Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yom Kippur Day Sermon


Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5773
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD
Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Two construction workers sat down together to have lunch at their job site. The first worker reached into his lunch box and pulled out a sandwich. He took a bite, spit it out with disgust, and said, “Yecch, ham on white bread.” He reached into the lunch box again and took out a second sandwich. He bit into that one, again spit it out and said, “Blecch, turkey on whole wheat.”
The second construction worker said to him: “you know, if you hate what you have for lunch so much, why don’t you speak to your wife and ask her to make you something different?”
“My wife?” the first construction worker said. “I made these myself.”

About a hundred years ago there was a rabbi in Warsaw named Yehuda Leib Alter. He was the rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim and he wrote a Torah commentary known as the Sfas Emes, which means “The Language of Truth.” My friend Rabbi Steve Sager of Durham, NC, got me interested in reading the Sfas Emes a number of years ago. Rabbi Sager called the Sfas Emes “the first post-modern Jewish theologian” and he was right. The Sfas Emes had a unique ability to penetrate to the heart of the Torah and help us understand how it speaks to every Jew.
The Sfas Emes, in his commentary on Exodus, asks an interesting question. What did the generation which left Egypt do to merit redemption? After all, they were, when it comes down to it, not such righteous people. They rebelled against Moses, several times, tried to overthrow him and tried to return to Egypt. No less astonishingly, after witnessing God’s power both at the Red Sea and at Sinai, they committed the sin of the Golden Calf. So, how is it that they merited redemption?
The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is quite simple. Prior to the generation that left Egypt, the Torah does record that the Hebrew slaves complained about their lot. But, they never asked to go free. As soon as the people asked to go free, God freed them.
The point is not some arbitrary insistence by God that the people ask for freedom, like a five year old that won’t lend out his toy until his friend “asks nicely.” No, the point is that the first step on the road to freedom is to imagine that freedom is actually possible. It’s not enough to know that you don’t like the current situation. Or, to go back to our construction workers, it’s not enough to know that you don’t like ham on white or turkey on whole wheat. The point is, you have to imagine a different possibility. Many people lack the hope that things could be different. That hope, I believe, is a gift of God, if we choose to accept it; it is the gift of teshuvah, of transformation.

Several years ago when we lived in Baltimore, I read an article in a local monthly, The Urbanite,  which made this point quite eloquently. I do not know if the author, Kelly Parisi, is Jewish, or if she has any religious identification at all. I do know that what she wrote reflects a sensibility, which is deeply consonant with the message of our High Holiday prayers.
Kelly Parisi was 38 years old when her 42-year-old husband died of cancer. She writes: “the experience purged me like a fire . . . For the first time I understood ownership was an illusion. Nothing belonged to me – not the people I loved, not my own life. Everything was on loan, due date unknown.”
A few months after her husband’s death, she made a life-changing decision “one night in the grocery store after a few months of widowhood. Wandering the aisle, my basket bone empty, it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember what I liked to eat. I stood there looking at various foods and asking myself, do I like that? And I really didn’t know. I had been caring for my husband for so long, thinking about only what he could eat, that drinking a can of Boost and calling it a day had become good enough for me.”
“Confused and a little desperate, I bought three bags of Oreos, drove to Baskin-Robbins, ordered a chocolate malt and sat in the car taking stock. Gone was more than my appetite. I had lost my future and my dreams. At 38 years old, a friend had referred to me as “middle-aged and widowed.” Sometimes I felt a hundred years old, yet sitting alone in a parking lot at 9 p.m., eating cookies and drinking a malted milkshake just because I could, made me feel downright juvenile. I vowed to continue.”
“The Oreo diet worked wonders. After a few months I added Cheerios, olives, kiwi, and tuna. If it didn’t end in a vowel, I didn’t eat it. True, it was an eccentric sort of self-care, strange, intuitive and absurd, yet unquestionably correct. Slowly, one sweet choice at a time, I reconstructed my life.” She writes that she ultimately decided to give up her career as a graphic designer to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in her true passion, creative writing.

The point is not that we should all give up our well-paying careers and pursue our passions. Kelly Parisi doesn’t mention having kids, so I guess she doesn’t, which no doubt made it easier for her to go back to school full-time at the age of 40. The point is rather that after reaching bottom, she realized that things could be different. It was the realization that she did not have to keep doing the same thing over and over, that she was not a prisoner of the past, which allowed her to rebuild her life and move in a different direction.

The challenges and disruptions we face at Kehilat Shalom are not as great as those faced by Kelly Parisi, but we too face the choice of being prisoners of the past or moving in a new, more positive, direction.

On Rosh Hashanah I quoted a provocative article by Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which appeared in the Huffington Post. In his article “From the Cathedral to the Bazaar,” Rabbi Kula wrote that “the existing business models and organizational structures of mainstream religion are, as in many fields of meaning-making today (journalism, film, and music), increasingly unsustainable. Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals. They are getting what they need to get their spiritual/meaning-making job done in the bazaar, which has a very different model of authority and hierarchy, has very limited barriers of entry and far more choices, and which tends to be a user-friendly and open source environment.”

