High Holiday Messages 2020
“New Normal” Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
We’ve been hearing it for six months now: “This is the New Normal. Our lives have changed. Our daily routines are altered for the foreseeable future. We’ll probably never go back to the way it was.”
There are, for sure, some who scoff, who declare it’s just a media projection from the liberal left, an overblown viral outbreak not unlike the seasonal flu. The only thing that has changed, they say, is that more of our personal, God given, Constitutional rights are increasingly and unnecessarily at risk. To those folks I have no response. People believe a lot of crazy and irrational things and it’s pointless to argue.
But this is a “new normal” that we’re living through. Will we ever shake hands with a friend, much less a stranger? Will thousands of people, any time soon, pack stadiums and arenas for sports or concerts? Will work-from-home, and online classes, and Zoom meetings now become our standard operating procedure? Will our High Holidays next year look like this? We don’t know about any of that-- and that is what is so concerning. What we do know in this “new normal” is what we’re supposed to do: masks, distancing, wash hands— but what might we learn from this “new normal”?
I suspect that during these Holidays rabbis are suggesting a “Jewish response”. I’m sure that congregations will hear quotes from Talmud tonight, or sayings from this or that 18th or 19th C rebbe, or quoted plaintive pleas of the great Biblical prophets for divine intervention and redemption. But for me, the Jewish message is not legendary or literary, but historical. We have faced new normals seemingly forever, certainly more than most peoples or nations. We have experience!
2500 years ago the Kingdom of Judea fell to the Babylonians who destroyed our Temple, our capitol and cultural center. Less than 2000 years ago the Romans did it again. If Jews and Judaism were defined by worship and religious observance, ritual and festivals, then Jews and Judaism should have ceased from existence long ago. In all of human history no people or nation or culture or civilization has survived the destruction of its political, cultural and religious center—but we have, twice! The “new normal” for the Jews, on those occasions was cataclysmic. And yet here we are! We re-invented ourselves and our faith. We survived the new normals that followed the Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms and the Shoah. If Americans want something hopeful to hold on to in the midst of this pandemic—they should look to us!
But even more than the calamities and tragedies that have forced us into new normals, there have been other watershed moments in our not-so-distant past, not tragic but as traumatic, when we met the challenges head-on, managed them, persevered and prospered. Just over 100 years ago my grandparents and your grandparents or great grandparents arrived in the Golden Medina of America. Most came through Ellis Island speaking little or no English, carrying all their earthly possessions on their backs, often alone and almost always without financial resources. But they believed in the promise that was America, and were ready to adjust to a new language, a new culture, a new way of life, and the challenge of a “new normal”.
And by 1920, just 100 years ago, many of those immigrants had succeeded, and the first generation of born-American Jews were beginning to change our culture, make names for themselves, and lift up those who had just arrived. Most of us are second or third generation born in America. We have come far, we have successfully secured our place in American culture and society, primarily because our grandparents took hold of their “new normal” and made it work for them. So the question is ‘What can we learn from our history?’
First of all, we have never denied the reality of our situations or the existential challenges we faced. Ours is a long history of not only making do with what we have been given, but pushing ourselves and our children to exceed beyond the normally expected. The notion that ‘this is just the way it is, there’s nothing to be done, get used to it’ is simply not part of our Jewish mindset.
We have only to go back to that immigrant generation of my grandparents. They learned early on that the ones who spoke up the most-- got heard, and the ones who pushed themselves-- moved ahead! In a free society we’re supposed to speak up and stand up when something is wrong. And American Jews have always considered it a sign of weakness to quietly, passively “sit back and just take it.”. The Jewish greenhorns coming from Eastern Europe realized that politely ignoring an injustice, changed nothing.
That’s what’s right about America-- a free society depends upon the raised voices of its citizens to protest injustice, to become active and involved in the correction of society’s wrongs. That expectation, more than any other value, is the hallmark of one’s freedom. The right and responsibility to speak up and stand up is guaranteed by the first amendment! It is a right that is nicely expressed in this story about a Jewish immigrant from Soviet Russia.
He was asked: “So how was your life in Russia?”.
“I can’t complain”, he said.
“And how were your living conditions there?”
“I can’t complain”, he responded.
“And how much money did you make?”
Again, he answered “I can’t complain.”
“Well, if everything was alright, why in the world did you come to America?!”
“Oh,” said the new immigrant, “here, thank God, I can complain!”
We learned and we taught our children that the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, requires us to challenge and correct the errors and evils of our community. And though in Torah God gets angry with us when we unreasonably complain, God is probably more angry with us when we do not complain enough! We cannot remain silent when protest is called for, we are not to “stand idly by as our neighbor bleeds” as Leviticus states, nor close our ears to the cries of others. Our world is imperfect, and we need people who are not afraid to kvetch-- who will raise their voices in protest, who will demand justice, righteousness and lovingkindness in the face of a “new normal”.
Secondly, our grandparents maintained their bonds with their community and embraced the truth that we are in fact different from those around us. Jewish values and traditions, both cultural and religious ground us, and have enabled us to establish ourselves as an “American” community of status and standing. Though it took more than a half century until my parents’ generation could push through anti-Jewish bias and prejudice-- we have, for the most part “arrived” in America. 60 years ago we made our own “new normal” because we insisted and persisted in declaring “We belong here and America needs us.” And despite this recent and growing above-the-ground eruption of anti-Jewish posturing coming from both the far left and far right, we are holding steady and we will not be moved.
The third lesson of our history is that when we were faced with a “new normal” we organized our community to promote our status and standing, but also to defend it. And we have joined in coalition with other political, cultural, and religious associations which promote the same values that have been ours since the days of the Biblical Prophets. Today we are no longer alone when we stand up for what is right and just.
Humanity faces a “new normal” of international magnitude, on a scale not seen in 100 years. We must affirm and accept that this is a virulent virus that does and will attack the unprotected. We learned long ago that accepting this reality does not mean that we should ignore its consequences or pretend it will go away. We will not be shaking hands anytime in the near future, much less greeting each other with hugs. We will scale back our outside activities. We will accept the restrictions necessarily imposed on us where we eat, shop and study, where we play and pray, how we travel and where we stay. But accepting the reality of the pandemic still obligates us to actively pursue the means to overcome it and to insist that others do the same. We control our destiny, and a united, national effort is stronger than anything we individually can do.
And because we Jews have relied on our bonds of community, and the security of our values and traditions to carry us through the “new normals” of both catastrophe and immigration— our message to the greater American community is to acknowledge and fully embrace the remedies by which we may persist, persevere and prevail. It means embracing the truths of medicine and science; and the responsibilities of democratic representation and political accountability; and the social certainty that all of us are diminished when any of us are mistreated or neglected. The values and principles that have made America “America” will see us through this calamity. We must stand together in this crisis and resist the forces that pit one against the other.
And because we learned early on the importance and necessity of self-supportive organizing, we must reach out to all who also recognize the reality of required restrictions and pro-active action. With partners we may consolidate resources to responsibly support what must be done to see us through this challenge.
Our Jewish community can teach America, if not the world, a valuable lesson in perseverance and endurance despite turmoil and disruption. We should have been defeated by the Philistines, we were defeated and uprooted by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, we were decimated and exiled by the Romans and by the Inquisition, beaten down by pogroms and nearly exterminated in Europe-- but here we are. Time and again we accepted our situational reality and aggressively pushed against it, if not through it. We looked to our Jewish core values and long held traditions to maintain, secure and carry our community through each challenge. And we recognized that our future growth and success lay in effectively organizing, both within and outside our walls.
America’s “new normal” is not anything new for us. We have persevered, and America will when we all decide and believe that there is a better world for us if we want it to be and when we will it to be.
In Pirke Avot Rabbi Tarfon said:
It is not your responsibility to finish the work לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר
but neither are you free to desist from it וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
May this new year be the beginning of a better year for us and the world.
And let us say amen.
Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
In October 1938 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was arrested in Frankfort and deported to Warsaw by the Gestapo along with the rest of the Polish Jews living in Germany. And then ten months later and just six weeks before the Germans occupied Poland, he escaped Europe, rescued by Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College, along with other Jewish scholars including Alexander Guttmann, my professor in Cincinnati. Heschel served on the faculty of the New York campus of Hebrew Union College for five years but left to more comfortably teach in the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Heschel died in 1972. You may recall that I quoted Heschel in your most recent GPJC Bulletin.
In January 1963, as part of the civil rights movement, the first meeting of the National Conference on Religion and Race was held in Chicago. Rabbi Heschel gave a major address to that gathering after a speech by a young pastor from Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. Heschel saw the conference as an opportunity to present a Jewish complement to King’s Christian message. His address, titled “Religion and Race”, has become part of American history.
Heschel began his address with this:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may serve Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” [Now] The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. . .
Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self-reproach?
Heschel went on to say that racism is essentially a form of idolatry, elevating one’s personal bias or cultural prejudice above God’s truth. The problem of racism, he said, exists in two spheres—the public and the private, in social policy and one’s individual bias and privilege. And it must be addressed in both spheres. If we have learned anything in these past six months of social upheaval it is that it is not enough to declare “equal protection under the law,” as long as our community and country are socially, racially and economically polarized. In Heschel’s speech to that conference 57 years ago he said:
What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you is an idol. Faith in God is not simply an afterlife insurance policy. Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: blasphemy. In several ways humanity is set apart from all beings created in six days. The Bible does not say, God created [this] plant or [that] animal; it says, God created different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals. In striking contrast, it does not say, God created different kinds of people, of different colors and races; it proclaims, God created one [Adam]. From one single [Adam are all] descended. To think of humanity in terms of white, black, or yellow is more than an error. It is a disease, a cancer of the soul.
And then going back to Moses, Heschel said:
Shortly before he died, Moses spoke to his people. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). The aim of this conference is first of all to state clearly [this] stark alternative. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have set before you religion and race, life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.
If our Jewish tradition proclaims one single and primary moral statement it is Hillel’s response to the non-Jew who challenged him “Teach me all of Torah while standing on one foot”. Hillel answered: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. The rest of Torah is just commentary on that.” And one’s greatest sin then, according to Heschel is humiliating another person. He said:
There is a form of oppression which is more painful and more scathing than physical injury or economic privation. It is public humiliation. What afflicts my conscience is that my face, whose skin happens not to be dark, instead of radiating the likeness of God, has come to be taken as an image of haughty assumption and overbearance. Whether justified or not, I, the white man, have become in the eyes of others a symbol of arrogance and pretension, giving offense to other human beings, hurting their pride, even without intending it. My very presence inflicting insult! . . .
The crime of murder is tangible and punishable by law. The sin of insult is imponderable, invisible. When blood is shed, human eyes see red; when a heart is crushed, it is only God who shares the pain. In the Hebrew language one word denotes both crimes. “Bloodshed” in Hebrew, is the [one] word that denotes both murder and humiliation. . . . He who commits a major sin may repent and be forgiven. But he who offends a person publicly will have no share in the life to come.
Heschel’s words remind us of why we gather on these Holidays. We can easily recall how we have poorly behaved with our family or friends or community. Our actions, behavior and conduct-- tangible, noticeable and physical, are clearly remembered, but how often do we allow ourselves the self-serving pleasure of shaming, demeaning, embarrassing, even outright humiliating another? It’s an easy and so self-satisfying a pleasure: making fun of others, bringing out smiles and laughter from onlookers, making us feel superior. Are not these sins the ones we tend to quickly forget? A teacher of mine once told me: “When you’re gone, folks will not remember what you said to them, but they will remember how you made them feel.” Our tradition and Torah proclaims “tzedek, tzedek tirdof, Justice, justice you shall pursue” There can be no justice if we cannot and do not regard each person as ‘one like me’.
What binds each of us and all of us together is the dual reality of the human condition. We balance both these perceptions: “For my sake was the world created”, and also “I am but dust and ashes.” We hold the breath and spark of the Divine within frail and finite bodies. Pursuing justice is doing what we know is the right thing. So Heschel reprimands us that we so often delegate “doing justice” to the courts.
[It is not] as if justice were [only] a matter for professionals or specialists. But to do justice is what God demands of everyone: it is the supreme commandment, and one that cannot be fulfilled vicariously. Righteousness must dwell not only in the places where justice is judicially administered. . . . Equality as a religious commandment goes beyond the principle of equality before the law. Equality as a religious commandment means personal involvement, fellowship, mutual reverence and concern. It means my being hurt when another is offended. It means that I am bereaved whenever another is disfranchised.
After Heschel reminds that treating others as if they are “other” is the worst kind of injustice, he then turns his attention from what we have done to what we’ve not done.
There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification it makes possible an evil erupting, as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted. . .
Humanity can thrive only when challenged, when called upon to answer new demands, to reach out for new heights. Imagine how smug, complacent, vapid, and foolish we would be, if we had to subsist on prosperity alone. It is for us to understand that religion is not sentimentality, that God is not a patron. Religion is a demand, God is a challenge, speaking to us in the language of human situations. . . [To accomplish God’s] grand design, God needs the help of humanity. . . God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in space, by sitting in pews, by visiting temples, but in history, in time. It is within the realm of history that man is charged with God’s mission.
