Take a moment to think about why you are here today.
Are you here because you could not imagine being anywhere else on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?
Are you here because you are energized by the themes of the High Holidays? About sin and repentance and the Book of Life? About God’s sovereignty in this world? About remembering our texts and tradition?
Are you here because of guilt?
Are you here for the first time, because you want to check it out?
Are you here because the moving melodies of the High Holiday liturgy always transport you to a unique spiritual zone?
Are you not sure why you’re here?
This year, 5777, the theme of my sermons for of these days, these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awesomeness, is “Why?” The Four Whys, actually. And I’m going to attempt something that is in fact a wee bit bold. You might even call it (to use the lofty French term), “khutzpadik.”
I am going to try to answer a question that you may not have thought too deeply about, but which, I think, is an essential question of our time:
Why be Jewish? Why do we need Judaism?
And, to be even more specific, the question is more accurately not about “being Jewish,” which many of us can do quite easily by default, but rather, “Why DO Jewish?” Why be a part of a Jewish community? Why engage with Jewish life and learning? Why commit yourself to an ancient tradition that might seem sometimes charmingly irrelevant, and at other times downright oppressive?
This is the first why, and perhaps the biggest of the four.
The questions of “Why be Jewish” has not always been a feature of Jewish life. Most of our ancestors did not have the luxury of asking. But today, we need to address this head-on.
Not too long ago, I saw a TED talk featuring a television producer named Andrew Stanton. Mr. Stanton said something that I found particularly relevant about the way we engage with anything today.
We are constantly bombarded with various sponsored messages: buy this, eat here, do that, make yourself thinner, happier, healthier, etc. This barrage causes some of us to want to retreat to within a protective shell, to tune out the noise.
As one who makes his living trying to get people to pay attention to his work, what Mr. Stanton said really struck me: “Make me care.” We are all equipped today with a dispassionate outer shell; not much breaks through. In order to be heard you have to find the hook that connects to the soul beneath.
I want to make you care about being Jewish, and about living a Jewish life. I want you to tune into that voice that comes from within, calling you to something greater.
We here in congregations like Beth Shalom are firmly engaged with the rest of the world. And let’s face it: some of the things we know and feel contradict some ideas found in traditional Judaism. We know, for example, that the universe came into being 14.5 billion years ago, not 5777 years ago today. Traditional Judaism does not count women and men as equals. The theology espoused in the Torah is woefully simplistic.
Even the Jewish values that we learn from our tradition: expressing gratitude, respect for others, responsibility for the Earth, honoring your elders, visiting the sick, redeeming captives, seeking justice for all people, and so on. Aren’t these simply human values? Why do we need Jewish text to teach us these things?
For sure, a handful of us are convinced of the value of Jewish tradition. But the vast majority of us are not.
Beginning right now, and stretching over the four sermons between now and Yom Kippur, I will be making the case for Judaism in four general areas, going from the macro “why” to the micro “why”:
RH day 1: Why we need Judaism (in general)
RH day 2: Why we need mitzvot / Shabbat
Kol Nidrei: Why we need Beth Shalom?
Yom Kippur morning: Why we need Torah
These are the Four Whys.
So without further ado: Why do we need Judaism?
I recently heard Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in LA retell a good story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest luminaries of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel meets a Jewish fellow who tells him that he does not need to go to synagogue or otherwise participate in Jewish rituals. “I’m basically a good guy. I treat my family well, my friends well, I take care of people,” he says. “I don’t need Judaism.”
Rabbi Heschel responds by saying, “Gee, I envy you. I often say things that I regret. I don’t feel like I am generous enough with my time and my money. I wish I were a better parent and colleague and friend. I wish I were more like you.”
Who do you think has a better understanding for why we need Judaism?
I am going to make the case for how personally meaningful our tradition is, and how it can improve your life by making you feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious, more satisfied, and improve your relationships, your family life, and your inner peace.
In short, the answer to “Why be Jewish?” that may be recited while standing on one foot is, “Because drawing on Jewish knowledge and Jewish living will yield tangible benefits to your life.”
