The Eve of Construction
Rosh Hashana Evening 5783
September 25, 2022
The 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, offers an engaging and often surprising look at the life and times of the well-known and somewhat controversial comedian, now of blessed memory. The prologue to the film, as those of you who saw it may recall, was a fascinating piece of work in and of itself. We see extreme closeups of the eponymous subject of the film; so extreme, in fact, that each shot is only a fraction of her face. This is her first-thing-in-the-morning face, her just-out-of-the-shower face, with every blemish visible and even magnified on the screen. We watch her apply her makeup, and after a few moments, the camera shows us the painted canvas with which we are familiar. Though I already admired her life, her tenacity and her work, this willingness to expose her flaws in this way, and to acknowledge that beneath all that plastic surgery and makeup is a complex person with talent, yes – but also flaws and vulnerability – engendered in me even greater respect for the human behind the face.
We’ve again arrived at that time of year when our tradition invites us – well, obligates us – to scrutinize our souls as closely as the camera examined Joan Rivers’ face; to note with humble gratitude the strength we have maintained or newly developed, and to reflect on those aspects of our engagement with ourselves, God, others, and life itself, in which we have fallen short. The practice of Cheshbon HaNefesh calls upon us to look honestly at ourselves and see past the stories we inevitably tell about ourselves, to see what is really in the spiritual mirror, and to, like the prophet Balaam, forswear our impulse to curse what we see and instead embrace our sacred brokenness.
Our machzor offers many prompts, poems and prayers to help us, over the course of the next ten days, to engage in individual cheshbon hanefesh. Tonight, at our second annual meeting, as it were, I’d like to reflect on where we are as a Jewish community, not locally but more globally, and to suggest that our perception of where we are, and what it means, may, like Joan Rivers’ face, not be exactly what it seems.
I’m going to begin by assuming that it is not news that there has been, over the past number of years, a palpable diminution of participation in organized Jewish life. The number of people formally affiliated with this synagogue is smaller, and with some notable exceptions, we are hardly alone. People are not signing on to Jewish institutional life – of all kinds – the way they used to, not only in Utica, but nationally.
Why has this happened? Well, it must be that Jews are just not as committed, just not as interested as they used to be. “Jews don’t learn anymore,” many of us say. “They don’t come to services anymore.” “They don’t marry fellow Jews anymore.” “They don’t have enough children anymore.” “They don’t raise the children they have Jewishly anymore.” Assimilation is the central character in this narrative. And has been for quite a while. Scholars tell us that the assumption that Judaism is the US is doomed has been a constant theme since colonial days. Historian Simon Rawidowicz characterized Jews as an “ever-dying people.”
And indeed, there is lots of evidence for this narrative. Many of the structures, institutions, assumptions and beliefs that once defined American Judaism have experienced quakes of enormous magnitude, and those powerful forces have told a story of decline. Decling religious participation, rising rates of intermarriage, deepening divisions regarding politics, both in this country and in Israel, and declining participation in Jewish philanthropy. Synagogues are merging and closing, seminaries are seeing a marked diminution in their student bodies, and many federations outside of large Jewish population centers are struggling to remain alive.
One explanation for the current decline in institutional Jewish life is that many of the organizations we recognize today as mainstays of American Jewish life began over a century ago when the challenges of Jewish life were very different. And lo and behold, much of the reason our challenges today are very different is due to the very success of those institutions. With that said, it is important to note that while these legacy institutions have certainly evolved over the years, many of them still remain stuck in a paradigm that no longer makes sense to our community.
Consider, for example, your own relationships and associations with the UJA or local Jewish Federation. The American Jewish Committee. The ADL. Jewish seminaries. The URJ. NFTY. The Women of Reform Judaism. And the synagogue itself. Think not just think about how much time you put into these organizations, if you do; take a moment and reflect – honestly – on what the role these institutions play in your life – beyond your efforts to sustain them.
When I lived in Hawaii, I got a great lesson in basic business management. One of the members of the congregation had a very successful restaurant near to and frequented by many students and staff of the University of Hawaii. It was a fun place, with good, inexpensive food and a funky atmosphere. And while it was generally crowded, I began to notice – happily – that the lines for lunch had started to get shorter. Then one day, I heard the restaurant had closed. The next time I ran into Les, the owner, I went up to him to comfort him, assuming he had suffered a significant loss. He smiled and said to me, “Don’t be concerned, Rabbi. The market was changing and I saw the writing on the wall in plenty of time. I sold the business, and because I did before it went further south, I did pretty well. I’m fine, really.”
As I observe the trends in Jewish life, both locally and elsewhere, and read the articles that are frequently written about this subject, and attend workshops designed to address these challenges, and listen to the rhetoric often invoked to engender support for Jewish entities; I have started to wonder, to what extent has Jewish institutional leadership become about looking for ways to provide oxygen to these organizations, assuming they need to be kept alive in their current form because – well, because “that’s what we do”; we keep institutions alive.
And here’s the thing: The narrative with which most of us are familiar, the narrative to which I’ve been referring so far, the narrative that leads some Jewish leaders, particularly leaders of traditional communities and in Israel, to believe that Jewish life in the United States is on its last legs, is hardly the last word. Why? Because at the same time everything I’ve described is happening, the number of Americans who identify as Jewish is growing rapidly: in the last 20 years, it has grown by 2.5 million. At the same time as self-identified American Jews leave mainstream organizations, they exude pride of identity and new ways to express it. And while many of the legacy institutions with which we are familiar are indeed showing their age, dozens of new institutions, initiatives and identities have been emerging to help them do just that. Note as just one example the proliferation of groups exploring chasidic mindfulness practices and mussar.
