Friday, December 27, 2013

How Open Should Our Tent Be?

If you follow the Jewish news as avidly as I do, you may be aware of a controversy involving Swarthmore College Hillel and Hillel International. The Swarthmore affiliate recently declared that it would not be bound by Hillel International’s policy forbidding any Hillel chapter to host or sponsor activities with organizations that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” In response to this declaration, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut, a former Ohio Congressman, warned Swarthmore Hillel that he expects all campus Hillels to follow these guidelines or lose the right to call itself “Hillel.”

It’s interesting that Swarthmore Hillel has not as yet actually violated these guidelines; it has merely asserted that it won’t be bound by them.

What precipitated this declaration? According to the Swarthmore Hillel student board, it was a recent incident where former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, an outspoken dove, was not permitted to give a speech at Harvard Hillel.

How on earth is it possible that a former speaker of Israel’s parliament -- who before that was chairman of the Jewish Agency -- could be prevented from speaking at a Hillel? The reality is a bit complicated, but it seems that the Palestine Solidarity Committee had agreed to co-sponsor the Burg speech along with Harvard Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Hillel affiliate, and even Harvard Students for Israel.  Harvard Hillel felt that allowing an event co-sponsored by the Palestine Solidarity Committee to take place in the Hillel building would violate the guidelines, but they also wanted to show hospitality to the former Knesset Speaker. So in a compromise that frankly reminds me of some of the mental gymnastics Conservative synagogues sometimes go through, an invitation-only dinner for Burg was held at Harvard Hillel. After dinner, everyone walked across the street to a university-owned building for the public lecture.

The Harvard/Burg debacle led to the creation of a group called “Open Hillel,” of which Swarthmore soon became the first (and so far only) institutional member.

I began my career as a Hillel director, well before these guidelines came into effect. As a Hillel director I tried to have as diverse a program as possible. When the “Palestine Solidarity Committee” and “Students for Israel” want to co-sponsor a speech by a former Knesset Speaker, and Hillel International’s guidelines prevent it, something is wrong. The ethos of the campus is to promote dialogue and  free inquiry; students learn from hearing a broad spectrum of opinions and having their pre-conceived notions challenged.

I would add that we at Kehilat Shalom have had a broad variety of speakers as well. Last year our Men’s Club sponsored talks by Eric Rozenman of CAMERA, which can fairly be characterized as a right-wing pro-Israeli group, as well as a Muslim leader. In previous years I am told that we have hosted diplomats from Arab countries. Hosting a talk by a particular individual does not imply endorsement of his or her perspectives or activities.

I think Hillel needs to cast its net as wide as possible. As we learned in our “Engaging Israel” course, being pro-Israel does not mean supporting every decision a particular Israeli government makes. Lots of American Jews are critical of certain Israeli policies -- be they on religious pluralism, women’s rights, or the Arab-Israeli conflict. The recent Pew Study showed that only 38 percent of American Jews believe that the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace, while 48 percent believe it is not sincere. (It should be added that 75 percent of American Jews -- me included -- believe that the Palestinian leadership is not making a sincere effort at peace either.) Younger Jews tend to be more dovish than the rest of the Jewish community, and the exclusion of dissenting voices from the Jewish campus umbrella will undoubtedly cause further alienation of young Jews from the organized community as they get older.

And yet -- advocates of the Hillel International policy point out that on the typical college campus there are any number of opportunities on a daily basis to hear from critics of Israel. Indeed, on many campuses pro-Israel students feel that they are constantly under siege. Is it wrong for Hillel to be the one place on campus where Jewish students can enjoy a respite from having to defend Israel? There is a certain merit to this perspective.

The same question can be asked about our synagogue, or indeed any synagogue. How broad do we want our tent to be? I recently attended a “Think Tank on Intermarriage” for Conservative rabbis, and it became clear to me that in the non-Orthodox Jewish community intermarriage is the “new normal.” Roughly half of young adults raised in the Conservative movement are going to marry someone of a different religious background -- and if we are going to retain them and their offspring, we are going to have to make some adjustments. At the same time, Conservative Judaism defines itself as a movement which adheres to halachic restrictions on Jewish status, on marriage and divorce, and the role of non-Jews in the synagogue. How much can we change and still be Conservative? How do we make our synagogue more comfortable for intermarried Jews and their families without at the same time making it less comfortable for our current members, especially those whose inclinations are more traditionalist?

To the credit of both Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut will soon sit down with the Swarthmore Hillel student board to begin a dialogue. Within Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue’s recent Centennial Convention was dubbed “The Conversation of the Century” and kicked off an honest and introspective discussion of the state of our own Movement and its future direction. We need to do the same at Kehilat Shalom. How big do we want our tent to be? What can we do to be more welcoming to those who are not currently a part of us, without alienating those who are already inside the tent?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Conservative Judaism and Mark Twain

Recently I wrote about the recent Pew report on American Jews and what it means for the Jewish community overall. Now I would like to focus on what it means for Conservative Judaism in particular.

Recently there has been a spate of articles reacting to the statistic that only 18% of American Jews currently identify as Conservative, and only 11% of those under 30 do so. This is in sharp contrast to most of the 20th century, when the plurality of American Jews identified with Conservative Judaism. The first study which did not show Conservative Judaism as the largest denomination was in 1990, when 38% called themselves Reform vs. 35% Conservative. So in the 23 years since then, our “market share” has gone down by half.

One of the more interesting articles was by Micah Gottlieb, a professor of Jewish studies at NYU, raised in the Conservative movement but today Modern Orthodox. For Prof. Gottlieb, writing in the Forward, the key failing of Conservative Judaism is its lack of halachic seriousness:

I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic. . .

I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women. My synagogue was not egalitarian, although women could be called to the Torah on special occasions. The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.

I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters. Worse still, as egalitarianism swept Conservative Judaism in the United States, Canadian Conservative Jews who were not egalitarian were made to feel unwelcome. . .

Many people are thinking about how to revitalize Conservative Judaism. This is important, as the world needs a vibrant Jewish religious center. From my experience, I would recommend one thing above all else: Support and nurture the most committed Conservative Jews at local synagogues. Give them outlets for their religious curiosity and passion. These Jews may not write big checks. They may sometimes make the less committed members of the synagogue feel uneasy. But they are the future.

There is some truth in what Prof. Gottlieb writes, and in one of my Yom Kippur sermons I recounted the story of one of my friends who left the Conservative movement so that he could raise his children in a Shabbat-observant community. But these kinds of people are not the norm; the Pew report says that 4% of those raised Conservative are now Orthodox while 30% are now Reform and fully another 20% say they are of no denomination or are culturally Jewish but have no religion. I suggest that our survival as a movement depends more on retaining those who have left for Reform or secularism than those who have left to become Orthodox.

Moreover, those of us who are committed to gender egalitarianism don’t see it as a “political” issue but rather a religious, spiritual mandate.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, an ordained Conservative rabbi and well-known author who lives in Israel (and with whom I shared an office suite at the University of Judaism almost 20 years ago), wrote an article in the Jewish Review of Books called “Requiem for a Movement.” At least, as one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook, he had the decency to sound sorry that we died.

According to Rabbi Gordis, Conservative Judaism died because

Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address. . .As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.

Gordis’ article is somewhat schizophrenic in that while he pillories the supposed excessive focus on halacha, and our failure to acknowledge that most of our members are simply not interested in living a fully halachic life, he also criticizes our concessions:

They (the rabbis) expected less of their congregations, reduced educational demands, and offered sanitized worship reconfigured to meet the declining knowledge levels of their flocks. In many cases, they welcomed non-Jews into the Jewish community in a way that virtually eradicated any disincentive for Jews to marry people with whom they could pass on meaningful Jewish identity.

I would posit that numbers, market share if you will, is not the main criterion for the “success” of a spiritual community. Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL wrote, in an e-mail which he has given me permission to include in this article:

Enough of this despair: Conservative Judaism won! Everyone today trumpets being for tradition and change and so now we simply need to move up the evolutionary spiral and widen the range of what we mean by both tradition and change and expand our boundaries of who we speak to given a post modern context, a globalized world and an America in which Jews are the most respected group (see American Grace by Putnam)  in the country. Yes our national institutions are going to weaken. But all national legacy institutions are weakening in every domain and business from the government to the NYTimes etc. Yes we have challenges but don't confuse business model changes that challenge our particular institutions and yes jobs with good Torah that is both needed or wanted.

Mark Twain was reported to have once said “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” A little more than a year ago, people were ready to write the “requiem” for Kehilat Shalom, but we are still here, with a brand-new successful religious school, a significant number of new members, and a much firmer financial footing. Yes, we have our challenges ahead of us, and the Kehilat Shalom which emerges at the end of the next few years may look different than the Kehilat Shalom of yesterday.

I agree with Rabbi Kula that the challenge we face is more to our “business model” than to our core ideas. For much of our history Conservative Judaism was sort of the “default” mode. People with memories of immigrant parents or grandparents wanted a Judaism that was basically traditional but adapted to American realities. As those memories fade, tradition becomes less compelling for some.

Beyond that, all sociological research, well before the Pew study, showed that Gen Xers and Millenials are not joiners the way their parents and grandparents were. The challenge to the dues-based model is significant, just like newspapers and music companies are trying to figure out how to respond to the advent of digital media. But we will figure this out. Like Mark Twain, the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Demography and Destiny: Thoughts on the Pew Study of Jewish Americans

“In 1975, when Elvis Presley died, there were 170 Elvis impersonators around the world. By 2000, there were over 85,000. If present trends continue, by the year 2019, one out of every three people in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.”

    The statistics I quoted above were taken from a reputable academic publication, and they are absolutely correct. But nevertheless they are absurd, because we know that in this case, “present trends” won’t continue. It’s absurd to imagine a world in which 1/3 of the population consists of Elvis impersonators.

    I was reminded of this statistic while reading some of the analyses of the recent Pew Forum report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” While to be fair the coverage of the report has been diverse, quite a bit of it has been “the sky is falling,” especially for Conservative Judaism.

    One of the problems of doing Jewish demography is obtaining accurate, consistent data and comparing it over time. The Census Bureau is not permitted to ask questions about religion, and therefore any data is obtained by privately-funded research. Each research team designs its own survey questions and devises its own methodology. It’s therefore important to make sure that when you are comparing figures over time, that you’re not in fact comparing apples and oranges.

    Much media coverage has painted a picture of a community in decline. For example, 22% of Jews surveyed in 2013 report that while they consider themselves Jewish, they have no religion. This compares to only 7% who answered that way in the 2000 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS). The percentage of Jews of no religion has more than tripled in little more than a decade!

    But as JJ Goldberg points out in The Forward, and as those of us who follow Jewish demography know, the 2000 NJPS was notoriously unreliable -- so much so that its release was delayed by two years and the Jewish Federation movement, which funded the survey and its 1990 predecessor, got out of the business of doing demographic studies altogether. That’s why the Pew Study was done by Pew, a general, not Jewish, non-profit think tank.

    In order to understand survey data you need to know the methodology involved. For example, the 1990 NJPS terrified the organized Jewish community with its finding of a 52% intermarriage rate. But this figure was later revised significantly downward, because in calculating the intermarriage rate they counted as a Jew anyone with one Jewish parent, whether or not they were raised as a Jew, whether or not they were halachically Jewish, whether or not they considered themselves Jewish. I have two nieces who are Unitarians with a born-Jewish father and a lapsed-Catholic mother. My nieces would have been counted as Jews by the 1990 NJPS, and should they marry non-Jews would be counted as part of the intermarriage rate.

So to counteract that fairly dubious methodology, the 2000 NJPS set aside those with “weak Jewish connections” and didn’t ask followup questions about Jewish identity. So if you exclude Jews with “weak Jewish connections” it’s not hard to come up with the figure of 7% of Jews who have no religion, and come up with a tripling of that category in a decade. But if you look back to the 1990 NJPS, you had a figure of 20% Jews with no religion -- statistically identical to the current 22% figure when you account for the margin of error.

Far from a community in decline, the American Jewish community is shown to be larger than previously thought. The Pew survey shows about 6.5 million Jews, not the 5.2 to 5.5 million previous surveys thought there were. In addition there are more than a million non-Jews who have some affinity for Judaism, and many attend synagogues or practice Jewish rituals without formally converting.

It would be interesting to explore what the 22% of Jews who claim that they have “no religion” actually mean, because many of them observe practices that most of us would claim are religious in nature. 46% say they believe in God, 24% attend services at least a few times a year. Forty-two percent attended a Passover seder last year, 22% fast on Yom Kippur, 11% have a kosher home. So clearly, being a Jew without religion is a complicated phenomenon.

The survey has been seen as particularly challenging for Conservative Judaism. Whereas once the plurality of American Jews were Conservative, today only 18% are; and only 11 of Jews 30-and-under.

But too little attention, in my opinion, has been paid to one significant figure. Ninety-four percent of Jews report that they are proud of being Jewish. This is quite remarkable. For much of American Jewish history, large numbers of Jews did whatever they could to escape being Jewish. They changed their names, they had “nose jobs,” they converted to other religions or denied their Jewishness. The phenomenon of the “self-hating Jew,” so well-known from American Jewish literature, is clearly no more.

There are lots of other surprising data -- for example, the 1990 NJPS reported that only 28% of children of intermarriage were being raised as Jews, yet the Pew survey shows that over 50% of young men and women who are the products of intermarriages consider themselves to be Jewish. So there is a lot of good news here. Our community will never be able to make any inroads with people who don’t even consider themselves to be Jewish, or who do consider themselves Jewish but wish they weren’t.

Goldberg writes “if we know anything about the future, it’s that we can’t know the future.” Or as Yogi Berra reportedly once said, “making predictions is very difficult, especially about the future.” In the 1890s everyone “knew” that Reform Judaism was American Judaism, and in the 1950s Orthodox rabbis in droves took Conservative pulpits because everyone “knew” that Orthodoxy in America had no future.

Goldberg’s article is worth quoting at some length:
Take away the errors, and you get a very different narrative. It would go something like this: Despite decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.
Over the past quarter-century (it continues), the data show a community that has grown in number. Intermarriage leveled off in the late 1990s after rising steadily through much of the 20th century, and has remained stable for the past 15 years.
By some measures, Jews appear to be increasing overall levels of Jewish practice and engagement. Most surprising, significant numbers of children of intermarriage have grown up to become Jewish adults, far exceeding even their own parents’ intentions. . .

The lead technical advisor on the 1990 survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.”
In fact, he wrote, it’s “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.”
Like I said: Whoops.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How Old Was Isaac?

This week's Torah reading is called "Chayyei Sarah," "The Life of Sarah" but
in fact, it begins with her death. Interestingly, the Torah tells us nothing
of how she died nor anything of the cause of her death.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, instead of a sermon we discussed Rashi's
commentary and various midrashic understandings of the Akedah, the Binding
of Isaac. One of the questions we discussed is how old Isaac was at the time
his father almost sacrificed him. The biblical text seems to indicate a
young lad, certainly someone not yet in his teens. But many commentaries
suggest he was 37 years old.

Where does this idea come from? It comes from this week's parasha, at least
indirectly. You might not pick up on this because of the way the weekly
portions are split up, but at the very end of last week's parasha Abraham
and Isaac return home from their sacrificial journey. The very next thing
that happens, at the beginning of this week's parasha, is Sarah's death.
Again there is something of a gap in the text, because we are not
specifically told that the death of Sarah is connected with the Akedah. But
that is what many midrashim suggest. One possibility is that Abraham and
Isaac were not travelling in close proximity, and Abraham arrived first,
alone. Sarah may have had an inkling of what Abraham proposed to do, and
when he came home alone she thought he had in fact sacrificed Isaac and
either killed herself or died of a broken heart. Another midrash suggests
that it was simply hearing of what had transpired that caused her death.

Now, we know from Genesis that Sarah was 90 when Isaac was born and that she
was 127 when she died. If we assume that her death happened immediately
after the Akedah, this makes Isaac 37 years old at the time of the Akedah.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon: Not Orthodox and Not Reform

About twenty years ago I served as Scholar-in-Residence at a convention of the Seaboard Region of United Synagogue Youth. The theme of the convention was “Exploring what it means to be a Conservative Jew,” so to get the conversation rolling I asked the staff members to circulate among the kids and ask them for their definition of Conservative Judaism. But in order to make the question a little tougher I added the proviso that the answer could not include the words “Orthodox” or “Reform.”

              As I predicted, doing this left most of the teens uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Most of them would have defined Conservative Judaism as “not Orthodox and not Reform” or “halfway between Orthodox and Reform” or “less religious than Orthodox but more religious than Reform.” A few of the students tried to be clever by using synonyms like Liberal or Progressive instead of Reform and strict or traditional instead of Orthodox, but since it was my exercise I ruled that out of order.
              A couple of the students did try to define Conservative Judaism without using the terms Orthodox or Reform and came up with something along the lines of “that branch of Judaism which encourages you to observe only those practices you find meaningful and to not observe what you don’t find meaningful.” This is actually a very good definition, but there’s one problem – it’s actually a definition of Reform Judaism, not Conservative
              Over the last decade or more, there has been a general perception that Conservative Judaism is in decline. One measure, but only one, of a religious movement’s well-being is the number of actual members it has. Public opinion surveys tend to overestimate the adherents of a particular denomination because in America belonging to a congregation is the respectable thing to do, and many people will tell pollsters – or their neighbors – that they are members when in fact it somehow slipped their mind to actually join and send in their dues. At its height in the 1950s, about 900,000 people were dues-paying members of United Synagogue affiliated congregations. Today, the number seems to be somewhere around 500,000, so we’ve lost more than a third of our members.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as Jews moved en masse from the cities to the suburbs, it was not unusual for 100 new Conservative synagogues to be founded in a single year. By contrast, there are about 125 fewer Conservative synagogues now than there were a decade ago. Some have merged and some have simply folded; others have changed affiliation or consider themselves post- or non-denominational.

              Where are former Conservative Jews going? Those who are not disappearing are going mostly to Reform temples. According to the most recent available figures from the National Jewish Population Study, fully one third of Reform temple members claim to have been raised Conservative. At the same time, about ten percent of Orthodox synagogue members also claim to have been raised Conservative.

              I believe that the reasons we lose members both to our left and to our right are similar. It is the inability to articulate the essence of our movement in ways which allow us to create vibrant communities of meaning.

                         As a movement and as a synagogue, we uphold certain mitzvot. But there is a disconnect between what goes on in the synagogue and what the majority of our members do in their own lives. For example, food served in the synagogue must be kosher. Furthermore, most Conservative rabbis will not attend an off-site Bar Mitzvah or wedding reception unless the food is  kosher – not just the food served to the rabbi and his or her spouse, but all the food.

We insist that a child reach his or her 13th birthday according to the Hebrew calendar before a Bar or Bat Mitzvah can be held, even if it would be more convenient to schedule the ceremony some weeks earlier. We have restrictions about the use of musical instruments on the Sabbath, about what time a Saturday night reception in the synagogue can start, about who can have an aliyah or other Torah honor. We do not consider the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother fully Jewish without a formal conversion ceremony, though we attempt to make it relatively easy to convert such a child. And Conservative synagogues require more hours and more years of religious school attendance than Reform temples usually do.

              All of these make perfect sense to me, because I buy in to the system. I would be deeply uncomfortable attending a non-kosher Jewish celebration, where I would most likely be asked to lead those assembled in thanking God for food which I believe God has commanded us not to eat. But if you do not buy into the system, these rules and regulations, these mitzvot, can seem incredibly burdensome. So unless you have some particular reason to stick with your Conservative congregation – family tradition, friends, you like the rabbi or there isn’t a Reform congregation conveniently located – why not make things easier and go Reform? Particularly since Reform Judaism in recent years has adopted some of the trappings of tradition – kippot, more Hebrew in worship, and so on – and is thus more comfortable than it used to be for those who may not be committed to Conservative ideology but are most familiar with Conservative-style worship.

              While we are losing many of our least traditionally-observant members on the left, we are also losing some of our most traditionally-observant members on our right. Imagine a young man or woman who has grown up in a Conservative synagogue. They may have graduated from a Solomon Schechter day school, attended USY or Camp Ramah, and gone to a college where there is a strong and vibrant Conservative minyan. They observe Shabbat, they keep kosher, they put on tefillin – all of which they have been taught are mitzvot. Now they have graduated college and are looking for a community to join. If they walk into many typical Conservative shuls, their level of observance will immediately earn them the label “Orthodox.” They will not find too many other congregants whose observance level is similar to theirs. When they have children, how many other Shabbat and kashrut-observant playmates will their kids have?

              Lest you think this is far-fetched, I can tell you that when I lived in the District twenty years ago, I had a friend who later became a senior White House official. You have probably seen him on “Meet The Press” or one of the other Sunday talk shows. We belonged to the same Conservative synagogue and, since I was single at the time, I often had Shabbat lunch at his home. Both he and his wife had been raised in Conservative synagogues, they sent their kids to a Conservative day school and identified with the ideology of the Conservative movement. But eventually they moved from DC to Potomac where they joined Beth Shalom, a modern Orthodox shul. At the time my friend said that while he still considered himself to be a Conservative Jew, there were no kids for his children to play with on Shabbat. In their new Orthodox shul, there were lots of other Sabbath observant families and he did not have to worry about his children being given non-Kosher food by a playmate’s parents or being invited to a birthday party on Shabbat.

              I am less troubled by the defections to Orthodoxy than to Reform. I am a Conservative rabbi and a Conservative Jew, but before I am Conservative I am a rabbi and a Jew. When people like the friend I just spoke about leave Conservative Judaism for Orthodoxy, we can be relatively confident that they will stay Jewishly active and give their children Jewish educations. There is a strong likelihood – not a guarantee, but a strong likelihood – that their children will have a Jewish partner and raise a Jewish family. When our members leave us to join the Reform community, the likelihood of them doing all of these things is much smaller. Many of the young people raised in Reform temples grow up to be involved Jews – some of them, like me, grow up to be Conservative rabbis. But as one moves along the Jewish spectrum from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform, the likelihood of any specific Jewish behavior – lighting Shabbat candles, visiting Israel, giving to Jewish causes, having a Jewish partner whether by birth or conversion – decreases.

             On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need to be open to a wide variety of expressions of Jewish spirituality within the walls of our own institution. This does not mean we can please everyone, nor should we attempt to. The Rolling Stones did not attempt to write songs that everybody liked; they left that to the Bee Gees. We need to articulate a vision, live it, and present it in an attractive and compelling manner.

For one thing, I am becoming more and more convinced that our movement would be well-served by getting rid of the name “Conservative” Judaism. It makes no sense in a country where “conservative” brings to mind a political philosophy that around 75% of American Jews don’t subscribe to, and causes non-Jews to think we wear black clothes and straw hats while riding around in our horse-drawn buggies.

One hundred years ago we took the name “Conservative” because unlike the Reform who were trying to “Reform” tradition, we were trying to “Conserve” it. Yes, our movement is actually a split-off from Reform. Before we were known as Conservative we were called Positive Historical Judaism. “Historical” because we believe in studying Judaism with the best academic methods available, and we therefore understand that Jewish thought and practice has a history, that it did not just drop wholesale from the sky. It has changed over the years and we no less than previous generations have the right and the duty to change when change is necessary.  And Positive, because our predisposition is to view inherited texts and practices in a positive light, and to change or drop them only when there is a compelling reason to do so.

On Selichot night some of us heard a talk by Prof. Benjamin Sommer of JTS. He spoke about Psalm 24, the psalm we chant when parading the Torah around the sanctuary before returning it to the Ark on days other than Shabbat. This processional is one of the first things classical Reform Judaism did away with, viewing it as pagan and undignified.

Prof. Sommer showed us that this processional indeed originated in a pagan practice; the Babylonians paraded a statue of their god Marduk from the river to the temple. But Psalm 24 radically redefines this practice. It teaches us that unlike the pagan gods, the God of Israel is a God of justice and ethical behavior. So our ancestors, instead of parading an idol paraded the Ark of the Covenant. And today, we parade the Torah scroll which teaches us how to live a life of justice and ethics and communion with our God. Imagine that! A bunch of mostly college-educated, suburban middle-class Americans are practicing today in Gaithersburg a 5000-year-old- Northwest Semitic cultic parade -- but completely transformed into a celebration of just and ethical living. Knowing this, who would want to get rid of it?

This teaching of Prof. Sommer has totally transformed my understanding of both the Psalm and the practice. It is an example of Positive Historical Judaism at its best. We use the best tools we have -- archaeology, philology, anthropology -- to understand the history of our people and our tradition. Understanding this psalm and this ritual through scientific study, we actually take greater pride in them -- pride at their antiquity, and pride at the tremendous strides our ancestors made in transforming a pagan cultic ritual into a celebration of study and of good deeds.

So one of the things that makes us who we are as a movement is our open-mindedness and our willingness to use all of the tools at our disposal to strive for greater enlightenment.
But while our particular approach to Jewish belief and practice is important, there is another element which is needed to truly make our synagogues thrive.
              A few years ago Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone. In it, he describes the decline of what he calls “social capital” in America since the 1950s. We join organizations and clubs less, we volunteer less, and we vote less.The problems besetting many synagogues are not unique. Churches, clubs and even towns are facing similar problems.

    In the last couple of months we’ve begun some initiatives that have brought over a dozen new member units into our congregation. This is great news; without members we don’t have a congregation.

    But the question we still need to grapple with is what does it mean to be a “member?” After all, most of us are “members” of a lot of different groups. I’m a member of AAA for travel discounts and roadside assistance; I’m a member of AARP because it costs next-to-nothing and offers some discounts that AAA doesn’t; and I’m a member of Costco too. But I have no real loyalty to them; if someone offers me what AAA does, equally effectively but for less money, I’m gone. So these are basically commercial transactions that use the language of membership for marketing reasons.
But what of other types of membership? Putnam writes that even when we join an organization we may not feel particularly connected to it. If you are a member of the ACLU, Greenpeace or the NRA, you do not necessarily going feel deeply connected to other members of the same organization. You may not even know that your next door neighbor, your cousin or your best friend belongs to the same organization as you, because your activity consists primarily of writing an annual check. This is what he calls a “thin” affiliation. But he contrasts this with organizations like Rotary, which are “thick” affiliations. If you are a Rotarian, your connection is not exclusively and not even primarily with the international Rotary headquarters. It is with your local Rotary club and more importantly with your fellow Rotarians. You may have originally joined because you identify with the goals of Rotary, or as a social outlet, or to make connections. But you stay and you participate, you fulfill what is expected of you, because of your ties to the other members of your club. Yes, there are Rotary “mitzvot”, and they do not need to claim divine sanction, because the source of commandedness is ultimately your fellow members.

              As long as synagogue affiliation is “thin”, or worse yet a commercial transaction where we are selling lifecycle events or high holiday tickets, we will struggle to create thriving communities. When your synagogue asks nothing more of you than to send a check, you have the right not to be chastised for failing to do more, because, in fact, you have done everything you have been asked to do. Are there more mitzvot which bind us as Conservative Jews beyond “thou shalt pay thy dues?”

              The ancient sages raised the question of how many covenants were enacted at Sinai. One sage said there was one covenant, between God and the People of Israel. Another said, no, there were 600,000, because there was a covenant between each individual Israelite and God. But a third said, no, 600,001 times 600, 001, because each Israelite at Sinai covenanted not only with God, but with every other Israelite as well.

              A covenant is a contract, it is an agreement. It is mutual. As Jews, we have a covenant with God, but we also have a covenant with each other. Each Jew has his or her own understanding of their covenant with God. But our covenant with each other has become murky and it has become weakened. We need to renew it, and we need to revise it.

              The Torah is called “torat Hayim,” the Torah of life, the living Torah. Our community and our congregation can be a source of life, if we commit ourselves not only to God, not only to our congregation as an entity, but to each other as well. A conversation about mitzvot, about the commandments that tie us to God and to each other, is a way to begin.

Yom Kippur Eve Sermon: The Atonement of Kirk Bains

God speaks to us in mysterious ways. At Sinai, the Torah says, God spoke to all of Israel through thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar. Before that, he spoke to Moses through a Burning Bush. And later, he spoke to Elijah as a "still, small voice." To Kirk Bains, he spoke through a newspaper left unread in its wrapper.

    I learned about God's appearance to Kirk Bains in Dr. Jerome Groopman's book The Measure of Our Days. Dr. Groopman teaches at Harvard Medical School, practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and is one of the world's leading experts on both cancer and AIDS. He writes out of his background as both a physician and a learned, committed Jew.

    Kirk Bains was not Jewish. He was a New England WASP from a privileged background. He had attended the finest prep schools. His ancestors had owned shipyards, but the family business had been sold off well before the collapse of the shipbuilding industry. Kirk Bains had taken his share of the family wealth and used it to make millions as a venture capitalist and commodities trader. He had no interest in the product his companies would make, and no interest in the long term. "In your world," he said to Dr. Groopman,  "it's the product that matters -- new knowledge that can lead to curing a disease. For me, the product means nothing. It can be oil or platinum or software or widgets. It's all a shell game played for big money, and once I win enough, I wave good-bye."

    He showed up one day at Dr. Groopman's office as an act of desperation. He had been operated on at Yale - New Haven Hospital but his cancer had metastasized to a number of different locations. No cancer program anywhere would treat him further because he appeared to have no chance of recovery. Dr. Groopman read in his chart from another hospital "palliative care advised" -- meaning make the patient as comfortable as possible while he waits for the inevitable, but make no further attempt at actually treating his illness. Dr. Groopman explained an experimental treatment he was working on. He gave his honest opinion that there was only a small chance of success and that the treatment itself might kill Kirk. If not, the side effects might make life intolerable. But Kirk pleaded, and Dr. Groopman remembered Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. What chance could justify attempting the treatment? 1 in 50? 1 in 100? 1 in 1000?

    "Jerry, I know what a lousy investment I am . . . I have no inventory left and this cancer is taking my market share, meaning my life. The worst side effects can't be worse to me than being dead."
    Dr. Groopman agreed to try the treatment, and the night before the procedure visited Kirk in his hospital room. He found him terrified. “I don’t know why, Jerry. I’m rarely afraid. Maybe because I know this is my last chance, and I’ll probably die, and after that, nothingness.”

    “So then it would be like it was before we were born,” said the doctor. “Would that be so terrible? That’s what my father would say to comfort me as a child when I asked him about death.”

    “See if you still find that enough comfort when it is you in this bed. Nothingness. No time. No place. No form. I don’t ask for heaven. I’d take hell. Just to be.”

    Miraculously, the treatment worked and Kirk’s cancer went into remission. The side effects were pretty severe but they were tolerable, and within a few weeks Kirk was able to play nine holes of golf and travel to Florida on vacation. Though Kirk’s health was slowly returning, Dr. Groopman noticed that his mental state was different. His fighting spirit was gone. He mentioned in one visit that he had stopped reading newspapers, of which he used to devour three every morning before breakfast. “It’s just that the information in the papers doesn’t seem that important anymore.”

    After about four months, Kirk experienced some back pains but he didn’t go see Dr. Groopman for another three weeks. The doctor was alarmed, because in that time the cancer had wrapped around the spinal cord and was potentially going to cause paralysis. But Kirk responded with apathy. “Legs working, legs not working, what’s the difference if you’re dead.”

    Kirk Bains did die soon thereafter, but before he did he explained to Dr. Groopman the reason for his loss of his desire to live.

    “When I went into remission, I couldn’t read the papers because my deals and trades seemed pointless . . .  (my whole life) I had no interest in the long term. I had no interest in creating something, not a product in business or a partnership with a person. And now I have no equity. No dividends coming in. Nothing to show in my portfolio. How do you like my great epiphany? No voice of God or holy star, but a newspaper left unread in its wrapper.”

    As some of us discussed last week in a study session, many of us understand much of the liturgy of the Yamim Norai'im to be challenging in light of our own experiences. I hasten to add that I use the Hebrew term Yamim Norai'im on purpose, as the English "High Holy Days" does not convey the meaning of the Hebrew which is usually translated as Days of Awe but can just as accurately be translated as "Days of Terror." And for those who literally believe that during these days God is deciding the fate of every person, who shall live and who shall die, who shall prosper and who shall not, they can indeed be Days of Terror.

    But even for those of us with a different theology, it is interesting to note that the image of the Book of Life is in fact a mixed metaphor. Because we also read in the liturgy that on these days God merely opens the book to see what is already inscribed in it, because every one of us has already inscribed it with our own deeds.

    Out of destruction can grow renewal. The Judaism we practice today, the Judaism of Torah study, worship, and good deeds, blossomed out of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish independence in the year 70 CE. While it is and always has been popular to bemoan the contemporary state of Jewish life and observance, who knows what Judaism would look like today if the Temple had not been destroyed? Would a religion which continued to center around one building in Jerusalem, a religion whose main observance was animal sacrifice, have produced, for example, 20 percent of all Nobel prize winners even though it was less than one half of one percent of the world's population? It's hard to say, but there are other religions which go back as far as we do, whose religious practice is essentially unchanged from the ancient world, and I can tell you with certainty that Judaism is in better shape than Zoroastrianism or Samaritanism.

    When Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, there were some suggestions to treat this as an opportunity to re-think what a city should be in this day and age. Not to simply rebuild what was, where it was, maybe with levees that were a little bit better; but to radically re-think the very essence of a city. Because it was primarily the slums, the poorer quarters, the areas of little opportunity which had been destroyed. Why simply rebuild slums and let their former inhabitants go back to their lives of despair? Build a city without slums, a city where even the poorest have hope and meaning. I have no qualifications in city planning, so I don't know if this would have been feasible, or what the inhabitants of the destroyed areas would have done for housing and jobs while the American city was being re-thought. But it was an intriguing concept and, unfortunately, I think a missed opportunity.

    For some, severe illness can also be an opportunity to re-think their lives. Illness forces us to slow down, to evaluate what really matters and what is less important. For Kirk Bains, it was just such an opportunity. He came to realize that the life he had been living up to that point was hollow. He had mistaken pleasure for happiness. Wealth can certainly buy us pleasure but nothing, nothing in the world, can buy us happiness.

    Kirk Bains almost certainly never read Moses Maimonides "Laws of Repentance," which some of us studied last year in my study session on Rosh Hashanah. If he had, he would have understood that he had completed only the first step of teshuva. He realized that he had done wrong. He had sought wealth and power but he had not, in any way, sought to make anything lasting. As a result of the way he lived his life, he had not built the relationships he should have with his wife and his children. He was facing death feeling that his whole life was one huge waste. He was as low as a person can be. As he said to Dr. Groopman: "the remission meant nothing because it was too late to relive my life. I once asked for hell. Maybe God made this miracle to have me know what it will feel like."

    The second step of teshuva, Maimonides teaches us, is to confess our wrongs. If we have sinned against God -- violating the Sabbath, eating forbidden foods -- we must confess our wrongs to God. If we have sinned against another person, we have to confess our sins and ask forgiveness from that person. And this is what Dr. Groopman urged Kirk to do. "Have you thought about telling Cathy and the children what you've told me?"
    Kirk recoiled in shock.
    "Why? So they can hear what they already know? That I was a self-absorbed uncaring jerk? That's really going to be a comforting deathbed interchange."

    "Kirk, you can't relive your life. There isn't enough time. But Cathy and the children can learn from you. And when you're gone, the memory of your words may help to guide them."

    The third step of teshuva, what Maimonides calls "perfect repentance," is to avoid committing the same sin if presented with the opportunity to do so. And not because of fear of getting caught, not because of inability, but because you now know that it is wrong. However, Maimonides goes on to say that even if one repents in old age, even if one repents literally on their deathbed, their sins are forgiven.

    But what, exactly, does it mean to say that sins are forgiven? During the Musaf service tomorrow morning, we will read the "Avodah"  -- the details of the Yom Kippur sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. We will read about this sacrifice in the Torah Portion tomorrow morning, as well. What is the whole point of this ritual, which involves the High Priest loading the sins of the people onto a goat and sending it out into the wilderness -- the so-called "scapegoat ritual?"

    The High Holiday Machzor which we use shortens the traditional Avodah reading considerably. Being a Conservative prayerbook, it faces a dilemma when it comes to liturgical invocations of animal sacrifice. On the one hand, we are to some extent traditionalists. Besides, the whole structure of our liturgy is based on the sacrificial order, and you can't just skip it altogether without totally gutting our Yom Kippur prayers. On the other hand, we are, frankly, a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. It seems so primitive and magical.

    But Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary offers a perspective on the role ritual plays in our lives, and especially the rituals of Yom Kippur, which really opened up for me the meaning of what we do.

Chancellor Eisen, I think, understands the reluctance most of us have to see the ritual as "really" having an effect and magically erasing all our sins.But he writes in “Taking Hold of Torah”,  “ritual, we might say, touches life but it is not life; it marks out bounds within which life can be lived well. It is a sort of art."

    But we should not dismiss that art as "mere" art. He writes: "we need that art because, no matter how complicated its details, it has one supreme advantage over life: we can get it right.  I know that I will never live up to ethical ideals, even my own . . . I will always ‘sin,’ which in Hebrew means missing the mark, falling short. I will not always be the spouse I should be to my wife, the father I want to be to my children. But I can get the Bach invention right, if I practice it long enough. I can leave a Yom Kippur Neilah service, after twenty-five hours of following the prescribed ritual, with the precious sense of having at least done that much right. The ritual gives us a taste of rightness that is meant to inspire us to try to attain it outside the bounds of art as well."

    Prof. Eisen teaches us that ritual, even though it is "merely" ritual, really works. Not in a magical sense, but because God knows that we can never live our lives entirely correctly. We can't get everything right, but God has provided us with some things that we can get right. And having gotten at least something right, we are inspired to do more.

    And that is what Yom Kippur does for us. Again Prof. Eisen: "complete atonement in the real world, the ethical world, is impossible. The atonement must take symbolic form, so that we can see it happening, see ourselves attaining forgiveness in an unequivocal way that real life never allows, and erase wrongs that in the ethical sphere can never be entirely set right. This is the precious gift of ritual. What is done in its realm can be undone. Acts can take place -- and then be erased, covered over; the force of the Hebrew root for atonement."

    Yom Kippur, then is the day when our sins are covered over. We get to start anew; but in order to be able to start anew, we need to know that those we have wronged -- whether God or another person -- have forgiven us. That is what the Avodah did in the ancient Temple, and that is what through reading about it, it continues to do for us.

    In the chapter he wrote about Kirk Bains, Dr. Groopman never tells us whether Kirk followed his doctor's advice to "confess," as it were, to his wife and children. I hope that he did. I hope that he faced his death at peace, able to believe that he had, even then, been given a chance to start over. As Dr. Groopman said, perhaps the memory of Kirk's words, the memory of his own powerful repentance, his realization of what was really important in life, would help to guide them even after his death.

    That is at least one way we achieve immortality. Our words, our actions, our examples inspire even when we are no longer here. Through the writings of Jerome Groopman, Kirk Bains has taught us all, and achieved his own measure of immortality as well.