On this Shabbat, one year after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we might turn our eyes heavenward once again and call out, “Why?” Why must we mourn for murdered high school students? Why must we remove our shoes at airports, but tolerate the sale of assault rifles? Why must we grieve for the memory of our beloved Pittsburgh neighbors, felled in hatred a few short months ago? The opening verses of Parashat Tetzaveh describe the burning of a “ner tamid” in the mishkan, the portable desert tabernacle, an eternal flame that indicated to our ancestors the constant presence of God in the center of their encampment. When we look to our ner tamid, our eternal light today in our sanctuary, we are reminded not only of our need for constant vigilance, but also of our burning desire to make this a safe world, a world where we need not ask these questions of “why.”
May this Shabbat be a Shabbat Shalom, one in which we all get a little more peace.
The idea featured in this particular episode is about inter-connectedness, about networks, but not how we usually think of them. It was uncovered primarily by a professor of forestry from University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, whose research has demonstrated, effectively, that trees are networked with each other through something called a mycorrhizal network, and that this network helps the trees support each other.
The way it works is as follows: in the soil, there are tiny, nearly invisible tubes called mycorrhiza, which are parts of various kinds of mushrooms. Fungi. There can be miles of these tubes in a pinch of soil. The tubes affix themselves to the roots of trees, and engage in a kind of exchange with them: the tree provides sugar to the mushrooms, and the mushrooms provide minerals to the tree.
OK so far? It’s even better than that.
Not only is there an exchange between the fungi and the tree, but the fungi, which are connected to many of the other trees nearby, actually share nutrients through the network between trees. And the trees support each other – when one tree needs more nutrients, the other trees will, with the help of the network, send them. When there is a shortage of one type of nutrient, the mycorrhizal network will hoard that nutrient and dole out to the neediest trees. The network also ropes in the assistance of other creatures – bacteria and insects – to help maintain the whole system.
It’s almost as though the forest is “thinking,” like some kind of huge plant brain; strategizing, sharing, supporting.
What is truly revelatory and beautiful about this is that it seems that there is no such thing as a lone tree. Each tree is linked into the whole system. Prior to discovering the network, Dr. Simard had noticed that when you pulled out one tree, sometimes another nearby tree of a different species would die, clearly a result of upsetting the balance in the network.
So why am I telling you this?
When I heard this story, my mind immediately went to us, the Jews, and how we are linked together.
When you think about it, it’s downright unbelievable that we are still here. I mentioned this briefly on Rosh Hashanah – we outlasted the great empires that ruled Israel, that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, that dispersed us all over the world. We have long since bid goodbye and good riddance to the Babylonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Russian czars, the Fascist regimes of the middle of the 20th century.
What has kept us alive? I would like to propose that our metaphorical mycorrhizal network, the invisible, powerful connection that has maintained our network and supported us is Torah. Not THE Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, but “Torah,” without any definite or indefinite article. It is a much more comprehensive term. Torah is what flows from THE Torah.
It refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf. Torah obviously begins with the Torah, which we read through each year. But that is just the beginning – Torah in its greater sense is all of our collected learning, including the rest of the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – the entire Hebrew Bible), and it flows through the collected network of rabbinic texts which make up the Jewish bookshelf: the Talmud, commentaries and supercommentaries on the Torah, midrashim, halakhic codes (Jewish law), mussar (ethical commentaries), Hasidic stories, kabbalistic literature, the words of tefillah (prayer), Jewish music and artistic interpretation, and on and on.
“Torah” in its greater sense is the ongoing project of two thousand years of intellectual development: debating the meaning of our ancient texts across generations, continents, and centuries; it is the thread that connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to our families, to Israel, to our people.
Torah (in its greater sense) is what holds us all together. It is our unseen, yet essential network. None of us are individual trees; we are the Jewish forest, connected by a textual, mycorrhyizal network, sharing and distributing all of that wisdom, ancient and modern.
What holds us together is words. Centuries ago, we were dubbed by the Muslim world as Ahl al-Kittab, the People of the Book. But we took that moniker proudly as our own: we are Am haSefer.
“Ours is not a bloodline,” write Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book, Jews and Words, “but a textline.” What connects us from generation to generation is not Hanukkah candles or matzah or even Yom Kippur. It is not our being an extended cousins’ club. It is not mah-jongg, or eating Chinese food on Christmas. It is our collected body of wisdom. What connects Moshe (Rabbeinu) on Mt. Sinai to Moshe (Maimonides) in 12th century Cairo to Moshe (Mendelssohn) in 18th century Berlin is that thread of interpretation that makes the matzah come alive for us today. Without the text, it’s just a lousy, unsalted cracker.
