ushered in a new era of empowerment. You don't need my blessing to be healed, although I know that my caring can be a source of great healing, not because I'm a rabbi but because I have the potential to be a spiritually mature and caring human being. As I seek oneness, I recognize that your illness is actually my illness too, and that if I am healthy, I can help you become healthy too. Since we're all part of the same body, I can be in some measure the antibody to your aching soul. But not because I'm your rabbi. Because you can do it too. There are no more spectators here. We can't afford it. Now that doesn't mean you have to read Torah for us every week. If you are uncomfortable having an aliyah, you can sit in the back. I think I will too. (sit) Since we are all part of the same body, others will lift you up if you feel uncomfortable or depressed, not because we have pity, and not because we "feel your pain" but because your pain is our pain.
Contrary to what the Dershowitzes and others are telling us, Judaism is about to enter a golden renaissance of creativity in this country. We can be part of it if we just take it seriously. Our ritual committee does. Did anyone notice anything new in our Musaf liturgy over the past two days? (Wait for show of hands)
(Line dropped: "A free parking space to the first one who gets the right answer.")
You might have noticed the introduction of the matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, into the Amida's opening section, known as the Avot. We've been doing it on Shabbat at Musaf for a few years now, and decided this year to introduce it on the High Holidays; now we seek your guidance as to whether to expand its use. The idea, which is spreading in Conservative synagogues, is that even this most sacred prayer can be altered slightly to add significant female role models. We use the names of our ancestors to motivate God to listen to our prayers; but, in that God is not just up there, we are also using them to motivate ourselves. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, all stand as significant parts of our Jewish body, of our expanded family.
Now the issue is much more complicated than this and I should note that there are valid reasons not to include the matriarchs, but we have decided to include them, for Musaf at least, as a statement of empowerment for women, and because we take the process of building a meaningful liturgy seriously.
I'd love a show of hands of those who noticed the change. And another for those who like it. Those who don't. Over the next several weeks, speak to me or to anyone on our Ritual Committee about whether you would want the see the matriarchs added to every service here. Because you see, Big Daddy will not be making this decision. The decision will be in the hands of those seekers who take God and prayer seriously enough to venture an educated opinion. It will be in your hands.
So it is time that we grow up beyond the age of 13, beyond even 40. Like Abraham, we have a choice, we can slay our own souls, freezing them at age 13, condemning ourselves to lives that are flat and empty; or we can slay our fear and live to ascend more mountains (climb steps). We can restore the alef to Avraham and bring hope to the world. Through our faith, the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob, Rachel and Leah can live again. May we pray for the courage to truly change what needs to be changed and the faith to welcome the new spirit that is within us.
"Eating From The Tree of Knowledge - Feasting on the Future"
Kol Nidre - 1997
Remember the Wise Men of Chelm - those legendary shtetl-dwellers who were just a bit to wise for their own good? They once got embroiled in a deep scientific argument. "Since you are so wise," said one, we'll call him Beryl, "try to answer this question: Why is it that when a slice of buttered bread falls to the ground, it always falls on the buttered side?" "Not so," said the other one, and they went back and forth for days and days, until finally they decided to do an experiment. The second Chelmite, Shmeryl, goes and butters bread and drops it and sure enough, it falls on the unbuttered side. "There, you see?" he boasts. To this Beryl responds in protest, "Ho ho, you think you're so smart! You buttered the bread on the wrong side!"
Long before Einstein and long before Chelm, religion and science always appeared to be at odds, one seen as a force of the past and the other a vision of the future; or at least that's what we were led to believe in our predominantly Christian culture. Ever since the Garden of Eden, we've been told, technology is our mortal enemy. When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Bible as filtered through Christianity tells us that they received severe punishments. How severe? Oh my God, the worst. Adam was told he would have to work for a living and Eve was told that she'd have to endure some pain at childbirth. Now, I am not one to comment on the pain felt at childbirth, but I do know that it didn't prevent Adam and Eve from working the land and having kids.
In fact, Judaism by and large does not see what happened at Eden as a sin at all, much less the "Fall of Man," and the consequences are hardly considered a punishment. That's something Christian theology requires; If you're going to base your religion on a Messiah who's already come, he's got to have come for a reason, and for Paul, the Eden story provided that reason: to save humanity from a state of sinfulness, to raise it up after the Fall, to reconcile humankind and God, who had been estranged by that apple thing. For Jews: there was neither a Fall, nor the need for someone to die to make up for that so-called sin.
So what then is the Jewish message of Eden? One way of looking at it is as a stage of growth, of religious maturity. Oh, there I go again -- religious maturity. Only when Adam and Eve had eaten from the fruit of that tree were they ready to go out into the world, have kids and earn a living. They needed to gain the wisdom with which they could enter the arenas of the workplace and the home. The evolution of the Divine-Human partnership required this step.
