Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2012 High Holiday Sermons

1ST DAY ROSH HASHANA – 5773-2012
The middle aged philosophy professor walked into class carrying an antique lamp. He rubbed it and a genie appeared. “I am prepared to give you one wish, and you can choose. I can make you the best looking man in the world; all heads will turn when they see you. I can give you five million dollars. Or I can give you all the wisdom the world has ever known.”
The professor looked at his students and then answered the genie, “I am a philosophy professor. All my life I have been searching for wisdom. Give me the world’s wisdom.” The genie waved his hands and then disappeared. The students saw a change in their professor’s face, a serenity and wisdom seem to enwrap him. A light shone from his face. The students called out, “Professor, what did you learn?” The professor was silent for a moment. He slowly began to speak. “I learned … I learned … that I should have taken the money.”
It is so hard to decide what we really want. Young people must make so many decisions – where to study, how to earn a living, who to marry, whether to continue in their family religion. Over this set of High Holidays I want to look at Judaism as it affects various generations. I will begin today with Judaism and the Facebook Generation. For those who are wondering, Facebook is an overwhelming cultural phenomenon. It has made Mark Zuckerberg one the wealthiest men in the world. I think about the Friday afternoon last Spring when our daughter announced her engagement. We did not even have time to tell our families when we received a mazel tov from Israel. I asked, “We just found out. How did you know?” Their answer – “We read it on Facebook.”
I hear on a regular basis how hard it is to bring the Facebook generation, young adults, into Jewish life. Some have said that this group will only come to synagogue if we make it more relevant, rock and roll services with big screen televisions, messages with less Torah and more social action, let us imitate the mega-churches – Church-by-the-Glades with a little Torah. Others have said that this group wants authenticity – do what Chabad and Aish HaTorah do, have free flowing liquor on Friday night like every campus Chabad house. I have met and talked to a group of young twenty and thirty-somethings, and I have asked them what they want. What would bring them to synagogue? They told me two things. First, they want to be Jewish. They want their kids raised Jewish. Even those dating or marrying non-Jews want Judaism for their children. If it is not important to them right now, it will become more important as they grow older.
The second thing they told me is that they would come to places where they can meet and mingle with other people their age. Singles want to meet other singles. Young married people want to meet other young married people. Parents of young children want to meet other parents of young children. How to make that happen in a Conservative synagogue is a difficult challenge. But it is one we need to consider.
Meanwhile, what is the message I think Judaism has for young people? Let us imagine someone thirty years old, give or take. This person was born in 1982, give or take. That would mean that he or she was beginning college when 9/11 hit. In one day the world became a far scarier place. It means he or she entered their late twenties in 2008, when the Wall Street crisis hit and the country entered a deep recession, to some such as Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman, a depression. No wonder this group feels so unsettled. No wonder so many have put off settling down, whether finding a career or finding a life partner. These young people have become adults in very troubled times.
Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary recently published an article on his blog called, Making Torah Relevant to Millennials. If you do not know what a blog is, you are not of this generation. Eisen writes, “It seems that emerging adults, even more than the sovereign selves of the baby boomer generation … have not yet entered, and do not want to enter, the enduring responsibilities that are normative of adulthood, but rather explore a variety of possible life directions in love, work, and worldview. Exploration wins out over arrival. Enduring responsibilities or commitments are difficult to undertake when one is physically moving from place to place every year or two, has not settled into a career or long-term area of work, puts off marriage or long-term romantic partnerships, and is still sorting through friendships from high school, college and beyond to find what is long lasting.” What can I say to people who have 500 friends on Facebook but few long term friends or commitments?
I love this group, which includes so many young people who have grown up in our synagogue. It includes my own children. What can I say to them? This morning I would like to express three messages.
For the first message, let me share a recent experience. I was at a sports bar with my son and some of his friends. There was a large group of eleven year old girls there celebrating a birthday party. Why parents would have an eleven year old’s birthday party at a sports bar is beyond me. But they were there. Suddenly a song came on by the rapper Wiz Khalifa. All those eleven years olds started singing along. If you do not know who Wiz Khalifa is, you are also not from that generation. I imagine every twenty and thirty-something knows these words. “So what we get drunk, so what we smoke weed, we’re just having fun, we don’t care who sees. So what we go out, that’s how it’s supposed to be, living young and wild and free.” All of those eleven year olds starting singing about living young and wild and free. The song is catchy, I was singing along.
But let me share a thought, as someone who is no longer young, no longer wild, and committed rather than free. If you are young, wild, and free at twenty, that is normal. If you are young, wild, and free at thirty, that is questionable. If you are young, wild, and free at forty, that is sad. At some time you need to make a commitment. Judaism is about commitments. It is about commitments to another person – marriage and family. It is about a commitment to a career or at least a job. It is about commitment to a community. It is about a commitment to a tradition. And ultimately, it is about a commitment to God. I am all for having fun, look at me on Simhat Torah or Purim. But ultimately I believe that each of us has been put on earth for a purpose. Part of the joy of being young is to find one’s God given purpose. We need to find that purpose and make that commitment. It is hard. But it is what life is all about.
My second message to the Facebook generation is about Facebook itself. On Facebook, twitter, and the other social networking sites, everything hangs out. Everything is put on line. Every thought is expressed. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar Movement in Judaism, once said, “Not everything that is thought should be said, not everything that is said should be written, not everything that is written should be published.” I would add, “Not everything that is published should be read.” There needs to be a realm of privacy, of covering up.
Many of you know the famous statement said when one enters a synagogue. “Mah Tovu Ohelecha Yakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael.” “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” These words were said by the pagan prophet Balaam as he viewed the encampment of Israel from a nearby mountaintop. What was so goodly about the tents of Israel? According to the Midrash, the tents were laid out in a way that no opening of one tent faced the opening of another tent. No Israelite could look into the tent of another Israelite. Everybody was allowed a realm of privacy. Everybody had a chance to cover up.