In what is one of the best-known stories found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b-57a), Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai effectively launches rabbinic Judaism by having his students smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin.
The year is 69 CE. The Jews have been revolting against the Romans for a few years, trying to preserve their way of life, their land, and particularly their Temple, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, wherein they have been sacrificing animals and produce to God for nearly a thousand years. The Romans, led by Vespasian (who is not yet the Roman Emperor), have taken Israel by force, and have surrounded Jerusalem.
After having been smuggled out as a corpse, Rabban Yohanan arrives at Roman military headquarters, and pops out of the coffin in front of Vespasian. A lively debate ensues in which the Romans exhibit their inclination to live by the sword, and Rabban Yohanan counters with proto-rabbinic wisdom: “All neighbors who do harm to others find that they have done it to themselves,” he says. Vespasian understands that he is in the presence of a very wise man.
Then something happens that changes the course of Jewish history.
Rabban Yohanan has predicted that Vespasian will soon be the emperor, and sure enough, while they are speaking, a messenger arrives to crown him as Caesar. Vespasian says to him, “I am now returning to Rome, and will send somebody else to take my place. You may, however, make one request of me, and I will grant it.”
Rabban Yohanan says, “Give me Yavneh and all its sages.” That is, give me a little, out-of-the-way, sleepy seaside town where I can assemble a crack team of rabbis to figure out what comes next in Jewish life.
He did not say, give me back Jerusalem. He did not say, just let me keep the Temple and let the Kohanim continue making sacrifices for the Jews.
He said, give me space to start writing the first chapter in the textline. I need a forest where I can plant some fungi.
Sometimes, we have to conquer our fears of the future and embrace change. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the rabbis of Yavneh fashioned from the rubble of the Roman destruction not a Third Temple, but rather what we know today as Judaism. Thanks to Rabban Yohanan and his scholars, Judaism was re-invented. We, the Jews underwent a paradigm shift, eliminating the barbaric rituals of animal sacrifice and replacing it with the meditations of our hearts. This was the biggest historical turn for our people since leaving slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah, 1300 years prior.
We all need to be a little bit more like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: facing down our fears, letting go of what was, and embracing the future. That’s why I spoke last night about re-envisioning this synagogue, about the vision of Beth Shalom as a center of contemporary Jewish life and learning for the whole region.
And that brings me back to our mycorrhizal network, about our need for Torah, about our need for connection to each other through our ancient wisdom. But first, a collective “Al het.”
Al het shehatanu lefanakha. For the sin we have sinned against you God, by practicing Judaism without seeking meaning within it.
If there is a bottom line to everything that I have said over the past ten days, it is that Judaism’s future depends on our willingness to let it bring meaning to our lives.
Why are we like so many individual trees, not connected to the network? Because we have failed as a community to look to our textual heritage. Because we have assumed that being Jewish meant lighting Hanukkah candles and saying kaddish and “having a bar mitzvah,” without making any serious effort to connect these things to who we are, how we live, what we feel. Because Judaism loves to tell us more about how to do something rather than why.
The key to the Jewish future is the mycorrhizal network of Torah. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai pulled off a nervy stunt to get an audience with Vespasian so he could ask, not for ritual, not for ancient sacrifices, NOT EVEN FOR JERUSALEM, but for Torah.
As disconnected trees, we will die. As trees whose roots intertwine with the tiny underground tubes, connecting us to our Etz Hayyim, our tree of life, we will thrive.
That’s why we are still here. That’s what makes us a community, a qehillah, brought together for a holy purpose, sustained and nourished by the words of Torah, thousands of years of collected knowledge that is still fresh and fragrant today.
Why have I devoted these four sermons, nearly 100 minutes of talking, over 10,000 words, to answering the question of “Why?”
I told you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that these are essential questions that we must be asking if we want there to be a future to progressive Judaism.
But more importantly, I want to make you care. I want you to understand the value of what we have inherited. I want you to ask why, and then go seek out the answer. And sometimes, all it takes to appreciate what we do as Jews is a new take, a fresh perspective, a captivating insight.
And beyond that, we should never do anything merely because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” That answer is insufficient for me, and it will not further the cause of connecting Jews with Judaism.
We need to ask “Why?” more. And we need to dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to find the answers.
Today’s why: Why do we need Congregation Beth Shalom?