Eve was condemned to have pain in childbirth, but were her daughters? Adam was condemned to toil in sweat, but were his children? The answer is no. Because of the moral knowledge gained from the tree, Adam and Eve were deemed ready to go out and find technological solutions to these problems. God's first commandment to them was, "Be fruitful and multiply and subdue nature." But if they had been allowed to do that without first eating the fruit of moral discernment, it would have been disastrous. They couldn't just be given fire, they had to be taught how to use it. They couldn't be entrusted with sexuality either, without understanding its enormous potential for both good and evil.
And so they learned. So Adam and Eve left the garden and immediately invented two things: tractors and the epidural, and then, the laptop computer to make work oh-so-easy and, just to make reproduction more interesting, this year, cloning. Just think of it; finally, womankind has been able to overcome the greatest source of childbirth pain: the male partner. With cloning, you no longer need men.
And so, let's talk about how we Jews can become true partners of God. As descendants of Adam and Eve and Einstein, we needn't fear the future, we should embrace it. One could say that my Kol Nidre sermons have had a decidedly technological bent lately. Two years ago, I spoke about the potential and dangers of the Internet, long before many people had heard of it. Last year I spoke of the implications of life on Mars. Tonight, we face the brave new world with bravery; the millennium with confident expectation. Tonight, we visit the future.
A few years ago, I went to Disneyland and was shocked to see how one area of the park seemed more dated than the rest: Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland was actually a 1950's perspective on what they probably thought life would be like in the 1990s, and it looked less like our vision of the future than a rerun of the Jetsons. I enjoyed it, but I never expected Tomorrowland to be appreciated most for providing a trip down memory lane.
In fact, America stopped dreaming of the future sometime around the late 1960s, just after the New York Worlds Fair and before the moon landing. At that point the accelerated pace of change made it hard to keep up and a general malaise set in. It is somewhat ironic that the most noteworthy cultural expression of forward thinking of the next decade came in a musical about an orphan living through the great depression of the 1930s. Only people from yesterday were entitled to dream about tomorrow. Now for most of the developed world, the future has returned. With the nuclear threat of the Cold War behind us, people are dreaming about tomorrow again. Tomorrowland itself has been remodeled.
Futurists have come out of the closet and now are boldly predicting vast changes in the way we live. The World Future Society of Bethesda MD. predicts that supermarkets will soon become hydroponic greenhouses where shoppers will pick their own produce from the vine. By 2006, people will have diagnostic meal preparation machines. If you eat too much, the machine will tell you to exercise. Jews invented that centuries ago: it's called "mother." Experts predict the development of cows that produce low fat milk, and disease resistant potatoes grown by crossing them with a chicken gene -- a nightmare for kosher eaters and vegetarians, but it could make french fries taste like chicken. By 2020, the complete human DNA structure will be mapped. Even before a child is born, doctors will know almost everything to know about that person's appearance and personality. Soon there will be a pill that could alter hair color. With genetic medicine, a child born in 2010 will be able to live, literally, ad meah v'esrim, until 120. At that point Jews will probably say, "You should live to140!" But with the world's population density expected to increase dramatically and with people moving around so much more, don't expect the picture to be entirely rosy. Undoubtedly new and even more cataclysmic diseases will develop. Hard as we try, we'll never be able to defeat death. That tree of life in the Garden of Eden will forever remain untouched.
Electric cars and high speed trains are already in the works. Amtrak will hit speeds of 150 miles per hour in the northeast corridor by 1999. Single family homes will slowly give way to collective condos, especially in the second decade of the next century as the aging baby boomers turn the whole country into one big Florida. As for money, we are already transforming ourselves into an essentially cashless society. Computers will become more portable. We are very close to replacing the telephone with video, and with instant language translation programs, the global village is about to become much smaller.
So how is a religiously mature Jew to respond to the future? We can't run from it in fear, nor should we embrace all technological change without a skeptical eye. Skepticism is where religion comes in. It forces us to pull on their reigns and say: Wait a minute; is this really good? What are the ethical implications and how can we address them? Where does partnership with God end and outright insurrection begin? When does a simple construction project become the Tower of Babel?
As we approach that dreaded millennium, keep one thing in mind and it will make you feel better. It's not our millennium, not even our century. Our 59th century began 58 years ago, at a time when the world was at war and tomorrow was the last thing the Jewish people could reflect upon. With that said, let's now look at this year's most traumatic innovation, cloning, from a Jewish perspective. I guess you can now call this my Clone Nidray sermon. Or, as a subtitle: The Lord is My Shepherd."