When I teach these ideas to young people, I start with a question. Suppose you are walking into the synagogue, and you see the Torah sitting on the bimah, uncovered, opened up. What would you do? Invariably the young people answer, they would find a cloth or a tallit and cover the Torah up. You never leave a Torah uncovered. Holiness is achieved by covering things up. Some things are best left covered, private, unsaid.
In sexual ethics, whenever the Torah wants to speak of a forbidden sexual act, it uses similar language. Do not uncover someone’s nakedness. In other words, to live a life of holiness is to keep covered what should be kept covered. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were “naked and unashamed.” But once they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they covered themselves up. Holiness means covering up. And that includes social networking. Not every detail of every date needs to be put out on Facebook. Not every emotion needs to be twittered. Not every thought needs to be shared for the world to see. Anyone remember the scene in Sex and the City where Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend breaks up with her using a post-it note. How dated? How archaic? Today he would break up with her by changing his status on Facebook. Can you imagine looking on Facebook at your girlfriend or boyfriend’s status, and seeing the word “Single?!”
The problem of letting it all hang out is particularly acute among those even younger – still in high school or college. How can we forget the tragedy of Tyler Clementi, eighteen years old, who committed suicide after his roommate posted a video of him on the internet in a gay relationship. How about Megan Meier who committed suicide at fourteen after being the victim of cyber bullying on My Space? In this case it was not a kid but the kid’s mother who was the actual bully. How many of us have said vicious things on these social networking websites?
I often imagine what would have happened if Moses had Facebook when he received the Torah. It would have been much easier than climbing up Mount Sinai amidst the smoke and fire. He could have downloaded it and then uploaded it to all his “friends.” Don’t want the Torah – unfriend Moses. Facebook can be a great tool. But it needs a realm of privacy, some things should never be posted. That is my second message to the Facebook generation.
I have one more message to the Facebook generation here, perhaps my most important message. I know that many young people who grew up in synagogues are going on a spiritual search. I know that young people dabble with Christianity, Buddhism, various new age religions, even Scientology. I used to go folkdancing at a club in Los Angeles that was next door to the Los Angeles Scientology center. It was crawling with people day and night; and this was before Tom Cruise. Many of those people are Jewish, I met some of them. We have opened our doors to spiritual seekers, knowing that many of those spiritual seekers were born Jewish. We have all heard the old story of the woman who travels to Tibet to meet with the Guru. She climbs to a high place in the Himalayas, knocks on the door of the meditation center, and is told that the Guru is in meditation. She must wait. Finally after several hours, she is let in to see the holy man. The woman opens her mouth to speak, “Sheldon, come home.”
So many young people are spiritual seekers. I invite these young people to explore Judaism. Explore it not as children but as adults. Many of us last looked at Judaism when we were thirteen years old. Imagine if all we knew of science, all we knew of history, all we knew of psychology, was what a thirteen year old knows. But that is the knowledge of Judaism many young people have. No wonder they cast it out as something immature and silly.
I know many of our young people love watching Bill Maher on H.B.O. He is a brilliant comedian; even I enjoy his show. But Bill Maher has one weak spot. He has no use for religion; any religion. His strongest critique is about various forms of Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church. But he also has no use for Judaism, or any Jews who take their Judaism seriously. I remember a comment he made about religious people, “I can’t take seriously anybody who believes in talking snakes.” I am a religious Jew, and I do not believe in talking snakes. Maybe a talking donkey (see the story of Balaam mentioned above), but not talking snakes. Maher is convinced that the only way to see religion is in a simplistic, fundamentalist way.
One of my goals in life is to present Judaism as a serious, adult way of viewing the world. That is why I took an entire year to write spiritual messages called, “A Rabbi’s Guide to Being Human.” The Jewish view of the world is not simplistic. I believe that one can believe in Judaism and in evolution, and the rest of modern science. I believe that one can believe in Judaism and accept the wisdom of philosophy, even without a genie to give us insights. I believe that one can believe in Judaism and accept the greatest teachings of psychology, anthropology, sociology, cognitive science, and all the other forms of wisdom the world has to offer. I believe that Judaism has profound things to say about marriage and divorce, about raising children and honoring parents, about careers and money, about health and illness, about how to live and how to die. I believe Judaism is a religion for adults, a religion that needs to be explored in a sophisticated manner. That is my goal in my monthly Rap with the Rabbi. Last year I looked at Judaism and Science; Can we believe in both? This year I want to explore the real story behind a variety of Jewish observances, from Shabbat to business ethics. And I invite all ages, but particularly our young people to explore it with me. I will even provide the bagels.
I know that the Facebook generation wants to be Jewish. Today I gave them three messages. Message number one – life is not about being young and wild and free, but about making commitments and sticking to those commitments. Message number two – life deserves a realm of privacy; not everything should be put out there publicly. Message number three – Judaism is a sophisticated tradition that ought to be explored by adults, in an adult manner. That is the Judaism I want to teach this year.
With that, I want to leave the Facebook generation. I want to move a few years older. Come tomorrow, and I will share thoughts on Judaism and the Reagan generation. And on this Rosh Hashana, may God help every generation see the wisdom and beauty of Judaism, and let us say

2ND DAY ROSH HASHANA – 5773-2012
A vicious anti-Semite walks into a bar where he sees a traditional Jew sitting in the corner. He becomes very agitated and shouts to the bartender, “A round of drinks for everybody but that Jew over there.” Everybody gets their drinks and the Jewish man says “Thank you.” The anti-Semite says for a second time. “A second round of drinks for everybody but that Jew over there.” Again the Jewish man says thank you. Now the man is getting really agitated. “A third round of drinks for everyone but that Jew over there.” Again the Jewish man says thank you. The anti-Semite, totally frustrated, finally asks the bartender, “Why does he keep thanking me?” The bartender replies, “It is simple. He owns the bar.”