I want to explore that statement a little bit and what its implications are for us as we ponder our future. The comparisons to journalism, film, and music are apt. They are all, as Rabbi Kula puts it, fields of “meaning-making.” They help us make sense of our lives and sustain us through our times of joy and sorrow. And all of these fields are going through a radical restructuring.

People are still interested in music, but the advent of the Internet, mp3 players and file-sharing means that people, certainly people younger than I, no longer buy CDs.  Tower Records and Borders are out of business and Sam Goody became FYE and makes its money mostly from video games. So musicians and producers need to figure out new ways of still being paid for the music they create, and music retailers have to figure out how to stay in business. But it would be a mistake to think the financial realignment of the music industry means people aren’t interested in listening to or creating music anymore.

The same for journalism. People are certainly still interested in news. But the rise of 24 hour cable networks and the Internet have meant fewer people rely on the daily newspaper as their main source of news. We lived here six weeks before we even subscribed to a newspaper, which we get as much for the comics and the crossword as for the news. Because my primary source of news is Google news which I look at every morning as soon as I wake up.

Film, too, faces economic challenges. Fewer and fewer people see films in movie theaters; more and more see them at home as DVDS -- bought, rented, or pirated -- or “On Demand” through their cable or satellite tv service. The advent of Youtube and other similar services have made it easier for a filmmaker to get known, but how do you make money off of someone watching your movie on Youtube? Youtube has started experimenting with pay per view options but it remains to be seen how this will work out.

Which brings us to the business model of the synagogue, which is actually not very different than that of most churches. A family chooses to join a congregation based on whatever factors make sense to them. The location is convenient, they like the clergy, they like the building, they agree with its ideology, their friends are members there, it confers status, they like the religious school. There is a difference between synagogues and churches in that synagogues have annual dues while churches have an offering on Sunday. But the difference looms larger to Jews than it actually is. Most churches set an expected level of annual giving which generally is not too different than what synagogues charge in dues, and they manage to keep track. It’s not, contrary to what you may believe, a question of putting a buck or two in the collection plate; families pledge an annual amount that is generally based on their income. The main difference is that synagogues tend to have a fixed amount per family, though of course those who can afford more often give more and those who can’t afford full dues can ask for an abatement, whereas in churches each family decides for itself what it will give based on its income and church guidelines. But a recent survey conducted by the Forward newspaper shows that churches and synagogues of similar demographics tend to raise almost identical amounts of money per capita from their members in either dues or annual giving. Indeed, church members generally give a little bit more per family than synagogue members.

As I’ve already indicated, one of the necessary ingredients in any attempt at change is the belief that change is possible. This is especially difficult in the case of synagogues as there is an unspoken assumption that the synagogue as it exists today is what has “always” been. But in fact, the American synagogue does not resemble what existed in “the old country”, wherever that was, nor do today’s synagogues much resemble those which existed 100 years ago.
The earliest stage of the American synagogue was the immigrant synagogue. It simply transplanted what had been known in the Old Country. The institution was pretty much the same. It was an island of familiarity in a sea of strangeness.

          Stage two is called by historians the “ethnic synagogue.” It was made up mostly of the children of immigrants and it played a dual role. It was a place of ethnic solidarity but it was also a vehicle for Americanization. Sermons were in English rather than in Yiddish, and prayers were said in English as well as in Hebrew. Thus, the synagogue was an Americanized and Americanizing institution while still being a place of ethnic identity and solidarity.

          Stage three is the synagogue-center, starting generally in the years shortly after the Second World War. Jews had arrived; they were increasingly accepted in general society as anti-Semitism, while not disappearing, decreased significantly. They were more prosperous than before. Religiously, Judaism was increasingly accepted as one of the “three major faiths” and no important civic ceremony could be held without a rabbi as well as a priest and minister to give the invocation or benediction. While immigrant and even ethnic synagogues tended to be modest buildings, stage three synagogues were larger and were usually located in prominent, visible locations. They were meant to make a statement to Jew and Gentile alike about Jewish prosperity, permanence, and being a proud part of the American mix. They were much more than just shuls; they were centers of culture, of education, and a social center for the Jewish commmunity. As a rule, the space devoted to social and educational activities was much larger than that devoted to prayer. Synagogue-centers were also, largely, child-focused. Adults dropped their kids off for Hebrew school or youth group, but aside from High Holiday services rarely went inside themselves, except for family services and life cycle events in which their kids or their friend’s kids were taking part. And for the most part, worship was pretty passive. The rabbi called the pages, led the English readings, and gave the sermon. The cantor sang and taught the boys their Bar Mitzvah portions. Usually, both of them wore clerical robes. There were few opportunities for men to participate actively in leading services, and no opportunities at all for women to do so, except on Sisterhood Sabbath when they might lead the Friday night service.

The fourth stage of the American synagogue is known as the “synagogue community.” It differs from the “synagogue center” in that it is less formal, more diverse, more participatory and more focused on social action. Kehilat Shalom is very much a synagogue community. But in its organizational and financial structure it is quite traditional. It is a membership-based organization with dues and a board and a building and so on.

