This sermon is dedicated to Rabbi Eugene Lipman (z”l), whose passionate and devastatingly brutal words inspired and shamed me into a courage to confront – successfully – my congregation, with this important message. He didn’t know me, but I like to think he’d be proud.
On Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you my discovery of the television show Doomsday Preppers, and I suggested that in order to be preparing ourselves for the days and years ahead we needed to have an acute awareness of what it is that we stand for.
I talked about my Great Aunt Bryna’s devotion to her chosen causes, and I also mentioned that Doomsday-prepping is not altogether unlike preparing for Yom Kippur, with the doom-and-gloom liturgy we have come to expect, and, perhaps dread.
Not all that long ago, the language of gloom-and-doom was not relegated to the words in our prayer books. Rabbis, less than a century ago, felt comfortable and confident, shouting down their disappointment at their congregants and sharing their predictions of a gloomy Jewish future.
Rabbi Eugene Lipman (z”l) was one such Doomsday Prepper. He was formidable and foreboding. On the High Holidays, in 1961, Rabbi Lipman shared the following words with his community At Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C.
After discussing how the music of Kol Nidrei is found by many to be deeply moving, he shared his concern about what happens after the music fades, saying:
“It is good that something Jewish can stir you deeply once each year. It is good that, for these few moments each year…that all this can bring tears to your eyes, that something can break through the protective shell you have built around your souls and make you, for these few moments each year, unhyphenated Jews, undiluted Jews, total Jews.
But it is also too bad.
It is tragic and frustrating that the impact of these few soul-stirring moments must inevitably be dissipated, rapidly dissipated.
It is tragic for you as individuals, it is tragic for the future of the Jewish people as well.
It is tragic for you because you return so fast to your surface-centered, thing-centered, bland-leading-the bland American way of life. You miss so much joy and life by doing so!
It is tragic for the future of the Jewish people because Judaism and our people require more for survival.”
His words, not mine.
And he didn’t leave it at that, either. In 1972, he was still railing:
“For the majority of this congregation,” he said, to the assembled group of D.C. lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, “adults and children alike, for the majority of American Jews I know,” he continued – “being Jewish is not very important.
Being Jewish is not important enough to most of the members of this congregation for you to have any level of involvement in the Jewish community, in the life of the Jewish people – beyond paying dues, beyond making a contribution to the UJA…Being Jewish is not important enough to most of you for you to invest any of your time in Jewish communal institutions, to invest any emotion, to invest any of your amazing talents. Most of you…have no meaningful Jewish communal activities as part of your routine, of your expansion of yourselves beyond work and family and pleasure. You do not by your affiliations and your actions speak Jewishness to a world which needs it. You do not make Jewishness important – not to yourselves, not to others, not to your children. Being Jewish is not important enough to most (of you) to consider it part of your business to learn about Jewishness, about Judaism, about the Jewish people…(or)…to claim any significant amount of your time at home. Aside from Chanukah candles and a seder, your homes remain bare of Jewish observances.”
He goes on and on like this. What Chutzpah!
Most rabbis today know that this isn’t the most effective way to argue for religious adherence and commitment. And of course, it goes without saying, that this community demonstrates a higher degree of commitment, and seems to value Judaism more than the congregation of twice-a-year-Jews to which Rabbi Lipman was speaking.
And yet, we can understand where he was coming from.
More than 40 years later, these words ring far too true and I suspect many rabbis today read Rabbi Lipman’s sermon with the same sense of awe that I did, when I first discovered it.
It was a different time, to be sure.
Today, as my colleague Rabbi Larry Freedman points out, “Our society is consumer oriented, fee for service, (and) Reform synagogues, (sadly, all too often) echo society. Our synagogue structures are based on a membership model where we assume you’ll join, assume you’ll pay and assume you’ll be happy. And,” he quips, “if you’re not happy, you should show up more and (then) you’ll be happy,”
But of course, as Rabbi Freedman knows,that’s a limited, narrow-minded, and unfair perspective, and it has been proven unsuccessful. People are voting with their feet, and rightly so.
Today’s liberal Jews expect Judaism – and Jewish communities and organizations by extension – to offer them something of value before they’ll commit to it.
Now, whether or not you believe as Rabbi Freedman does, and as I do, that Judaism can “inspire the mind and lift the soul,” it is now the synagogue’s job – our job, my job – to change and adapt to the expectations of today’s liberal Jews and to come up with a model that doesn’t assume anything but positions itself as a place of value.
The reality is that if Temple Beth David doesn’t give us something that enriches our lives then we will all have difficulty justifying a commitment of our time and financial resources – because in a consumer society, if it doesn’t bring benefit, if it doesn’t add value, then why would we spend money on it?
I say “we” and not “you” because outside of the Jewish community, I can be accused of the same kind of thinking.
It’s societal. It’s generational. It’s contagious.
And so if we feel that Judaism needs to offer us something of value before we will care and invest and commit to Judaism in return then I say, “fair enough”, but I also want to call our attention to the fact that Judaism has already offered us something of value: our VALUES.
When I spoke about my Aunt Bryna on Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you that she committed her whole life to her chosen causes. But Bryna was also deeply devoted to the Jewish community and to Jewish causes. She understood that her commitment to women’s equality and social justice, were core Jewish values going all the way back to Torah. And so the daily commitments she made to the causes of her heart did not come at the expense or exclusion of an equally deep commitment to Judaism itself.
All too often I am challenged by those who suggest that universal values and Jewish values are the same, and so if they are dedicating their time and money to a cause or charity outside of the Jewish community they are somehow absolved of a commitment to the Jewish community.
Or rather, the first assertion is somewhat close to the truth but the second is altogether misguided.
In an explanation of Jewish practice published by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press, there is a list of Jewish attitudes, beliefs and values. The list includes:
Love; humility; environmentalism; gratitude; intention; menchlechite; commitment to community; working to free those who are enslaved and oppressed; serving our societies in order to contribute to their welfare; avoiding wastefulness; valuing health and wellness and protecting our bodies; not wasting time; keeping the commitments we make to both God and fellow human beings; remembering that every human being is created in the image of God; pursuing peace; pursuing a relationship with God and/or spiritual experiences; Respecting and valuing Diversity; speaking and seeking truth; having a relationship with the Land of Israel; caring for one another; valuing human dignity; prioritizing the unity and survival of the Jewish people; valuing rest and renewal; having compassion; creating peace in the home; guarding our speech; celebrating with joy; improving the world; (and) pursuing social justice.
Now, I’m going to channel Rabbi Lipman for a moment and show a little chutzpadik by saying that if the majority of these values are not your values, than I can certainly understand why participating in the Jewish community is not a high priority for you.
But if these values are our values (and I certainly hope that they are), then I cannot understand how any of us can say or suggest or think that Judaism hasn’t already offered us something meaningful; and if so, then I cannot understand how any of us can excuse placing Judaism low on our priority lists.
Yes, many of these seem to be universal values but, without giving a long history lesson on the evolution of world-religions and Western values, if these are universal values today, they are so BECAUSE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, or at the very least, because of the Five Books of Moses, the Bible, the Old Testament – whatever name you know it by – it is this book – our Torah! – that brought these values into universal appreciation.
If these are your values, you should connect yourself with pride to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion because we have been the messengers of universal values to the world for millennia.
You see, what makes the Torah and Judaism special is that they are more than just a belief in a higher power they are about what we do and how we treat each other.
This is something worth being proud of.
This is something worth committing to.
This is something worth standing up for.
Recently, a number of Reform rabbis discussed the difference between the consumer model I spoke about earlier compared to a model of relationship.
One Rabbi said, “in a consumer culture we are defined by what we have, but in a relationship culture what we have is defined by the moments we’ve shared with others.”
Another rabbi wrote this: “Consumer culture: we use things up and throw things out. Relationship culture: we fill one another up and build lasting memories.”
And another take: “In a consumer culture, we look at individuals as commodities to be acquired. In a relationship culture, we respond to the other’s dignity and humanity.”
And finally: “In a consumer culture we focus on what we can get. In a relationship culture we focus on what we can give.”
I am proud to share with you, in case you are not already aware, that Temple Beth David is working hard to instill and maintain for ourselves a culture of relationship. We value people, not proceeds. We work hard to make participation affordable – often at our own expense – and we strive to be welcoming and accessible to all.
If Rabbi Lipman had met this community, I know he would have been more optimistic about the future of Judaism. But I also know that he would have been quick to point out that our successes do not excuse us from reaching even higher, from committing even more of ourselves, from viewing Judaism as the root of the values we stand up for, and therefore worthy of being stood up for as well.
And Rabbi Lipman would have cautioned us not to let our guards down. We still need to channel the Doomsday Preppers. We still need to arm ourselves with what we need and what the world needs in order to facilitate a successful future.
And for my two cents, I firmly believe that what we need is Torah.
We need to be stockpiling Torah.
Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz writes, “I am optimistic about Judaism’s future, despite the persistence of ignorance and apathy because Judaism offers a richness of values, sacred texts, and tools to transform the mundane into sacred moments.”
If we stockpile Torah, If we arm ourselves with the richness of Judaism’s values, texts and traditions, then our lives will be infused with meaning, and we will be more than prepared for whatever lays ahead.
The ancient Israelites understood that to get something they had to give something, and what they gave were the animals they sacrificed. These animals had to be blemish-free – an incredibly difficult thing to find. As Rabbi Freedman writes, “Imagine how hard it must have been…Just try to pick out an animal from your herd that hasn’t gotten a few thorn scratches. How about an animal that never tripped (or) was on the losing end of a head-butt…” Animals destined for sacrifice had to have been carefully selected and tended to with an overly watchful eye – segregated from the herd, gently guided away from danger, fretted and watched over at all times of day and night.
“To bring that animal to Jerusalem for an offering,” Rabbi Freedman writes, “must have been a very powerful gesture. This wasn’t just some animal. This was personal. The animal represented years of preparation. When you offered this animal up to God, You were offering a piece of yourself, your sweat and tears.”
I am going to borrow Rabbi Freedman’s metaphor, and encourage you, this year, “to bring your own well-cared-for goat – and by goat, I mean sacrifice.”
In return for the value that Judaism and this community have to offer, I am asking you to give up just a little of what is precious to you, and these days what is most precious to most of us (aside from our loved ones), is time.
If you can’t make the time to be here, you will miss out on the chance to stockpile Torah for yourself, and to contribute to the future of the Jewish people.
I know that it’s challenging but I firmly believe that it’s worth it.
If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do what I do.
I wouldn’t stand up here today.
I wouldn’t stand up for Judaism each and every day of my life.
Judaism is my chosen cause. I am arguing, with every fiber of my strength – with the memory of my Aunt Bryna and the chutzpah of Rabbi Lipman as guides – I am arguing that Judaism should be your chosen cause too.
You cannot survive without it. And it cannot survive without you.
This year, may we hold to the commitments we make in our hearts during moments of passion and inspiration;
May we keep to them long after the stirring music of Kol Nidrei has faded.
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.