Sunday, October 5, 2014

Warning: This Sermon Contains Math -- Yom Kippur Evening 5775

Yom Kippur  Evening Sermon
Kehilat Shalom
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Warning: this sermon contains math. I have always believed that there are three types of people in the world, those who are good at math and those who are not good at math, so I cannot promise that the math will be correct.

Imagine two cities which are thirty miles apart and are connected by two roads. One is a limited-access highway with no traffic lights. The second is a surface road;  that is to say, a normal road  with traffic lights, turn lanes, businesses along it and so on. In good  traffic conditions, the trip between the two cities on the highway should take 30 minutes. But often there is a lot of traffic on the highway, and the trip under those circumstances could take an hour or so. The surface road rarely has a lot of traffic, but of course it has a lower speed limit and stop lights, so the trip between the two cities on the surface road pretty much always takes an hour.

It only takes a few vehicles more than the highway’s design capacity to cause a huge traffic jam. To make the math easier, let’s assume that 10,000 cars a day travel from City A to City B every morning. If all 10,000 take the highway, traffic is backed up and the trip takes an hour -- 10,000 total drive hours are spent on the morning commute. If twenty percent of the daily commuters take the surface road instead, traffic flows smoothly and the other 80 per cent get a 30 minute commute instead of an hour-long one. The twenty percent who take the surface road, of course, get an hour-long commute. Six thousand total person-hours are spent on the morning commute instead of 10,000. Less time wasted, less gas wasted, less frustration. Society as a whole is clearly better off.

The problem is, there is no particular motivation for any individual driver to be part of the 20% who take the surface road. If I take the highway I might get an hour-long trip, but if I’m fortunate and enough other people have decided to take the surface road, I get a half-hour trip. There is no rational reason for me to take the surface road, because if  I take the surface road, I know I’m going to have an hour-long trip. I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by choosing the highway. So unless I am either a tzaddik or a masochist, I have no motivation to take the surface road. Society may be better off if I do so, but I personally am likely to be worse off. This is a case where my own self-interest clashes with the good of society as a whole. And the same is true of every single individual in the commuter pool.

Truth be told, there are times when a speedy trip is not the most important thing. There are times when I might take a country road rather than a highway because it’s more interesting, or it’s fall and I want to see the foliage, or there is a store along the route which I want to visit. But in the scenario I’ve described, I would absolutely not be willing to have an hour commute every day just so that most other people could have a half-hour one.  I would be willing to do it once a week if everyone else took their turn also.

It would benefit everyone if the commuters voluntarily agreed that each person would take the surface road one day a week and the highway the other four. But a plan like that would only be effective if the right number of people took the surface road each particular day and if no one cheated. If people start cheating, or if too many people choose the surface road on Mondays and not enough on Wednesdays, the system breaks down and we are back where we started.

In the end, the only system that is likely to work would be government-devised and enforced. Each driver would have to be assigned one day a week on which he or she would not be allowed to take the highway, and fined enough so that it would not be worth your while to cheat.

A couple of years ago, a youngish Protestant minister named Lillian Daniel wrote a “Daily Devotional” for an internet e-mail list that went viral and eventually prompted her to write a whole book based on it. I shared it with the congregation where I was then the rabbi, because I thought it spoke to American Jews as well, since we are at least as American as we are Jewish and we are not exempt from general societal trends.

Here is what she wrote:

“On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.


Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church. “

When I was in rabbinical school in Cincinnati there was a philosophy professor named Alvin Reines who had founded his own denomination of Judaism called “Polydoxy.” The word “orthodoxy” literally means “correct doctrine,” and thus “polydoxy” means “many doctrines.” Since there is no way to prove which doctrine or teaching is the “correct” one, polydoxy “affirms the right of the individual to religious self-authority or autonomy.” Professor Reines defined Shabbat not as a period of time but rather as “a psychic state of being in which the person achieves a sense of profoundly meaningful existence.” I don’t know if it is true or not, but it was rumored that Prof. Reines observed Shabbat on Wednesday because it was more convenient for him.

The most important idea of polydoxy was that one should not impose their own religious beliefs or practices on other people. The joke was that a Polydox congregation actually existed somewhere but it never actually held services, because to decide on a particular time for services would impinge on the autonomy of the people who preferred a different time.

But even this quirky group committed to radical autonomy and individuality nevertheless bands together into organized congregations and does, in fact, have services at specific times. From the Polydox Institute’s Frequently Asked Questions: “In an organized community the resources of individuals can be pooled for the common benefit. Through combined resources, teachers and other specialists can be engaged to staff a religious school or conduct adult study groups where the knowledge of alternatives necessary for free choice can be imparted. Organized communities possess a number of other values for Polydox religionists. Two that bear noting are these. Celebrations of life-history ceremonies and observances of holidays are enhanced when experienced in common. And the mere fact of being united in community with others who share one's fundamental religious principles brings a sense of fullness and release from isolation.”

As radical as Polydoxy is, it seems to recognize that the need for community is basic to Judaism. If you look at the liturgy of the High Holidays, almost all of it is written in the plural. We refer to God on the High Holidays as “Avinu Malkenu” -- our Father, our King -- in the plural. We ask God for forgiveness “al chet shechatanu lifanecha” -- for the sin which we have sinned against You. We say “ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu”  “we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed.” We, we, we; us, us, us.

How do we understand the fact that our liturgy is in the plural? Why am I expected to confess to a whole series of sins which I have not personally committed? As our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us: “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

This sense of mutual responsibility is expressed, I think, in the requirement of a minyan for certain prayers. I am often asked where this requirement comes from and why it has to be ten.