As I’ve shown in my talk on Rosh Hashanah, even the synagogue community will probably be less and less viable over the coming years and decades. As more and more of us have multiple identities, the idea that one particular place of worship is going to be someone’s main spiritual home, and in order to have that spiritual home he or she is expected to fork over two thousand dollars a year plus a building fund pledge -- that idea is going to be harder and harder to sell. Whatever our new business model will be, it will have to figure out a way to serve those who may wish to dabble in Judaism while also exploring other spiritual traditions. It will have to figure out a way to welcome those who consider themselves part Jewish or somewhat Jewish or “Jew-ish”. These folks will be happy to support the institution, just as people expect to pay for the yoga classes and Reiki treatments and meditation courses they take. Our model is going to have to be much more “pay as you go” and less dues-dependent, as many of the people the synagogue serves may not even be members. Of course there will always be the possibility that some of these dabblers and blenders and benders may ultimately choose Judaism as their sole spiritual path and wish to become members, but if that is presented up front as the direction in which we want people to move, we are going to fail. The goal will have to be providing ways for people to make their lives more meaningful, not convincing people to join our synagogue.

Clearly we face challenges as a community. Some of them are of our own making, but many are not. We cannot change the demographic realities of Montgomery Village or the sociological realities of American society as a whole. But we can bemoan them and become prisoners of them, or we can respond to them in bold and creative ways.

The Piaseczna Rebbe, known as the “Esh Kodesh” or “Sacred Fire”, was the Chasidic rabbi of Warsaw before and during the Holocaust. He tells a story which illustrates the point I am trying to make. It is the story of a beggar who had a dream that he would become a king. Now you must understand that in Chasidic stories dreams are of tremendous significance, because they are God’s way of communicating with us. Now most of us, if we dreamed that we would soon become a king, would be pleased. But this beggar was sorely troubled, scared, and pleaded with God not to make him a king. Why was the beggar so afraid of fulfilling his destiny?
This is why the beggar was so terrified. He said to himself, “As it is, it is all that I can do to knock on enough doors in a day to beg enough money to feed myself, my wife, and my two children. If I become a king, I will now be responsible for the welfare of thousands and thousands of people. How in the world will I ever be able to knock on enough doors to beg enough money to take care of so many?”

You see, the beggar in our story was such a prisoner of “the way things are” that he could not imagine a world in which he did not have to go from door to door to beg for his sustenance. The only difference between his current situation and being a king was that he would simply have to knock on more doors.

The main theme of this period of the year is “teshuva.” It is such a rich word because it has so many meanings. Repentance, yes. Turning, returning, changing, and even answering. And let me suggest another word: response – indeed, the type of Jewish legal writing known in Hebrew as a “teshuva” is called in English a “responsum.” The shofar call can startle us, can wake us up, and can rouse us from our slumber – if we will let it. Will we, like the beggar in the Piaseczna rebbe’s story, be prisoners of a world we imagine could not be any different than it is today? Or will we, like Kelly Parisi, respond to life’s challenges in bold and creative ways? The choice is ours alone. Shana tova.

Kol Nidre Sermon


YK Sermon 5773 Kol Nidre
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Kehilat Shalom

One of the highlights of the High Holiday liturgy is the “U’nateneh Tokef” prayer. For many, perhaps the musical setting, one of the classics of traditional cantorial art, is more important than the words. Because the words, if read excessively literally, can be troubling. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die. Who by fire and who by flood . . . and who by earthquake. How are we to understand these words after watching natural disasters such as the earthquake which befell Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country, a couple of years ago? Two years later,  hundreds of thousands are still homeless. A few years before that we watched so many die by flood in Southeast Asia. More recently, the Fukushima earthquake in Japan created real fears of nuclear devastation. And what about Hurricane Katrina? Was it God’s will that all these people died? Were the tsunami, the hurricanes, and the earthquakes God’s doing?

Certainly there are those who think so. Pat Robertson can always be counted on for an enlightening explanation of any natural disaster, and he explained that the two centuries of Haitian suffering culminating in the earthquake were due to a pact with the devil the Haitian slaves had made in order to gain their freedom. Back a few years ago some right wing Israeli rabbis explained that the tsunami was God’s warning that Israel should not withdraw from Gaza, and that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment after the fact for American support for that withdrawal. In our own country, some televangelists explained that the tsunami was God’s punishment of the population of Southeast Asiafor being predominantly Buddhist and Muslim, while Katrina was sent to New Orleans because of its hedonistic lifestyle. Al-Qaeda agrees with the Christian televangelists that Katrina was a punishment from God, but they of course believe that the sin which was being punished, was our country’s support of Israel and our invasion of Iraq.

In an era of so much disharmony between religions, it is refreshing that Jewish, Christian and Muslim extremists can all agree that the reason natural disasters occur is that God causes them as punishment for sin. Of course, exactly which sin is being punished remains a subject of disagreement, but that is a minor matter.

But I suspect that for most of us, this type of explanation rings hollow. Nor should we make the mistake of thinking that all those who hold to traditional beliefs would subscribe to them. While certainly more traditionalist versions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would tend to agree that everything that happens in the world is in some way God’s will, it does not necessarily follow that we are able to know precisely why God caused something to happen. Indeed, within both Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, many would consider an attempt to explain precisely why God causes something to happen to be bad theology and the height of arrogance.