So, as my colleagues Ben Spratt and Joshua Stanton have asked in their provocative new book, Awakenings, are we standing at the cusp of a Jewish death spiral, or that of a Jewish awakening? Put differently, will we, that is, those who are still connected to and invested in Jewish institutional life, continue to view synagogues, JCCs and Hillels as “microwaves,” whose purpose is to “warm up” the leftovers of a Judaism created previously, or are will able to imagine these institutions instead as Wonder Pots, capable of bringing together latent Jewish energy and excitement about being Jewish, and fostering a new paradigm for Jewish life?
If we are interested in embracing the latter task, there are a few issues we need to talk about. Two among them are the roles that both nostalgia and physical space play in our current paradigm of Jewish life. As Rabbis Spratt and Stanton note, “An emphasis on nostalgia and authenticity encourages us to mythologize the past and narrow our awareness of the present. A focus on buildings and centralized power by much of American Judaism reflects the realities of a century ago.”
What makes a nostalgic view of Jewish life, that is, a focus on how things used to be, which causes us to think our job is to recreate that same model, so attractive? Well, taking refuge in the past, which is often romanticized, helps many of us cope with deep uncertainties and discontinuity. It enables us to look past present realities; it invites us to inhabit a familiar past that leads us to feel greater confidence.
Consider for a moment how much of our current Jewish engagement is connected to nostalgia. Think about the emails many of us send to one another and the things we post or read on social media. Think about the stories we tell, and the often wistful tone in which we tell them. Think about the ways in which we are encouraged to “keep alive” the Judaism of our parents or grandparents, an idea that, among other things, leads us to support, financially and otherwise, Jewish initiatives and institutions that promise to recreate that form of “authentic” Judaism, notwithstanding aspects of it that we have rejected in our own lives long ago.
This is different from an interest in history. When we learn history, our study of the past gives us insights into what was, without suggesting, even indirectly, that what was, ought to still be. Imagine how different, and troubled, our relationships with those around us would be if we told our children, our spouse or our partner, “You need to be more like you were when you were younger. That’s when you were really great.” But that’s often what we do in Jewish organizational life, isn’t it?
When we look at current challenges through the eyes of nostalgia, we tend to see the waning attendance at synagogues as a rejection of Jewish ancestry and authenticity. We may instead want to see it as a sign of the need for change in the community’s MO and even its purpose.
This year saw the departure of Temple Beth El from our building. Beth El, as you well know, and as they know even better, once had their own building in which they are now, somewhat paradoxically, renting space. Their original departure from that building, despite a festive parade down Genesee Street with their sifrei torah, was experienced by many of their members, and many members of the Jewish community in general, as a painful loss. I’m quite confident that it still is experienced in that way by many. But Rabbis Spratt and Stanton suggest that something significant is lost in the narrative of that grief. What’s lost is that, at least on a global level, the selling of synagogue buildings, Jewish non-profit spaces and community centers, rather than signal decline, may suggest that the original goals of building such buildings have been realized. Back when Temple Beth El and so many other synagogues were built, their builders sought to make a visible declaration in neighborhoods across America that Jews are here, and that we are proud of who we are. Meanwhile, while synagogue membership declines, Jewish pride across the country continues to soar, and that pride is expressing itself in a variety of new and, to many of us, unfamiliar ways.
In the coming years, synagogues and other agencies are going to be increasingly navigating the balance between preserving the buildings they and their deeply devoted ancestors built, and focusing on their organizational or communal mission. For many such institutions, preserving the physical plant has effectively become the organization’s mission. It’s interesting to consider how much time is spent – in meetings and informally – talking about the maintenance and aesthetics of buildings like ours. And how much time is spent talking about organizational maintenance as well – membership and finance – and how annual meetings resemble less a community celebration than a stockholders’ meeting. To what extent do those who attend do so to hear about the ways in which the congregation has touched people’s lives, other than through the experience of leading the community? To what extent do attendees come to find out what the financial and institutional (not communal) health of the synagogue is?
Recently, a member of the congregation suggested that were Temple Emanu-El to no longer have this building, it would cease to exist. I wonder how many other folks in our community believe that as well. While I am not in any way suggesting that the Temple divest itself of this space, beloved by so many, it’s important to note that when the potential or real loss of Jewish spaces leads to assumptions that the community will die, the implication of that assumption needs to be reexamined. What does it mean if the community’s mission is tied so closely to the presence of a building?
The Talmud, as you may know, contains many legal and theological discussions, but it also includes aggadah, that is, stories. And one such story tells us that many years after the destruction of the Temple, a number of rabbis journeyed to Jerusalem and gazed upon the ruins of what had once been the heart of the people and the dwelling place of God. Out of the fallen stones, they saw a fox scurry from the den he had made within the ruins. At this, the rabbis began to weep, overcome with emotion as they lamented how low the situation of the Jewish people had become. Except for Rabbi Akiva; he did not cry but in fact, began to laugh. His colleagues were astonished and asked him “How can you possibly find in this something about which to feel delight? Look, and see the destruction before you!” Akiva replied to them, “We always knew these stones had to come down. In order to move forward, this structure had to fall apart. Now we can begin our work.”