How many of us in this room grew up as members of the Beth Shalom community? Raise your hands.
This congregation has had an impact on many, many people, and has been an anchor of Squirrel Hill for just shy of a century. 2017 promises to be a very exciting year for Beth Shalom, and we are all fortunate to be a part of it. Judy and I feel extraordinarily lucky and grateful to be here with you at this time, and looking back over the past year, over 5776, we have seen wonderful growth and excitement. We are very happy to be with Beth Shalom as we begin the next hundred years.
Actually, some of us in the room may not appreciate what it means to be a part of a thriving community; not all synagogues are thriving. Yes, I know that some of us here look back to a time when the membership of this congregation was twice what it is today. But unlike most synagogues, this one is growing. We gained over 50 new member families over the past year, which is truly outstanding. And I’m confident that we will continue to grow and I will share with you why.
But let’s face it: times are tough for membership-based organizations of any kind, and even tougher for religious institutions. People are wary of institutions. We are less loyal today. We are less likely to pay for things that do not necessarily give us some kind of immediate gratification. And of course, secularism is on the rise; you may be aware that the fastest-growing religious group in America is “None.”
And so the synagogue, if it is going to sustain its membership model, must demonstrate its immediate value.
Just a week and a half ago, there was a story on the front page of the NY Times Business section about a new development in Japan for what we Jews might call “unaffiliated” Buddhists. It’s a service provided by Amazon to order a Buddhist priest for rituals. You point and click, and the priest comes to you. Not bad, eh? You know, Rent-a-Rabbi / Buy-a-Buddha.
The problem is that nobody is a Buddhist for just a half-hour once a year when they need a memorial service on the anniversary of the death of a departed loved one (which, BTW, is called in Japanese, “yahrzeit”).
Similarly, you cannot really be Jewish for a few hours a year either. And that is one primary reason for the existence of synagogues. We are not part-time Jews, flipping on the Jewish switch when you are saying qaddish or standing under the wedding huppah; we are Jewish throughout our lives.
And that’s why we need synagogues. The synagogue is not just valuable, it’s vital, and not just for the reasons that immediately come to mind:
We offer a sense of qehillah, community. I spoke about this extensively last year, so I’ll just briefly remind you that our society has very few gathering places today. The synagogue is one place where you can rub elbows with other members of your community in real time, where you can belong. And that’s not only rare, but also priceless.
We are a full-service organization for the entire Jewish lifecycle. We are here for you from, as they say, cradle to grave. We are here not only to offer support in times of need, but we offer resources to help you be Jewish and to be a better person at every stage of your life.
Something that Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA said, which I find quite striking, which is that the synagogue is the only place that teaches you how to be a family. We are all about relationships. We are multi-generational, and we offer a rare framework in which it is possible to spend time together as a family, to learn together, and to discuss together our relationships in the context of holidays, lifecycle events, learning, services, and so forth. We create a space for true inter-connectedness in a way that few other organizations can.And here are just a few ways we do that: our Early Learning Center; our children’s services; Shababababa, which attracts 100 or more people once a month for a Friday night service; the Kiddush Club creates a space on Shabbat after services where families can hang out together; the pre-Benei Mitzvah Retreat, which we will be an annual event; and on and on.
But here is the reason that we really need Beth Shalom: that this congregation is the laboratory where we will strive to create the Jewish Future with a capital F here in Squirrel Hill.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I made the case for why we need Judaism, that is, because it can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. And we need a place where we can do those things; that place is Beth Shalom.
Yes, there are other synagogues nearby, but I am absolutely certain at this point that Beth Shalom is poised to become the center of traditional, and yet fully contemporary Jewish life and learning in Western Pennsylvania. I know this is a lofty statement. Please bear with me as I explain.
Some of you have heard me reference many times the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews from 2013. That data has been a goldmine. Among the valuable revelations that the study gave us were that virtually all of us (94%) are proud to be Jewish. That may not have been historically true, in days when garden-variety anti-Semitism and the stigma of being an immigrant pressured our parents and grandparents to assimilate as quickly as possible.
Another fascinating piece of data is that most of us, around 72% believe in God, however we might understand what it means to “believe in God.”
These two data points alone suggest the need for synagogues, wherein Jews can gather to exercise their pride in Judaism and their relationship with qedushah / holiness.
I was recently struck by an idea, promoted by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie on a podcast of Judaism Unbound (http://www.judaismunbound.com, Episode 29), that the synagogue can be not only a laboratory for spirituality, but should be infused with creativity somewhat like an art studio.
