Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first three in the series:
Today, we take a look at the שאינו יודע לשאול / she’eino yodea lish’ol, the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. That child is our future.
I hosted my first Pesah seder when I was a sophomore in college. I wasn’t able to go home for sedarim that year, so I figured I would do it myself in my co-operative house at Cornell, where I lived. So, figuring I had to make it somewhat traditional, I got from my mother instructions on how to make certain Jewish foods. Tzimmes. Matzah-ball soup. And, although I was effectively vegetarian at that point, I learned how to cook a chicken for my friends.
The next time I hosted my own seder, I did it my way: fully vegetarian. No tzimmes. No matzah-ball soup. (Maybe there was gefilte fish.) I roasted a beet instead of a shank bone to put on the seder plate. My mother was shocked.
Our expression of Judaism has never ceased to change. Customs come and go. Musical tastes and styles change. What they consider traditional Jewish foods among the Persian Jews, for example, is quite different from what they ate in Poland on Rosh Hashanah, and that has everything to do with geographical separation of these communities, and the changes that took place within each.
And, as I have emphasized over these holidays, we are living in a time of great change here in the New World. So great, in fact, that many of us who are intimately tied to traditional Jewish institutions have not even figured out that it’s going on.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in the Jewish world is reaching the growing number of Jews who are not connected to Jewish life or institutions. We all want to do this – Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Federations – but nobody really knows how. Chabad does it by bringing some Jewish rituals into the public square. We in the non-Orthodox world tend to reach out by putting together great programs and hoping that people show up. (We at Beth Shalom are trying to change this model with Derekh, our new programming area with five entry portals.) But we all want the disaffected Jews to find their way in.
Consider also that Jewish North America is quite different than it used to be.
- Roughly 60% of Jews who have married in the last two decades have married somebody who is not Jewish;
- We are no longer exclusively white and Ashkenazi (although of course calling Jews “white” is problematic);
- We no longer have the expectation that a Jewish household consists of one woman, one man, and a couple of children;
Furthermore, Judaism is attracting new members – not those who wish to convert for marriage, but people also genuinely motivated by the appeal of our rich, ancient tradition. And not only that, but many of those of us who grew up with two Jewish parents and had a Jewish education are uncomfortable in traditional Jewish environments because we don’t know Hebrew, we haven’t learned Talmud, we can’t speed through the Amidah like the old-timers seem to do, or we simply find Jewish rituals baffling.
In short, we have many Jews and people married to Jews who are part of the community, but have not found their way in.
I heard about a new program recently, called Honeymoon Israel, which has come up with a new way of reaching out. The program was founded by Mike Wise, who was at one time the head of the Jewish Federation of Buffalo. He was in Pittsburgh back in the spring to discuss launching a cohort of Honeymoon Israel here. Let me explain how it works:
Basically, it’s a week-long trip to Israel at a heavily subsidized price (I think it’s $1800 per couple) for couples aged 25-40 that are within their first five years of marriage (or commitment – marriage is not actually required). At least one partner must be Jewish, and at least one partner must not have been on an organized trip to Israel (e.g. Birthright). Among the organizers’ stated goals are the following (from their website):
- We particularly welcome participants of diverse backgrounds, including interfaith couples and LGBTQ couples.
- One of our goals is to create a fulfilling, welcoming experience for people without strong Jewish connections. There are no rules about how “Jewish” you need to be to participate.
Most importantly, each of the trips builds a cohort from a particular metropolitan area. Thus, if you are from Denver, you will be traveling to Israel with 19 other couples from Denver. Same for New York, Atlanta, DC, and, as of next spring, Pittsburgh. That is an essential part of the experience, because when these couples return to their home cities, they have an instant cohort of other Jews with whom to gather for Shabbat dinner or a Passover seder. They have an entree into community.
You see, the goal of the trip is not necessarily connection to Israel, per se, but rather connection to Jews and Jewish life. Israel may be the destination, but this is more about the journey – the Jewish journey after their return. In fact, each couple is screened (there is a waiting list, particularly in the larger cities) and the ones with WEAKER Jewish connections are actually more likely to be selected for the trip. That pretty much guarantees a greater bang for the investors’ buck – reaching deeper into the ranks of disconnected young Jews and giving them a better chance to connect them.
So here is the fascinating part: the demographics of the 2000 or so who have participated include about 70% interfaith couples, and among the remaining 30% about half include a partner who converted to Judaism. About 9% are same-sex couples. As you may imagine, the participants run the gamut of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. This is an honest portrait of Jewish America. As such, the trip organizers work very hard to make sure that the language is inclusive, that there is no apparent agenda in terms of conversion or other religious pressure.
Now, there are some among you who are clearly thinking right now, “But rabbi, how can this possibly be a Jewish trip if (א) they are not requiring participants to put on tefillin every day and (ב) a third or more of the participants are not even Jewish?”
The early 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, raised a secular Jew, was on the verge of becoming Christian to further his academic career, but gave traditional Judaism a final shot before taking the plunge. He quickly discovered the richness of our tradition, and went on to write one of the best-known works of contemporary Jewish philosophy, The Star of Redemption, and to establish the Lehrhaus, the contemporary House of Jewish Learning, in Frankfurt. When asked later in life if he was putting on tefillin every day, his answer was, “Not yet.”
Let me tell you this, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, we in the Conservative movement accept the traditional idea that halakhah / Jewish law applies to us, that Shabbat and kashrut/dietary laws and daily tefillah / prayer are an essential part of what we do as Jews.