It is also interesting to me that those who claim to know why God caused some particular calamity to happen always believe it is because of someone else’s doing. And so the televangelist will point to gambling, drinking, prostitution and homosexuality, and not, for example, bigotry, homophobia, racism, and a lack of concern for the poor. An Islamic fundamentalist will point to American support for Israel and the invasion of Iraq and not, for example, to the lack of democracy, the oppression of women, the xenophobia and illiteracy of their own societies. But it seems to me that anyone who knows the Biblical tradition and seriously believes that natural disasters are wake-up calls from God, ought to cease finger-pointing at others and look deep inside. The Book of Jonah, which we will read tomorrow afternoon, features the people of Nineveh, at that time the leading enemy of the Jews, but it is not about them. It is about us; it is not a catalog of the sins and misdeeds of the people of Nineveh . We know they are sinful before we even start reading the book, but that is not the point. The point is that “they turn from their evil ways and do good”, and for this they are forgiven; and we are supposed to learn from their example and do the same. This is why we read Jonah on Yom Kippur. This is the prophetic message – to look at your own misdeeds and those of your society, not to look around and point fingers at everyone else.

Traditional religious belief does not, however, require us to believe that when bad things happen God causes them. Within the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, there are other perspectives to be found.

In the parasha we read every year on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah, God tells Moses that after our ancestors enter the Land of Israel , they will turn away from God and worship alien deities. God, in return, will take away His protection from the people of Israel and calamities will befall them. Note that God does not say he will bring calamities on the people. The calamities happen in the natural course of events; it is just that God, because of the sins of the people, will not protect them as he once did.

The book of Job offers another perspective. Bad things happen because they just do. Job’s friends try and comfort him, but their comfort is of little help because for the most part it consists of trying to convince him that he has done something to deserve what happened to him. But Job knows otherwise, and he protests against the injustice. Finally, God appears out of a whirlwind and challenges Job’s perceptions. Where were you when I created the world? Job takes back his complaints and repents of them, being but dust and ashes. However, many literary scholars believe that a different author added the final chapter of Job later, in an attempt to make the book less radical and more acceptable for inclusion in the biblical canon. Even so, the inclusion of Job in the Bible was a drastic step, because it validated the idea that it was legitimate for us to question received texts because they did not reflect our lived experience. So we are back at square one in our search for an acceptable theological explanation of suffering.

The rabbis of the Talmud were quite aware of this dilemma, what they called “tzaddik v’rah lo, rasha v’tov lo” – the suffering of the righteous while the wicked prosper. They realized that there was no visible connection between a person’s moral characteristics and whether or not he prospers. Some simply said that whatever God does is good and righteous, though it may be difficult or even impossible for us to understand. Others believed that reward and punishment were certain to occur, but in the next world rather than this one.

But the idea that we simply cannot understand why certain things happen is hard for us to accept. Almost thirty years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner had a surprise runaway bestseller dealing precisely with these questions. I find it interesting that so many people, who may even own it, do not know the name of the book. So many people call it “Why Bad Things Happen To Good People” but the book is actually called “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” What we really want to know is why, and it is difficult to accept that we may simply never know – at least not in this lifetime.

We want to know because we have an intuitive feeling that life should make sense. We have a biblical tradition, which holds God to be both all-powerful and totally just, yet our observation of the world indicates that something is awry. It just doesn’t seem to work that way. How do we resolve this dilemma?


Our relationship with God is like that of a parent to a child. The ultimate goal of a good parent is to equip their child with the tools he or she needs to function in this world as a fine and decent person. At the beginning, a child is pretty much helpless and a parent must do everything for him or her. But as the child matures, she is able to do more and more for herself and the parent must step back a bit. It is often painful to do so, especially as we see our children about to make the same mistakes we made at their age. But learning and growth come through failure as well as success, and a wise parent learns to let go.

Rabbi Kushner and Rabbi Irving Greenberg have helped us to understand that this is the way humanity’s relationship with God works as well. Our tradition teaches us that God created us to be free. But beyond that, God created us with an impulse to seek perfection. Adam and Eve were placed in a perfect world, but ultimately this proved unsatisfactory. We human beings thrive on challenges. If the world was perfect, and we had no challenges, there would soon be no reason for most of us to want to go on living. And God seeks relationship with us as well. Just as there is no point to our existing in a world without challenges, there is no point for God to create beings without the ability to grow and learn.

And so our relationship with God is now on a different plane than it once was. Centuries ago, as at Sinai, God communicated directly with our people in a very public way. Today, God no longer speaks with us in discrete words. Rather, we encounter God through our study of sacred texts, our observance of sacred rituals, our participation in a sacred community, and in acts of lovingkindness. Centuries ago, as at the Red Sea , God was involved directly in our deliverance. Today, God’s deliverance needs to come in a different manner – through our works of charity, our support of social justice, and in our professional lives as doctors, teachers, and caregivers.

Why do earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes happen? Because they do. God created a world that is in some ways still imperfect, and gave us both the duty and the ability to improve it. That is what divine – human partnership is all about. The symbols of this partnership are central to many of our most sacred rituals.