In the words of the prophet Amos (5:24): Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. A mighty stream, expressive of the vehemence of a never ending, surging, fighting movement --as if obstacles had to be washed away for justice to be done. No rock is so hard that water cannot pierce it . . . Justice is not a mere norm, but a fighting challenge, a restless drive. Righteousness as a mere tributary, feeding the immense stream of human interests is easily exhausted and more easily abused. But righteousness is not a trickle; it is God’s power in the world, a torrent, an impetuous drive, full of grandeur and majesty. The surge [may be] choked, the sweep blocked, yet the mighty stream will break all dikes.
Justice, people seem to agree, is a principle, a norm, an ideal of the highest importance. We all insist that it ought to be --but it may not be. In the eyes of the prophets, justice is more than an idea or a norm: justice is charged with the omnipotence of God. What ought to be, shall be!
57 years ago Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the framework of my Rosh Hashanah message, though I’ve quoted much less than half of it. We enter our Jewish New Year plagued by both a virulent virus and a contagious, chauvinistic and malicious intolerance-- both of which threaten the well-being of our nation and community. I wanted you to hear Heschel because he is far more eloquent than I. I wanted you to hear Heschel because his message is what Judaism is all about, what we must insist and insure our Jewish values will always be.
The prophet Micah (6:8) reminds us:
God has told you, O man, what is good and what God requires of you:
do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
May our new year be a better year for us and the world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s complete message to the Chicago National Conference on Religion and Race, January 14, 1963 is found at this website:
What If Our Prayerbook is Not What We Believe?! Erev Yom Kippur 5781/2020
At the conclusion of this evening’s service we will sing Yigdal, three verses in Hebrew. Yigdal is one of those memorable liturgical songs whose melody is embedded in our Jewish consciousness like Adon Olam and Avinu Malkaynu. When we do conclude tonight we’ll only be singing three of Yigdal’s thirteen verses, each a tightly metered couplet. The purported author of this poem, written around 1400 is Rabbi Daniel ben Yehudah of Rome. Traditionally Yigdal falls into the category of piyyut, a Jewish liturgical poem chanted during worship. Its title is the verb form of the adjective gadol, large or great: So Yigdal Elohim chai is “Enlarged”, or better “Exalted is the living God”. Its thirteen poetic verses are a purposeful restatement of Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith”, written in the 12th C. Though there have been many melodies written for Yigdal, the one we know is attributed to the 17th C London cantor Myer Lyon.
Maimonides wrote and published his “13 Principles of Faith” because then as now, there was no central Jewish to define correct creed or proper belief. So he took upon himself that responsibility. In brief, Maimonides affirms these 13 doctrinal affirmations:
God exists and has forever
God is one
God has no body or material substance
God preceded Creation
God is Creator and Master of the Universe
Prophecy is God-given
Moses was the greatest prophet
God directly gave Torah to Moses
Torah is perfect not to be changed
God is aware and knows everything about us
God rewards the good and punishes evil
God will send the Messiah and bring final salvation
when God will resurrect the dead
So we will conclude tonight with a rousing chorus of Yigdal, probably not thinking too much about its words, indeed not even seeing in our prayerbook the verses about Torah, Messiah, and resurrection. And I suspect that most of us, if not all of us, have a problem affirming the divine perfection of Torah from Sinai, the expectation of a human Messiah who will supervise the resurrection of the dead and install a Messianic Age with no evil, hardship, sin or death. We may not believe it, and we do sing it. But should we?
Yigdal is hardly the only problematic liturgical plea or pronouncement in our prayerbook. Just in this evening’s service we read “You are the strength of our life, the Power that saves us; You have been the help of our people in time of trouble.” We have only to look back 75 years to ask “Where was that power to save us, that help of our people?” In the Avot declaration of T’fillah we sang Melech ozer, umoshiach umagen “You are our Rule and our Helper, our Savior and Protector”. How sincerely do we believe that? When have we ever experienced that?
And tomorrow morning in the confessional prayer Unetaneh tokef we’ll read “On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die…” And then later tomorrow morning we’ll read “In your great mercy we place our faith; Your kindness is our support. In Your forgiveness we trust; Your deliverance is our hope.” Do any of us really, truly believe that God’s judgement and justice enter our world to reward the good and punish evil? How long do we have to wait before “faith in God’s mercy” or “hope in God’s deliverance” is justified, much less realized!?
