Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2010 High Holiday Sermons

1st Day Rosh Hashana 5771 – 2010
Everything Changes – Part 1
There is a story told about the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. A woman and her young daughter walked several miles for a meeting with the leader. After waiting for a period of time, they finally were let in to see him. The woman said, “Mr. Gandhi, I need you to tell my daughter something important. She eats too much candy; it is not good for her. She respects you. Tell her to stop eating candy.” Gandhi said to the woman, “I want you and your daughter to come back in three weeks.”
Three weeks later the woman and her daughter again walked several miles to see Gandhi. He let them in and told the girl, “I want you to stop eating candy. It is not good for you.” The girl agreed. When they left, Gandhi’s advisors questioned him. “That woman and her daughter had to walk several miles. Why did you make them come back a second time?” Gandhi replied, “I made them come back three weeks later because I had to see. Could I give up eating candy?”
There is nothing particularly Jewish about that story but it could easily be about a rabbi. A rabbi has to follow the same rules as his or her congregants. No rabbi can ask a congregation to change until he or she is willing to change. At the heart of our tradition is a deep and difficult question, can people change? And this is tied to another question, how do we live in a world of change?
In 1993 I gave a sermon on Yom Kippur on change. That was the year our synagogue went through a major transformation. For the first time we went egalitarian. Women were called to the Torah and counted in the minyan. Bat mitzvahs were moved from Friday night to Saturday morning. My wife had the first aliya to the Torah under the new policy; she was called up that Yom Kippur morning. A few people gasped, a few even quit the synagogue, but most of our members embraced the change. For change is an inevitable part of life.
I began my sermon that Yom Kippur with the words, “All things change continuously.” I went on to tell a story about the great Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement. Kaplan used to teach a course in homiletics (sermon giving) at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Unfortunately, he was there before my time. One student had to deliver a sermon to the class and was extremely nervous. When the sermon was over, Professor Kaplan simply said “very good” and went on teaching. The student was relieved. When the class met a week later, Prof. Kaplan proceeded to rip the sermon apart. The student stammered, “Professor, last week you liked it.” Prof. Kaplan replied, “I changed since last week.”
Today and tomorrow I want to speak about change. The reason is obvious; as a synagogue we are going through a major change. We are holding these services in a brand new building. And with a new building comes new ways of doing things. As I said seventeen years ago, all things change continually.
I want to talk about change, but first I want to share a little philosophy. Bear with me; it will be extremely relevant. We will go back to the ancient Greeks, the founders of philosophy. There was a great argument between two early thinkers, Parmenides and Heraclitus. To Parmenides change is an illusion. Nothing ever really changes. The essence of things stays the same. To talk about the world is to talk about what is unchangeable and everlasting. To Heraclitus on the other hand, everything changes. He was the one who said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” To talk about the world is to see constant movement, constant flux.
So who was right? Do we live in a world of unchangeable essences or a world of constant flux? It took the greatest philosopher of them all, Plato, to solve the problem. Plato said, Parmenides and Heraclitus are both right. There is a world of unchanging forms, a world of perfection. Then there is the world we live in, a world of change, of growth and decay. But this world is a mere reflection of a more perfect unchangeable world. Plato said it is like men in a cave staring at shadows projected on a wall. This world of change is the world of shadows. But the true reality is outside the cave. The true reality, the superior world, is unchangeable. This world is imperfect. The unchangeable world is perfect.
So why am I telling you all of this. Plato’s ideas are at the center of Western thinking. Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Plato’s ideas entered Christianity. And they became a central part of Judaism. The religion we grew up with, the religion we learned in Hebrew school, was a little bit of Bible and a little bit of Plato. Think about God, the perfect unchangeable God outside space and time, the God who is omniscient and omnipotent, who knows everything and can do everything, the God we all pray to. That is Plato’s God.
Think about the soul. Our perfect soul comes into an imperfect body. Somebody dies and a speaker at the funeral says, “So-and-so is now in a better world.” (By the way I have never heard a rabbi say that, only lay people.) That is pure Plato. The changeable world of decay is the imperfect world. The world of God and the soul is the perfect world. In Western thought Plato has become our rabbi. To change is to be imperfect, perfection is unchangeable. This was the religion I taught for the first twenty years of my rabbinate. And now I must confess, I have changed.
I mentioned Alfred North Whitehead. He was a great philosopher in England in the beginning of the twentieth century. And he came up with a new philosophy, a new way of looking at the world. To Whitehead, when we look at the world we must look at process. The fundamental stuff of the universe is not objects but events. Everything changes. Only through change can we understand the world. We can learn more about our bodies by studying physiology, not anatomy. We enjoy videos more than snapshots. For those who love mathematics, calculus (the mathematics of change) is more useful than algebra (the mathematics of discreet objects). Whitehead called his world view process philosophy.
In religion, there is a huge interest today in kabbalah. Kabbalah grew as a reaction to Maimonides and other philosophers, who believed God was distant, unchangeable, to quote Aristotle, “the unmoved mover.” To kabbalah, humans cannot relate to such a God. We want a God who listens to us, Who cries with us, and dare I say it, Who changes with us. Kabbalah taught that God is within the world, God is affected by what happens in the world, God is what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “the most moved mover.” Here is the radical idea of kabbalah. God is changeable. I will say it again. God is changeable. Both process philosophy and kabbalah share a vision of God as present in the world, ever changing, ever affected by what goes on. God is less a being than a becoming. (Several of you asked me the topic of my PhD dissertation. The answer is a comparison of the God of process philosophy and the God of kabbalah. I will tell you more when I finish it.)
God changes. God cares about what happens in the world. God is affected by what happens. In truth, this is much closer to the Biblical view than Plato’s view. When God appears to Moses in a Burning Bush, Moses asks God “Who are you.” God answers, “Aheye Asher Aheye” usually translated “I am Who I am.” But a better translation is “I will become Who I will become.” God is forever in the act of becoming. God is a process. Or as one rabbi put it in his popular book on kabbalah, God is a Verb.
Why is this important? Because when I pray, I want to pray to a God who can be moved by my prayers. A God that sits beyond space and time, unmoved by what happens in this world, is not a God who can move me. God changes. We don’t want trivial changes. I am reminded of the story of a man late for an appointment, driving around, looking for a parking spot. He sees nothing. Finally the man cries out, “God, please give me a parking spot. If you do, I promise I will go to the minyan every day next week.” Just then someone pulls out in front of him. He rushes to the spot and says to God, “Never mind. I found one on my own.” We want a God Who hears our prayers and is affected by them. We want a God who changes. This is the radical idea I have grown to embrace. Not only does God change; the Torah changes.
What do I mean that the Torah changes? Certainly the five books of Moses, written in a scroll, is the same five books of Moses read generations ago. Do the words change? No, but we have changed. We see the Torah through new and different eyes. The Talmud tells the story of Moses putting the little crowns and the letters of the Torah. He asks God, what are these little crowns for? God responds, someday there will be a man named Akiba who will interpret all those little crowns. God begs Moses. Can I see such a man? So God through a miracle moves Moses forward fifteen hundred years to the academy of Rabbi Akiba. And sure enough, Akiba is lecturing, giving meaning to each of those little crowns. And Moses does not understand a word Akiba is saying. Moses becomes upset and begins to grow faint. And then Akiba says, “This is the Torah that Moses gave us on Mt. Sinai.” Suddenly Moses felt better.
The Torah is constantly changing, it is organic, it is growing. The Torah of Rabbi Akiba was different than the Torah of Moses. The Torah of Maimonides and the philosophers was different from the Torah of Rabbi Akiba. And as we have already shown, the Torah of the kabbalah was radically different from the Torah of Maimonides. Same writing, totally different meaning. The Torah of my parents was different from the Torah of my grandparents. And my Torah is different from my parents. And here is the great insight, I have changed. My Torah today is different from my Torah when I moved to this synagogue twenty years ago.
Let me give an example of a Torah that is ever changing. In Biblical times, a man could have more than one wife. If he suspected his wife of adultery, he could put her through a trial by ordeal. By Talmudic times, the rabbis outlawed the trial by ordeal. They taught, if a man is not faithful to his wife, it is unfair to put her on the spot for being unfaithful. By the Middle Ages polygamy was forbidden. And a man was forbidden to divorce his wife against her will. Torah is a process. Move to today. Let me talk not about Conservative or Reform synagogues, but even Chabad and other Orthodox synagogues.
Most Orthodox synagogues, if they want to be successful, put up an eruv around the neighborhood. An eruv turns the whole community into a private domain, so Jews can carry on the Sabbath. Why is this important? Not so a man can carry his tallis to synagogue. Let him leave it there. Orthodox synagogues have established eruvim so women can push baby carriages to synagogue. Orthodox rabbis want the women there. And if you notice, Orthodox rabbis are making sure the Torah is carried through the women’s section. And they are giving their sermons standing so that both men and women can see. I mentioned earlier, don’t look at the snapshot, look at the whole video. Look at the process. And the process in Judaism has been ongoing changes in the role of women.
I have changed. And so my Torah has changed, my understanding of what God wants from me. I had one understanding of Torah when I was single, first living an observant life style, a young man from Los Angeles living in New York City studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I had another understanding of Torah when I was newly married, struggling with issues of infertility and trying to build a family through adoption. I had one understanding of Torah when I was the father of teens; do I force them to stay home on Friday night or let them go out with their friends. I now that I am the father of young adults, am empty nester, my children trying to find their own paths, I have still another understanding of Torah. And I suppose my Torah will change as I change, as I become a grandparent, as I grow older, as I face my own mortality. Everything changes.
And so here we are in a new building. It is a major change. But it is not the only change. We want to attract a new younger generation of Jews. And Jews have changed. The people who were attracted to our synagogue a generation ago are not the people who will be attracted to our synagogue now. Jews are different. And we must be different if we are to attract them. Young Jews are less interested in ethnicity, survival of our people, and more interested in spirituality, finding a reality beyond the material. Young Jews don’t want to hear about Jewish survival or Jewish guilt, they want a vision of tikkun olam, how to perfect the world. Young Jews are more wired to the internet, they may find God in a chatroom more quickly than a synagogue sanctuary. Young Jews are more accepting of alternate lifestyles from intermarriage to singles raising children. One of our young people told me, “By the time our generation grows up, no one will think twice about gay marriage.” It is a new world out there. And we need a new synagogue to embrace that new world.
And yet, I must admit, change is difficult. Change is painful. We humans are creatures of habit. We want things the way they were. We want to go back. We wish that our spouse looked today the way they looked the day we met them. We wish our children were young, sitting around the table as they did when they were little. We wish that we still had the bodies of twenty five years olds, perhaps with the wisdom that we have now. We want a synagogue that still does things the old fashioned way, I hear it all the time – “That’s not how we used to do it in Brooklyn.” And as I hear over and over, “Rabbi, we love our new building, but we miss the old one.”
We want to live in a world without change. Yet God has not given us that option. To be a human being is to live in an ever changing world. And it is to admit that everything changes continually, and to make our peace with those changes.
All things change continually. God changes. Torah changes. Jews are changing. Can we make our peace with those changes. Of course, it is one thing to say that everything changes. It is quite another to try to make changes. The great Christian thinker Reinhold Neibuhr came up with perhaps the most famous quote about change, the one that everybody who has ever attended a twelve step program knows by heart. “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” How do we make changes? I have some answers, but you have to come back tomorrow.
For today all I can say is that everything changes. Change can be positive or change can be negative. May we only know change that is for the better. May God help us with these changes
And let us say Amen.
2nd Day Rosh Hashana 5771 – 2010
Everything Changes – Part 2
Yesterday I spoke about a sermon I gave seventeen years ago, in 1993. That was the year we went from men-only-ritual to egalitarian. In that sermon long ago I shared a story about a sculptor who created a statue. A beautiful model posed for him as he sculpted a work of art he called “beauty.” Many years later he decided to create a second statue, this one was called “ugliness.” He found a model who would represent ugliness and began his work. He began speaking with the model, and discovered that it was the same model who posed for “beauty.” The incredulous artist asked the model, “You were so beautiful. What happened to you?” The model answered sadly, “I changed.”
Everything changes continually. We spoke about how the people Israel have changed. My grandfather’s synagogue was different from mine. And as we move into a new building, in many ways our synagogue will be different from the one I served twenty years ago. The Torah has changed. Each generation brings their own understanding of God’s word. The most radical teaching I shared yesterday was the one I learned from process philosophy. Even God changes. God is not the unmoved mover of Aristotle, but rather the most moved mover of Abraham Joshua Heschel. God has a consequent nature. God is affected by what happens in this world.
Today once again I want to look at change. Yes everything changes continually. But change can be for the worse or for the better. Like the poor model in my story, change can be for the worse. As William Butler Yeats put in The Second Coming, my favorite poem, “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.” Entropy seems to take over the world. God made a world that seems bound for decay and dissolution. It reminds me of the scene from the movie City Slickers when Billy Crystal looks in the mirror on his birthday and says, “I realize this is the best I am ever going to look for the rest of my life.” It is a pessimistic view of life, a view that reflects the view of Job. “Man is born for suffering as the sparks fly upwards.”
Change for the worse is part of nature. But there is a Jewish view that is far more optimistic; change is for the better. There is progress and improvement built into the world. This is the view of process theologians. They look at evolution and see higher and higher forms of life being created. Creativity permeates nature. History also evolves towards greater and greater good. The pagans saw perfection in the ancient past; Judaism sees perfection in the messianic future. There is ongoing change towards a more and more glorious future.
Today like yesterday, I want to do a little bit of philosophy. The reason will be obvious in a moment. Today I want to look at the nineteenth century thinker Frederick Nietzsche. He was brilliant; his philosophy became the forerunner of modern existentialism. He is also controversial; he became Hitler’s favorite philosopher. But Nietzsche himself probably would have been horrified by what the Nazis did with his philosophy. Nietzsche did not like Judaism very much; our only comfort was that he hated Christianity even more. He felt that the Biblical religions created a slave morality, an emphasis on the weak and powerless rather than the strong and the competent. He wanted to develop an ubermensch – often translated superman. People should live by their passions, not some kind of oppressive morality.
Nietzsche wanted to return to the ways of the ancient pagans. The classical Greeks favored the way of Dionysus, the god of revelry and passion. Unfortunately all of Europe had gone on the wrong path, following instead Apollo, the god of rationality and logic. Europe had lost its passion. It was time to return to the ancient pagan ways. One of Nietzsche’s most important teachings grew out of this, and is relevant to everything I am teaching. Nietzsche, like the ancient pagans, believed in what he called “eternal recurrence.” Everything that ever was will come back again. Nothing ever changes. Life starts all over again and again. To put the idea in the words of King Solomon, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
To the pagans, to Solomon at his most cynical, to Nietzsche, we live in a changeless universe. We are fated to relive whatever happens in this past. No wonder he loved Dionysus, if nothing ever changes we might as well spend our time getting drunk. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die.” It was a hopeless pessimistic view of the world. And it is a view that Judaism utterly rejects.
Judaism teaches that we do not live in a world of eternal recurrence. On the contrary, we live in a world of progress and creativity, where the future is not simply a reliving of the past. Not only do we live in a world of change, but that change can be for the better. We are not forced to relive the past. We can change. And it is hope for change for the better that drives the Jewish vision.
So how do we change? I meet people all the time who make it their goal to change other people. Instead of “love your neighbor as yourself” it becomes “change your neighbor to be like yourself.” It reminds of the story of a rabbi who always gave the same sermon every Rosh Hashana. The congregation could not stand it. Finally, a month before the High Holidays, the board appoints the ritual chairman to meet with the rabbi. The ritual chair is very nervous. “Rabbi, do you know that for the past five years you have given the exact same sermon on Rosh Hashana?” The rabbi looks at him surprised. “Have I? Tell me, what did I give the sermon on?” The ritual chairman thinks and thinks but nothing comes to mind. “Rabbi I don’t remember.” The rabbi responds, “If you as ritual chairman don’t remember, I guess I better give the sermon once again.”
People love trying to change other people. And they especially love trying to change rabbis. I have heard congregations tell me, “We have a wonderful new rabbi, young and full of passion. But don’t worry, we will change him.” Are we allowed to try to change someone? Let me teach a bit of Jewish law. The Torah says, hoceach tocheach et ametecha v’lo teesa alav chet. “You shall rebuke your neighbor but do become a sinner on his account.” (Leviticus 19:17) How can we become sinners by rebuking someone else? If we try to change someone’s behavior who will not listen to us, who is not in a position to change, or if we try to change someone in an unkind way, then we are committing a sin.
I learned about people trying to change me during a fascinating evening this summer. I agreed, perhaps in a moment of weakness, to participate in a public debate with a messianic Jew, a Jew who believes in Jesus, in whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. A large number of you showed up to give me moral support. Thank you. But many more supporters of my opponent came to cheer him on. It was a lively and fascinating evening; in fact, it is on dvd.
When the evening was over, many people came over to congratulate me and to thank me. But soon I became the focus of a large crowd who were there to convert me. “Rabbi, don’t you realize that you are a sinner? Don’t you realize that as a sinner you cannot be in God’s good graces? Don’t you want to go to heaven? All you have to do is open your heart to Jesus and your sins will be washed away. You will get into heaven.” I know they really believe they were trying to save my soul. But it was becoming obnoxious – so many people putting so much energy into trying to change me!
I realized something else about what they were saying to me. They were utterly convinced that no matter what I did, I would still not get into heaven. No matter how many mitzvoth I do in this world, it would make no different. Everything I do was no good in the eyes of God. In their eyes I was a sinner. Only believing as they believe could I find salvation. Although these people claimed to be Jews – they use the phrase “completed Jews” – their view was totally foreign to Judaism. To Judaism, life is about doing mitzvoth in order to change to world. To these people, all that is important is getting to heaven. And remember what I said yesterday when I spoke about Plato, heaven is an unchangeable place. To the group surrounding me, changing this world was unimportant, perhaps impossible. Impossible until Jesus comes again.
I have said many times that the difference between Christianity and Judaism is: Christianity is about getting into heaven. Judaism is about creating heaven on earth. And so, at the heart of Judaism, is the view that this world can be changed for the better. How do we do that? To answer, let me turn to a Hassidic tale.
A Hassidic Rebbe once gathered his students around himself and said, when I was a young man my idealistic goal was to change the world. As I grew older and saw how daunting a task that was, I realized my goal was to change my community. As I grew still older, I decided that at least I change my family. Now that I am old, I finally realized that my task in life is to change myself. And I am not sure now that even that is possible. Reform Judaism has a publication that I have not seen, but I love the title: Repairing Our World from the Inside Out. How do we change the world? From the inside out. We begin by changing ourselves.
This brings us to the heart of the Jewish High Holidays. The central theme of these holidays is that people can change. Of course I know all the sayings. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” “A leopard can never change its spots.” But we are not old dogs and we are not leopards. We are human beings, created in the image of God. And central to that vision as that we can change. And by changing ourselves, in whatever small way, we can change the world.
How do we change ourselves? Most important, we need a vision of where we want to go. We need a direction. I have often quoted a scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice meets the Cheshire Cat. Alice asks the cat which way she should go. And the cat wisely answers, where are you trying to get to? Alice replies, I don’t know where I am trying to get to? The cat answers, then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.
To change, we first need a vision of where we are trying to get to. Most of you know that I write a weekly spiritual message; I have been sending it out to our congregation and hundreds of other people for years. The message I sent out this year which created the most controversy was one I sent from the Rabbinical Assembly convention. I had attended a session on process philosophy and Judaism, the notion of a God Who changes and is affected by what goes on in this world. I spoke about it yesterday.
One of the central teachings of process philosophy is that God is not a God of coercion, forcing us to act in a certain way. Rather, God is a God of persuasion, setting a vision and an image of where we ought to go. Process philosophers use the term lure. God is the lure. And we humans have free will, we can move towards the lure as we see it. But we are also free to move away from the lure. We humans can change for the better. Or we humans can change for the worse. But change we can.
Change begins with personal transformation. There is the story of the cantor who was practicing the prayers for the High Holidays. A wise person came up to him and said, “What are you doing?” “I am practicing the High Holiday prayers.” The wise person responded, “The High Holiday prayers this year are the same as they were last year. And they are the same as they will be next year. Rather than looking at the prayers, you should be looking at yourself. How can you be a different person next year?”
That is the key to the High Holidays. Each year on the High Holidays I look carefully at myself. And I would like each of you to consider doing the same. What is some area where you can change in the coming year? Can you be a better son or daughter, a better brother or sister, a better husband or wife, a better father or mother? Can you be a better friend? Can you eat a little healthier, get a little more exercise, try to get less stress this coming year? Can you commit to some area of Jewish life that you have not done – giving more tzedakah, lighting Shabbat candles, coming to Shabbat services, keeping the cycle of holidays? Can you be a bit more careful in your business dealings to be honest and scrupulous? Can you get through a day without gossip? Can you find some new hobby or area of interest? Can you develop a new appreciation of beautiful art, good books, fine music, excellent wine, the aesthetic gifts of life? Can you find the time and money to visit Israel? Can you find some small way to make this world a better place, or to quote Lurianic kabbalah, can you find a way to lift up the holy sparks?
Change also takes place in our community. Our congregation is now in a brand new building. It is a time of transformation and change. We certainly must respect the past. But we also must find new directions in which to go. The Jewish community is changing. Yesterday I mentioned several of those changes. Ethnicity is far less important to the young Jews we want to attract, while spirituality is far more important. Family structures and alternative life cycles have become far more acceptable. Mixed married couples are trying to find a home in the Jewish faith, divorce and single parenting are common place, gays and lesbians have become part of the main stream. Everybody is wired to technology, and the internet is a fundamental part of our lives. And people want a synagogue that is involved in tikkun olam, trying to repair the world. Jewish life has changed and we must ask, how must our synagogue change?
This holiday I have talked about change. I talked about a God Who changes, a Torah that changes, a people who change, a synagogue going through change. I talked about the potential of each of us to change. Nietzsche was wrong, there is no eternal recurrence. My Christian friends were wrong, we do not live in a hopeless, fallen world. The High Holidays have it right. We can change. We can change ourselves, and by changing ourselves, we can change our community. And by changing our community, we can change the world.
May God help us in that effort, and let us say

KOL NIDRE 2010 – 5771
There is the story of a man who was very worried about his elderly, widowed mother. She was complaining all the time. “I can’t stand the silence since your father died.” Finally the man decided to do something about it. He went into a pet shop looking for a parrot. There was a beautiful looking bird in a cage, so he asked, “How much is the parrot?” “$1000,” said the proprietor . The man was shocked, “$1000! Why so much?” “You don’t understand, this parrot used to belong to a professor of Bible. He can quote the entire Torah by heart. Show him.” Sure enough, the parrot started speaking, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
“I’ll take it,” said the man. “Please deliver it to my mother.” A week later he calls his mother to see how she is doing. The mother starts complaining. “I hate it. It is so quiet here. But the chicken you sent sure was good.”
Silence can be painful. Talk to anybody who has but cut off by other family members, who has had a loved one refuse to talk to them. Remember the scene near the end of Fiddler on the Roof when the third daughter Chava and her Christian husband Fyedka try to talk to Tevye. He turns his back on them, and Fyedka sadly says, “Some are turned away by hate and some are turned away by silence.” Silence hurts. And yet there is a time for silence. The Bible says, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (No, the sixties rock group The Byrds did not write those words.) The quote continues, “Et Lachashot v’et Ledaber. A time to be silent and a time to speak.” Tonight I want to explore, when is the time to be silent and when is the time to speak? I want to talk about when to be silent regarding God and when to be silent regarding other people. Then I want to talk about when to speak regarding other people and when to speak regarding God.
Silence regarding God – You all remember the terrible earthquake that struck Haiti this past January. It was a terrible tragedy; some would call it an act of God. Pat Robertson commented that the earthquake was a punishment for Haiti turning to voodoo during its revolution against the French. God was punishing Haiti. If Pat Robertson is right, I keep thinking one couple I read about who fled Haiti right after the earthquake and moved to Peru. Then they were hit by the terrible earthquake that hit Peru. They must have really done something deserving of punishment. I think it is time for Pat Robertson to be silent.
Where was God in the earthquake? I gave a lecture shortly afterwards called “Earthquakes, Einstein, and Evolution. So Where is God?” I began the lecture with a retelling of the Biblical story when Elijah fled to Mt. Sinai. There was a great wind, but God was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but God was not in the earthquake. There was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Then God was heard in a still small voice. God is not in the great earthquake but in the small voice inside our heads. God is not in the noise but in the silence.
At the heart of the story is that God can be found in the silence. We find God not in the major moments of nature’s fury, but in the moments of silence in between. It is part of the Hasidic tradition that silence is a path to God. Someone once asked the Tzartkover Rebbe why he had not spoken for a long time. He replied, there are seventy ways of teaching Torah. One of them is silence. In a similar way, Rabbi Menachim Mendel of Premision used to teach, there are three fitting ways to serve God – upright kneeling, motionless dancing, and silent screaming. I know that we all have moments of silent screaming.
On Friday nights in our Shabbat services we use a guitar. I am aware that it is controversial – some of you love it and some of you hate it. But it is the practice of many Conservative synagogues. Early on a question came up. Should the guitar play softly in the background when we chant the silent amidah. That is the practice in many Reform temples. I answered, no. Music may have a place in our service but so does silence. At the central prayer of each synagogue service we stand in silence before God. Silence can be a spiritual moment.
So far in each of my High Holiday sermons this year I have shared a touch of philosophy. I would like to do that once again. This time I want to turn to the man whom many consider the most brilliant philosopher of the twentieth century. His name was Ludwig Wittgenstein. His family had Jewish roots but had converted to Christianity, like so many other European intellectuals. Although from Austria, Wittgenstein moved to Cambridge England to study with the great Bertrand Russell. At least he studied with him until Russell decided he had no more to teach him.
Wittgenstein’s early philosophy became the basis of a movement called logical positivism. It is a movement that said the only things we can talk about are things that can be scientifically proven. The only sentences that make any sense are sentences like “the sky appears blue.” “There is a tree over there.” “We use the New Mahzor in our synagogue.” Sentences that deal with anything else – ethics, religion, metaphysics, are not kosher. We cannot say “there is a God.” “We have a soul.” “Adultery is wrong.” According to the early Wittgenstein, these sentences not only cannot be proven scientifically. They make no sense. We cannot even talk about them.
Wittgenstein was a man of his convictions. When he said we cannot talk about anything but science, he meant it. He ended the only book he published in his lifetime with the words, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” And he was silent. He left a brilliant career as a university philosophy professor to teach high school. Rumor is that he was a better philosopher than a high school teacher.
I mention Wittgenstein because his point of view is still influential today. I hear it all the time, particularly from intellectuals and intellectual wannabees. “Rabbi, you cannot prove scientifically God exists. Therefore you cannot say anything about God. You may as well be silent.” To this point of view, the only truth is scientific truth. Since I cannot talk about God, I might as well be silent. I cannot say anything about God, and I cannot say anything about religion. I could end the sermon here. But I won’t.
Wittgenstein later in his life utterly rejected his own teaching. He came up with a whole new philosophy. He was almost two totally different philosophers, both of them brilliant. He decided that language is social. He was the one who made up the term “language games.” We have shared language, and as long as we understand each other, such language is permissible. We can and we need to talk about God. It is part of our shared language game. In fact, later in life Wittgenstein became somewhat of a mystic. We humans can speak of God, sometimes through silence and sometimes through speech.
Silence regarding people – Silence is also important in our relationships with other people. In the Bible Job suffers a whole series of calamities. He rends his garments, sits on the ground, and mourns. Three friends come to try to comfort Job. Here is where it is interesting. The three friends sit next to Job and say absolutely nothing. They wait for Job to speak first. Only after Job gives his first speech do they respond.
The rabbis learn an important law from this Biblical story. When you walk into a shiva home, you always allow the mourners to speak first. Only the mourners can set the mood for the conversation. Do they want to talk about the deceased or talk about something else? Are the memories necessary, or are they too painful? Until the mourners speak, there is really nothing we can say. Or as I often put it, “when you walked into the house you said it all. I am here.”
From this we learn a fundamental rule. There are times when we need to let other people do the speaking. Both the Talmud and the ancient Greeks taught, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so that we would listen twice as much as we speak.” How often do children say about their parents, “You never listen to me.” Relationships start with listening. One of the experiences I often have as a rabbi is that someone comes to me for counseling. For fifty minutes they will talk, and I will simply nod my head. Finally when the session is up, they will say to me, “Rabbi, thank you so much. You really helped me.” I didn’t say anything. But sometimes, people simply need someone to listen. And that starts with being silent.
“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Silence is vital. We need silence in our relationship to God. And we need silence in our relationship to each other. And yet there is a need for more than silence. There is a need to speak.
Speech regarding people – When I was growing up, one of the hit songs was Simon and Garfunkle’s Sounds of Silence. It appeared in the movie The Graduate. The song describes a world of silence. Let me quote one verse. “And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people maybe more. People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share, no one dared, disturb the sounds of silence.” The next verse begins with the words, “Fools, said I, you do not know. Silence like a cancer grows.” There are times when silence is wrong.
There is a statement in Jewish tradition that says, sh’teeka k’hodaa damei “silence is admission.” When one is silent, it is as if one agrees with what one sees. When Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, the Bible says that Moses looked this way and that and saw that there was nobody. Could they mean literally that nobody was there? There was a crowd of people there. Rather, Rabbinic literature teaches that plenty of people were there but nobody was willing to stand up, speak out, or do anything. Moses stood up and killed the taskmaster.
To be silent when you ought to speak is to give assent to what is happening. That is why the Bible teaches that there is a time to speak out. Perhaps the most important words to be spoken after the Holocaust were those of the German pastor Martin Niemoller, “They came first for the communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists but I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” To be silent when one should speak up is to be an accessory to what is happening.
If there is a central teaching at the heart of Judaism, it is not to stand by silently when a wrong is being committed. The Torah teaches, al taamod al dam reacha, “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.” As I mentioned in my Rosh Hashana sermon, our job is not to tell people, don’t worry about wrongs in this world, you will get your reward in the next world. Rather, we are obligated to worry about wrongs in this world. When there is injustice, we must be a voice for justice. When there is no mercy, we must be a voice for mercy. When we hear cruel jokes and hateful speech, we must speak out against them. It is not always easy. But as Pirkei Avot put it so long ago, “BeMakom She’ein Anashim, Heshtadel Lehiyot Ish – Where nobody else is being a mensch, try to be a mensch.” We come from a tradition that says, speak out.
Speech regarding God – What about speaking out to God? Dare we talk back to God. Here is one of the most brilliant insights of Jewish tradition. We are the people who struggle with God. Compare our faith to that of our Moslem brothers and sisters. Islam means “submit to God.” Israel means “wrestles with God.” And we Jews through our long history have wrestled with God. Abraham argued with God about Sodom and Gemorrah. Job argued with God about injustice. Rabbi Joshua and his followers argued with God about a point of Jewish law, and shouted “The Torah is not in heaven, the rabbis will decide.”
There is the Hasidic story of the Moshe the innkeeper who stood before God on Yom Kippur. He took out a list from his pocket and began to read them, “God, these are the sins I committed before you in the past year.” Then he took a much longer list out of his pocket, “God, these are the sins you committed against your people in this past year. God if you forgive me, I will forgive you.” We are a people who speak back to God, a people who wrestles with God. We Jews stand before God and are not silent.
There is a wonderful story of a rabbi arguing with his ritual committee about some point of synagogue practice. The rabbi is the only voice and the head of the ritual committee tells him, “Rabbi, I’m afraid you are losing this one. The vote is eight to one.” Suddenly a booming voice comes down from heaven, “Why are you arguing with the rabbi on this point, when you know he is right.” The head of the ritual committee listens and responds, “Now the vote is eight to two.” Even God is not going to tell us what to do.
I love Judaism because it is a religion that does not condone passivity before God. We are people who love to argue with God. And in the same sense, we are a people who love to argue with each other. We love to speak out. The question is when.
The Bible says, “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be silent and a time to speak.” This sermon has been different than my usual kol nidre sermon. It has been my custom on this holiest of evenings to speak about my vision for our synagogue this coming year. We can apply my thoughts to our synagogue.
We need a place to approach God in silence, through prayer and meditation, a place of physical and spiritual beauty to stand silently in God’s presence. We need a place to welcome other people and give them room to speak, simply giving them a listening ear. We need a place to speak out for everything that is wrong with the world, to be a voice for justice, mercy, and love in a world that is often cruel. And we need a place to argue with God, wrestle with God’s Torah and struggle as we try to find meaning for our lives. Our synagogue can be all of these places – a place of silence and of speech, a place to stand before God and be with our fellow Jews.
When should we be silent and when should we speak out. May God give us the wisdom to answer that question, and let us say
YIZKOR 2010 -5771
A young boy wrote a letter to God. “Dear God, My family is really struggling with money right now. Would you be nice enough to send us $100 to help our family? Love, Billy.” The post office received the letter addressed to God, and forwarded it to the Postmaster General in Washington D.C. The Postmaster General forwarded it on to the President of the United States. The President was impressed with the letter, so he took $50 from his own pocket with a note, “I hope this can help. Love, God.” Billy was thrilled to receive the letter postmarked from Washington D. C. He wrote back, “Dear God. Thank you for sending me the money. It really helps us. But next time don’t sent money through Washington D.C. Those crooks stole half of it. Love, Billy”
I love reading children’s letters to God. But today I want to write an adult letter to God. In this letter I will become quite personal. I hope it will give insights to help all of us at this yizkor time.
Dear God, I stand before you about to chant the yizkor prayers in memory of my mother and father, my brother, my in-laws, my grandparents, and others I love. Yizkor is the time to think about life and death, why am here on earth and what do You expect from me. This is a major Yom Kippur for me. For I turned sixty this summer. I am half way to the Biblical meah v’esrim hundred and twenty. I am half way through my life. What ought I do in the second half?
A hundred and twenty years would be nice, but I know that most of us live lives closer to that promised in the book of Psalms, “The years of man’s life are three score and ten, if given the strength four score. Teach us therefore to number our days, that we may achieve a heart of wisdom.” I know that some are blessed with more years, some with less. In a piece of music, some notes are longer and some notes are shorter. Yet all contribute to the overall melody. What is important is not how long I live, but what I contribute with that life?
God, you have given me some wonderful gifts. This past year my wife and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary. More than half my life I have been married to the same wonderful women. We have three children who are now young adults, and I am proud of all of them. I have blessed with good health, good friends, and a successful synagogue to serve. Each of us must ask the question, what gifts do I have that make me unique?
A lot of parents today push their kids into athletics. I hear, “my kid is a gifted athlete.” So perhaps sports is a good place to start. When I was about twelve years old, for a short while I became very interested in gymnastics. I tried it until I realized I was not very good at it. I still love to watch. It is just as well, who has heard of a six foot four gymnast. Perhaps basketball would have been a better choice for me. At least once a week someone asks me, “Do you play basketball?” My answer is that it is not enough to be tall, you have to be able to shoot a ball through a hoop. You have to have some athletic skills. Only once in my childhood did I get on my bike and try to ride to the park to sign up for Little League. On the way I had a bike accident, hurt my arm, and my baseball career ended before it began.
My favorite story of my athletic career was when my uncle gave me a set of golf clubs for my sixteenth birthday. I went out a few times with friends to try my hand at golf. But it wasn’t enough. For my seventeenth birthday my uncle came back over and took away the golf clubs. He claimed that I was not using them often enough. I guess the lesson is that gifts are never freely given. If you have a gift, you need to use it. If that is true with golf clubs from my uncle, how much more so is that true of my gifts from God.
Let me mention a point of Jewish law. There is a principle “zachin l’adam shelo befanav.” “You can act for someone’s benefit without their permission.” The Rabbis ask, are you allowed to accept a gift from someone without their permission. The answer is no. Gifts may be to someone’s benefit, but there are always strings attached. Gifts are rarely freely given with no expectations. That is what Jewish law teaches – but God, why am I teaching you Jewish law? God, what gifts have you given me and what is expected of me with those gifts.
An athlete I am not. Mechanical I am not. I can change a light bulb, but any home repairs more complicated my wife does. I am not an artist, and for those who have heard me fill in for the cantor, I certainly was not blessed with much of a singing voice. I must ask, as each of us must ask, what gifts make me unique?
Again, I look back to my younger days. When I was in high school my friends worked for hourly wages in fast food restaurants or movie theaters. I have never held such a job in my life. I earned my way through high school as a math and chemistry tutor. I worked in college tutoring math and eventually teaching calculus. Eventually I began teaching Hebrew school. In Rabbinic school I was the one who other students turned to for help unraveling a difficult passage of Talmud. I have been given a gift – the ability to explain difficult ideas and concepts in a way that people will understand. Perhaps that is why I have found such joy writing books, including my latest book that tries to explain kabbalah. As far as I know, Madonna hasn’t bought the book.
God, Yom Kippur is a time when we each need to look at the gifts You have given us. What are they? And how are we using them? It is a time to ask, what do You want us to do? I often tell the classical Hasidic story of Zusya. When Zusya was dying, his eyes filled with tears. His students surrounded him and questioned, “Why are you crying? Don’t you know that you will receive a heavenly reward:?” Zuysa responded, “When I get to next world, they are not going to ask me, why weren’t you Moses? They never expected me to be Moses. They are not going to ask me, why weren’t you Rabbi Akiba? They never expected me to be Rabbi Akiba. They are going to ask me, why weren’t you Zusya. I am crying, because I am asking myself, why wasn’t I Zusya? We each have a reason why God sent us on this earth and gave us the gifts God gave us. What are we doing with those gifts?
So I became a rabbi. I can use my skills to teach a glorious but complex tradition. But what kind of rabbi should I be? Allow me to share a true story. In 1988 I was at a Board of Rabbis meeting in my previous community of Pittsburgh. One of the Reform rabbis challenged us, “Reform and Orthodox rabbis from our community have visited the Soviet Union. But no Conservative rabbi has gone. Why are you Conservative rabbis not visiting refuseniks. I am not one to shirk from a challenge. Next thing I knew, I found myself flying to Moscow that December. Have you ever been to Moscow in December? It is frigid. The best thing that came from that trip was that I bought a heavy down parka which I still own; someone on the streets of Moscow actually offered me 500 Rubles for it.
I accomplished something on the trip. I visited Jews in Moscow, Riga Latvia, and Vilnius Lithuania. I taught some Hebrew, brought kosher food and Jewish books, and had a Shabbat dinner with a refusenik family. I learned a lot. But the Soviet Union was already on the verge of self-destructing, and authorities were almost ready to let Jews go to Israel. I came back not sure what I accomplished. One sobering moment: I flew over on Pan Am airlines, flew back on KLM. I actually investigated whether to fly back on Pan Am and get the mileage, but the flights did not work out. When I arrived back in the United States, I learned that a Pan Am flight had been blown up by Libyan terrorists over Lockerbie Scotland. Every moment of life is a gift.
That trip made me think about what kind of rabbi I ought to be. I realized that I am not the political activist rabbi who flies around the world, visiting Jewish communities in trouble. I admire political activist rabbis like Avi Weiss from Riverdale, but that is not me. I know rabbis who spend their entire career working with dying hospice patients and their families. I have a friend name Steve Schulman who has made that his calling. But that is not me.
I know rabbis who are empire builders, building synagogues and schools all over the world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a great, visionary leader. I admire such empire builders. But that is not me. I know rabbis who are scholars, spending their days studying and teaching. Adin Steinsaltz is completing a translation into modern Hebrew of the entire Talmud this fall. We will sponsor a day of learning in his honor. But that is not me. I know a rabbi named Jack Bloom who gave up the pulpit to pursue a career as a therapist. He has since become a therapist for rabbis. But that is not me either. Certainly part of my job involves all of these things – political activism, healing the sick, building institutions, scholarship, being a therapist. But what makes me unique as a rabbi? I have been thinking a great deal about that question.
What do I have that is unique? I believe that I have an answer. First, let me share a story. A couple was celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary in synagogue, and the rabbi asked the husband to share a thought. “How do you create a marriage that lasts fifty years?” The husband answered, “That is simple. When it comes to questions, I decide the big things, my wife decides the little things.” The rabbi was puzzled, “That sounds sexist. What do you mean?” “I decide the big things. Where did the universe come from? What does it mean to be human? How do we solve our environmental problems?” My wife decides the little things, “Where will we live?” “What kind of car will we buy?” “What school will our children go to?”
I can identify with the man in that story. I realize that I love tackling the big questions. There are rabbis whose favorite question is, “Is this chicken kosher?” “Should we say this prayer or skip it?” “Is this permitted on Shabbat?” I prefer the big questions: How was the world created? Why is their evil in the world? What happens when we die? How are we humans different from animals? What does it mean to love another human being? How can we tell right from wrong? What happens when we sin? Is Judaism true? If so, are all the other religions false? What are my obligations to other people? And perhaps the central question we ask on Yom Kippur – what does it mean to be a human being?
This coming year my Rap with the Rabbi session will be entitled “The Big Questions.” I invite you to come struggle with me. God, I wish you had given us clear cut answers to all of these questions. But I suppose life would be boring if everything were laid out. So we have to struggle for answers. And as a rabbi, I feel uniquely qualified to struggle for answers.
I love the big questions. I know the Talmud teaches, “If someone asks the following four questions, it would have been better that they never come into the world. Ma Lemala? What is above? Ma Lemata? What is below? Ma Lifnim? What came before? Ma Achor? What will come after? Sorry God, I am going to ignore the Talmud. I need to search for answers.
My life is a struggle for answers to the big questions. So where do I begin? The nineteenth century sociologist Auguste Comte taught that there are three stages in humanity’s search for answers. The first stage is the religious stage, which Comte believed with filled with primitive superstitions about the world. The second stage is the metaphysical, today we might say philosophical, when we use reason to discern what the world is all about. The third stage he called positivism, the view that only science can give us answers. Comte believed that when it comes to ultimate questions, science has replaced philosophy and religion. Science can answer it all. I disagree – I believe we need science, philosophy, and religion in our search for ultimate truth.
I love science. There was a time when scientists thought they knew it all. Simone de Laplace once remarked that if we scientists had a way of measuring the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, we could retrodict the entire past and predict the entire future. Science, given enough information, will eventually know everything. This is the same Laplace who wrote a book about the cosmos and gave a copy to Napoleon. Napoleon remarked that the book contained no mention of God. Laplace famously replied, “I have no need for such a hypothesis.”
Science gives us many answers, but it leaves even more questions unanswered. Relativity, quantum theory, neuro-science, cosmology, even evolution have raised deep religious questions, and I believe religion must come up with answers. And by the way, I absolutely believe that it is possible to believe in evolution and believe in the God of the Bible. In fact, I think evolution points towards the God of the Bible. Remember, Charles Darwin was going to be a minister before he took off on the voyage of the Beagle. A wise person once said that science offers excellent answers to little questions, but leave the really big questions open. That is why Aristotle wrote a book called Physics, and a book called Metaphysics – that which is beyond physics. When science no longer has answers, we must turn to philosophy.
This High Holidays I deliberately threw a little philosophy into each of my sermons. Now let me speak briefly about the philosophy everybody loved when I went to college. I am speaking of existentialism, and its most articulate spokesman, Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre defined existentialism as the belief that existence comes before essence. First we humans exist; then we work out who and what we are. We have no essence. We live in an absurd, Godless universe. And according to Sartre, we are radically free to live whatever kind of lives we wish to live. There are no excuses. There are no barriers. Existentialism is a religion of radical freedom – no wonder college students in the sixties loved it.
To Sartre and other European intellectuals, there is no essence to being human. We are thrust into a world that does not care about us. We have choices. An earlier existentialist who influenced Sartre, Martin Heidegger taught that each of us must live an authentic existence. For Heidegger, being authentic meant joining the Nazi Party. When after the war, someone raised the issue with Heidegger of the Holocaust, he responded that a lot of Germans also suffered in the Sudatenland. Sartre became an unapologetic Marxist. In a philosophy of radical freedom, all choices are kosher. Existentialism is a powerful philosophy that is very attractive to college students. But it is also a dangerous philosophy. As a Jew, I cannot abide by the idea that we humans have no essence. I believe we are born into a web of obligations. And that is why I must turn from philosophy to religion.
What does my religion teach? Every human being was created in the image of God. Every human being has a divine spark. Every human being was given certain gifts by God. And every human being was given certain tasks to perform. Tractate Avot teaches, “Lo Alecha HaMelacha Ligmor, v’Lo Atah Ben Horin Lehebatel Memena.” “It is not your responsibility to finish the task, nor are you free to avoid it altogether.” Perhaps the best way to summarize my beliefs about religion – what we are is God’s gift to us? What we do is our gift to God?
God, it is time to finish up this letter. I have come full circle. I started with a question – what are my gifts and what am I to do with those gifts? It is not a question only for me, but for each of us. And it is a worthy question to ask on this Yom Kippur day. For today I am about to say Yizkor for those I love. May my loved ones be remembered for a blessing. And I ask the question, what can I learn from them? God, there is a reason why you sent each human being to this earth. Help me to know why I am here. May each of us here today be sealed in the Book of Life, so we can continue to do your work in this world.
Thank you God for listening, Sincerely, Rabbi Michael Gold.
That is my letter to God. May each of us learn to appreciate our unique gifts, and may we use those gifts to do God’s work, and let us say