On Shabbat and most holidays -- but not Yom Kippur -- we thank God for creating bread and wine. We say “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz”, thank you God “who bringest forth bread from the earth.” But God does not, in fact, bring forth bread from the earth. God brings forth wheat from the earth, and it is through human action that God’s wheat becomes the bread that we eat. Similarly, God does not create wine but grapes, and it is through our action that these grapes become the wine over which we say Kiddush. We do not say “ha motzi” over wheat or “borei p’ri hagafen” over grapes – we reserve these blessings precisely for items which represent our partnership with God.

Our partnership with God needs to extend beyond the food we eat and the wine we drink to the world we inhabit. Earthquakes happen because they do, and human beings do not cause them. The earthquake in Haiti killed a quarter of a million people, injured 300,000 more, and left a million people homeless. A similar magnitude earthquake a couple of weeks later in New Zealand made barely a blip in the world news. No one was killed and only two people were seriously injured. Why? Because New Zealand is a prosperous country with tough building codes and a well-developed emergency response system.

The inescapable conclusion is that while natural disasters strike the rich and the poor alike, the impact on the rich is generally less severe than the impact on the poor. In relatively wealthy New Zealand, they can afford to insist that buildings are built to withstand earthquakes. In Haiti, where people struggle for adequate shelter, insistence on a building code would mean most people would go without housing at all. And so, people die.

We may never have the ability to prevent natural disasters. We may never have the ability to completely prevent or completely cure disease. But God has given us the ability to blunt the impact of these ills, if we would create a society which is fairer, where the extremes of poverty and wealth are not so great, where we devoted more of our governmental budgets to research and education and less to war and destruction.

Perhaps this is the real meaning of the U’nateneh Tokef prayer I mentioned towards the beginning of my talk. For after saying that “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed . . . who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water” the prayer goes on to say that “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah ma’avirin et ro-ah ha g’zeira” – as our Mahzor translates it, “can remove the severity of the decree.” The new Rabbinical Assembly machzor, which we do not yet use, translates it entirely differently. Teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah -- which it leaves untranslated -- have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
Teshuvah. When Mark Borovitz was fourteen his father died and his world changed. From a nice Jewish middle class boy he became a drunkard, a con man, a thief. He spent twenty years as a petty criminal. The mob put a contract out on him. He went to jail.
Even after his release, he continued in this lifestyle until one day he realized that this is not the way God wanted him to live. He helped to found Beit Teshuvah, the House of Teshuvah, a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles for addicts of all kinds. He went back to school and became a Conservative rabbi, and is now the rabbi at Beit Teshuvah. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.

Tefillah. Mordechai Liebling and Dvora Bartnoff were both rabbis -- coincidentally they were friends of mine. Their third child, a son, was named Lior, which means “my light.” Lior had Down syndrome.
When Lior was six, Dvora died of cancer. Mordechai raised Lior and his older brother and sister as a single parent, but his community was an important part of their lives as well. Eventually Mordechai remarried and the family dynamics became even more complicated. Lior may have Down syndrome but he loves to pray and he prays with abandon, to the point that he became known in Philadelphia as the “little rebbe.”
The preparations around Lior’s Bar Mitzvah became the award-winning documentary “Praying with Lior.” The film seems to demonstrate that Lior’s love of prayer and tradition is his way of bonding with his late mother. He cannot of course bring her back, but even with Down syndrome he can perpetuate her legacy. And through the film, he may well have reached more people with his message of God’s love than she did in her too-brief rabbinic career. Praying with Lior -- tefilla. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.

Tzedakah. From Lior to Liora. In the spring of 1996, the life of my friend and student Liora Natelson was cut tragically short. She was working for the Jewish National Fund as its West Coast director of young leadership. She had lead a trip to Israel for JNF and stopped in New York on the way home. She went rollerblading with some friends in Central Park and for whatever reason she did not wear a helmet. A bicycle rider and she collided, she hit her head on a curb, and instantly she was brain dead. She was removed from life support a couple of days later, and I officiated at her funeral.

Her parents decided that the best way to memorialize Liora was a living memorial. She loved Israel, she loved nature, and she loved Tzfat, where she first became interested in a more serious encounter with Jewish life and practice. So they decided to create, through the JNF where she had worked, a Memorial Forest in her honor just outside Tzfat. Today it is known by Tzfat residents simply as “Liora” as in, let’s go have a picnic at Liora. Her parents Jay and Miriam turned Liora’s death into the gift of nature and recreation for the people of Northern Israel. Tzedakah. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.

Our moral sense that something is askew when bad things happen to good people is, I believe, the surest proof of God’s existence. Our ability to do something positive in response is what brings God into the world. God has given us the task of being co-creators with him. As a loving parent, God gives us a good teaching – the Torah – and the ability to make the world better or to make it worse. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny. Ultimately, we may never know the reason for tragedy. But we can be the hands of God in helping those who suffer. Ken Y’hi Ratzon – may this be God’s will.

Rosh Hashana Day I Sermon


Rosh Hashanah Sermon I
Kehilat Shalom
Rabbi Charles L. Arian

At least two daughters of former presidents have married Jewish men -- Chelsea Clinton and Caroline Kennedy. The contrast between the two weddings which took place 24 years apart, helps to illustrate some important changes in American life.