I’m going to warn you up front, however. To get these benefits, you have to put some effort in. Jewish living takes work. It takes time. But let me assure you: the time you put in will pay you back, and then some.
Before we go further, however, some things that I am not going to tell you:
- I am not going to say that eating kosher food is healthier for you.
- I am not going to say that keeping the Shabbat for 25 hours every week will give you a boost in your paycheck.
- I am not going to tell you that making sure that your doorposts have properly-mounted, kosher mezuzot will keep your family safe from harm.
There are certainly people in the Jewish world who say those things. I’m not one of them. Let’s dispense with superstition entirely and talk about meaning.
I think it is helpful to frame our discussion in terms of three major paths through Jewish life: ritual, action, and learning.
This is probably the most familiar area of Judaism, because it is what American synagogues have bet on. It includes tefillah / prayer, of course, but also holiday activities, including the observance of Shabbat, lifecycle events like berit millah / circumcision, weddings, and funerals. While ritual is an essential and often meaningful part of Jewish life, it is only a part of what Judaism offers.
Here are a few examples from the most popularly-observed Jewish rituals, and some perspective that makes them more relevant:
- Lighting Hanukkah candles, for example, illuminates not only our windowsills but also our world; they remind us of the need for us to continue to spread light throughout the spiritually dark places all around us. And we know that our world needs more enlightenment.
- Gathering family and friends to dine and tell the story of Pesah is not just about the food, nor is it merely about an ancient tale of taskmasters and slaves and a stubborn king. It is about the value of freedom and our obligation to seek out and eliminate oppression in all its forms.
- Fasting on Yom Kippur is not an endurance test; it is an opportunity to cleanse your body, your mind, and your heart. It is a personal challenge that helps us to understand the mind-body connection, and to greater appreciate the creature comforts to which we are all accustomed. As your grandmother may have told you, there’s nothing wrong with suffering a little now and then.
Ritual requires context. The synagogue service, circumcision, eating particular foods, mourning rituals, etc. must be connected to the larger picture of Judaism. Ritual cannot stand alone; when we connect it to ourselves and our world, it can enrich our lives, enshrine moments in holiness, and provide a framework for expression that helps us celebrate, grieve, discover ourselves, and express a whole range of emotions.
All ritual is accompanied by liturgy: words that make the ritual complete. Without it, the ritual would fall flat; it would be left unmoored from its past and future. And just as important are the traditional melodies that accompany the words, that remind us of our own pasts, of our paths of learning and connection with our parents and teachers. Think of how powerful some of the words and melodies that we have chanted today are; they are like wormholes in the time-space continuum that connect us to our ancestors.
Ritual replays for us the Jewish story, reminding us why we are here and what our responsibilities are to everybody around us.
This is the whole sphere of Jewish behaviors that are not explicitly tied to ritual. Examples include the dietary laws (kashrut), guidelines for how we speak to each other / Leshon HaRa, the obligation to repair this very broken world / Tikkun Olam, business ethics, and the moral code that ensures a just society (not murdering, honoring your parents, etc.). This area is much more far-ranging, and potentially rewarding, than most of us are aware of.
We all know, on some level, that action is a mandatory feature of Judaism. You may have heard that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity generally is that being a Christian requires faith, while being Jewish requires action.
The underlying value of Jewish actions is that they improve ourselves and our world. We may not always understand the value of a particular non-ritual action, but after doing something over and over, its internal wisdom is revealed.
Let’s take, for example, kashrut, the Jewish dietary principles. You may ask, “Why, Rabbi, if God created the shrimp, am I not permitted to eat it?” Or, “Pork has fewer calories than beef. Shouldn’t I eat more pork?” How can avoiding cheeseburgers possibly improve this world?
One possible answer is this:
In their excellent introduction to our tradition, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point to the following interpretation of kashrut (from Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Shemini, #7):
The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?
You might think that kashrut is about food, but I would counter that kashrut is about maintaining the sanctity of life through boundaries. And this is becoming ever so much more important in the Information Age, when all the boundaries are melting away before our eyes. Eating is such an essential part of our lives that our understanding the limits in consumption easily transfers to other aspects of our relationship with all creatures.