First of all, and I know you've been waiting for this: Dolly is kosher. You can eat her, and her little lambs too. Second: Is cloning playing God? Well, yes. But I contend that that is exactly what God wants us to do. Otherwise, why allow us to eat from that fruit of knowledge? Otherwise, why allow for the genetic research that this summer isolated a gene that produces colon cancer in Ashkenzi Jews? The Torah says, "You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlement on the Shabbat." Shabbat is our antidote to untempered faith in progress. But the implication of that verse is that we can light the fire the other 6 days of the week! In fact, we must! Six days you shall do sacred work -- melacha; six days you shall use your Godlike knowledge to manipulate nature, while also guarding over it; six days you shall be creative and invent worlds, just as God invented the world in six days. But on the seventh day, pull back and, like God in the creation story, take a good solid look at what you've done and make sure that it is life-enhancing. That is why we need Shabbat now more than ever before.
Judaism has no Pandora's box, just a Tower of Babel and that tower is a lesson not against curiosity and creativity, but a warning not to overreach. There are limits, and God has a way of letting us know when we have gone beyond them. Otherwise, we follow the human imperative that has been in place since Eden: as Robert Oppenheimer said regarding splitting the atom, "When you can do it, you do it."
Another Jewish ethical dilemma: If cloning can be performed technically without need for a father, doesn't that conflict with the Torah's first commandment, made to man and woman, "Be fruitful and multiply?" We now have the potential to create human life without sex, which is not new, and without men, which is. As a man, I've got to say, this is scary. And it's scary for women too, because the birth mother isn't necessarily the genetic parent. OK, so Dolly's kosher, but is she Jewish? How can you tell, if she has potentially two mothers? And don't say it's because her lamb chops are greasy.
Maimonides tells us that the commandment to procreate is meant especially for the man -- so there is a halachic problem here, but not one that couldn't be resolved.
Next question; and this gets closer to the crux of matter: Is cloning tampering with the image of God? Well, what is God's image? Is it the color of the hair? Is it the potential to carry genetic disease? The height? Vocal talent? Or is it something more intangible? The Talmud in tractate niddah speaks of God as a partner in the creation of each new human life: "Shlosha Shutafot yesh b'Adam." Human beings have three partners in creation: "Ha Kadosh baruch Hu, Aviv, V'Imo." Mom, Dad and the Holy One.
God provides the stuff of life, the uniqueness of each individual, and that can not be cloned; Just as identical twins aren't really identical, Tiger Woods' clone would not necessarily even want to play golf, much less play it as well. We can't clone the soul. No two people are exactly alike and that is the miracle -- that is the partnership with God.
Finally, the most important real question we must ask about cloning is: does it enhance life? The triumph of life over death is what we seek as Jews, and any victory for life is to be embraced. Here the jury is out. Israel's chief rabbi Lau has stated that to the extent that genetic research is used as an instrument of healing, it is allowed. In vitro fertilization heals barrenness and certainly tilts the balance in the favor of life; so that is acceptable. Surrogate motherhood could be defended in this way. But does it add to life if a person is cloned to harvest his organs, even if it saves the life of the donor (but at the expense of the clone's life)? Absolutely not. The Talmud is clear that no one human life is more valuable than another. And if Michael Jackson wants to clone himself so that an extension of him will live on, that kind of narcissism is exactly what produced the Tower of Babel. That is overreaching. Cloning as an act of arrogance is evil, cloning as an act of healing could be OK.
But what if it gets into the wrong hands, some have asked. My friends, I am less far less worried about cloning technology getting into the hands of Michael Jackson than I am of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of Iran - and that is already happening. If we are going to worry about something, let's worry about that.
On the subject of the holiness of medical advances that can heal: when you came in tonight you received organ donor cards. While Jews won't normally allow for the mutilation of the human body, with autopsies generally frowned upon and cremation prohibited, that concern is overruled if an organ could save a life. Most Jews don't know that to be an organ donor is one of the greatest mitzvot. To save a life is to save the world. And now that you know it, we all can become God's partners in repairing the world. To be an organ donor requires faith, faith in the future, in the idea that the end of our life will not mark the end of our chance to enhance life, and that our lives somehow have a purpose. I shudder when I make this remark, because it reminds me how fragile life can be and how healing the simplest act can be. If all of us were to fill these out after the holiday, I suspect that at some point in the near future, at least one life will be saved. How insignificant this renders everything else I've said and done over the past ten days. If only Princess Di had been an organ donor, she'd have been able to accomplish even more in death than she did throughout her many years of public service.
If we see ourselves as God's partners in a crusade to enhance life here on earth, we can transform medical advance and technological discovery into a religious experience. We mustn't run from the future, we must mold it.
A marvelous Midrash discusses the Roman sport of gladiator fighting -- two gladiators would fight until one is near death, the victor looks up to the crowd and waits for the decision: thumbs up or thumbs down. Thumbs up and the loser lives, thumbs down and he dies. Now Jewish sources are consistent in their disdain for this type of activity. The question that comes up is, should a Jew rightly distance himself from it? The sages were virtually unanimous in recommending that Jews boycott. Except for Rabbi Natan who said that Jews should attend these events whenever possible, and always vote thumbs up.