Two summers ago, like many others in the American Jewish community, I  wondered what Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Marc Mezvinsky  would look like. Since access was tightly controlled, the only photographs of the wedding which were ultimately released are those the couple or their parents wanted seen. And what they chose to reveal was quite interesting. Here are Marc and Chelsea walking arm-in-arm up the aisle. She is in her Vera Wang strapless gown; he is in his Burberry tuxedo, over which is wrapped a white silk tallis with gold stripes. She of course is wearing a veil; he is wearing a black velvet kippah.

And here is another picture, the bride and groom facing each other under the chuppah, their ketubah framed and mounted on a stand for all the world to see.

Chelsea’s wedding could not have been more different than Caroline Kennedy’s 1986 wedding to Edwin Schlossberg. Although he did not convert, Kennedy and Schlossberg were married in a church, with a Roman Catholic priest conducting the Catholic ceremony. No kippah, no tallit, no ketubah, no rabbi.  The price of marrying into the Kennedy family was not necessarily becoming Catholic, but it was clear that Catholicism was to be the religion of the household and that any children would be raised in the Church.

By contrast, Clinton and Mezvinsky were married in an interfaith ceremony that had a lot of Jewish symbolism. A rabbi and a United Methodist minister officiated. There were the tallit and the yarmulke and the ketubah I already mentioned. Friends and relatives read the sheva berachot, the seven blessings which are part of the Jewish wedding ceremony; and the ceremony ended with the groom smashing a glass under his foot and those in attendance shouting “mazal tov.”

None of this was really surprising. When Chelsea and Marc were dating but not yet engaged, they had attended High Holiday services together at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Moreover, the Clinton family is known to have positive feelings for Jews and Judaism. During his presidency, they had attended High Holiday services on Martha’s Vineyard. President Clinton had many Jews in his administration, and many of them were quite serious about their Judaism: Daniel Kurtzer, Jack Lew, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, Rahm Emanuel. It was Bill Clinton who gave the main eulogy at the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; Clinton’s phrase after Rabin’s murder, “Shalom, Chaver,” became a popular bumper sticker in Israel and the name of both a memorial book and a memorial CD. It was clear that the Clintons have no problem with Jews or Judaism, and while Chelsea has not converted, nor has the couple made any statements about how they plan to raise any children they might have -- nor would I expect them to -- it would not surprise anyone to see Zaidy Bill and Bubby Hillary participate in a grandchild’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah fifteen or so years down the road.

The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding marks a shift in the acceptance of Jews and Judaism as part of American society. Particularly because the visual images coming out of the wedding were so controlled, it is safe to assume that the message we received is the message the couple and their parents wanted to send. Marc Mezvinsky in kippah and tallit, standing under the chuppah near his ketubah, is sending us a message. Yes, I am marrying this Protestant woman, but I am still very much a Jew. My Jewish identity matters to me and on my wedding day I choose to emphasize that this is who I am. And the Clintons are sending a message as well, a message of acceptance and embrace of Marc’s Jewishness and, if the wedding sets a tone for the couple’s life together, a strong measure of Jewish identity in the home and, presumably, in the lives and identities of any future grandchildren.

What I personally found surprising about the Clinton - Mezvinsky wedding was the identity of the rabbi who participated, and the fact that he chose to do so also says something about the nature of Jewish identity today.

Rabbi James Ponet is the Hillel rabbi at Yale University, and he has held that position since 1981. I don’t know him well, but I do know him, since for eight years in the late 80’s to mid-90’s I was also a Hillel rabbi and I would see him every year at our staff conference and other professional meetings.
In the world of Hillel denominational affiliation doesn’t matter very much, and at the two different schools where I was the Hillel director -- the University of Virginia and American University -- I often had graduate or law students who had done their undergraduate work at Yale. When they would discuss their time at Yale Hillel, very few knew that Rabbi Ponet was at least on paper a Reform rabbi. Most would describe him as Conservative, some as Orthodox, because his observance was pretty traditional. In fact, after his ordination from the Reform rabbinical school in 1973, he spent eight years in Israel, where he studied and taught in liberal Orthodox settings like the Pardes yeshiva and the Shalom Hartman Institute, and helped to found one of the more liberal Orthodox synagogues in Jerusalem. After eight years in Israel as part of Jerusalem’s liberal Orthodox community, he came back to the US in 1981 to take the Hillel position at Yale, where he had been an undergraduate.

As you know, Conservative rabbis are forbidden by our professional association to officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. It is not my purpose today to either defend or criticize that policy, which I am obligated to follow and which is not likely to be changed any time soon. But as a rule rabbis whose constituents regularly assume them to be either Orthodox or Conservative do not co-officiate at intermarriages, with a Christian minister, on Shabbat. So you can imagine why as pleased as I was by all the Jewish symbolism in the Clinton - Mezvinsky wedding, I was surprised that Rabbi Ponet was the rabbi involved. Although unlike many of his students I knew that he was officially affiliated with the Reform movement, I also knew him to be a very traditionally observant Jew.

What I did not know until a couple of days later, when the New York Times ran a profile of Rabbi Ponet, was that over the last seven years or so he has been, as the newspaper put it, on a spiritual journey. “The yarmulke disappeared; he could be heard joking about eating shellfish again, as he had in his youth. Did he get less observant? “In the public eye,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that in the private eye. I still consider Shabbat” — the Sabbath — “the pivot of my life.” While he once counseled against intermarriage, for the last five years or so he has, on occasion, officiated at them.