But the approach to take when welcoming marginally-connected folks into the fold should be, “Not yet.” Don’t hit them over the head with dietary restrictions, with shutting down for Shabbat, with diving into Rashi and Rambam.
Rather, we should welcome them by building a network of other Jewish people with whom they can dip their toes in the water. But we need to warmly invite them in rather than push them away by setting the bar too high. We cannot make them feel inadequate for not knowing Hebrew or what Shemini Atzeret is. (Heck, I don’t really know what Shemini Atzeret is!)
Our goal, as contemporary Jews and people who appreciate the value of our tradition, is to open the doors. Just throw ‘em wide open and say, “Come on in! We value you. We want you as a part of our community. We don’t judge you for your sexuality or if your partner is not Jewish. Bring them along!”
Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, here is an area where we need to do a little bit of teshuvah. We have been judgmental. I am aware of a number of instances where people who do not match the expectations of others have been told unfriendly things. The tough ones are those who stuck around despite the judginess. The not-so-tough ones probably never came back.
Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to turn our backs on anyone who walks into a synagogue, who seeks to connect with Jewish tradition. Yes, we still have an obligation to halakhah, to Jewish law. But nobody will learn this if they are turned away at the door or made to feel unwelcome.
One thing that Mike Wise mentioned is that in their interviews with potential couples for Honeymoon Israel, there were a lot of tears; many stories of rejection.
But the outcomes have been positive. Honeymoon Israel continues to track their participants afterwards, and have found overall greater levels of engagement with Jewish life, and a greater sense of shared involvement in Jewish life, even when one partner is not Jewish.
We are a synagogue – beit kenesset. A place of gathering. And we should strive to make sure that all are welcome here.
And for those of you who may be wondering, “But Rabbi, doesn’t the future of Judaism depend on making sure that our children only marry Jews?” I would respond by saying, “Actually, the future of Judaism depends on making sure that all who enter into our synagogues understand the richness of our tradition. The future of Judaism depends on sharing our wisdom and values with the world. The future of Judaism depends on offering a deep sense of connection and spirituality. The future of Judaism depends on supporting each other as a community. Perhaps most importantly, the future of Judaism depends on imparting all of this to our Jewish children and grandchildren. And if some non-Jewish partners get swept up in our enthusiasm for these things, then that is simply wonderful.”
Now of course we are still bound by halakhah, Jewish law in the Conservative movement, but I’ll tell you this: in 5777 I welcomed 15 new Jews into our berit, our covenant. Six of them were women married to Jewish men and their children. That is what we stand to gain by being open.
We need to look for those who do not know how to ask, and help them, gently, assuredly, to find their way in.
And certainly, I understand why many of us are concerned about opening up the tent. We are, as the philosopher Simon Rawidowicz declared in the title of his 1948 essay, “The Ever-Dying People,” on how Jews have always been anxious about their nascent disappearance.
Rabbi David Hartman addresses this issue in his book, A Heart of Many Rooms (Jewish Lights, 1999). He says the following:
“If we can rid ourselves of the obsession with certainty and finality – if we can internalize the spirit of the covenantal idea – then the uncertainties of the modern world will not deter us from renewing the vital interpretive processes that define our religious heritage.”
OK, so I know Rabbi Hartman’s prose is slightly impenetrable, but his point is that embedded in our berit, our covenant, is God’s keeping God’s word to us regardless of the uncertainty that modernity has brought us. It’s going to be OK. But if we want Judaism to continue, we have to be less focused on merely practicing Judaism and more interested in the meaning behind what we do, and making sure that we continue to interpret and redefine for today. Judaism did not stop moving forward in the shtetl of Eastern Europe. Ever since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE (remember from the first day of Rosh Hashanah?), Judaism has never ceased to grow and change; that is the source of its resilience. And we have to continue to let it move forward today, given the realities of where Jews are.
And where might we find the meaning that our tradition teaches? How might we engage those vital interpretive processes to which Rabbi Hartman refers? You could throw a dart onto just about any page on the Jewish bookshelf and hit something powerful.
The bottom line of Judaism, drawn from our historical texts, is treating each other well. About society. About the providing for the needy among us; about treating the refugee among us respectfully, about ensuring that the orphan, the widow, the homeless in our neighborhood are taken care of. All of that comes from the same books that speak about kashrut and Shabbat. We read in the haftarah today, the words of Isaiah (58:5-7), speaking of the fast day of Yom Kippur:
“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?…
No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free; …
It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”
That is the Judaism we must teach to the she-eino yodea lish’ol, the child who does not know how to ask. That is the future we must create.
I spent a good deal of this sermon speaking about the mysterious “they” who are unconnected to Jewish life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all the ones who do not know how to ask, because we have been conditioned not to ask. We have been intimidated by the apparently high bar of knowledge it seems you must have to enter and learn from Jewish text.
That’s gotta stop. The Jewish future depends on your willingness to invest your mind and heart in our rich tradition, in the words that have enabled us to survive the last 2000 years, through persecution and oppression and genocide.
The challenge, moving forward, is to find your way in. And not just you who are here today, but the many more who are not. And we’re going to help you with that.
Over these holidays, we have built a bridge across the Jewish year, uniting the framework of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the Pesah theme of the Four Children. When we complete this High Holiday cycle this evening with Ne’ilah, you do not have to wait until Hanukkah or Pesah to reconnect; this thread of Jewish connection, of the Jewish operating system, is there for you all year long. Come back to Beth Shalom regularly; stay connected; watch for the Derekh programming coming your way. Make a little more room in your heart and mind for what we are doing now – what you put into this community will be paid back to you doubly in the satisfaction of creating a better you, and a better world.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/30/17.)