I agree. We must not disengage from the world around us. Only by bringing the best of our values into the various arenas of our lives can we fulfill our purpose as Jews -- to enhance holiness on earth. Those who shut themselves up in ghettos to keep out modernity are the Jewish equivalent of the groundhog on a sunny winter's day. It is up to the rest of us to come out of the ground and proclaim the spring. The image of Rabbi Natan at the stadium brings to mind Orioles Park in Baltimore, where there is not only a Kosher food stand, but an evening minyan after the fifth inning of night games. Imagine, at the very moment the gladiators are going at it out on the field, somewhere in the stadium at least ten Jews are praying for peace. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to project all our compassion, our sense of justice and our concern for life, out in to the world. They need our thumbs up. God does too.
On a winter's day in 1979, during my first year at my uptown rabbinical seminary, I decided to make pilgrimage to the World Trade Center. It was on that day that I began to understand that Judaism and modern life are essentially compatible, and that if they join forces forging the future, then tomorrow can shine like the top of the Chrysler building. I was mourning my father at the time, and eager to fulfill one of his final requests -- that I purchase my own Talmud. My relatives had pooled together a few hundred dollars to make possible the acquisition of those twenty huge volumes of transcribed Babylonian academy discussions that took place over fifteen centuries ago.
The Lower East Side by way of the Twin Towers seemed the way to go. Centuries of striving could be navigated within a few city blocks. The journey to my ancestors' Babylonia had to begin with this contemporary Babel, for the Towers are modernity's holy of holies. A century ago it was the Statue of Liberty that inspired such secular devotion, she of the immodest elbow exposure, the chutzpah to study books and the unnaturally sculpted nose. Jews liked that, for she reminded them that they could shed their beards here and discard their Sabbath, but keep their bagels and earthy sense of irony, as they pushed their way up the ladder. For secularists of the next generation, the Twin Towers picked up where Lady Liberty left off.
I rode to the top and was entranced by the view. The Hudson was a frozen, grey, meandering ribbon stretching out toward the Catskills, which looked like gasping dogs beneath me in the distance. The buildings, in contrast, were mighty: the jagged Chrysler, the sharp-stepped Empire State, and the U.N., a massive bookend holding the East River in its place. The waterways were clogged arteries, but the bridges glistened from the same ice, as trucks edged along them delivering life to the periphery. Directly ahead, the traffic copters skipped like rams from cloud to cloud.
The exhibit at the top was, appropriately, on the history and future of world trade. It brashly predicted a new multinational order, where capitalism would unite all in the pursuit of happiness. Communications would be instant and global. Disease would be defeated. Cloning would be commonplace. In less than two centuries, a cure for death itself would be found. Immortality, at last, would be ours. We would become as gods.
I was shaken by these divinations. If God was going out of business, I feared, I was going into in the wrong profession. I hastily left the Towers and made the cross-town dash to H and M Skullcap on Hester Street. The faces quickly changed, from the coifed and moussed white shirted Wall Streeters, to the craggy, ancient, and dusty black-frocked proprietor of H and M. He too had to climb a tower, a ladder, to the dusty warehouse loft where the editions of the Talmud were kept. He showed me several. I chose one with a yellow cover, opened it, and on the first page I saw, incredibly, another tower, this one looking like a classical Roman palace, with surrounding columns and two roaring lions in front. Well, not exactly roaring. These were Jewish lions, with faces looking sort of like my grandfather Shloime's; more kvetching than roaring.
At that point I recalled the classic Talmudic tale of a rabbi who overrules the voice of God in making a key legal decision. That rabbi wins the day, and up in heaven, God responds not in anger at this impudence, but rather in pride, boasting like a proud parent, "My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!" Hardly a hostile takeover. I began to understand that, in spite of the yawning gap of time and milieu -- a culture shock that New York provides every three blocks anyway -- Wall Street and Hester are not that different after all.
It's now been nearly two decades since I ascended the Twin Babels, cloning has become a reality, global communication is instantaneous and international realignments are based primarily on economic considerations. Yet the influence of religion is also growing. No need for religious folk to be threatened by the strivings of a triumphant capitalism. Reality has a way of slapping the face of those who overreach, be they religious or secular fundamentalists. Let us join these towers together, the Wall Street edifice of economics and the Hester Street tower of tradition. Let us bring them together so that together all of us can engage in a noble stretching of limits, guided by the insights of our audacious and forward-thinking sages.
We must not fear the future. Judaism demands that we encounter the world, never shrinking from a challenge, never running from change. We must encounter the world and, with all the wisdom we have accumulated over the ages, heal its wounds. We can solve any problem. We can find work for the poor and feed their children. We can cure AIDS and Alzheimers. We can repair the ozone and moderate global warming. We can alter DNA to fight Tay Sachs and cancer. As Jews, with so much to teach, we can and must lead the way. That's where they have it wrong behind their walls in Boro Park. That's where even in Israel they are at a disadvantage. We here in America are in a position unprecedented in Jewish history; and we here at Beth El have the spirit and the resources collectively to make a huge difference, if we build up our temple and take our vision out into the world. We can help to mold the future as never before -- and may we help it to choose life. Amen.