I suppose the bar owner was making a good living. I hear all the time how well we Jews do. Jews are lawyers, doctors, accountants, all the other well-paid professions, Jews own businesses and are clever in their business practices, Jews earn good livings. You don’t hear about the Jews who truly struggle. It reminds me of the story from the old country of the little Jewish man who rode the train each morning reading the local anti-Semitic paper. A fellow Jew finally asks him, “Why do you read that anti-Semitic rag? Why don’t you read the Yiddish paper?” He replied, “When I read the Yiddish paper I learn how Jews are suffering, a riot here, a pogram there. When I read this paper I learn how Jews own all the banks, all the railroads, have all the money. Which do you think I want to read?”
Today I want to look at the next generation, the Reagan generation, those Jews who came of age in the eighties when Ronald Reagan was president, a time of prosperity for our country. Take somebody born in 1967, the year of the miraculous Six Day War in Israel. They would have no memories of Israel under threat for its very survival; they would only know an Israel strong and prosperous. Imagine someone who turns forty-five this year; probably married, or divorced, probably raising children. Their children would be around bar or bat mitzvah age. Hopefully they would be comfortable in their careers and starting to earn a real living. Today, like yesterday, I have three messages for this Reagan generation, and everyone else here.
My first message: when this person, now forty five, was twenty years old, the movie Wall Street came out. Michael Douglas won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying one of his most famous roles – Gordon Gekko, the Wall Street multimillionaire, and crook. Who can forget the line that Douglas uses to describe his philosophy, “Greed is good.”
“Greed is good.” What would Judaism say about that line? You will be surprised. Is greed good? The rabbis of the Talmud actually discussed it. The rabbis saw greed as part of the yetzer hara – the evil inclination. Greed was epitomized by one the villains in the Bible, Laban – Rebecca’s brother and Rachel and Leah’s father. Whenever Laban appears in the Bible, he is trying to get money, often in an underhanded way. When Abraham’s servant gives precious jewelry to Rebecca, Laban comes running to greet him and see if there is anything for him. When Jacob flees his brother, reaches his mother’s family, and falls in love with Rachel, Laban comes to greet him. Laban hugs and kisses Jacob. The famous Jewish commentator Rashi makes a great comment. “He was hugging him to see if he was carrying gold on his person; kissing him to see if he hid pearls in his teeth.” Later the Torah expounds at length about how Laban tries to cheat Jacob out of his wages. It speaks of speckled and spotted sheep; you can read it but unless you are a sheep breeder, you probably won’t understand it. Laban was the Biblical forerunner of Gordon Gekko. When it came to money, he had a strong evil inclination.
Let’s return to our Talmudic rabbis. They envisioned a world with no evil inclination. And one day they saw the time was right. The rabbis captured the evil inclination and hid it in a barrel. The world would become better. The rabbis waited to see what would happen. And what happened was nothing, “Nobody went to work, nobody got married, no chicken even laid an egg.” Without the evil inclination, the world could not function. They had to let it go. They realized we need greed. Or to quote Gekko, “Yes greed is good.” For the world to go on, people have to go out and do what is necessary to earn a living, try to better themselves, try to be successful.
But what kind of world is it with everyone looking out for themselves, everyone being greedy. Way back in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was being written in this country, the Scottish economist Adam Smith published a book – The Wealth of Nations. He pictured a world where individuals pursue their own self interest in order to make a living. Each one does what they need to do, but what Smith called the “invisible hand” works to bring prosperity to everyone. People pursue wealth for their own gain but they are [to quote Smith] “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
Before you leave today and tell everyone that the rabbi is in favor of greed, let me say that there have been alternatives suggested. Perhaps people ought to work for the good of the whole rather than their individual goods. Perhaps we ought to set up a society where, to quote Karl Marx, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” We have tried this; it is called socialism. The most intense, and for a period of time successful attempt, at socialism was the Israeli kibbutz. Everything was shared, from meals and clothes to the raising of children. People worked for the good of the group, not for themselves. Greed was finally put into a barrel. In the long run it did not work. People will work hard for themselves; people will work hard for their families. People as a whole will not work hard for society as a whole. Greed seems to rule.
We need that desire for wealth. When someone hits their forties and still cannot earn a living, they need to do some soul searching. What can they do to be more successful? What skills do they need? Should they choose a different line of work? We need that desire for money. My only question I ask anybody who goes out into the world to earn a living is a question the Talmud asks: Amar Rava Beshaa SheMachnisin Adam LeDin Omrim Lo Nasata v’Natata Beemuna. “Rava said, In the hour when a man is called to judgment, the first question he is asked is, were you honest in your business dealings?” There is nothing wrong with the desire to earn a good living. The only issue is honesty; were we fair in our business practices?
This brings me to the second issue for trying to earn a living while raising a family. Our children need us. They need us not only now and again, not only late at night. They need us constantly. I am reminded of the old story of the very busy professional who finally takes a day off work to go fishing with his son. At the end of the day he writes in his calendar, “Spent the day fishing with my son, wasted the whole day.” Meanwhile, his son had written in his diary, “Spent the day fishing with my dad; the best day of my life.”
I recently spoke with a family having a tough time with one of their teen age children. I recommended that the father take some time off work and go away with this teen. I was not coming from nowhere. As a teen, I was somewhat easier than many, but I had my moments. But I have a vivid memory of being fifteen, and my dad taking a day and half off work to go away with me. We drove down to Orange County in Southern California, went to dinner, checked into a hotel, and went to see a theater production of The Music Man. It became my favorite Broadway Show; at our wedding my wife and I danced our first dance to Til There was You. The next day we awoke early, went to breakfast, and spent the day together at Disneyland. Why am I telling you this? My dad is gone and this happened more than forty years ago. But it made enough of an impression on me that I still think about it. Our children need our presence.