Beth Shalom has the potential to become that creative studio for Judaism in this neighborhood.
I have a vision to entirely re-think what it means to be a synagogue. To make that vision a reality will require change, and a bit of risk, and a vote of confidence from you, the congregation.
I have said before in this space: the Beth Shalom of the future cannot be the Beth Shalom of the past. We have to change our model.
Here’s why: What motivated our parents and grandparents to build huge edifices like this was intimately tied to a specific point in time, in the middle of the 20th century, when Jews were finally “making it” in America, gradually being welcomed into the wider society. The Jews were movin’ on up.
And in the wake of the Shoah, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel, there was a certain pride that American Jews took in boldly identifying with Jewish national struggles and aspirations. So they paid their dues to institutions, many institutions, built big buildings, and assimilated into American culture. For the most part, they relegated their Judaism to Friday night or Saturday morning, expected the rabbi and cantor to live Jewishly on their behalf, and from Saturday afternoon until the next Friday dispensed with many of the old-world trappings that Jewish practice demands.
Our children have none of these motivations. They have nothing to prove about their Jewishness. They live in a world where identity is fluid, which is at the same time as liberating as it is lonely and bewildering. They feel that they have little need for or interest in institutions. They did not grow up trying to “fit in” as Americans, because there is no question on that front. They have never known a world without Israel, and I am saddened that many of them have learned to squelch their Jewishness on college campuses, lest they be tagged as pro-Zionist, a dirty word in some quarters.
Whereas in the past, synagogues could depend on hooks like High Holiday tickets and the bar/bat mitzvah process to prop up our membership rolls, that model is mostly gone. So we have to do something to make a positive change. We have to give our children a legacy that they will rise to meet. To recall the challenge of today that I identified on Rosh Hashanah, we have to find a way to make them care.
The vision of Beth Shalom’s future will be to cultivate within all who enter a sense of what it means to be positively Jewish. Not reflexively Jewish, as most of us have historically been. In other words, when you can be anything you want, we have to convince you of the value of wanting to do Jewish and to do it here.
To demonstrate that our tradition enriches your life, and that the synagogue is the place where you can share it with others, where you can learn to act, collectively and as individuals on Jewish values. That is what we need to do.
How do we do this? By creating positive Jewish experiences. Jewish involvement that is meaningful. Jewish experiences that are contemporary. That are thoughtful and multi-layered. That include women and men and gay and straight and transgender as equals. That acknowledge that not all Jews are white, or know some Yiddish. That face the reality that many of us are now married to people who are not yet Jewish, and that we must reach out to all people in our midst. That open new doors, new portals to all.
The future of this congregation will be built on the framework of the past, but with a commitment to reach people that the current model is not reaching.
How do we reach all of those people? We have to create a set of programming that is awesome, that is so well-done, presented by a top-shelf lineup of speakers and artists and presenters of all sorts, people who will show us the richness of what Judaism has to offer.
So we are embarking at this very moment on a great challenge indeed, one that will, in fact, re-envision the synagogue for this century. A team of members of this congregation, plus our Executive Director Rob Menes and I have crafted a road map for the future of Beth Shalom. It’s called Derekh, literally, the way. (Derakheha darkhei noam, vekhol netivoteha shalom. The Torah’s ways are of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.)
Derekh will feature five portals of entry, five ways in which people can become involved in Jewish life:
Hesed / Acts of lovingkindness
The cornerstone of the operation, the first portal of Jewish learning will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, which will be a new twist on an ancient Jewish place. As you may recall from when I described this last year at this time, the synagogue was classically a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, and also a beit midrash, a house of study.
Today, the beit midrash is a place for the handful of Jews who are highly Jewishly knowledgeable: rabbis, rabbinical students, Talmud scholars and the like. But I want to create, here at Beth Shalom, a new kind of beit midrash: one that is open and flexible and accessible to all. It will also be designed to reach not just members of Beth Shalom, but to bring in people from across the Pittsburgh community. This Open Community Beit Midrash will feature programming for a range of skill levels and interests from the curious- but-intimidated to the insatiable scholar. And it will feature guest speakers and visiting scholars that are on the avant-garde of Jewish learning from across the spectrum.
Believe it or not, text-based Jewish learning is now fashionable in Israel, and not just for men in black hats. Former Member of Knesset Dr. Ruth Calderon founded one such house of study in Tel Aviv called Alma, and it has brought many Israelis, people who may otherwise have no connection to what we think of as Jewish life, to study Talmud and other Jewish texts.