Oddly enough, the biblical text on which this requirement hangs is the story of the Twelve Spies. In the Book of Numbers, chapters 13 and 14, Moses sent twelve spies to explore the Promised Land. They came back saying that while the land was a very good land indeed, its people were strong and its cities well-fortified, and therefore there was no way that the Israelites would be able to conquer it. Well, that is what most of them said. Caleb and Joshua issued a dissenting report, saying that they were sure the Israelites could conquer the Land because that is what God had promised.

As a result of this incident, God decreed that our ancestors would spend 40 years in the desert. He rhetorically asked Moses, “how long must I put up with this edah ra’ah, this evil congregation?” And this is the smallest grouping in the Torah to which the term edah, congregation is applied -- you may be more familiar with the word edah in its construct form of Adath or Adas, as in Congregation Adas Israel or Adath Jeshurun. But of course two of the 12 spies were not evil at all, so the “evil congregation” consists of the ten bad spies. So we know, therefore, that the smallest possible size of a “congregation,” according to the Torah, is ten.

There is an old Yiddish saying that nine rabbis don’t make a minyan but ten horse thieves do. Perhaps that saying is rooted in the fact that the biblical support for a minyan being ten rests not in a congregation of saints but a congregation of sinners. It is an important lesson: in order to “count” in Judaism you do not have to be a rabbi or a saint. You just have to show up.

You have to show up because we need you and because you need us -- we need each other. We need each other because together we can do what is impossible for each of us as an individual. Unlike highways, synagogues are funded and run and maintained voluntarily by people who choose to do so.

The increasingly individualistic nature of American religion and Judaism’s emphasis on community come into tension particularly around the requirement of a minyan to say Mourner’s Kaddish. This tension was highlighted some years ago in an episode of the TV series “Northern Exposure” where the inhabitants of Cicely, Alaska, went to great lengths but were ultimately unsuccessful in putting together a minyan of ten Jews so that the lead character, Dr. Joel Fleishman, could say Kaddish for an uncle who had died. Here in Upper Montgomery County  it is generally not difficult to arrange for a minyan when one is needed but it can take a little pre-planning and maybe a few phone calls to friends and neighbors.

Some will choose to say Kaddish even without a minyan and while I do not endorse such a practice I would never attempt to prevent anyone from doing so. But I think the practice of saying Kaddish with a minyan is important and is worth some inconvenience to maintain.

The requirement for a minyan also serves, I think, to force the mourner out of his or her isolation. It requires the mourner to be in contact with other people and requires the community to assist the mourner as well. Relaxing the requirement of a minyan, encouraging people to simply say Kaddish at home or wherever they are, may seem compassionate, but it undermines a core pillar of Jewish life and accelerates the disintegration of our sense of community, our sense that we are responsible to one another.

This sense of mutual responsibility is increasingly hard to find in American life, whether we are talking about religion or any other aspect of public life, including driving. Throughout the country, seats on local government commissions and boards regularly go unfilled because there are no volunteers willing to serve. The difficulties that our synagogue faces in ensuring a minyan for services, finding volunteers and running programs are not unique to us. Indeed, they are not unique to synagogues -- many churches have similar difficulties. As Rabbi Eliahu Stern, an Orthodox rabbi and Ph.D. who teaches religious studies at Yale puts it: “I do not mean that most Jews don’t feel any responsibility for the upkeep of Judaism, but rather that most human beings don’t feel any responsibility for anything. “Whatever” has replaced “I care” in our social vocabulary.”

In the year 200 0Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, who is both a Mayflower descendant and an involved Jew,  published his now-classic work Bowling Alone, which discusses the decline of “social capital” in Western society -- the ties that bind us one to another and make our community a better place. To a large extent, many of the economic dislocations Western countries face are caused or exacerbated by the loss of social capital. Businesses feel less and less responsible to their employees, and vice-versa. People patronize the big box retailer rather than the local store owned by their neighbor, to save a few dollars -- with the result that downtowns become ghost towns and local businesses that have been around for decades are driven into bankruptcy.

The impact of the loss of feeling of communal responsibility has also, in my opinion, been one of the main drivers of the challenges most American synagogues today face.  The fact that the majority of American Jews are not synagogue members is not new; for many families, including the one in which I grew up, the typical pattern was to join a synagogue when the oldest child was in elementary school and quit right after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of the youngest child. And thus it is that while at any particular time less than 50% of American Jews are synagogue members, 80% of American Jews have historically been synagogue members at some point in their lives.

While Bar or Bat Mitzvah was the “hook” which drove membership numbers, today, even that is gone. Families increasingly never affiliate; they hire a tutor and a rent-a-rabbi (who may or may not have authentic ordination), rent a meeting room in a hotel, and voila, instant life cycle event. It’s no longer a case of dropping synagogue membership after the last Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Jews increasingly never affiliate at all. I am sure that there are times when families find these events meaningful, but a private life-cycle event cannot provide the sense of community that a brick-and-mortar synagogue can.

Some of you here today are former members of Kehilat Shalom; others have never been members but have given annually in order to attend High Holiday services. With respect and affection, I want to tell you that we need and want you to become members of our congregation. Your participation matters to us; you matter to us. Synagogue membership is not a “fee for service” proposition where you are purchasing certain services from the congregation. It is a brit kodesh, a holy covenant. It is a two-way commitment and a two-way responsibility.
The Days of Awe are all about teshuvah, which while we translate it as “repentance” is really closer to “return.” There are certain values which we know we ought to live by. We know that we need community, that we need each other. We know that our society can be better, that taking care of our neighbor is more important than saving a couple of bucks, that caring about others and being cared about are basic human needs. Yom Kippur comes to remind us, to call us back to a better way of life. May we have the courage to live our lives in community and with concern for each other.