Our children need something else from us. They need us to see them not as we want them to be, but as they really are. So many parents live out their own dreams through their children. We live for naches from the kinder, and our kids are naches builders. Last year I actually met someone whose parents cut him off because he refused to go to medical school. We see our kids for who they truly are. The book of Proverbs teaches, “Raise a son according to his way” – his way, not our way.
Anybody ever listen to Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio. It is extremely clever. Garrison Keillor speaks of the happenings in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. According to Keillor, in this town “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” All the children are above average. Absurd! He probably learned this from the local synagogue. Ask any synagogue religious school director. All the children are gifted. I have never in thirty two years of being a rabbi, had a parent come to me and say, “My child is average.”
This creates a problem. How often have I heard rabbis tell me that they met with a family to tell them that a child seems to have some kind of issues, ought to be evaluated. Do you know what happens? The parents do not say thank you and take their children for evaluation. No, the parents get angry at the synagogue and pull their children out. We all have above average children. We all have children who will get into Ivy League Schools, who will become top professionals. What does that pressure do to children? What happens to the child who cannot live up to his or her parents’ expectations?
How prevalent is this problem among Jewish parents and children? I have a question. Suppose your child has a major final exam in chemistry. If your child does well, he or she will likely get into the University of Florida or some other good school. If your child does poorly, it is a second tier college, possibly even a community college. Your child is not going to be a chemist; this is about college. Your child finds someone who can cheat for him or her, take the exam. Would you forbid your child from such cheating? Or would you look the other way? What do you think your child’s opinion is of what you would do?
To raise a child is to see the uniqueness of that child. The child may be very bright and very ambitious. Or that child may be average. That child may have special needs. Or the child may simply march to a different drummer. Parenting is about seeing the child you have, not the child you wish you had. And that means talking with your child and even more important, listening to your child. It means spending time with you children.
So I have all those busy people trying to earn a living, trying to raise children. What else can I share with them? Let me give one more thought. I called this group “The Reagan Generation” because they came of age when Ronald Reagan was president. I was not commenting on Reagan’s policies or whether he was a good or bad president. Politics have not place in a High Holiday sermon. But there is one area where I think both liberals and conservatives can agree that Reagan had a particular strength. He was called the Great Communicator. I was unusually strong in articulated a view. He had a vision.
Let me share just a piece of Reagan’s final address to the nation as president. He is speaking about America. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.” That is called vision.
The Bible teaches, “Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.” (Joel 3:1) The composer Debbie Friedman made these lyrics into one of her most popular folk songs. Here are her lyrics. “And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions,
And our hopes shall rise up to the sky.
We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.
Give us time, give us strength, give us life.”
We need to dream. We need to have a vision. When we are busy with the day to day reality of earning a living and raising children, we need to stop now and again, we need to ask the question. What is my vision? Where am I going? What is my purpose? Why did God put me on this earth?
Without such a vision, we get so caught up in the details of life that we lose our bearings. It reminds me of the story of a large ship being driven by a very egotistical captain. He sees a light up ahead. He calls into the radio, “the ship ahead, bear right immediately.” A voice answers, “You bear right.” “I am a captain in the Unites States Navy and I insist that you bear right.” Again the voice answers, “You bear right.” “Do you know who you are talking to; I am a captain in the United States Navy and I demand that you bear right immediately.” The voice answers back, “Do you know who you are talking to. This is the lighthouse.”
We need that lighthouse to get our bearings. We need a vision to keep from getting bogged down in details. Believe me, I know that life is exhausting. Work is draining. Our children are demanding. But if we are living for today, we also must build for tomorrow. We need a dream. And we need to pray, to quote Debbie Friedman’s lyrics, “Give us time, give us strength, give us life.”
So what is my message to the Reagan generation, and everyone else here. I shared three messages. The first is that in a sense, Gordon Gekko was right. “Greed is good.” It is good if it motivates us to work hard to better ourselves and earn an honest living. We need to find a way to provide for our family. And we need to do it in an ethical manner. The second is that my dad was right. We need to stop, spend time with our children, see them for whom they really are. Third, the Ronald Reagan was right as was the ancient prophet Joel. We need a vision. We need to dream dreams. Now and again we need to stop what we are doing and ask the question, what is my vision? Where am I going with my life? And Rosh Hashana is the perfect time to ask that question.
With that, I want to leave the Reagan generation. I want to move a few years older. Come Kol Nidre night, and I will share thoughts on my own generation, Judaism and the Baby Boomer generation. And on this Rosh Hashana, may God help every generation see the wisdom and beauty of Judaism, and let us say

KOL NIDRE 5773 -2012
The middle age woman was rushed to the hospital. She prayed hard, “Dear God, please don’t let it be my time.” Then she saw a light and heard a clear voice. “Don’t worry, you have at least another forty years to live.” The woman was so relieved that, when she left the hospital she got a face lift and a tummy tuck, started working out at the gym, redid her hair with a much younger style, and bought a whole new wardrobe. She felt better than she ever had before. Then she was walking out of the gym and was hit by a bus. That was it. On the way to heaven, she cried out to God, “You said I have forty more years.” A voice answered, “I’m sorry, I did not recognize you.”
We have spoken about the Facebook generation and about the Reagan generation. Now it is time to turn to the generation that wants to stay young forever, that claims that 60 is the new 40. Let me turn to my own generation. Born in the years after World War II, coming of age during the anti-Vietnam War and the Civil Rights demonstrations, shaped by Woodstock and the Hippie Movement, nurtured on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Take someone 60 years old, born in 1952, starting college the year of the horrific Kent State shootings and the invasion of Cambodia. This generation is huge, like a giant animal swallowed by a snake and moving through the body. They are empty nesters now, although there is a good chance their kids left home for awhile and then moved back in. What does Judaism say to this generation?
The mantra of the baby boomers, when they became young adults, was “don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Then they became thirty and it changed to “don’t trust anyone over forty.” Then they turned forty and it became … do I have to keep going. A distrust of authority became the way this generation saw the world. And who could blame them. Authority figures had brought our country into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. Authority figures had segregated blacks and whites in the South, and often in the north. Authority figures had said that women could not hold the jobs men could hold. Do some of you remember when newspaper want ads for jobs were segregated by “men wanted,” “women wanted?” This is illegal today, and morally wrong. The baby boomer generation taught us that because something was done a certain way in the past, it does not mean that it has to be done that way in the future. This was the generation of change. Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a-changing.” And as many of them said, “You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem.” This was the generation that wanted to change the world.
There are so many areas we can look at where the baby boomer generation changed the world. But each year on kol nidre night I like to look at the synagogue. What changes have the baby boomers brought to synagogues, particularly Conservative synagogues? What changes has the baby boomer generation brought to our synagogue? When I became the rabbi here, the synagogue was still run by the older generation of founders, the group I will speak about tomorrow. It was quasi-Orthodox. Men and women sat together but that was it; no women on the bimah. We used a microphone, but in every other way we were Orthodox in practice. Services were long and traditional, and a bat mitzvah was only allowed on Friday night. This was the image of Conservative synagogues throughout America. Then the baby boomers came of age and took over leadership of synagogues. And change began.
Tonight I want to look at three changes that have affected our synagogue. These three changes, at various paces, are taking place at Conservative synagogues throughout the country. Some of you strongly disagree with these changes. I respect that. But in so many ways these changes define who we are. I am convinced that these changes took place because the Baby Boomer generation started to take leadership positions in synagoges. The baby boomer generation said, because something was done a certain way in the past, it does not need to be done that way in the future.
The first change – what should the role of women be in the ritual of the synagogue? As I mentioned, when I arrived here women were not allowed on the bimah. In the nineties, with much controversy and discussion, we decided to go egalitarian. Women could be counted in the minyan. Women could read from the Torah and be called to the Torah. My wife had the first aliya given to a woman, on Yom Kippur morning. The walls did not fall down. Bat mitzvahs were moved to Saturday morning. A bat mitzvah girl could wear a tallit. Women could lead the services. More recently we decided that a bat kohen could take the first aliya and a bat levi the second. It took time to get used to these changes. I remember the first time I heard a woman chant a haftarah. It sounded strange. I was used to a man’s voice. It was also hauntingly beautiful. And women embraced these changes with much joy.
Not everyone was at peace with this. I remember raising an issue before a very conservative member of the ritual committee – can we hire a woman cantor for the high holidays? I received my answer. “Yes we can hire a woman cantor, as long as she has a rich baritone voice.” Some left the synagogue because of these changes. Some insisted on a Friday night bat mitzvah for their daughters. Some even asked me not to allow any women on the bimah the weekend of their son’s bar mitzvah. I have tried to keep everyone happy. But this change was inevitable, not just at our synagogue but throughout the Conservative Movement.
At the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention they have two services every morning – one egalitarian and one where only men participate. I used to go to whichever one was closest to my hotel room; who wants to walk farther than necessary at 7 am. Of late I go to the egalitarian minyan, unless I am asked to attend the traditional one because – get this – they cannot get a minyan. This last Spring in Atlanta I was asked to go to the traditional minyan, but when I walked in, we realized that we could not find ten men. This was in a convention of 500 rabbis, but there were not enough men for a traditional minyan. Some changes are inevitable.
The change has been a good one for Judaism. Today we have female rabbis, female cantors, even female mohels and sofers. You can find a Torah handwritten by a woman. We have women reading Torah who grew up in synagogues where women did not go near a Torah. However, like all change, there is a pushback. There are negatives. What could the pushback possibly be on women’s participation in synagogue ritual? The answer is something rabbis throughout the country have noticed. As women step forward, men step back. More and more men do not want to come to minyan, to lead the minyan, to read Torah. They send their wives while they go out on the golf course. It is an issue, to the point where many scholars, particularly in the Reform Movement, have written about “the feminization of Judaism.” Change always has its shadow side. We must find a way to involve the women without losing the men.
The second change – non-Jews in the synagogue. When I was growing up synagogues were for Jews only. Non-Jews could certainly come, but there was no attempt to go out of the way to welcome them. They were not allowed on the bimah. And a Jew married to a non-Jew received a clear message – your marriage is not recognized here. And if the non-Jew was the mother, the children were also not Jewish.
Traditional Judaism maintains a clear line between Jews and non-Jews – m.o.t. (members of the tribe) and everyone else. And when Caroline Kennedy or Chelsea Clinton married Jews, we were ambivalent – we brag about it and still worry about Jews marrying out of the faith. When I deal with this issue, I like to think of a controversy with roots in the Bible, a controversy I call Ezra versus Ruth. Ezra was a priest and the political leader of the Israelites returning from the Babylonian exile. He was in charge of building the Temple. But first the Israelites had to purify themselves. All non-Jewish wives and non-Jewish children were sent away. Ezra brought back from exile books of lineage, seeking to keep the line pure. Ruth on the other hand was a Moabite woman. She married a Jew, and after being widowed, followed her Jewish mother-in-law back to Israel. She cast her fate with the Jewish people, with the famous words “your people will be my people, your God will be my God.” She was an outsider who was welcomed. And her great grandson was King David, the greatest king of Israel.
In the past synagogues followed Ezra. Non-Jews married to Jews had no place in the community. We made a decision to follow Ruth. We decided to open our doors and become more welcoming to non-Jews, whether dating or married to Jews, or whether simply spiritual seekers. At first it was simply finding ways to bring non-Jews onto the bima, giving some kind of honor to the father who, although Christian, raised a Jewish child, drove his bar mitzvah boy to lessons, perhaps volunteered in the synagogue. We embraced a program conceived by Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, called keruv – literally “to draw closer.” Twice I attended keruv seminars for rabbis, once in Miami and once in Berkeley, Ca. Several of our lay people also attended. We held workshops for our teachers. And now, for the second year in a row, we held a Rosh Hashana service called “Opening the Gates” for Jews and non-Jews, intermarried or interdating couples, and spiritual seekers of all faiths.
Here too there is pushback. There are people unhappy with these changes. I often hear it, “Rabbi, don’t run programs to welcome non-Jews. Tell my kids to marry Jews.” It reminds me of the story of a young rabbi facing his first High Holiday. The older synagogue president asks the rabbi, “What will you talk about?” The rabbi answers, “I thought I would talk about Shabbat.” The president answers, “Don’t talk about Shabbat. People have to work Saturdays, or it is the best shopping day.” The rabbi says, “Maybe I will talk about Israel.” The president answers, “Don’t talk about Israel, we are Americans, not Israelis.” The rabbi says, “Ok, I will talk about intermarriage.” The president says, “O no, Jews sometimes fall in love with non-Jews.” The rabbi in frustration asks, “So what should I talk about?” The president answers, “Talk about Judaism.” I know this issue is a balancing act, but sometime I feel like…like… like a Fiddler on the Roof. But we have opened our doors in an unprecedented way to non-Jews. Hopefully, many of these non-Jews will be like Ruth, becoming Judaphiles, lovers of Judaism, whether or not they convert.
The third change is one that occurred in the last few years. When I began my Rabbinic career, gays and lesbians were hidden. In the closet. Not spoken about. Of course, there were a few synagogues set up to serve gays and lesbians – one thinks of the very active Beit Simchat Torah in New York City – but these seemed radical. Certainly there was no way that a synagogue would recognize let alone bless a gay relationship.
Having said that, gays and lesbians live among us. My brother was gay. He died of AIDS a year after I arrived here. My brother and I had our share of arguments over religion and homosexuality, but at the end of his life we became very close. At his funeral, as I led kaddish at the grave side, his partner of many years, a non-Jewish hairdresser in Los Angeles, joined us. He had become part of our family. Gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgender individuals are not strangers; they are our children and parents, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, friends and neighbors. And in the last few years we have opened the door to welcome them.
Of course this happened slowly. A number of gay or lesbian individuals found a home in our synagogue. We would wish a happy anniversary to same sex couples in the same way as we did opposite sex couples. Their children went to our religious school and became bar or bat mitzvah. The Conservative Movement had a ruling allowing gays and lesbians to become rabbis and cantors, and allowing to rabbis to bless same sex unions. Change was in the air.
Then our synagogue did something no other Conservative synagogue has done. We invited a synagogue founded to serve gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people into our building. They rented space from us. They would conduct their own services, but would sometimes join us. Tomorrow they will participate in our break fast. I spoke at their service, and soon I hope to invite their rabbi to speak at our service. It is an association, not a merger. But like any symbiotic relationship, I believe it is good for both synagogues.
Here too there was push back. What about Leviticus? Will we still read the traditional Torah reading Yom Kippur afternoon, the one that forbids homosexual relations? I answered that I will not change Torah readings – we will read it and we will struggle with it. We will try to interpret it. And last Shavuot, I invited the members of Etz Chaim to a learning session which I led on this very section of Torah. A wonderful discussion ensued.
We have made changes. We have opened the doors for participation of women in synagogue ritual. We have opened the doors for non-Jews dating or married to Jews. We have opened the doors for gays and lesbians. Perhaps this is the message of the baby boomer generation, a message that goes back to the Civil Rights struggles. Open the doors. I keep thinking of a passage that was popular when I was young and involved in these movements. It comes from the poem Outwitted by Edwin Markham. “He drew a circle that shut me out, Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win; We drew a circle and took him In!” The goal of the baby boomer generation is to widen the circle. It is to draw people in. We have done it in our country, we have done it in our community, and we have done it in our synagogue.
But that leaves a big question unanswered. We have talked about change. We have talked about widening the circle. What about the things that do not change? If everything changes, then what stays the same? What is at the core, unchangeable? I believe there is a deep and a profound message at the core of Judaism. And no matter how much synagogue life changes, this core message does not change.
I believe that this core message was at the heart of the parents of the baby boomers, what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” I will speak about them tomorrow morning. . And on this Kol Nidre night, may God help every generation see the wisdom and beauty of Judaism, and let us say

YIZKOR 5773 – 2012
Last night I had the strangest dream. It was Yom Kippur Day and I imagined heaven at this holiest time. God had a great big book. On Rosh Hashana it had been written, and now on Yom Kippur it would be sealed. “Who will live and who will die. Who by fire and who by water.” Or to quote the wonderful song by Canadian composer-poet Leonard Cohen, based on the u’ntaneh tokef prayer, “Who by fire, who by water, who in the sunshine, who in the night time, who by high ordeal, who by common trial.” It was an awesome, very scary moment.
And then something went wrong. God had the Sefer HaHayim, the Book of Life. At one time the Sefer HaHayim was a scroll, similar to our Torah scroll. God would roll it out. Then God changed it to a regular bound book, filled with paper pages. But in this day of computers, why destroy trees? Even God is an ecologist. So God has the book of life on an e-book, all the names carefully laid out on God’s hard drive. That was the problem. Suddenly, on Yom Kippur, God’s hard drive crashed.
Maybe it was caused by HaSatan, the adversarial angel who is always looking for trouble. Christians gave this angel the name Satan. But to Jews, reading the book of Job, HaSatan is simply the troublemaker. Or perhaps it was just one of those arbitrary events which sometimes happen. But what was God to do. Everybody’s fate had to be sealed today. God tried to recover the hard drive, but it was too badly damaged. Even God cannot fix what is unfixable. God thought about simply judging everybody leniently – a year with no floods and no fires. But that would be confusing. God thought about judging everybody severely – a year filled with earthquakes and plagues. But that would be unfair. The Midrash teaches that is God leaned too far either to the side of mercy or the side of justice, the world could not exist.
God knew that it was time to judge people on something simple, something everybody would recognize. God looked at the generations, all in synagogue, all praying together g’mar hatima tova –seal me for a good year. God looked at the Facebook generation, but they were still “young and wild and free”, they could not provide the standard for judgment. God looked at the Reagan generation, but they were too busy earning a living and raising children, they lacked vision. God looked at the Baby Boomer generation, but many were still living in the sixties, “Either you are part of the solution or you are part of the problem.”
And then God looked at the older generation, the one who had come of age or even fought in World War II, the one that survived the depression. God looked at the generation seventy five and older. God remembered something that Tom Brokaw, the television commentator, had said. Even God sometimes watches television. Brokaw had visited Normandy to commemorate D-Day, and written a book called The Greatest Generation. “I think this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” Why? “They stayed true to old American values of duty and honor and service and faith and taken personal responsibility for their actions.” He continues, “By joining their efforts to the efforts of others, they built a rich life based on values that would endure. This is a generation that never whined and never whimpered, no matter what was asked of them.” What makes them great? That sense of duty. God knew how to judge the world. God would judge the world this year by their commitment to a sense of duty. I then woke up from a very strange dream.
I thought about my dream. The word “duty” seems strangely old-fashioned, something that went out with phonograph records and rotary telephones. Tell the younger generation “you have a duty” and they look at you funny. Gilbert and Sullivan found the idea quite silly. One of their greatest comic operettas The Pirates of Penzance was subtitled The Slave of Duty. Frederic was apprenticed as a pirate until he turned twenty-one years old. After he is released from the pirates, he falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of man who is The Very Model of a Modern Major General (one of the world’s great patter songs.) Then Frederic learns that he was apprenticed as a pirate until his twenty-first birthday, and he was born on February 29. He had a birthday every four years, it was his duty to be a pirate for 63 more years. But his beloved Mabel agrees to wait for him while he does his duty. The whole thing is silly and fun with great music, but it satirizes that British sense of duty. But as Brokaw says, it is duty that leads to greatness.
Last night I promised that I would speak today about what is unchangeable in Judaism. As our synagogues and Jewish practices evolve, what is there that never changes? What parts of our Judaism would Isaiah and Rabbi Akiba and Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov and David Ben-Gurion all recognize? I believe it is that deep sense of duty. When the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they said naaseh v’nishma, “we will do it and we will understand.” Action – duty comes before understanding. We have a name for that in Judaism – mitzvah. A mitzvah is something we do out of a sense of duty or obligation, duty to our family, duty to our community, duty to the Jewish people, and duty to God. That is at the heart of Judaism. That is something that never changes.
As we prepare to say Yizkor, I think of my own sense of duty. Each year I fly out to Los Angeles, the town where I grew up. Part of my purpose is to visit family. But I have another goal. Each year I drive to Eden Memorial Park north of Los Angeles to visit the spot where my parents and my brother lie in rest. Does anyone know that I am going? Not really. The dead do not know and the living do not care. Does it make a difference? I don’t know. So why do I go? Somehow, deep in my heart, I have this sense of duty. This is my obligation as a son. The very fact that we are alive plunges us into a web of obligations and duties. One of those duties is visiting the cemetery. And one of those duties is saying Yizkor on this holiest day of the year.
That is at the heart of Judaism. It is interesting to compare this Jewish sense of duty to what we learn as Americans. As an American, I grew up with the idea that I have rights. I have, as the Declaration of Independence quoting John Locke taught, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. If arrested, I have the right to remain silent in a court of law, and the right to counsel. If I am on one side of the political spectrum, I speak of a woman’s right to choose. If I am on the other side of the political spectrum, I speak of the baby’s right to life. I grew up as an American with the language of rights.
Even as Jews we tend to use this very American language of rights. Women have the right to be counted in a minyan. On my dad’s yahrzeit I have the right to an aliya on Shabbat morning. I have the right to come to Yom Kippur services, even if I do not buy a ticket. I hear that language all the time. But it is interesting – in classical Hebrew there is no word for rights. In modern Hebrew they use the word zechuyot – which means “privileges,” not “rights.” Our ancestors would not understand this talk of rights. They might say, what are my obligations for my parents’ yahrzeits? What are my obligations on Yom Kippur? But they would not understand the words – I have a right? That is the American language, not the Jewish language.
That sense of duty is also what marked the Greatest Generation. President John Kennedy, a hero of World War II and a representative of that generation, could say “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” We need to ask the question, what is my duty, what are my obligations? That is what I want to explore with you today.
We have duties to our parents, both when they are alive and when they are gone. I know that some of us have difficult parents. I was lucky with my parents. The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Assi who had a difficult, elderly mother. His mother wanted jewelry so he bought it for her. His mother wanted a husband so he tried to find someone. She said I want a husband as handsome as you. Rabbi Assi had enough. He decided to flee to the land of Israel. Then he heard she was coming, so he asked his rabbi, “Can I leave the land of Israel?” The rabbi gave him permission. Then as he was preparing to leave, he found out that it was not his mother who was coming, it was his mother’s casket. He cried out, “If I had known I never would have left her.” (Kiddushin 31b) Honoring parents is tough, particularly if we had difficult parents. There are times when parents are so abusive or destructive that it is permissible not to honor them. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. We have obligations to our parents.