As we will see, in changing at least the outward manifestations of his Jewish observance, Rabbi Ponet is hardly unique. All of us are on spiritual journeys and there is no guarantee that a year from now, any one of us will be precisely at the same point as we are today. We may believe differently, we may behave differently. Some of the mitzvot we now observe may lose their luster; other mitzvot which today seem devoid of meaning or simply impractical may suddenly seem full of potential to enhance our lives and deepen our relationship to God.

As many of you know, two years ago I was awarded a fellowship by CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, to be one of 20 rabbis -- chosen from over 80 who applied -- to participate in their “Rabbis Without Borders” program. The goal of the program, according to CLAL, is to “nurture and develop a network of rabbis with a shared vision to make Jewish wisdom available to anyone looking to enrich his or her life. We provide rabbis and rabbinical students with cutting edge methodologies for addressing the challenges people face today.”

At our first meeting in October 2010 we studied with Barry Kosmin, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford and one of the leading experts in the sociology of American religion. One of the items we studied with him was a Pew Forum report he co-authored called “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the US.”

There are trends going on in American religious life which we need to understand if we are going to make sense of the world in which we live. We need to understand them while we, as a congregation, ponder our future direction. Those of us who are parents or grandparents need to understand them as we watch our children and grandchildren make decisions about their own lives, decisions we may not necessarily approve of or even understand but decisions we will have to learn to accommodate nonetheless.

The key finding of the Pew Report is that 44% of all Americans do not currently follow the religion in which they are raised.  Of the 56% who do follow the religion in which they were raised, 16% had at one time left it for a different one but then returned. That 16% of the 56% makes up a total of 9% of the overall population -- which means that 53% of all Americans have at one time or another left their original religion.  Many Americans have switched religions more than once.
It’s not just a question of people leaving one religion for another, however. The quickest growing category in the American religious landscape is unaffiliated or “none.” While only 7% of American adults say they were raised without any particular religious affiliation, 16% of the American population is currently unaffiliated. They are now the third largest religious grouping in America after Catholics and Baptists. Many of these “nones” say they believe in God and many observe various religious practices and ceremonies. They just do so without formally joining a church, synagogue or mosque. You probably have friends or relatives who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and they may fall into this category as well.

Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL, himself a Conservative rabbi, wrote an interesting article in the Huffington Post about the Clinton - Mezvinsky wedding and what it says about the changing American religious landscape.

“Welcome to the new world of religion in America,” writes Rabbi Kula.  “Chelsea's parents were an interdenominational marriage of a social justice Methodist and a Baptist, which would have been unheard of 50 years ago. Chelsea grew up proudly within mainstream Protestantism, while Marc was raised clearly identified in a mainstream Jewish denomination. Their marriage is the next generational step in crossing borders -- from Methodist-Baptist to Christian-Jew. What is unprecedented -- wonderful for some and horrifying to others -- is that in this era no one needs to reject his or her identity to cross these century-old boundaries. Multiple identities -- in the example of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, at least three different traditions being brought to bear -- is the new reality.”

Rabbi Kula continues: “ we Americans are increasingly becoming what I call "mixers, blenders, benders and switchers" (MBBS). We customize our religious identities -- less in terms of some group-belonging need, creedal purity, or theological consistency, and more in order to get a job done -- and in doing so, we find greater meaning and purpose. Identity, including our religious identity, is becoming fluid, permeable, and an ongoing construction -- a verb rather than a noun.”

“Millions of us are moving from the cathedral to the bazaar. Of course, you cannot have people mixing religious ideas and practices in a divine smorgasbord of choice, creating families with diverse inheritances, and, because of new powerful technologies from search engines to connection technologies, getting their religious and spiritual resources independent of religious authorities and expect existing religious institutions to be unaffected. The existing business models and organizational structures of mainstream religion are, as in many fields of meaning-making today (journalism, film, and music), increasingly unsustainable. Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals. They are getting what they need to get their spiritual/meaning-making job done in the bazaar, which has a very different model of authority and hierarchy, has very limited barriers of entry and far more choices, and which tends to be a user-friendly and open source environment.”

Notice that while Irwin Kula is a rabbi and works for a Jewish think tank, he is talking here not about “Judaism” but about “American religion.” We are not insulated from the trends which are occurring in the rest of American society. The difficulties that synagogues are having have less to do with the nature of the American Jewish community and more to do with the nature of religious belonging in American society. As an aside, if you think it is only synagogues which are in trouble you don’t know very much about mainline Protestantism. In 1990, out of 248 million Americans, 33 million were mainline Protestants. In 2008, out of 308 million Americans, 29 million were mainline Protestants -- an absolute loss of 4 million members even as the US population increased by almost 25 percent, and a decline in the percentage of the population from 13% to 9.5 percent. There are currently no Protestants on the US Supreme Court and no White Protestants on either presidential ticket.

The reality of “mixers, blenders, benders and switchers” has been with us for some time but we have yet to figure out a way to adjust to this new reality. Rabbi Kula writes “This is unnerving stuff, and predictably, we have some religious communities becoming more conformist, exclusive, and intolerant.” In other worlds, when the outside world threatens, one natural response is to circle the wagons. The other natural response, writes Rabbi Kula, is to become “more diverse, inclusive, and syncretistic.”