And there is something of a renaissance in this area going on in America too. Mechon Hadar, founded by one of my rabbinical school classmates, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, is a center of contemporary Jewish learning in New York that has produced a wonderful range of classes and workshops and podcasts, with people coming from all over to study there, and others (like me) taking advantage of their materials online. Sefaria is a web-based platform that enables people to share Jewish resources – texts, translations, study materials – so that anybody with a computer has easy access to our tradition.
And we can be the contemporary center for Jewish life and learning right here.
But while the center of Derekh will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, there will be so much more:
The Hesed portal, through which we will step up our commitment to deeds of lovingkindness, featuring a range of social action activities, including awareness-raising, partnering with the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and Repair the World, for example.
The Israel portal, including regular trips, greater involvement with the Carmiel-Misgav partnership, Skype sessions between our teens and theirs.
The Culture portal: artists, films, musicians, maybe a studio space in this building for an artist-in-residence. Just as nations are strengthened by arts and culture, so too will this portal strengthen us.
And the Mindfulness portal: Yoga, meditation, new approaches to the Jewish spiritual experience.
The goal is for Beth Shalom to be the primary resource for spiritual growth in the community, the lynchpin in generating a renaissance in Jewish life in our little shtetl. We need an infusion of exciting, meaningful programming here, and Derekh will provide that and more.
That’s our vision. That’s what will guarantee our future as a congregation.
We will need new staff to do what I’d like us to do. We’ll need to reconfigure spaces. And of course we will need to raise funds. This project, which will be significant and transformative not only for Beth Shalom, but also for the whole community, will depend on raising our endowment significantly.
So along those lines, please know that we will be in touch with you – by mail, but hopefully also in person – about contributing to Beth Shalom’s future.
We hope – we urge you to take hold of this opportunity to participate in this campaign, to consider a meaningful gift that will ensure that the Beth Shalom of the next 100 years will be more meaningful, more connective, more essential than the last 100. Beth Shalom has been here for you for nearly a century; now Beth Shalom needs you.
Why do we need this congregation? Because it will guarantee a strong, traditional, yet egalitarian and progressive Jewish anchor in this community for the next century. Because it will continue to support and nourish our subsequent generations. Because it will continue to enrich your life through community, lifelong Jewish learning, and spiritual growth. Because our lives need more qedushah, more holiness.
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.
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.
It’s hard to believe that 5776 has already flown away from us, and we are headed into 5777, which will be the only Hebrew year in our lifetimes containing three identical digits in a row (of course, this does not seem so special only 17 years after 1999).
You may recall that our theme for the High Holidays last year was Connection, Community, and Kedushah (holiness), and much of what we have accomplished over the last year has focused on those things: parlor meetings, the monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, the new pre-bar/bat mitzvah Family Retreat, the launching of Beth Shalom’s new mission statement, beginning to plan our Centennial celebration, Pride Shabbat, the inauguration of a task force to discuss being more welcoming to interfaith families, and so forth.
This year, the theme for High Holidays is “Why?” Why be Jewish? Why Beth Shalom? Why engage with Jewish living? Why learn the ancient writings that fill the Jewish bookshelf? For the vast majority of us who were born Jewish, we have never thought too deeply about why – we have merely been Jewish by default, and done Jewish things because that is how we were raised. But the contemporary challenge to religion requires that we think more pro-actively about why we do what we do, because if we cannot answer those questions for ourselves, what is the chance that our children will continue to value the rich, meaningful legacy that we pass on to them?
In order to get yourself in the mood for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m going to suggest the following. Spend a few moments answering the following questions for yourself:
What is the most meaningful Jewish thing that I do? Why do I continue to do it?
What is my most powerful Jewish memory?
What is one area of Jewish life and learning that I wish I knew more about?
Why does the world need non-Orthodox Judaism?
What value does Congregation Beth Shalom bring to my life and my community?
If you are not sure how to answer any of these questions, perhaps you will gain some perspective this year during the High Holidays. Let’s hope that we will all be open in 5777 to gain a greater understanding of the tremendous value and meaning in our customs, our rituals, our rich textual tradition.
And I am going to suggest one more thing again this year for services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Wear white clothing to the synagogue on these days. It is traditional to wear a white kittel to acknowledge our need to seek purity. But white can also suggest the search for meaning, the openness to finding meaning in what we do as Jews, not just on the High Holidays, but throughout the year. You don’t need a kittel, but you can simply wear white, and be open.