We’ll speak about action a little bit more tomorrow.
This is probably the area that has been the least-emphasized in contemporary Jewish life, but in my opinion the most important. Why? Because Judaism is a tradition of the heart and mind, and understanding this is essential to deriving meaning from our traditions. Without the basis of knowledge, mature, sophisticated understanding of how to connect Jewish action to ourselves, the former are empty, meaningless.
Once upon a time, there was the Temple in Jerusalem; it was the center of Jewish life. The Kohanim / priests ruled. If you were fortunate, you went maybe a few times a year to the Temple to offer your animals and produce as sacrifices. That was the extent of Jewish ritual.
The Romans destroyed it for the 2nd and final time in 70 CE, leaving the Jews with a dilemma: How would we connect with God? How would we maintain our national identity?
Out of the ashes of the Temple came rabbinic Judaism, and with it the tradition of Jewish learning which has enabled Judaism to survive to this day. The Romans did us two great favors: (א) they ended the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice, and (ב) they made Judaism decentralized. The center of Jewish tradition could never be taken away from us again, because it would now be carried in our heads (and ultimately written down in books).
No more would we be a hierarchical religion, led by priests. The Romans democratized us. Anybody who wanted access to the tradition could learn our textual sources and thus argue with leaders and teachers and scholars.
We began to offer the words of our lips, in prayer and study, instead of animals on the altar. And thus words became the glue that bound us together as a people. And it is this focus on teaching and learning from generation to generation that has enabled us to survive, long after the Babylonians and the Ptolemies and the Romans and the Byzantines and the Ottomans are all gone.
The center of Jewish life is not the Temple in Jerusalem, nor is it the ruin that remains there, the Kotel, the Western Wall, or any other physical place. It is the Jewish bookshelf, which exists not only on physical bookshelves or online, but in the Jewish heart and mind. It is not just the Torah, but the Talmud, the midrash, the commentaries, the halakhic interpretation, the stories of the last 2,000 years.
And it is from this center of ancient wisdom from which we draw meaning about our lives, our interactions, our families, our businesses. The Jewish bookshelf has sustained us for two millennia; our future depends on it.
I will discuss this in greater depth on Yom Kippur.
It is the combination of these three things – ritual, action, and learning – that gives our lives shape, that bring us meaning.
That’s a tricky concept: meaning. You can’t find it on the Internet. You can’t buy it with any form of currency. You won’t find any photos of it on Instagram.
Why? Because meaning is the ultimate intangible. It is elusive. But it is something we all need. A life without meaning is a life that is not worth living.
The reason we need Judaism is that when we embrace it, it elevates our lives by giving them meaning. And by engaging with Jewish life and learning, by being a member of the Jewish community, we have the opportunity to experience that elevation and that meaning in a joyful, sociable context.
So, now that you’ve made me care, Rabbi, what’s the entry point? Where do I start?
The tale is told of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who is famous for two particular moments in his life: the first was that, after having decided to convert to Christianity to advance his career prospects, he stopped into a synagogue at Kol Nidrei to give Judaism one last shot. After experiencing that service, he changed his mind, realizing that he could not possibly leave such a rich and inspiring tradition. He opted to remain Jewish.
But the second moment came years later, after he was famous for having embraced Judaism and written a contemporary philosophical work on the subject, The Star of Redemption. He was asked publicly, “Herr Rosenzweig, are you putting on tefillin every day?”
Rosenzweig’s answer: “Not yet.”
We are all somewhere on that continuum of “Not yet.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be a perfectly-observant, ritually-correct, Talmudically-fluent Jew to elevate yourself through Jewish tradition.
You can enter it from any point: come see me about where to start: it could be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or taking time to visit someone in the hospital, or we could jump right into learning Talmud. But if you want the benefits that Judaism offers, you have to start somewhere.
All of it – ritual, action, and learning – can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. I am sorry if they did not teach you that in Hebrew school, but that’s how it looks from my vantage point. Embracing Judaism has dramatically improved my life; the same could be true for you.
So, why are you here today? Why Judaism? Because we need it.
Tomorrow we’ll talk more about action.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/3/2016.)