So what if Rabbi Akiva’s ancient wisdom were invoked with regard to the current decline in American Jewish institutional life? What if the data regarding this decline is actually good news? The destruction of the Temple led to the decentralization of Judaism, better equipped to the new diaspora. It may well be that the g’shrays about the decline of American Judaism ought actually be understood as the shouts of joy at the emerging birth of a new and stronger American Judaism, suited not for yesterday, but for tomorrow, the day after that.
Will institutions like our synagogue community that came about as a result of the last Jewish awakening, more than a century ago, adapt to this new reality? Or will they – we – be left behind? Because it appears that whatever the institutional Jewish world chooses to do or not do, American Jews will continue birthing new paradigms for community and building for themselves purposeful Jewish lives. The demise of a mostly heterogenous Jewish ethnicity means that Judaism is not being shaped and defined by people who come from and identify with a variety of ethnicities, cultures, political philosophies and spiritual paths and practices.
The very definition of what it means to be Jewish is radically changing. The 2020 Pew study, for example, told us that in addition to the 5.8 million Jews in the US, and the 1.8 million children being raised Jewish “in some way,” there are 2.8 million adults of Jewish ancestry, included in which are some 200,000 people who see themselves as both Jewish and members of another tradition. And there’s still another group that should be of great interest to us: 1.4 million people in this country are people who “lack a Jewish parent or upbringing and do not identify as Jewish by religion,” but do “consider themselves Jewish in some way.” Some are probably evangelical Christians seeking to connect with the roots of their own tradition. But put together with the million and a half people who are Jewish but not “Jewish by religion,” it means that there are 3 million American adults who are Jewishly connected and trying to figure out what the nature of that connection is.
Our mission as a synagogue is, and needs to be, focused on helping them find that connection, and strengthen it. To do that, we will have to prioritize taking stock of our own connection to Jewish life; to courageously and candidly, and without judgment from within or without, articulate what is our relationship to Jewish religion, culture, history and peoplehood; and to shape our community to best quench our thirst, and the thirsts of others who want so deeply to drink in what our tradition has to offer. Shana tovah!
 Makot 24b
Rosh Hashana Morning 5783
September 26, 2022
Rabbi Peter B. Schaktman
“And Abraham lifted his eyes and, suddenly, he saw in the thicket a ram caught by its horns.” (Gen 22:13) An innocent, hapless animal, wandering through the brush, grazing, unable to free itself from bushes in which its horns were tangled. A ram, placed in the story to be a sacrifice in lieu of Isaac, and to teach us something as well. But what?
The Cookie Thief, by Valerie Cox:
A woman was waiting at an airport one night, with several long hours before her flight. She hunted for a book in the airport shops, bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.
She was engrossed in her book but happened to see that the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be. . .grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between, which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.
So she munched the cookies and watched the clock, as the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock. She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by, thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”
With each cookie she took, he took one too, when only one was left, she wondered what he would do. With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh, he took the last cookie and broke it in half.
He offered her half, as he ate the other, she snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother. This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude, why he didn’t even show any gratitude!
She had never known when she had been so galled, and sighed with relief when her flight was called. She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate, refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.
She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat, then she sought her book, which was almost complete. As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise, there was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.
If mine are here, she moaned in despair, the others were his, and he tried to share. Too late to apologize, she realized with grief, that she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.
I love this story, and the way it again reminds us that things are not always as they seem. It’s sobering to think about the many times my emotions have been triggered by assumptions I have made without interrogating those assumptions as deeply as I ought to. And about the impact that those assumptions, and those reflective responses, have had on others around me.
I wonder how many of you have experienced a “Cookie Thief” in your life, and what that experience was like. Were you the one who was misunderstood and responded to inappropriately, or were you the person who wrongly accused another, even if only in your own mind?
As many of us know, one of the reasons we have such moments, and others that are similar, has to do with the phenomenon of unconscious bias, the fact that we all, all of us, have blind spots that get in the way of our seeing things as they really are. There are many different types of unconscious bias. We demonstrate affinity bias, for example, when we gravitate towards people who are like us, whether it be based on appearance, background, or beliefs. Appearance bias occurs when we look more positively at people who are perceived as attractive, or who are thinner, or taller. Confirmation bias is what happens when we seek out and interpret new information in a way that confirms what we already believe.
Women in particular understand unconscious gender bias that still, after many years of feminist consciousness raising, leads to women being treated less favorably than men, including in the compensation they receive in the workplace. If you’re an older woman, or an older man, for that matter, you will likely encounter age bias. Then there is the halo effect, in which an initial positive impression of a person causes others to attribute to them other positive qualities without any specific evidence of the same. And its mirror image, the horn effect, in which a negative experience with another person causes us to see everything they do, unfairly, in a negative light.
I’m guessing that the concept of unconscious bias is not new to many of you; neither are some of the specific examples of it that I’ve identified. We all still have a lot to learn about how we demonstrate unconscious bias toward others. On the other hand, because we all, I’m pretty sure, have been its victim, we are, that is, most of us, more open to understanding how we might unwittingly be its perpetrators.
