Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2015 High Holiday Sermons

2015 -5776
1st Day Rosh Hashana
On Being Human – Part 1
The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a story. You have probably heard of Rabbi Carlebach; we sing his melodies at our Friday night services. Known as the Soul Doctor, he inspired a generation of young Jews with his stories and his music. He spoke of walking around college campuses speaking with students. He would ask a young man, “What are you?” The student would answer, “I am a Catholic.” Carlebach would turn to his followers. “He knows what he is.” He would then ask a young woman, “What are you?” The student would answer, “I am a Baptist.” Carlebach would tell his followers, “She knows what she is.”
Then Carlebach would turn to a third student. “What are you?” The young man would answer, “I am a human being.” Carlebach would turn to his followers, “He is a Jew.” It is the Jew who is most likely to say “I am just a human being.” It is Jews who seem to least appreciate the wisdom and beauty of their own tradition. On this Rosh Hashana I want to speak about being a human being. What do human beings need? And I want to speak about the wisdom that Judaism has for being a human being.
What do human beings need? Perhaps the person who wrote most brilliantly about what human beings need was the psychologist Abraham Maslow. Born a Jew although not particularly observant, Maslow developed what he called a hierarchy of needs. He built a pyramid of human needs, level upon level. Higher levels of human needs depend on lower levels, like higher levels of a pyramid depend on lower levels. What do humans need? Let us use Maslow as our guide to speak of five levels of human needs. And let us look at how Judaism can fulfill each of those needs.
According to Maslow, the first level in the hierarchy of needs is the physiological. We have bodies, and we need basic ingredients for our bodies to survive. We need food; we need water; we need shelter. We need air to breath and a place to sleep and a way to meet our biological needs. And we need good health, the ability of our bodies to work correctly. The Rabbis recognized this idea from the very beginning. They said Im Ain Kemach Ain Torah. “Without flour there can be no Torah.” The Baal Shem Tov tells the story of a pious man who ran a soup kitchen for the poor of the community. He provided meals, but first he had these poor people gather in a sanctuary for prayers. The Baal Shem Tov walked in on this, and challenged him. “Why are you making those hungry people pray?” The man answered, “I am worried about their souls.” The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Better you should worry about their bodies and your own soul.” Judaism is built on the idea that we need to care for the bodies of others and our own souls.
Judaism is an embodied religion. Did you know that Judaism has a blessing we say whenever we use the bathroom? Many Jews say it each morning. We thank God for making us with many tubes and openings. If one tube is open that should be closed, or is closed that should be open, we could not survive. Thank You God for the miracle of our bodies. We need bodies, bodies that work properly. That is why so many of our great rabbis including Maimonides were doctors.
Most religions speak about compassion, feeding the hungry and helping the poor. But in a way Judaism is different. Other religions emphasize heaven, some other spiritual world. It is the spiritual that is important, not the physical. To our Christian and Moslem friends, this physical world, the world of our bodies, is an inferior world. They ask, will you get to heaven? I have never seen the words on a synagogue sign, “Will you Get to Heaven?” Eastern religions also deemphasize this physical world. Buddhism teaches that this world is Duhka – suffering. We move beyond suffering by letting go of the things of this world. The goal is to live the endless circle of samsara, death and rebirth in this world, and to reach nirvana.
Only Judaism teaches that this physical world is where the action is. This physical world is where we can do mitzvoth. When we bury our dead we wrap them in their tallit, but first we cut off a fringe to make it unkosher. The dead do not need a kosher tallit. They cannot do mitzvot in heaven. Our goal is to create heaven in this world. And so we need physical bodies. And the first great teaching of Judaism is we need to take care of those bodies, both our own and those of others.
Maslow’s second level in the hierarchy of human needs is security. We need to feel safe. And unfortunately for Jews, through most of human history throughout most of the world, we have not been safe. We Jews said after the Holocaust, “Never Again.” But as a group of people shopping in a kosher Supermarket in Paris, the people going to the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City, or the rabbi walking to synagogue on Shabbat in Miami Beach learned this year. Jews are always targets. That is why our synagogue is making security of our building, of our children, and of our worshippers, a major priority this coming year.
There is a fascinating law that we read in synagogue a few weeks ago. Suppose a dead body is found out in the country somewhere. The elders and the leaders of the nearest community must gather wherever the body was found. Then there was an entire ritual. The elders must say, “Our hands did not spill this blood.” Did anyone think that the elders spilled the blood? Did the mayor of the town commit murder? The rabbis made the comment, the elders, the political leaders, are responsible for the safety of everyone who passes through their town. Did the leaders do everything in their power to make the community as safe as possible? We are all responsible for security.
It is sad that the greatest threat to human beings is not wild animals, is not hurricanes and tornadoes and tsunamis, is not diseases. The greatest threat to human beings is other human beings. We are allowed to do what is necessary to protect ourselves. Judaism does not teach that we should “Turn the Other Cheek.” Those are Jesus’s words. Judaism does not teach that we are obligated to love our enemy. On the contrary, we can do what is necessary to protect ourselves. Many of you remember Mordecai Kaspi-Silverman who for years served as our Educational Director. He was a truly special man. But he always wrote after his signature the initials O.T.J. I asked him what they stand for. His answer – “One Tough Jew.” Kaspi wore a chain around his neck with the quote from the Talmud, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill them first.”
Yes, we have to do what is necessary to protect ourselves. But Judaism teaches something more. Even our enemies are God’s children. Our tradition in the Avot de Rabbi Natan teaches, “Who is strong? Whoever turns an enemy into a friend.” Yes we need security. But in seeking security, we ought to never lose our humanity.
The first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has to do with our physical selves. We need to care for our bodies, and we need security. But that is not enough. For Maslow, the third level is love and belonging, family and friends, community. We need other people. We need family. I think of the story of the older couple living in King’s Point, Florida. The husband calls his son in Chicago a few days before Rosh Hashana, and tells him, “I don’t know how to break this to you but your mother and I have decided to get a divorce.” The son panics, “Dad, don’t do anything. I will be on the first plane down there.” He then calls his daughter in Los Angeles, “Your mother and I have decided to get a divorce.” The daughter responds, “Dad I am coming right out there.” The man then turns to his wife. “Good news. The kids are coming for Rosh Hashana.”
With my own family spread around the country, I know how important family is. This summer we gathered everybody in Los Angeles for a family get-together to celebrate my sixty-fifth birthday. Yes it was expensive, but as the Old MasterCard commercial says, some things in life are “Priceless.” Judaism is built on the idea that people need other people. We cannot say our most important prayers without a minyan of ten Jews. We have a confessional, but it is not one-on-one like the Catholic Church. It is a community confessional. On Yom Kippur we say over and over, Al Chet Sh’Chatanu Lefanecha – “For the sin we have sinned before you.” Confessions are in the plural. We are all responsible for one another.
My brother-in-law has a favorite television show which I sometimes watch with him. It is called Alaskan Bush People. It is about Bill Brown, his wife Ami, and their seven children, who live in the backcountry of Alaska. They are self-sufficient, growing or hunting their own food and living far removed from any community. Of course, things get difficult when the Browns want to find wives for their adult sons. They actually turn to an old Jewish trick – a matchmaker. They did not succeed; no women wanted to move to the Alaskan bush country far from civilization.
The show is fascinating, but if I am going to watch a show about Alaska, I much prefer the old show from the early 90’s – Northern Exposure. Joel Fleischman is a New York doctor who in order to afford medical school, agrees to work in a quirky little Alaskan town. One of my favorite episodes involved the death of Joel’s uncle and Joel’s desire to say kaddish in his uncle’s memory. But first he must gather ten Jewish men in Cecily, AK. The town people desperately try to round up ten Jewish men. The episode ends in a way not quite in keeping with Jewish law but very moving. Joel says to the people of the town, to say kaddish requires a community. You are my community. So he gathers the town’s people together, not one of them Jewish, puts on his tallis, and begins to say a prayer for his uncle.
However non-halakhic the television show is, the message is clear. To be a Jew requires a community. We need other people, family and friends, to be who we are. Small wonder that Jews who live in small Jewish communities seek out other Jews, whether for a Passover seder or a Rosh Hashana service, a shiva minyan or a Friday night get-together. Maslow’s third level is that people need people.
So we humans have physical needs and community needs. But that is not enough. There is a fourth level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow called it esteem. People need to feel competent and confident. They need to feel a sense of achievement. They need to enjoy the respect of others. And in feeling they respect of others, they need to respect others.
Jewish tradition recognizes the important of such self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. I remember once having a conversation with a man who was a very religious Catholic, in fact a Deacon in the Catholic Church. He shared with me that he wished his church had a ritual like bar and bat mitzvah. He admires how young people entering their adolescent years stand up in front of a congregation and chant a long Hebrew portion from the Prophets, how these young people can learn prayers in a foreign language, and how they can deliver a speech on the weekly portion. Young people need to grow up with a sense of accomplishment. And the bar or bat mitzvah meets that human need.
That brings me to an issue I am encountering more and more often in recent years. I meet parents who approach bar and bat mitzvah for their children with the words, don’t demand too much of our children. Don’t make it too hard. We do not want to stress them out. Cut the amount they are going to do. Or I will hear, let us avoid having the bar or bat mitzvah on Shabbat morning where the synagogue is filled with strangers. Let us find a time to have a private service for our immediate family. That has been part of the appeal of the Reform Movement for so many families. Most Reform Temples do not have regular Shabbat morning services so that the bar/bat mitzvah service becomes a private family service.
There are special needs children who cannot handle the pressures of a Shabbat morning. But most children can learn what is necessary to celebrate a bar/bat mitzvah on a Shabbat morning. And most children love the sense of self-esteem and accomplishment. They are proud of what they can do in front of an entire congregation. And hopefully they can carry that sense of accomplishment as they grow up and go through life.
And that brings me to say something about Jewish life that is no secret. Jewish parents tend to push their children to be successful. We want our children to go to college, but not just any college, good colleges. We want them to pursue those professions that lead to esteem and a sense of achievement. We all know the story of the lady pushing a stroller with two young toddlers. A woman comes up, looks at the children, and says, “Who are these?” The mother proudly answers, “This one’s the doctor and this one’s the lawyer.” We Jews know what we want. Of course not every can be or should be a doctor or lawyer. Some children will grow up to be artists or plumbers, builders or teachers, soldiers and farmers, office workers or home makers. But what is important is having a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem.
So we now turn to the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. He called it self-actualization. Our greatest need as humans is to live with a sense of purpose. The Christian pastor who died this year, Rick Warren, wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Life. The idea has deep Jewish roots. Numerous sources speak about the reason why we were put on this earth.
Few people expressed these ideas more powerfully than another great Jewish psychologist Victor Frankl. Frankl was a survivor of the Holocaust who spent time in the camps. After the war he wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. He spoke of the death and the human indignities he had witnessed. But Frankl made one powerful point. Who were the people in the Nazi camps who had the best chance of survival? They were the ones who found a sense of purpose. They were the ones who found meaning. They were the ones who could honestly say, this is why I am here and this is what God wants me to do in this world. I believe Frankl was right. We were not put into this world by random chance. We are not here as the result of blind forces. Each of us is here because there is a force in the universe that wants us to be here. