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.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: How Beautiful Are Your Feet in Their Shoes

While we tend to think of Yom Kippur as simply the continuation of the period of teshuvah which starts with Rosh Hashanah, rabbinic tradition holds that Yom Kippur is the date that Moses came down from Sinai with the second set of Tablets after the sin of the Golden Calf.

Right after Moses came down the second time, the Torah describes the construction of the Tabernacle. The people had experienced a spiritual high at Mt. Sinai but shortly thereafter they built the Golden Calf. God then realized that the people needed something more concrete. We cannot live in a permanent state of spiritual ecstasy, so God gave us instructions to build a place of worship. This is much more concrete and prosaic than God’s appearance at Sinai.

R. Akiva Eiger in Itturei Torah connects the building of the Tabernacle to a verse in Song of Songs. Song of Songs is a love song but it is understood allegorically as the “love affair” between God and the Jewish people. There is a line where the male lover – understood as God – says to the female lover – i.e., the Jews “mah navu raglayich ba’min’alim” – how beautiful are your feet in their shoes. What does this mean?

One of the prohibitions of Yom Kippur is the wearing of shoes – today we understand this to mean the prohibition only of leather shoes but back then they didn’t have sneakers. So “in your shoes” means the day after Yom Kippur.

Everyone is righteous and pious on Yom Kippur. It’s not such a big deal that you are a good    Jew and a good person on Yom Kippur. The question is what kind of person you are the day after.

The Tent of Meeting was a way for the Israelites to continue the spiritual high of Yom Kippur. “OK, now you have the tablets and they are a visible sign of reconciliation, now go and do concrete acts.”

What concrete acts will you perform on the day after Yom Kippur?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rosh Hashanah Sermon: The Story of Congregation Anshei Chazon

Anshei Chazon is a different kind of synagogue. For one thing, it has no fixed dues. To be considered a full member with all that implies, you have to donate something; but the amount is left up to each member. Every year, the synagogue publishes a detailed budget which explains exactly how much will be spent in the coming year and for what. Everything, from clergy and staff salaries to the cost of paper clips and coffee filters, is itemized and accessible to any member. The total budget is divided by 52 weeks, and every member knows how much has to be raised every week for the synagogue to stay solvent. Each week, both the weekly and year-to-date figures for income and expenses are published in the synagogue bulletin.

The members of Anshei Chazon know what it costs to run the synagogue and each member knows how much they can afford. The board trusts the members, and the members trust the board. Everyone gives what they can afford or what they think the synagogue is worth to them. No one has to apply for reduced dues and no one contacts the office to complain that they are being billed in the wrong dues category. And somehow, it all works; some years the synagogue raises a little more than it spends, and some years a little less, but for the last five years or so the books have been more-or-less in balance.

At Anshei Chazon, committees are kept to a minimum. There is a Board of Directors which meets monthly and a smaller Steering Committee which meets once a month as well. Besides these, there are only three standing committees. The Nominating Committee makes sure that there is always new leadership in the pipeline, and sees to it that up-and-coming leaders are not only identified but also given the training they need to succeed in their roles. The Finance Committee comes up with the annual budget, explains it to the members, oversees the synagogue’s accounting and manages the small reserve fund.

And finally, there is an envisioneering committee which meets quarterly. Besides the rabbi, the cantor, and the chairs of the standing committees, the envisioneering committee includes Anshei Chazon congregants who are not necessarily the most Jewishly knowledgeable or the most pious, but have a good sense of what’s going on in the larger world outside the walls of the synagogue. They help Anshei Chazon position itself to meet the ever-changing Jewish and secular worlds in which the shul operates. Among the members of the envisioneering committee are a fundraiser for a Jewish charity, a journalist, a congregant who is involved in local politics, and a single young woman who works for a small non-profit. The committee tries to make sure to include members who have non-Jewish spouses, Jews of color, Jews by Choice, and gay and lesbian Jews. By being as inclusive as possible, the committee reminds the congregation leadership that there are lots of types of Jews with lots of different interests and needs.

Aside from these standing committees, there are special Task Forces that take charge of specific events -- a Shabbat dinner, a concert, a special guest lecture or whatever else might be going on. Anshei Chazon realizes that people are reluctant to commit to something if they think it means endless meetings, an open-ended time commitment and lots of bureaucracy. At Anshei Chazon, project or event chairs are given certain general parameters -- like a budget or a time frame -- and then they are trusted to do their job with minimal oversight. And they’ve discovered that when people are treated as trustworthy, they tend to actually be trustworthy. If a project fails, it fails; lessons can be learned from our failures and not only our successes.

Spiritual life at Anshei Chazon is guided by two overarching principles:
1.) Every Jew connects to God in different and truly unique ways, and
2.) Someone else’s spiritual life is none of your business.

What this means is that Anshei Chazon is open to a variety of different expressions of Jewish spirituality, both in terms of prayer services and in classes. If a group of Anshei Chazon members want to organize a certain class or a certain type of service, Anshei Chazon will provide a space and publicity and maybe a budget. The only rule is this: the initiative has to come from the members, not the board or the staff. It’s not the job of the rabbi or the board to guess what members might be interested in; but it is their job to help facilitate it once the need has been expressed. There is more than one way to “do” Judaism, and Anshei Chazon is open to the entire range of Jewish practice and learning. Although Anshei Chazon is a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and its main sanctuary service is mainstream Conservative, Anshei Chazon is open to an incredible variety of Jewish expression, recognizing that each Jewish soul is unique and precious in God’s sight. Anshei Chazon practices radical hospitality, just like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah.

Because of its recognition that every Jewish spiritual journey is unique, Anshei Chazon has a minimum of rules and regulations. Most children attend either a Jewish day school or Anshei Chazon’s excellent religious school, but some parents choose other alternatives for their children. When Anshei Chazon’s rabbi suggested several years ago that Anshei Chazon look the other way if parents chose not to send their children to its religious school, there was some fear expressed. Maybe everyone would stop sending their kids, since the other alternatives were easier and cheaper. But this turned out not to be the case. Parents appreciated the opportunity to choose Anshei Chazon’s religious school rather than be coerced into sending their children; most children attend, because the quality of the program is high and the kids feel a part of the overall community. The teachers are delighted; the kids are there because they want to be, the parents are supportive because they believe in the school, and it’s no longer a struggle to maintain attendance or discipline.

Because of Anshei Chazon’s unique style and culture, the rabbi and cantor play different roles than they do in most other synagogues. The rabbi is not the CEO of the synagogue, nor is he the chief priest. He functions as a resource person, connecting Jews to Jewish wisdom, Jewish text, Jewish practice and Jewish values. Of course he counsels individuals and groups, visits the sick, and comforts the mourners. But the community understands that while the rabbi should do all these things, it is not only the rabbi who does these things. Visiting the sick and comforting mourners are mitzvot, they are the responsibility of every Jew.

The rabbi is also the community’s resource person on halacha, but he is not the “God cop.” The rabbi is knowledgeable enough to answer questions which are straightforward, black-and-white. But he also knows his community, that while some members will indeed do something simply because the halacha says so, most won’t. The rabbi sees his role as teaching people what the Jewish tradition says and helping them to figure out the best way to apply the wisdom of Judaism in their lives.

The synagogue’s cantor, too, serves as a resource person. While she sometimes chants the liturgy -- indeed, she probably does that more often than anyone else in the congregation -- she is not seen as primarily a performer. As the rabbi is the teacher of Jewish text and Jewish wisdom, the cantor is the teacher of Jewish music. She has taught the congregants to understand how the different types of nusach indicate as much as the words what’s going on at any particular point in the service or day. Congregants now know the difference between weekday and Shabbat and High Holidays tunes and why the tune used for Shabbat mincha is unique, different than that for any other service. The cantor is passionate about helping the congregation be a more tuneful place, teaching congregants how to lead services, chant Torah and hafarah, and with the rabbi exploring ways to make the sanctuary service more spiritual and participatory while preserving its essentially traditional nature.

But what is most unique about Anshei Chazon is not the role of the board or committees, the rabbi or the cantor. It is not the religious school or the dues structure. Rather, it is the communal culture of the congregation.

Anshei Chazon lives out a theology of Relational Judaism. Almost one hundred years ago, the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber taught us that there are two types of relationship in the world: I- It and I- Thou. An “I-It” relationship means we relate to the other primarily in terms of of how we use or experience him or her. Our question in an “I-It” relationship is, essentially, what’s in it for me?

By contrast, in an “I-Thou” relationship the other is seen as a person with worth beyond the purely instrumental. By relating to the other fully, in truth and love and respect, I help him or her fulfill his or her role in this world. At the same time, I also grow as a person and a Jew. By embracing the other in all of his or her uniqueness, I myself grow as well.

The members of Anshei Chazon also understand and live by the Talmudic teaching in Kiddushin 70a that the traits we despise in others, we despise precisely because we know that we ourselves possess them. The Talmud calls this “ha posel b’mumo posel” and psychologists call it “projection.” Through lived experience, the members of Anshei Chazon have come to realize that everyone is frail, no one is perfect, and everyone is struggling with a burden that may not be obvious. At Anshei Chazon, the feeling is “I don’t have to agree with you to love and respect you.” At Anshei Chazon, no one feels judged. Everyone is loved and valued. Everyone is treated as a “thou” and not an “it.”

This commitment to relationship is not always easy. It’s so much easier to go off and do your own thing, to associate only with people who feel exactly as you do and share your perspective, your interests, your economic and social background. But the people of Anshei Chazon have internalized two truths:
1.) Judaism is lived in community, and
2.) I don’t have to like you to love you. God commanded us to love our neighbors; we aren’t commanded to like them. But we still have to treat them with respect.

Anshei Chazon stands as a counterbalance to the American cult of individualism. Its members understand that it’s easy to encounter God in the sunset at the beach or a walk in the woods. It’s much harder to encounter God in your neighbor who voted for the wrong political party and has a baby who’s crying through the sermon. But at Anshei Chazon they understand that community is where the religious rubber meets the road. Where we are challenged, where folks ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to live the teachings of the Torah and not just study them. Anshei Chazon is certainly not perfect, but it constantly strives to be and to become what Martin Luther King called “The Beloved Community.” And in order to Be Loved, we must love.

Truth be told, Anshei Chazon was not always this way. In fact, Anshei Chazon was not always known as Anshei Chazon, which means “People of the Vision.” The congregation was founded around 50 years ago as Jews started moving into the outer suburbs. A Jewish couple put an ad in the local paper looking for other Jews interested in founding a synagogue. They got a lot bigger response than they anticipated. Soon the congregation was formally established; they had regular Friday night and occasional Saturday morning services, renting space in schools, libraries, and community centers. The needs of the community were modest, as were the resources. If something needed to be done, the members pitched in and did it.

As the community grew, a building was built. Staff were hired. A lot more money was needed, but getting the necessary funds wasn’t that difficult. Lots of Jews were moving into the area, and almost all of them felt that they needed to send their kids to Hebrew school so that they could have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The synagogue was the gatekeeper for this lifecycle event -- if you wanted a Bar Mitzvah for your kids, the synagogue was the only place this could happen so synagogue membership, a building fund pledge and five years of Hebrew school were pretty much givens.

As the synagogue grew, the culture changed. While there was always a core of members who were deeply committed and involved, there were also a lot of peripheral members who mainly joined when it came time to send their children to Hebrew school to prepare for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and mostly resigned or let their membership lapse after their youngest child’s Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation. This wasn’t such a big problem since Jewish families with children were still moving into the area and still felt they needed the synagogue for Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah, so the congregation generally gained as many new members a year as it lost.

But as time went on this equilibrium could not be maintained. The demographics of the neighborhood changed -- fewer Jewish families with children were moving in. And the demographics of the American Jewish community also changed. Jewish families didn’t always feel the need to send their kids to religious school, or to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And even if they did, other alternatives were now available which were less expensive and more convenient. The congregation and its religious school and youth programs began to shrink; the budget began to show a deficit year after year.

The leadership of the congregation did their best to cope with these changes and challenges. They tried some new programs, they brought in some consultants, they invested more in advertising. But in retrospect it must also be said that there was quite a bit of fear in the leadership’s reaction. The true extent of the synagogue’s financial difficulties was not shared with the congregation at large, for fear that congregants might begin to doubt the viability of their synagogue and join other congregations in the general area.

Eventually the synagogue leadership came up with a plan but it was not acceptable to a significant segment of the members. After an angry debate, the suggested plan was rejected. A lot of angry and hurtful words were exchanged on both sides. Many people -- including some of those who had played prominent roles in the synagogue for many years -- left. The rabbi and the executive director, each of whom had served for many years, both retired on the same day. It wasn’t clear that the synagogue would survive.

But it’s almost a decade since all of that happened, and now Anshei Chazon is thriving. It’s smaller than it used to be, but it doesn’t measure success by how many members it has. Anshei Chazon measures its success by a completely different set of metrics: how do its members treat each other? How many members have a deep and meaningful connection to God, to Torah, to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel? How many members engage regularly in acts of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness? How many members study Torah regularly? How many members view Judaism as a joy and not a burden?

How did this remarkable transformation occur? Frankly, it was not easy. When times are tough, there is a natural tendency to circle the wagons, to draw red lines and create litmus tests, to blame others. But eventually, the transformation did occur.

The new rabbi had a lot of creative ideas but he was also a little bit afraid to push his agenda. Like many who go into the helping professions, he wanted to be liked by everyone, so he was afraid to articulate and push for his vision, because he did not want to say things that some people might not agree with. But the rabbi was fortunate in that one of his congregants was a leadership coach. She constantly asked him: “what would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Finally, the rabbi realized that trying to satisfy everyone was a recipe for disaster. He grew bolder in articulating his vision, and the congregation bought in.

At the same time, the members of the congregation grew to realize that in the end all of those who had chosen to remain with the congregation were on the same team. They understood that being angry at those who were no longer around didn’t accomplish anything. That gossip and talking about who did this to that one and who said this thing about somebody else, was lots of fun in the short run, but utterly destructive in the long run. They took to heart one of the key messages of the Days of Awe -- that as we ask forgiveness, so we must grant it. That we must remember the past but not dwell in the past. We will never move on until we leave behind anger and resentment and fully embrace the fierce urgency of now.

Is Anshei Chazon the product of a vision, or only a pipe dream? As Theodor Herzl said, “if you wish it, it is no dream.”