What are we to do if what our prayerbook proclaims is not what we believe? Shouldn’t our worship be as intellectually truthful as it is spiritually fulfilling and uplifting? If yes—then what?! Many of us cannot affirm a God who beneficently intervenes in our lives, who heals us if we’re good, who harms us if we’re not, who will tomorrow evening guarantee us a good, safe, healthy and prosperous year if we demonstrate proper faith today?
So what do we do with a liturgy we find problematic at best, and at worst violates our belief? One option is just to simply read through it: make it a mantra with which we do not intellectually engage. We can in effect ignore what the words mean, finding value in the chorus of congregational reading and the remembered melodies of the past. Are we then to temporarily dismiss our belief that God made us to be, and wanted us to be rational, thinking beings? There are, of course, faith communities that tell their folks “what we preach in here is the real reality. What existentially exists outside is temporary, momentary, and not the real reward that awaits you in God’s heavenly Garden.”
But Judaism, at least our understanding of what our Heritage has maintained and taught us, is that not only truth but also belief must be rationally, intellectually challenged. We are to pray with the same integrity with which we argue points of law or debate ethics. Because these words, for us, are not an existential cry for salvation, we are caught on the horns of a theological dilemma. What intellectual value can there be in praying that God should personally promise us health and happiness when we know for a fact that reality doesn’t work that way?!
The problem with throwing the baby of rejected theology out with the bath water of communal worship is that we lose the connection with our historical and religious past. Yes the “who will live and who will die” of Unetaneh tokef is troublesome, but on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur morning that liturgical moment immediately connects us with our parents and grandparents and hundreds of generations who fervently chanted it, filling their sanctuaries with a whole-hearted, if not passionate affirmation of their Jewish identity. We need to remember and honor that passion which has sustained us for generations as a faith community, as a people with a unique tradition and heritage.
If our grandparents, and great grandparents, and those before them were filled with fear of God’s immanent decree, we read the words as metaphor and poetic idiom. For us their power is nostalgic, not actual. It is the effect of our worship that brings us a personal satisfying comfort. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are meant to produce an uplifting and warming sense of belonging because we have experienced it together (under normal circumstances). We are meant to leave the sanctuary and take home with us an emotional, if not spiritual renewal. We expect to feel better about ourselves and our community, and confirmed in our Jewish identity.
But the question still remains ‘What do we do with a liturgy that at best we find problematic, and at worst violates our belief?’ Perhaps we have to come to a different understanding of the role and purpose of our liturgy in its communal setting. For us, worship does not remind God to intervene in our lives: to fix what went wrong yesterday and protect us tomorrow. And in this, our theology, in fact, matches nicely with Rabbinic tradition which also rejects the notion that “prayer” is primarily a plea for intervention. The Hebrew word that we translate as prayer, the word coined by the rabbis almost 2000 years ago, does not mean “petition”, is not a plea or request for. Our Hebrew word of t’filah means “to search within.” L’hitpalel means to “search within oneself.” Thus, our worship prompts us to look within for answers, for guidance, and for direction. This Jewish sense of t’filah is nicely expressed in a statement from our old Gates of Prayer:
Prayer invites God to let God’s presence suffuse our spirits, to let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.
For former generations, standing before God on Yom Kippur, the world was foreboding, dark and dangerous. Their uncertain future, they believed, rested entirely in the hands of God. In these days we too are fearful, though we know that our future is for the most part in our own hands. Prayer means something very different for us, it is an opportunity for introspection, to search within ourselves for what we know to be true, for an awareness and recognition of what it means to be just and righteous and walk humbly before God.
We recite the words of our liturgy which are imbued with tradition and history because they remind us of where once we were and of how far we have come. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors who found in this liturgy a source of assurance, support, and hope. For us, these same words direct us to examine ourselves-- that we may repair our world, improve our lives and others, and safeguard our community.
In 1958 Rabbi Morris Adler the senior rabbi of Sha’arey Zedek Synagogue, then in Detroit, wrote this: “Our prayers are answered, not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be. (National Jewish Monthly, July 1958)”
Shana tova, May this be a good year for us all.
Solid, Liquid, Gas: What Kind of Jew? Yom Kippur 5781/2020
A year or so ago I got a call from the Chaplain’s Office at St. Joseph Hospital in Pontiac. A patient wanted to see a rabbi and I seemed to be the closest one. I entered his room, introduced myself, and he asked, “What kind of a rabbi are you?” A number of responses crossed my mind, but instead I answered, “What kind do you want?” He shrugged, as if it really made no difference and said, “You know what I mean”. I did, and I told him I retired from a Reform congregation in Oak Park. He seemed OK with that.
On Yom Kippur our tradition asks of us “What kind of Jew are you?” And an answer of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Renewal, Traditional or Liberal, is not how we’re expected to respond. Those might be adequate culturally, be theologically descriptive, appropriate for social gatherings and polite conversation, but on Yom Kippur we are expected to be personally introspective and not denominationally descriptive. However, the truth is that that is how we were brought up to think of ourselves.
60 years ago, when I was Bar Mitzvah age, we lived in clearly identified and self-selected religious communities. In Toledo there was one temple, one synagogue, and two shuls for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews respectively, and respectfully. There was an expected uniformity within each of the Jewish communities. Though I have no personal experiences in Orthodox “shuls” of the early 60’s, I know that from one Reform “temple” to the next, the rituals and customs were very similar. And I can only assume from my limited experience that Conservative “synagogues” were also very much the same, one to the next.
Temples and synagogues were closely identified with, and very much directed by, their national institutional organizations, namely the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) and The United Synagogue of America (now The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism). Reform congregations in 1960 all used the same Union Prayer Book, almost universally kipot and tallit were absent in the sanctuary, and the Union’s published curriculum was standard in our Sunday Schools. It was objectively and obviously easy to distinguish Reform from Conservative from Orthodox.
Sixty years later, it’s not so easy. There is no uniformity within any of the movements. Among Reform congregations there are vast differences in prayerbooks, customs, and observance. Some Conservative synagogues have moved to the liberal left in practice and ritual, while others promote themselves as “authentically traditional”. Without “standards” from “the national organization”, Jews today defy the pre-conceived, associated norms of their former denominational circles. Jews who enjoy BBQ ribs are also keenly interested in Torah study. Interfaith families turn up for Chabad and Aish festival programs. Female clergy are now a reality in a growing, progressive “Open Orthodox” Judaism. And Jews, as well as Christians, more and more identify as “SBNR”, spiritual but not religious, disdaining any organizational identification. We no longer fit into neat compartmentalized denominations, and in fact folks quite easily ignore traditional boundaries and expectations, moving from congregation to congregation based on locale, the rabbi, its religious school, or its prestige.
Sixty years ago, one’s Jewish identity was formed and framed by the temple, synagogue or schul one attended. The rituals and traditions and customs that differentiated Reform from Conservative from Orthodox, defined into which congregational community one gravitated. For those of us who grew up in those congregations 50 and 60 years ago, that identification-through-affiliation has not changed. But for our children in their 30’s and 40’s, and definitely for younger Jews in their 20’ and early 30’s—they don’t need to “belong” somewhere in order to find a place where they are welcomed and affirmed. And within the vast resources of the internet, they can get any information and instruction they need to do and feel Jewish without belonging to a congregation or having access to “their” rabbi. They get their connection through Jewish blogs, and websites, and Facebook walls. They can “live stream” worship services and call up YouTube lectures and presentations. They can find their own way into a “community” without walls, and never have to pay dues to a congregation.
So, what kind of Jew am I? To those who ask I tell them: I am a “non-traditional” liberal Jew, outside of the Traditional Orthodox Jewish community. And as a rabbi I served congregations in the Reform Jewish Movement. As a non-traditional Jew I am not bound, that is I choose not to be bound, by the behavior and beliefs, the rules and restrictions by which observant, Orthodox Judaism defines itself. And for the most part, that description satisfies both Jewish and non-Jewish communities which are usually more interested in “what” I am, rather than “who” I am.
But this is Yom Kippur, and today, whether I or you are observant or not, liberal or traditional, spiritual or secular is not important, is not significant, matters not at all. For us today, who are expected to ask ourselves “What kind of Jew am I?”, we have to leave behind those normative descriptions that inform others how we identity in the Jewish world. Today, what’s expected is a more personal response: to me, about me.
In answering that question I’m attracted to the idea that water, H20 exists in three forms: solid, liquid, and gas. While the molecule is unchanged, its appearance and tangible existence is very different from one state to the other. So here is what I would ask you to think about and consider: “What kind of Jew are you—solid, liquid or gas?”
Like the H20 molecule is still H20 whatever its form, your Jewishness is not at issue. As the H20 molecule is authentic whether as a solid, liquid or gas, each of us are already authentically Jewish. So, what kind of Jew are you?
“Solid” Jews are unchangeable. At the fundamental end of the spectrum, their understanding of what God wants from us is unaltered and unaffected by any circumstance or experience. God’s Truth found in Torah is clearly defined and knowable, it is untouched and unchanged by situation or happenstance, time or experience. This is the Traditional Jew who relies on the rules and regulations, the mitzvot/commandments, and halacha/law derived from them, which clearly and unquestionably define behavior and belief. This solid Jew enters and engages the Jewish and the secular world focused on and guided by God’s objective divine directive.
And there are also solid Jews who are certain that either God doesn’t exist at all or that God is fully absent from humanity’s experiential reality. Their Jewish identities are defined by a historical or cultural or familial framework, unaffected by “religious” expectations. The solid Jew, in either case, is certain and sure.
“Liquid” Jews are adaptable. The liberal, progressive Jew is formed and fashioned by experiential reality. And though there are limits to fluidity, restricted by cultural propriety, and traditional expectations, they are able to flow and fill the reality of one’s subjective Jewish identity. Though liquid Jews are constrained by the foundational truths and relevant traditions of our inherited Jewish Heritage, they control the dimensions, the boundaries, and the definition of what it means to “be a Jew”. Adaptable to be sure, liquid Jews are fully identifiable as a Jew to others and securely Jewish within themselves.
“Gaseous” Jews exist without tangible recognition or identification. Though they affirm “Jewish heritage”, it tends to be an amorphous expression. Their Jewishness expands and contracts depending on the situation or circumstance, even as they know who they are and why it’s important that they know. But gaseous Jews are not bound by traditional expectations, much less traditional norms, rituals, and rules. They exalt in the freedom to fill space unnoticed, unobserved, and undefined both within and without the Jewish community.
In the experiential world out there, folks are quick to label Jews: good or bad, observant or negligent, affiliated or independent, spiritual or secular, supportive or detached, engaged or uninvolved. But today, we answer for ourselves, to ourselves. “What kind of Jew am I?”, and what kind do I want to be?!
Im ain ani li, mi li? “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Uk-shani l’atzmi, mah ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I? [Pirke Avot 1:14]
Yom Kippur Yizkor Message 2020
Traditional, rabbinic Judaism declares that at some future Messianic moment there will be a bodily resurrection of the righteous. Those we have loved, who have died, will return to us. However, between now and then traditional responses are decidedly vague about what happens between one’s death and yamot ha-Moshiach, the arrival of the Messiah.
Perhaps that is why contemporary Judaism — unlike Christianity and Islam — dwells less on the possibility of posthumous destinations than it does on how we are to act in the here and now, in this world. Judaism says to us: Why make yourself crazy trying to figure out the unknowable future when there’s so much we do know about the knowable now that needs your immediate attention and fixing?
Especially during the High Holidays we think about those we’ve loved who are no longer with us. We say that as we remember them, they live within us, in spirit they do live on.
I am reminded of the 12th C writings of Moses Maimonides, Judaism’s greatest intellectual light. He defined immortality as a function of the rational mind, which is to say that immortality is not so much about being around for endless tomorrows, as it is about seeking to understand the eternal in the context of my every day existence within the generational expanse of our people.
Not even the Abraham was promised personal immortality. Instead, God’s covenant with him was the promise of immortality through his descendants which would be as the “stars in the sky and sand on the shore” as we we read from Torah Rosh Hashana morning. Abraham’s immortality is us— the people of Israel.
And though our Jewish Heritage places primary importance on how we live each day, for the Jew immortality is found in stepping beyond the personal of me and the immediacy of now-- in identifying with the greater reality of our history and heritage. That link connecting me both to Jews generations past, and to Jews everywhere today, has an almost tangible reality on these High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for on these days especially, we transcend time and place, carried by the words and melodies that remind us of being with parents and grandparents, with friends and family. Connected back into our past, we are simultaneously connected with Jews worldwide who are themselves engaged in the very liturgy we read and sing here.
In the end, immortality is an awareness that past, present and future are all connected through you and through me. It is a recognition that the past has always been prologue to the present. That which was, now is, and will be.
Zichronaynu livracha -- May our memories bring us blessing.