This is not an easy reality to adjust to for those of us who identify with Conservative Judaism. On the one hand, we belong to a movement that has historically said that our decision making process must be in accordance with Jewish law. We have said that kiddushin, Jewish marriage, is between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. We have said that a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother or who has undergone a proper conversion which includes a trip to the mikveh, and ritual circumcision in the case of a man. Indeed, for Conservative rabbis all of these are not merely norms but what are known as Standards of Rabbinic Practice -- meaning that by failing to adhere to them we could lose our standing as Conservative rabbis, with all that entails.

On the other hand, we Conservative Jews are in fact religious liberals. We don’t live in isolation from the rest of American society. We live in multireligious neighborhoods and we send our kids to multiethnic schools. And we understand that in living in these neighborhoods and attending these schools, we are going to meet and fall in love with people who are compatible with us in every way but one -- religion. And so we figure out how best to deal with that reality. I find it interesting that until some time in the 1950s a Jew who was married to a non-Jew could not, according to United Synagogue policy, be a member of a Conservative congregation. And then the United Synagogue said you could be a member but not a board member; then a board member but not an officer; and today the official policy is that a Jew married to a non-Jew can be an officer but not the president -- a policy which my prior pulpit in Norwich, CT ignored on more than one occasion with no repercussions. The United Synagogue was still happy to accept their dues.

I should add that it is not only we Conservative Jews who are still struggling to adapt to the new American religious realities. Our Reform cousins are generally perceived to be “friendlier” to mixed couples and their children. For example, they will accept the child of one Jewish parent as a Jew, regardless of whether that parent is the mother or the father, provided that the child is raised with an exclusive Jewish identity. But therein lies the rub -- exclusive Jewish identity. Reform Judaism is no friendlier than we are to the idea that a child can be both a Jew and a Christian at the same time, that a baby can have both a baptism and a bris or a synagogue naming ceremony. Neither they nor we are willing to accommodate a family that wants on some weeks to send their child to the synagogue religious school and some weeks to Sunday school at a church. The Reform message, like ours, is, you can be a Jewish child with a Christian parent, you can be a Christian child with a Jewish parent, but you can’t be a Christian and a Jew at the same time.

Many parents in Reform and Conservative congregations accept this reality; we have many Jewish young men and women who have a non-Jewish parent who is fully supportive of their child’s development as a Jew. But Rabbi Kula’s idea that we are moving from the “cathedral” to the “bazaar” may mean that increasingly, parents will want to take aspects from whatever identity they find meaningful without necessarily buying into the whole package. We can accommodate their desires or not, but we don’t own a copyright on the name Judaism and ultimately, people will do what works for them, or in Rabbi Kula’s phrase, “gets the job done.”

My talk this morning has been more descriptive than prescriptive. I can assure you that a few years ago I would have decried many of the phenomena I have described this morning, because at heart I am basically comfortable with the Jewish tradition as we’ve inherited it. But at a certain point in my life I came to a realization: people are going to do what they are going to do and it doesn’t really matter very much whether I approve or not. The role of the rabbi is no longer, if it ever was, telling people what to do. It is to share his or her wisdom and knowledge with people, Jewish and Gentile, both or neither, in hopes that some of it will make sense and enrich the lives of those with whom he or she comes in contact. As Rabbi Kula writes: “indeed, there are no road maps, -- so we are making it up as we go along. But the more people love each other, and the more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships and families, the better we will understand each other across all boundaries, and the wiser we will be at knowing what from our rich traditions we need to let go of and transcend, and what we need to bring along with us to help us create better lives and build a better world.”

To the extent that our traditions and institutions help people create better lives and a better world, they will continue to be viable. And that, after all, is the task to which we are called as humans and as Jews, and to which we are called to rededicate ourselves on Rosh Hashanah. Hayom Harat Olam -- this day the world is created. It’s a confusing and sometimes crazy-making world -- but I wouldn’t trade it for any other.






Thursday, September 13, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Not in Heaven

Every year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we read the following words from Parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, Chapter 30:

“11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

When we say that the Torah is “not in heaven,” what do we mean?

The Jewish tradition has understood these words in a few different ways. Many of you are familiar with the Talmudic passage from Bava Metzia 59b where Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua are arguing about the ritual purity of a certain type of oven. Rabbi Eliezer gets frustrated and invokes all kinds of miracles and finally a heavenly voice to prove that his position is the correct one. But upon hearing the heavenly voice Rabbi Joshua rises and says “it is not in heaven,” and therefore we pay no attention to heavenly voices. The rabbis of each generation have to decide the law; we don’t have the option of appealing to God directly. The Torah is not in heaven. It was once, but God has chosen to give it over into human hands.

It is this human role in the system which has allowed Judaism to adapt and grow over the centuries. When a religion has no possibility of amending its laws -- or when those amendments depend on direct ratification from God -- it becomes very difficult if not impossible to adapt to changing conditions. If I ever announced to the congregation that God had spoken directly to me and commanded a new law or changed an old one, what would your reaction be? Is there room in Judaism for a sense of a new revelation that is not rooted in the text? Why or why not?