We have duties to our siblings. I vividly remember when my brother’s son, now a student at USC, celebrated his bar mitzvah up in Philadelphia. My wife and I together with our three children had tickets to fly up Thursday night. And sure enough, a huge snowstorm hit Philadelphia. My two older children Natan and Aliza had problems with their flights; I sat on the phone from the airport making changes until they were on their way. My wife and I and our youngest son Ben were leaving a bit later. Then I received the news, our flight was cancelled; Philadelphia airport was closing down. The airline could not guarantee that they could get us there for several more days. What could I do? Get in the car and drive all night? A brother does not miss a brother’s simcha. This was a particularly sensitive point for me, because I had missed my brother’s bar mitzvah. I was a college student studying in Israel and was unable to come home. I would not miss his son’s bar mitzvah.
We found a flight leaving for Baltimore. My wife asked, “What about our luggage?” I said, “We’ll buy clothes there if we have to. I am not missing my nephew’s bar mitzvah.” We arrived in Baltimore, rented a car, it is about a three hour drive to Philadelphia – with no snow. But of course, there was snow. I live in Florida; I have not driven in snow in well over a decade. It was scary. It took forever but we made it. And eventually even our luggage made it.
Why am I telling you this story? Because of something my dad used to tell me. He would show me a picture from Boy’s Town in Omaha, a picture of a bigger boy carrying a smaller boy with the words, “He ain’t heavy, he’s me brother.” Then my dad would say, that is how I want you to be with your brothers. We have obligations to our brothers and sisters.
We have duties to our spouse or partner, the person we choose to marry or to spend our lives with. I tell every bride and groom, “Look at each other. You are not getting married to make yourself happy. You are getting married to make this other person happy, successful, fulfilled. How can you meet the needs of this other person? Judaism believes in marriage as the best way for humans to fulfill their divine destinies. But it begins with obligations, with duties.
I know that such duties are hard. There is a story about a deeply religious man who has been married and divorced four times. God appears to him one day and says, “You have always been so pious, tell me what you wish and I will make it come true.” The man answers, “I have always wanted to see Hawaii, but I am scared to fly. Can you build me a bridge to Hawaii?” God answers, “Are you crazy? Do you know what an engineering feat that would be? How about something more realistic?” The man says, “OK, I have been married and divorced four times. I just don’t understand what women want. Please help me.” God is silent for a moment, then answers, “Do you want the bridge to be two or four lanes?”
I think we all know what women want in a marriage. Lerner and Lowe said it years ago in their musical Camelot (which was not about the Kennedys but about King Arthur.) “How to handle a woman, is to love her, love her, love her.” I will add, how to handle a man, is to care about him, to be proud of him. Yes, marriage puts us in the midst of obligations. What is our duty?
We have duties towards our children. I have often said, when animals give birth to their young, their work is done. When we humans give birth, our work is just beginning. Our children need to be taught. And in particular, they need to be taught by example. Since I am quoting musicals in this talk, let me quote the lyrics from one more, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. “Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be. Careful before you say listen to me, Children will listen.”
Children learn by watching what we do. There is a Hasidic story of a drunken man in the gutter, struggling to walk. Behind him walks a younger drunk man. The younger man cries, “Dad wait for me.” The Rebbe sees this and points to the father, saying, “I pray that I will be just like that man.” The students are surprised, “What do you mean? He is a drunk.” The Rebbe continues, “There is a man whose children are following in his footsteps. I pray that my children will follow in my footsteps.” We have duties towards our children.
You might say that we have duties towards our parents and siblings, for they are our family of origin. You might say that we have duties towards our spouse and children, for they are our family of choice. But why everybody else? Judaism commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. And over and over, it commands us to love the stranger. We have duties towards others, towards the community, towards all humanity.
But of course, we live in a world of rights, not obligations. I often get a call, “Rabbi, I am not a member of your synagogue. I never show up to synagogue. I hired a rent-a-rabbi for my son’s bar mitzvah. But I am a Jew. My mother died. Can your synagogue send people over to make a shiva minyan in my home?” What do I say? Sometimes I try to help them, sometimes I cannot. And when I cannot, they get angry. “It is my right as a Jew to have a minyan in my home.” I will tell you the call I rarely get. “Rabbi, I know that you have people in the hospital. I know you have people sitting shiva. Can I do a hospital visit? Can I help you make a shiva minyan? What can I do to help others?” We need to ask, what is my duty to others?
Let me share one last duty we each have. I think about this as I consider God judging us today. We have a duty to God. Now that might sound strange, particularly if you are not sure that you believe in God. Let me explain. To do so, I want to turn to Blaise Pascal, a philosopher, mathematician, and thinker who lived almost five centuries ago. He came up with an argument about our duty to God known as Pascal’s wager. He said, either there is a God or there is not a God. If there is not a God and you do not live a religious life, it does not matter. If there is not a God and you do live a religious life, so you wasted time in prayer and good deeds. If there is a God and you do live a religious life, you get a reward. If there is a God and you do not live a religious life, are you in trouble! How should you bet for the best outcome? I never saw that particular bet in Las Vegas.
Let me give you a modern twenty-first century version of Pascal’s wager. Either you were put in this world by random chance, or you were put in this world to fulfill a purpose. If you were put in this world by random chance, it does not much matter what you do. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.” But if you were put in this world by someone who wants you to fulfill a purpose, then you have a duty to fulfill that purpose. Each of us has a duty to our Creator, to ask that fundamental question. Why was I put on this earth? What is my duty? That is the perfect question to ask as we prepare to say our yizkor prayers.
Last night I dreamt about God losing the Book of Life. I dreamt of God looking at each of us and saying, where is that sense of duty? Even God learned it from the Greatest Generation. On this Yom Kippur Day, may God help each of us learn this fundamental lesson, and let us say