Yom Kippur Day - 1997
In the spirit of my comments of the past ten days, this morning, a survey of a Jewish world at a precious crossroads, ready either to take bold steps forward, or to face a debilitating stagnation.
On the surface, these would seem to be the worst of times for the Jewish people. In Israel, the peace process appears doomed. And when Jews and Arabs aren't antagonizing each other, Jews are fighting other Jews. Conservative and Reform Jews were physically assaulted by fundamentalist Haredi Jews as they attempted to pray near the Western Wall on Shavuot. And then, when they returned on Tisha B'Av, for good measure they were roughed up again, this time by the Israeli police. Large numbers of former Soviet immigrants are denied the chance to convert to Judaism by the Israeli rabbinical establishment; leading to inhuman occurrences, such as the case of the 92 year old immigrant killed in the Jerusalem terror bombing last July who was not allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. For six days her body was left in hospital mortuary, until a Kibbutz finally stepped forward and offered space in their cemetery. On the seventh day, she was laid to rest. There have been death threats against non-Orthodox rabbis, a fire bombing of a reform movement preschool, and outrageous statements such as this one from Hamodia newspaper: "Reform Jews are spiritual Nazis. The Reform movement is a quiet Holocaust, which if not stopped, will succeed in destroying the Jewish people."
Here in America, if possible, things seem even worse. It appears we're about to become extinct: Judeosaurus. It has become the "in" thing for large media outlets to proclaim in banner headlines, "Are American Jews Disappearing?" Surveys have been met with counter surveys, lecture tours with counter lecture tours, books with books. The schools of thought range from the Alan Dershowitzists, who say, yes, we're disappearing, and Jewish literacy is the only answer; to the Elliot Abramists, who say yes, we're disappearing, but a return to religion is the only answer; to Egon Mayer and the Outreachists, who say yes, we're disappearing, and outreach to the intermarried is the only answer; to the proponents of Inreach, who say yes, we're disappearing, and the only answer is to strengthen the core; and then there are the Leonard Fein-led social activists, who say yes, we're disappearing, but only because we've abandoned our agenda of repairing the world, to the day schoolists, who say yes, we're disappearing, because of a lack of funding for substantial early Jewish education, to the adolescentists, led by this year's survey done by the Wilstein Institute, who tell us that we're disappearing because of insufficient emphasis on teen activities; and then there are the good old fashioned Zionists led by Hillel Halkin who say yes you're disappearing and there is nothing you can do to stop it, because assimilation is an inevitable bi-product of the Diaspora and you chose not to live in Israel, so good riddance.
Then, out of the blue came J.J. Goldberg, a Jewish journalist who wrote in the New York Times that we're not disappearing at all.
Well, what Chutzpah! He wrote that the1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which started the panic by stating that the intermarriage rate had hit 52 percent, was seriously flawed. The actual rate intermarriage was really 38% at that time and since has leveled off. So maybe we're not disappearing at such an alarming rate after all. But this leaves us with a new quandary. If we're not disappearing, what do have to panic about?
With antisemitism virtually defeated and most Jews around the world free to move where they chose, with Israel facing severe internal crises and a prolonged battle against terrorism, but strong enough militarily to defend against any outside threat, with lapsed Jews returning from the fringes even as many leave the fold, with even the Secretary of State exploring her Semitic roots, with day schools bursting at the seams and Jewish High Schools proliferating, these aren't the worst of times at all. Just half a century after the Holocaust, how could we have the chutzpah to complain about the Jewish condition today? With Israel about to begin her fiftieth year, and just 100 years after Herzl foresaw a disastrous fate for the Jews of Europe, how could we possibly complain? Why are we panicking so?
There are two reasons: 1) Panic raises consciousness and 2) Panic raises money. Either way, the assumption is that fear is what motivates people the most. I don't believe that. I believe that hope is what motivates us the most. Vision motivates us -- that alef I spoke of last Friday. A Judaism of choice. Not guilt. Not memory. Not nostalgia.
Fear motivates best only those who are least able to control their own destinies. Fear motivates children. Children are helpless. You want to get a child to succumb to your will, you threaten him. He'll do your bidding. But if you want him to grow up, you nurture that child with vision, with hope, with dreams. We don't want obedient Jews, we want grown up ones. Petrified Jews will lead inevitably to a petrified Judaism.
Mature Jews thrive on dreams. Elie Wiesel has said, "Faced with despair, the Jew has three options. He can choose resignation, total resignation. Or he can seek refuge in self delusion. But then there is a third option, the most difficult but the most beautiful of all. To face the human condition and to do so as a Jew. Voltaire said, When all hope is gone, death becomes a duty. Not so for Jews. When all hope is gone, Jews invent new hopes."
Friends, it's time to grow up. There is much to be hopeful about. American Judaism, four generations old, has come of age. Congregations of Choice are expanding, Judaic studies are booming, creative rituals and prayers are being written daily, and as for the question of our declining population, well, we've got problems, but we're not disappearing. While the surveys focus on intermarriage as the prime indicator of crisis, a mature approach would see intermarriage not as the ultimate disaster, but as the ultimate challenge -- daring us to create a Judaism so vibrant that no Jew would want to opt out of it, and a Judaism that any non-Jewish spouse would find both welcoming and enticing.
We've got to reach out especially to groups who have historically not found a home in suburban synagogues, especially young couples without children and singles under 35. This year our board wisely chose to reduce membership rates for singles under thirty. I think we have to go further still. A synagogue in San Francisco has implemented a new policy where young singles and couples get the first year of membership free. It has been a smashing success, even financially. While it may or may not be right for us -- that's up to you -- we've got to make it much easier for young Jews to get through the door. And we need your help to get them here. We need for you to tell them that we want them and need them. And we need your continued financial support so that we can welcome them to a congregation so vibrant that they'll never want to leave. We have to give them an offer that they can't refuse. Now we won't reach everyone; the Wilstein survey says that only 14% of intermarried couples have a strong desire to bring Judaism into their homes. But rather than cry about the 80% who are gone, some of whom will return simply because of the sheer power of our message, we must actively reach out to those 14% and build from that. With a limited, focused outreach we can strengthen our core as a Congregation of Choice without diluting the living Judaism that we embody. We must also intensify our efforts to educate our children as to the merits of building fulfilling Jewish lives with partners who share the same ideals -- but first we must nurture their spirituality. They've got to feel the living God in their midst.
Once we get beyond the panic, we can see that we're not disappearing after all; but the assumptions and ways of our immediate ancestors are.
We're not dying, but the corner deli is. We're not, but the Jewishness of the bagel is. We're not, but the self-deprecating Jewish comedian is. We're not, but the negative stereotypes of Jewish women are. We're not, but checkbook Judaism is. We're not, but performance Judaism is. We're not, but our reticence to accept converts is. We're not, but our fear of what the gentiles will think about us is. We're not, but a Judaism based solely on vicarious experience -- the suffering of others in Europe and Russia, achievements of others in Israel -- that no longer sustains us. In short, the Jewish world that we had all grown so comfortable with is gone, and because of that it might appear that we are disappearing, but that's only the view from the station for those who haven't gotten on the train.
We're not disappearing here in America. I know that's very bad news. It means we'll have to find something else to worry about. So let's stop the k'vetching and take a hard look at all the good news out of Israel, where our people have reached a similar crossroads.
My friends, a miracle of wondrous proportions is happening in Israel. The Jewish people are being reborn there. For the past one hundred years, that meant building up the massive infrastructure of the land and gathering in exiles. It meant setting up a government and defending borders. It meant building schools and farms and creating a new economy. That part of the Israeli miracle has been achieved, and we've helped it to happen. The final step, the great ingathering from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, is now all but complete. We have done it. Now we must rebuild the Israeli soul as we have helped rebuild the body.
To those who say that most Israelis are secular and don't care to find Jewish alternatives to the repressive fundamentalism that they've rejected, that is patently false. There is a growing interest in Jewish renewal that I could see everywhere I went when I was in Israel this summer; everywhere, of course, but the Western Wall, where it has been forcibly suppressed. But that is not new in our history. Jewish religious revivals have always grown in the hinterlands and worked their way to Jerusalem: Think of the Maccabees in Modi'in, the Essenes in Qumran, the Pharisees in Yavne, and later the Kabbalists and early Hasidim in Safed.
It's happening, all over Israel. A Tu Beshvat Seder in Tel Aviv had to cut off registration at 200. Bar/Bat Mitzvah services at Reform and Conservative synagogues have increased dramatically. A recent poll shows that, depending on the wording of the question, between 64 and 79% of Israelis support equal status for all branches of Judaism. A full two thirds are in favor of doing away with Orthodox control over religious and civil affairs. And 42.7% believe Israel is on the brink of a religious civil war. Israelis care about Judaism.
This spring, Israelis were shocked at the depth of American Jewry's response to the passage of the infamous Conversion Bill on its first of three readings in the Knesset. Many had bought the government's argument that it was just a formalization of what was already being done in practice, the monopoly of the Haredi establishment in determining Jewish status of Israeli citizens. The government didn't think we'd care and tried to mollify us with the assurance that it would not effect conversions done outside of Israel. What they didn't get was that we loved Israel enough to fight the Israeli government itself for the country's soul. And Israelis for the first time saw how much we really cared, and for the first time overcame their innate philosophical need to negate and trivialize what goes on in the Diaspora. Columnist Zev Chafets wrote in the Jerusalem Report, "The Conversion Bill converted the American Jewish leadership from a bunch of Okey-Dokey Kids into a pluralistic, single-minded 900 pound gorilla with sore feet and an attitude. Traditionally, these leaders have showered Israel with financial and political support and settled for "We are One" smoke jobs and autographed prime ministerial glossies in return. This made them very popular but behind their backs the pols mocked their American benefactors as fools. No more. The Reform Conservative delegation that came to fight the Conversion bill in June talked politics, not philanthropy. The new breed of American leaders understand that there is a religious civil war going on, fundamentalists and theocrats on one side, democrats and advocates of pluralism on the other. They also understand that, while the conflict's main theater is Israel, it is a Jewish world war. Ultimately this is their fight too."
The outpouring was unprecedented. This time it wasn't an outpouring of money. We weren't playing the rich uncle anymore, a role Israelis have come to despise; in fact, some money was being withheld in protest. This time it was an outpouring of passion the likes of which they never expected from us, a passion for a Judaism that Israelis had come to believe was passionless. After the first jolt of the Conversion Law came the second, the incident at the Wall on Shavuot; called a pogrom by many who were present, a premeditated assault that included verbal humiliation and the tossing of fecal material from the windows of an Old City Yeshiva at a group of innocent Jews who had simply come to pray.
And Israelis began to protest too. For the first time in Israel's five decades, they began to understand that Judaism was not an heirloom to be entrusted only to those who claim divine right to ownership, but that Judaism stands for something antithetical to those groups who dominate its practice there. By the way I do not call them Orthodox, because that does a great injustice to a noble branch of Judaism and many good, righteous people. Haredi Judaism is not a fringe phenomenon, but it is only a small sampling of Orthodoxy -- one that has been allowed to accumulate far too much power. Israeli newspapers were filled with a disgust at what happened matched by a hint of self blame for allowing their precious Judaism to be taken from them. And for the first time, they listened not to the sound of our money but of our souls and understood that they need us, that we are dependent on each other. The Israeli-Diaspora relationship, in short, began to grow up.
"It wasn't concern about donations that forced coalition Knesset members to change their stance," wrote Labor party member Ephraim Sneh, "but rather looking into the abyss of division in the Jewish people."
The committee set up by the Prime Minister to develop new conversion practices has a chance to make history. If they can reach compromise, it would mark a new beginning for our people. While the Haredim would continue to be the official established branch of Israeli Judaism, there would now be a voice of legitimacy for the non-Orthodox branches. The committee has only a slight chance of succeeding, but some of the participants have expressed guarded hope. Whatever happens, now it will be up to the Israeli people to continue to reclaim Judaism as their own. What I saw happening at the grass roots level can now begin to spread even more, but only if we give it our full support. This means supporting groups that promote pluralism, such as the New Israel Fund, and especially our Conservative sister-movement known as Masorti, as well as many other groups that fight fundamentalism with a vision of spiritual renewal.
If Israel is to be a light unto the nations, it first must be a light unto the Jews. And now, with the exiles ingathered and the state relatively secure, no other Jewish cause can take precedence over this one. The goal is to level the playing field as quickly as possible. In the present government, Haredi ministers control 60% of the budget. Hundreds of millions of dollars support Haredi institutions. Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorch has called on American Jews to send over 100 million dollars immediately to support pluralistic projects that the government would rather let die. The need to increase funding dramatically has been met with a significant response already. We need to do more. When I go to Israel for the Rabbinical Assembly Convention this February, I would like to bring over a substantial check from this congregation for Masorti, the result of our collections over the coming months. We've set up a separate account to facilitate this. Make out your checks to the temple, designated specifically for Masorti. In the words of Schorch, "The task of the hour for American Jewry is to attract enough Israelis to the reality of a united Judaism that is best retained through embracing diversity. Failing to heed that call will soon produce a majority of American Jews hopelessly detached from Israel."
We can be greatly encouraged by the results of the Zionist congress elections, announced this week. The American delegation, elected by 100,000 American Jews, will be dominated by the Reform and Conservative delegations. Fully 75% of the delegates will come from Arza (Reform) and Mercaz (Conservative).
I am also encouraged at the support UJA has given to this cause on a national level, although I am convinced that some national leaders still don't get it. The good news is that $14 million have been allocated for what are called programs for the unity of the Jewish people, including over a million for Masorti. There will also be assistance in raising an additional $10 million outside of normal UJA collections, for Masorti. For that we are most grateful. But when that $14 million is compared to the overall overseas pie of $400 million, we can see that the wake up call has only begun to be heard. Much of that money goes to immigration and absorption, where it is needed, but we must also ask, what is to become of the immigrants after they are supposedly absorbed? Those with questionable Jewish backgrounds will be doomed to face a life of sheer horror, unless we join this battle for the soul of Israel.
Some Jewish leaders still want to stand above the fray in the interest of so-called Jewish unity. I am all for Jewish unity, but when Jews are pummeled at the Kotel and no one is arrested, and so far no one has been, when hundreds of bomb threats to our institutions are traced to Haredi seminaries and no one is prosecuted, when the Chief Justice of Israel's supreme court requires round the clock bodyguards because the Haredi press continues to attack him viciously, when female employees of the Ministry of Education are physically attacked by Haredim because of what they call "immodest dress," when just last week swastikas were painted on the Har'el Reform Synagogue in Jerusalem and excrement left at the door, what unity are we trying to defend? What Orthodox person in our community would defend it?
Fortunately, our own local leadership has been most cooperative, and I encourage you vigorously to support the UJF. I am also am preparing a formal request that our local Federation allocate directly to projects promoting pluralism in Israel, as a reflection of our priorities. Dozens of local communities have done this nationwide and ours' should be counted as one of them. New Jersey's Metrowest federation recently announced a direct allocation of over $100,000 for Masorti. We must all educate our community leaders as to the importance of this type of allocation while understanding that, regardless, we can't cut our own donations. Nationally, UJA had a good fundraising year, but nationally they fell about $24 million short of expectations because of anger over the pluralism issue. We must support Federation and give more because of the essential services it provides both abroad and here at home.
That said, we most certainly think twice before giving to any Jewish organization that would not support our right as Conservative Jews to pray in our manner at the Western Wall, and the right of every Israeli to free religious expression. For two thousand years men and women stood and prayed together at the Wall, right up front. Even after 1967, when a mechitza was installed, this practice continued farther back in the plaza. Ten years ago, I brought a group from my previous congregation to the Wall and we prayed, men and women together, about halfway back, nowhere near the segregated men's and women's areas, which we respected -- as we should.. We even saw a Beth El group there, led by Hazzan Rabinowitz. Three years ago, my group from here was forced to end our Friday evening service abruptly by Haredim and police -- it was a shock to the children, and to me. This past summer, on Friday night our group prayed at another location entirely. If we had tried to gather at the Kotel, we wouldn't have had a prayer.
Israel is so central to our ability to educate and inspire. That's why the pluralism issue has touched the American Jewish soul. It gets to the very essence of who we are and our connection to our people, our homeland and our Torah. Last night I said that Judaism's power is its ability to engage in the world and help us mold the future. In Israel, that potential has been reduced to revered rabbis waving amulets while pronouncing curses on political opponents, and to throwing stones at cars on Shabbat. On Rosh Hashanah I spoke of our need to mature as Jews by controlling our impulses. How can we expect people to want to stay Jewish when, in the name of that faith, people are torching Reform nursery schools and throwing dirty diapers on their brothers and sisters? Israeli society is falling apart because of this relatively small group who have taken advantage of a flawed electoral system and a number of flawed politicians.
Enough. Enough. This must be stopped! We have everything to lose if it isn't. Israel will have everything to lose too. I love Israel too much to allow this continue. I want all of us to love Israel. I am so afraid that American Jews have become so turned off to Israel that God forbid should Israel ever face a mortal crisis, her well of sympathy here will have long since run dry. We can't let that happen; we must ensure that Israel again becomes a light unto the Jews so that it can be a light unto the world.
When an Israeli soldier spoke from this pulpit this past spring as part of the JCC's Tzahal Shalom program, this young man of twenty was asked what is the most severe crisis facing Israel. He did not say absorption. He did not say terror. He did not say the peace process. He said the hatred between Jew and Jew. And when asked what he wished above all he could bring back to Israel from his American travels, he looked around at our contented, spiritually rejuvenated Congregation of Choice and said, "this." A chance to reclaim his Jewish heritage; a faith so foreign to him that he couldn't put on a tallit. He wanted his Judaism back. Without it, Israel has no future.
Israel is ours; the Western Wall is ours; Judaism is ours too, if we care enough to reclaim it. We have saved the body, now we must save the soul, and we must fill it with the love of Torah and Ahavat Yisrael. Every Israeli must have the chance to share the joy that that soldier witnessed on his Shabbat morning here.
And we here have a special destiny. We can be a light unto the Israelis. We can show them that one can love thy neighbor, whether the neighbor is a homeless shelter downtown or a homeless nursery school down the street. We can show the world that we are proud and overflowing with joy, living a life of holiness as we build our Jewish Village on the Upper West Side of Stamford. Just as we can not and will not disappear in the diaspora, we must not allow Israel to become irrelevant to us. There is a time for unity and time to take sides for the sake of more enduring unity; a time for neutrality and a time to join the fray. The time has come to join the fray.
And thank God we are ready for this supreme challenge, because, finally, we have come of age.