We tend to react a bit differently, however, when someone asks us to reflect on the notion of privilege. The concept of “privilege” holds that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t intentionally discriminatory. Some people dismiss the idea of privilege as a recent invention; a child of so-called “woke culture.” But it’s really not such a new concept. As far back as the nineteen-thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois made reference to the “psychological wage” that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor blacks. During the civil-rights era as well, activists talked about “white-skin privilege.” But the concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a seminal paper… which contained forty-six examples of white privilege, including things like “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group” and “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”
The pushback, or discomfort, or perhaps just confusion, often assumes a defensive posture; a response to what the listener believes is an accusation of willful and intentional oppression of others aimed at them. But that’s not really what privilege refers to. Rather, it denotes a larger system and structure, established by a complex array of historical, sociological and economic factors, that ensures that resources, respect, and knowledge remain available only to those already in the position of greater power. It does challenge the belief held by many that we live in a meritocracy, and suggests, to the chagrin of some, that the comfort we experience in our lives is not necessarily reflective of the work we have done to get there but instead of the better opportunities that were afforded to us, largely outside of our own control.
So let’s get back to that ram. Remember the ram, the one caught in the thicket by its horns? Though our tradition tells us that that ram ended up in just that spot at just that time for precisely the purpose intended – nothing that happens in the Torah is by accident, of course – we still have some questions. To paraphrase the Baha Men’s eternal question, who let the rams out? Where was the ram’s shepherd? But more curious to me is that the ram got caught by its horns. I’ve got a strong feeling that this bothered the ram as well, and caused him to be quite confused. Because he had no reason to believe that those horns, which began developing on his body even before he was born, would be such an obstacle for him; he couldn’t see them, he was frustrated by his inability to untangle himself from his restraints and likely didn’t even know exactly what was holding him back. He wasn’t staying stuck intentionally; it wasn’t his fault.
We too are stuck in a system that, when looked at critically, is found to be based on principles that are markedly inconsistent with the values we espouse and the way in which we seek to live, and believe we do live our lives. And perhaps the reason that we react so ambivalently to the assertion that we benefit from privilege is because, like the ram, we can’t see our horns caught in the thicket, and we don’t understand why we should be stuck at all. So, how did we get caught in this thicket, and why is freeing ourselves so challenging?
Part of the answer may be related to the phenomenon of what has come to be called “white fragility.” And before I go any further, it is essential that we understand that in this locution, “white” refers not to skin tone or even ethnicity, but rather, that which distinguishes some in our society as the dominant caste, that is, those who have greater power in our society and – here’s that word again – privilege. The phrase itself was coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a professor of education, who defined it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” For example, take a moment to assess how you are feeling right now, at this very moment. Are you perchance feeling at all agitated about my use in this sermon of words like “privilege,” “white,” “power” or “fragility”? That’s a symptom of precisely the sort of stress that she is referring to. The “defensive moves” she writes about might be best understood by looking at some of the “rules” that she notes as often implicitly invoked by those seeking to respond to that stress.
- Rule 1: Do not give me feedback on racism in my words, attitudes or behavior under any circumstances.
- But if you should break Rule #1, and actually give me such feedback, using the proper tone is crucial. If you are at all emotional, if you express your feedback in a way that is other than emotionally neutral, the feedback is invalid and does not have to be considered.
- Next “rule”: There must be trust between us – namely, you must trust that I am in no way racist before we can talk about race. And you must focus on the intentions of my words and actions, which are understood to cancel out the impact of my behaviors.
- You must also give your feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. And you must be indirect. Otherwise, the feedback is invalid because I am made to be embarrassed by it.
- And another important “rule”: As a white person I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Just to be clear, what I mean by “safe” is “comfortable.” If I feel uncomfortable during a discussion about race, you’re doing it wrong. Perhaps some of you are thinking something like that right now, that because hearing what I’m sharing about “white fragility” makes you uncomfortable, you shouldn’t have to hear it.
- The next “rule” suggests that your focusing on my racial privilege does not appropriately acknowledge the the forms of oppression that I experience like, for example, antisemitism. What we really ought to be talking about is how you have oppressed me.
- And the last “rule”: That you suggest that my behavior had a racist impact means that you misunderstood me. You must allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.
Wow, no wonder we’re stuck in that thicket! In many ways, we have created that tangle of branches that makes it difficult for us to dislodge ourselves and exit that forest. Well, we haven’t created it individually; we’re just rams, after all. But perhaps our thrashing about, trying to run away from the bushes has in fact caused us to get even more deeply tangled in them. Perhaps stopping, and slowly exploring the ways in which we are enmeshed in privilege, and making conscious our unconscious vulnerability that DiAngelo characterizes as white fragility, would allow us to detach ourselves from fear and anxiety, and do the work so many of us earnestly want to do.
Embracing vulnerability is, of course, one of the themes of these High Holy Days as well. Our tradition asks us to make ourselves vulnerable as a precursor to growth, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually. We accept our brokenness, and then set about repairing it. We acknowledge our fragility in so many ways; to reflect on our innate fragility with regard to discussions of race and privilege seems well without our wheelhouse.
We might draw strength and inspiration from Portia Nelson’s poem about mindfulness, Autobiography in Five Short Chapters:
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.
walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
Or, in our own tradition, from Psalm 118, which appears in both the traditional shofar service and in Tashlich: From the place of narrowness, I called to God; Yah answered me with Divine expansiveness. Susan Fendrick explains this verse this way: “We come to God in a place of narrowness and bounded perception, and God offers us, in response, the possibility of widening our perspective – including truly seeing the other people around us, perceiving their needs through the lens of ethics and obligation, and understanding our place in the human community, and in all creation.”
And finally, a beautiful parable, worthy of frequent repetition:
A rabbi gathered
All of his students together
How do we know the exact moment
When night ends and day begins?
A student raised his hand and began:
“It is when, standing some way away,
you can tell a goat from a lamb,
then the night is over and the day has begun.
The rabbi was unmoved, he waited for another
Student to join in the discussion.
Another brave soul jumped in
“No, it is when you can tell an olive tree
from a fig tree.
No, said the rabbi
The night is over and the day begins
When a stranger approaches,
And we recognize him as our brother.
That is the exact moment when night ends
And the day begins.
Let the night soon be over, let the sun finally rise, and let the day begin when we become able to recognize our neighbors as part of ourselves.
 Adapted from Joshua Rothman,The Origins of “Privilege” May 12, 2014 https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege
 Susan Fendrick, The Gorilla and My U-netaneh Tokef Problem http://kerem.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Fendrick-The-Gorillan-and-My-U-Netaneh-Tokef-Problem.pdf
Kol Nidre 5783: Recreating Ourselves
October 4, 2022
Rabbi Peter Schaktman
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, as many of you know, was the intellectual and institutional founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, the flavor of Judaism that few of us truly understand and that most of us practice. The story is told that when Rabbi Kaplan was still teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, it was his practice to drash, that is, interpret, the weekly Torah portion following the Torah being read during services on Monday morning. Two days later, on the subsequent Wednesday, a senior student would present his version – it was, alas, only “his” at the time – of the same biblical text. Kaplan was, apparently, known to be a very demanding and critical teacher, and the students reportedly dreaded the ordeal. Once it happened that a student wrote down verbatim what Kaplan said on Monday and then, when the student was asked to explain the passage on Wednesday, he repeated Kaplan’s interpretation word for word. When he finished, Kaplan announced to the class that what they had just heard was a terrible attempt at exposition. The student predictably responded, “But Prof. Kaplan, that’s exactly what you said on Monday!” To which Kaplan replied, “Ah, well; but I have grown since then.”
We all need to grow. That’s why we’re here. That’s in large part what the Yamim Noraim are all about: growth. To grow is to live. To cease growing is ultimately to suffer death, whether literally or metaphorically. So we come, we participate in the words and music and rituals of this sacred gathering, we reflect, both here and during the ten days leading us to this day, and we trust that we will emerge from this experience having grown past where we were when we began this journey, that this season itself will fulfill its promise of ushering us into a new and better year.
And we love witnessing growth, don’t we? In our garden, in our children or grandchildren, in our relationships with those close to us in our lives. I know that I feel really blessed to be able to watch the younger people in our community return each year taller, and more curious, and full of new thoughts and ideas. And to be present with the older members of our congregation as they continue to grow in wisdom and understanding about their life’s journey.
Growth is a cumulative process, isn’t it? I mean, when we speak of growth, we are talking about a phenomenon where something that already exists becomes greater, or more evolved that what it was before. The marks on the door next to the kids’ names are higher. The sapling in the yard is now a tree. The middle schooler is now in college. The insightful Jew has gained new and deeper insight through self-reflection, cheshbon ha-nefesh. All good things.
And while there are many texts in our tradition that understand the goal of teshuvah to be a returning to the essence of who we are, that is, to our best and highest selves; there is another thread in our tradition that suggests that teshuvah is not merely about growth, not simply about becoming better versions of ourselves. This thread challenges us instead to, in essence, become someone else, to courageously reimagine who we are.
My teacher, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz, a much beloved and long retired member of the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is celebrating his 94th birthday today, on Yom Kippur. In instructing me and my fellow students regarding the art of homiletics, that is, giving sermons, Lenny passed on to us the wisdom of his teacher, Israel Bettan, who instructed his students (again, all men at the time), “Boys, when you preach, be yourselves. Unless of course you’re a schmuck; then be someone else.”
It was funny, but it wasn’t meant entirely as a joke. Because while many sages see the essence of teshuvah as turning toward our more authentic selves, many others paradoxically call upon us to turn away from what we were before; to change not merely our behavior but who we are. It is an awesome challenge that the sages have put before us, and one that invites us to consider the opportunity it might offer us for spiritual transformation.
There is a practice, recounted in the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th c. code of Jewish law that is still the source for answers to halakhic questions, of men immersing in a mikvah prior to Yom Kippur. This doesn’t sound all that surprising, I suppose. We think of immersion in the mikvah as a pious act; what better time for piety than before Yom Kippur? But it’s not so simple. While recently, the immersion in the mikvah has, for both men and women, become a way to mark any number of life events and transitions, there was, traditionally, only one reason for immersion in a mikvah. And that was to remove ritual impurity.
Tevilah, or immersion in the mikvah was practiced by those converting to Judaism as well. And here’s the interesting part, or at least the beginning of it: the rabbis tell us that the immersion prior to Yom Kippur and the immersion for conversion are for the same reason: for the purpose of teshuvah, of repentance. The immersion on Erev Yom Kippur is actually intended to mimic the immersion of the convert.
So why is this so interesting? Because the Gemara – that’s one of the strata of the Talmud – tells us that when a person converts to Judaism, they experience a type of rebirth, that ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami — “a convert at their conversion is like a new-born child” (Yevamot 22a). So here’s “the punch line,” as it were: According to the sages, just like a convert to Judaism, one who is engaged in the process of repentance also experiences a fundamental rebirth, that is, becomes an entirely new person.
Teshuva, we learn, is only possible because it is transformational. Maimonides in fact tells us that the aim of teshuvah is to transform ourselves to such an extent that we may rightfully declare, eini oto ha-ish, “I am not that same person… By achieving this comprehensive transformation, we are no longer held accountable for sins of the past, the transgressions of our previous religious persona.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi explains that “Paradoxically, the achievement of t’shuvah involves self-acceptance along with radical change of the self. Maimonides expresses this paradox by pointing to the powerful act of changing one’s name as if to say, “I am a different person.” The hope that we can change and become different energizes us. Our desire to move away from the old, to embrace a new self, propels us through the gates of repentance that now stand open before us.”foot Now, it’s unlikely that many of us will change our names annually on Yom Kippur, but what if we changed the names that we call ourselves, the names we have given ourselves, the names we have resigned ourselves to? So too, what if we changed the names others have given us, the names that keep us confined and prevent us from discovering and celebrating the person we might become once we got past whatever it is that’s blocking our way?
We might ponder, as we enter the process of teshuvah each year, the perspective that we begin our teshuvah journey as caterpillars and, ideally, emerge as butterflies (or, in some cases, moths). I wonder how many of you, like I, didn’t initially get as a child, precisely how metamorphosis works. It’s a little scary, isn’t it, as transformation often is? In order for the mature insect to form, the larva has to exist in its larval state, to no longer be its former self, to become unrecognizable as anything other than a goopy mass of cells. I think if this had been explained to me when I was very young, I would have been more than a little frightened.
But now, as adults, we can gain from this process in nature meaningful spiritual insight. We too often need to temporarily cease to be, at least metaphorically, in order to become something new and more spiritually developed. We need, to some extent, break down who and what we are, in order to become who we have the potential to be. This day, as many of us know, is, in many ways, a rehearsal of our death. Which is part of why the shofar that ends it is so joyful to our ears; we rejoice that we are still alive as we enter the new year.
So what are the elements of this spiritual process of metamorphosis? We begin by first being willing to let go of our prior assumptions about ourselves; by shedding our skin and entering into a sometimes-goopy state of in-between what was and what will be. This then gives us the space to imagine what we might become, and what we will need to leave behind in order to do so. What behaviors, what attitudes, what baggage, what guilt will we shed? Getting rid of this skin allows us to begin re-forming our spiritual persona, and soon, having participated in the process, we have the potential to spread our new wings and fly.
The chassidic masters noted that the word neshmah means both “soul” and “breath” and therefore taught that when we exhale, our soul temporarily leaves our body. With each inhalation, then, we are, in effect, re-enlivened, reborn. Which is why each breath can and ought to be a celebration of life and renewal. We know from science that our cells are constantly regenerating, and quite literally, none of us are the people we once were.
May we find in the opportunity for re-creation of self that teshuvah gives us a source for the rebirth of soul, of vision and of renewed connection to the world around us. Let us conclude with the beautiful words of Rabbi Harold Schulweis:
The last word has not been spoken
the last sentence has not been writ
the final verdict is not in
It’s never too late
to change my mind
to say “no” to the past
and “yes” to the future
to offer remorse
to ask and give forgiveness
It is never too late
to start all over again
to feel again
to love again
to hope again
It is never too late
to overcome despair
to turn sorrow into resolve
and pain into purpose
It is never too late to alter my world
not by magic incantations
or manipulations of the cards
or deciphering the stars
But by opening myself
to curative forces buried within
to hidden energies
the powers in my interior self.
In sickness and in dying, it is never too late
Living, I teach
Dying, I teach
how to face pain and fear
Others observe me, children, adults,
students of life and death
Learn from my bearing, my posture,
It is never too late–
Some word of mine,
some touch, some caress may be remembered
Some gesture may play a role beyond the last
movement of my head and hand.
Write it on my epitaph
that my loved ones be consoled
It is never too late.
 Olitzky and Sabath, Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, p. 44.
 It is Never Too Late Harold Schulweis
Who Turned Out the Light?
Yom Kippur Morning 5783
October 5, 2022
Once there was a young student
who found a large map of the world in the newspaper.
The student was very curious about the map,
and so she took it to her teacher.
The teacher was very smart,
and she thought of a way to challenge the student.
The teacher took the map of the globe and
tore it into many, many pieces.
Small fragments of paper fell to the floor
all around the student’s feet.
The teacher then took a roll of scotch tape
and handed it to the student,
challenging her to put the map of the world back together.
The teacher then returned to work.
The student got down on the floor and,
in an amazingly short amount of time,
she had completed the assignment;
she had correctly taped together all of the pieces
of the map of the entire world.
Only minutes ago,
many pieces of the image of the world were torn apart
and strewn across the floor.
Now it was once again whole and complete.
The teacher asked the student,
“How were you able to reassemble the
fragmented world so quickly?
The student’s response was short and to the point.
“There was a picture of a person on the back side.
I repaired that one person,
and the whole world got fixed too.”
Fixing the world. That is the phrase we often use in Jewish circles – and, increasingly, in non-Jewish circles – to describe the obligation we feel toward everything from raising environmental consciousness – where the phrase kind of means what it says, literally – to treating others with the respect due to all created in God’s image, whether they’ve earned it or not. Tikkun olam. The term comes from Kabbalistic sources and originally referred to a mystical resetting of creation of cosmic proportions. Which is catalyzed, it turns out, in often imperceptible ways, by things like donating canned food to a food bank and writing postcards urging people to vote.
Tikkun olam is a welcome and cherished addition to the Jewish values lexicon. But it was not the first, and certainly not the only term we have used to refer to the Jewish commitment to changing the world for the better. Those who grew up in the Reform movement, for example, are no doubt familiar with another image by which our tradition understood and expressed that commitment. That term is, in Hebrew, or l’goyim, or “a light to the nations.” How many of you remember hearing those words spoken from the pulpit, or invoked to explain Judaism’s particularistic universalism?
The words come from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah channeled the voice of the Divine and told his Israelite listeners, “I the ETERNAL have called unto you in righteousness, and have taken you by the hand, and have made you a covenant people, a light unto the nations.” (42:6). Elsewhere he writes, “And nations shall walk by your light; kings by your shining radiance.” (60:3)
Long after these words were first spoken, in the 18th century, the original architects of Reform Judaism took a particular interest in the prophetic pronouncements of Isaiah and others in the Biblical canon. Consistent with their Enlightenment perspective, they sought to deemphasize the role of the ritual commandments in Judaism and instead exalt its ethical dimension. Along with contemporary thinkers writing about the Jewish national revival, they saw a renewed opportunity to fulfill the prophetic vision of the Jewish people being a “Light Unto the Nations.” The people of Israel were no longer just moral exemplars; they were now understood to be missionaries of morality, as it were. Out of this thinking came the notion of Reform Judaism as “prophetic Judaism,” that is, Judaism based on prophetic vision. It’s essential to note that when the Reformers dispensed with strict ritual observance, they replaced it with an enhanced commitment to practicing and fostering ethical behavior in and among the peoples with whom they lived.
The early Zionists found in the prophet’s words great meaning as well. Being “a light to the nations” was in fact one of the goals that inspired many in the Zionist movement, both religious and secular. In both his writings and his speeches, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, often emphasized his vision of the Jewish state as a moral and social beacon to the whole world. This is one of the reasons why the menorah was chosen to be the Emblem of Israel; it was symbolic of that beacon.
It is also, no doubt, why the most memorable symbol, the most recognizably Jewish symbol, perhaps the only recognizable Jewish symbol incorporated into the outer architecture of this building, is a menorah. Not, I’m guessing, to evoke associations with Israel, but rather, consistent with the regnant belief in Reform Judaism that the purpose of the synagogue, and of those who populated the synagogue, was to be a “light to the nations.”
That menorah on the opposite side of the wall behind me, by the way, has a lantern lighting it up every night when the sun goes down. That’s the same wall where, for a few weeks not too long ago, there hung a Black Lives Matters banner, as well as a Rainbow Banner. Both of those banners were eventually removed by a decision of the Temple board, following an extended process of conversation and discussion about their appropriateness. That process ultimately concluded that their appearance was inconsistent with the building’s aesthetics, and took note that aspects of their messages were disconcerting to members of the board. They were replaced by the custom-designed banner now on the front facade of the building which, it was hoped, would incorporate aspects of the two previous banners that more accurately represented the congregation’s values.
Upon his return from Thailand on a volunteer service trip with the American Jewish World Service, Rabbi David Wolpe spoke to his congregation at Sinai Temple in Los Angleles. He told them, “We don’t sufficiently think about the fact that because the idea is that you’re supposed to be an or lagoyim, that is a light to the nations, that you can’t do it if you never do anything among the nations. If you only have your light on at home, nobody else sees it. … Nowhere in any Jewish scripture that I’m aware of will you see, ‘Jews must only help other Jews.’ It doesn’t exist. Some Jews will tell you that, but Judaism doesn’t tell you that.”
The conversations about the original banners, and the current one, were rather extensive and slightly contentious, as were the conversations that led to the erection of the Reproductive Freedom banner currently on the lawn. Though we have made a commitment to consistently illuminate our symbol of light, there often seems to be some ambivalence about letting that lamp illuminate our spiritual values to the community. The banners; some of the other recent initiatives of the congregation’s thriving Social Action Group; the attempts to discuss, debate, and articulate collective positions on important moral issues, have all triggered anxiety among some of us. Moreover, this anxiety seems to point to a sense of uncertainty among many regarding the appropriateness of the congregation’s role in publicly affirming Jewishly-informed positions in the wider community.
So what, we might wonder, is the source of this ambivalence about being more visible and more audible about issues of concern in our world and our community? What happened to our commitment to being a “light to the nations,” and why does it seem that some folks want to turn off, or at least dim, that light? In listening to what members of the congregation have said or written, I’ve identified a few possible reasons; there may be more.
The first is the fear of an antisemitic or right-wing backlash. Those who harbor such fear are in some good company, by the way. Recently, CNN’s Dana Bash wrote about her ambivalence when her then-10-year-old son asked for a Jewish star necklace for Chanukah. She acknowledges that she wasn’t sure how she felt about him wearing his Jewish faith so prominently in public, despite her own sense of personal pride in her Jewish identity. As a result of that ambivalence, and since his ask seemed like one of those out-of-left-field requests that are soon forgotten, she never bought him the necklace. But halfway through Chanukah week her son asked her if she had remembered to get him the star, the only gift he had specifically requested. She honestly told him she had not, and then asked him what made him want one. He told her that a lot of his Christian friends at school wore crosses, and that he wanted to wear a symbol of his own faith, because he is a proud Jew.
She was surprised at his interest in making such a public statement, but she agreed to get him a star and a chain on which to wear it. But not without qualms, she writes. She notes that she was ashamed to admit to herself that her young son showing the world that he is Jewish made her a bit nervous. Because unlike him, she knew well about the rise in antisemitism in the US. She knew that nearly ⅔ of religiously motivated hate crimes target Jews or Jewish institutions and that 60% of American Jews report having experienced antisemitism in the past year. She knew that conspiracies about Jews were among the oldest on the planet. What she did not know, she writes, is that wearing a Jewish star could actually be an effective tactic in combating prejudice against Jews. No less an expert than Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, told her that she had started to wear her Magen David more frequently as antisemitic attacks started to rise, as a way of increasing her visibility as a Jew, of saying, “this is who I am.”
Bash wrote “Jeff Cohen was one of the four congregants held hostage in Colleyville, Texas last January by a man who expressed antisemitic sentiments during a Sabbath service. He told [Bash] that as a result of his experience, he wears his skullcap, or yarmulke, more often now in public, not less. “I’m not going to hide,” he said. “I’m not going to allow myself to disappear because I do want to challenge other good people to stand up and say no.”
Another factor in the ambivalence that has been expressed is a fear of internal division within our community. A few individuals have shared their concerns that within our congregation, there are people with a variety of opinions and positions about a lot of different issues. No doubt that is true. The prophets had such diversity of opinion among their listeners as well. Which is why Frederick Buechner, a popular Christian ‘writer’s writer’ and ‘minister’s minister,’ who recently passed away, once defined the vocation of the prophet as follows: “There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.” In other words, the prophetic message has more often than not been unwelcomed by many of its recipients. That’s not really a surprise. That’s part of the prophet’s role: To say things that are unpopular but that, at least in the prophet’s eyes, still need to be said.
Some of the folks who fall into this camp of ambivalence despair of the congregation getting involved in what they refer to as “politics.” To be honest, this concern about “politics” at the Temple is somewhat perplexing to me. As you all likely know, there is no political litmus test to join the Temple, or the board or any of the committees (including the Social Action Group) and, as we’ve acknowledged already, the congregation’s membership includes people with a great range of political affiliations and attitudes. Everyone is permitted — even encouraged — to express their point of view, and I and the lay leaders of the congregation make every effort to listen to and respect where people are coming from.
There are a very small number of people – to the best of my knowledge, at least – on both the left and the right, whose personal politics are on occasion in conflict with the Temple leadership’s informed understanding of Jewish values; these are people who would prefer that the Temple affirm their political philosophy or that of the party they support rather than its best understanding of what Judaism teaches. They are sometimes unhappy with the Temple’s affirmation of Jewish values, but because the Temple is not a partisan political institution, we cannot change our interpretation of Judaism to fit their political tastes. On the other hand, most members of the community seem to accept and even cherish our diversity, even when their point of view is not that of the majority.
Yet another source of the uncertainty that I’ve encountered about the Temple engaging in public expressions of our values, especially by those who have lived here for a significant portion of their lives, is a fear of disrupting the role, carefully cultivated over many years, of the Jewish community in the area. Those who are responsible for having cultivated those relationships with the greater community, and the children of those who did so, ought to be justifiably proud of their work. The Jewish community in general, and many specific members of our community, are greatly respected by the wider civic and interfaith communities. Witness, for example, among other things, the standing room only attendance at our gathering following the Tree of Life shooting, and the crowd who recently joined us when we dedicated the Reproductive Freedom banner, undeterred by pelting rain. If the weather had been nicer, the number of people joining us might have been double.
And yet I still sense among some people a feeling that we ought not call too much attention to ourselves, especially by expressing deeply-held views that might make others uncomfortable and might carry a social cost, either to the community as a whole or to members of the community who are asked – or fear being asked – to explain those positions to friends, neighbors or colleagues. One of the hardest parts of coming out as a gay man years ago was wondering how those with whom I was in relationship would respond, and how my revealing this part of who I was would change those relationships. What I finally realized, as does anyone who struggles with “coming out” as anything – a transgender individual, a Republican, someone with mental illness, a Jew – is that until one accurately self-identifies, including aspects of our identity that challenge others, the relationships we imagine we have, are not actually with us; they are with those whom we are pretending to be. If expressing ourselves as Jews threatens our relationships with others in our community, if affirming our values, however unpopular, causes others to have less respect for us – which, I should add, I do not believe is at all likely – then we were never really respected in the first place.
I believe in the promise of that menorah on the front of our building to shine the light of Jewish insight and values into the community among whom we live. I recall with pride the photos with which many of us are familiar of Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Eisendrath walking with Dr. Martin Luther King, and of Rabbi Alan Levine helping a protester who had just been beaten by one of Bull Connor’s thugs. Later today, we will hear the stories of ten Jewish martyrs, considered such because of the courage they demonstrated in standing up for their values as Jews. I believe each of them understood, as does anyone who has taken a risk for the sake of doing the right thing, that to be a light unto the nations, our hearts need to break. That is, we must truly and actively engage with the realities of our world and our society. Just a few days ago, Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, who recently renounced his position and fled from his home, published a heart-rending essay about his self-initiated exile from a country whose policies he could no longer support. In that essay he wrote, “The hardest task of religious leadership is to take moral stances in difficult times, no matter the cost.”
May our commitment to our people and our tradition, and our recollection of a history that has uniquely sensitized us to own sufferings and the sufferings of other, be the fuel that keeps the flame of tikkun olam burning, and may our light continue to shine brightly among all the nations of the world. Ken yehi ratzon. May his be God’s will.
 Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno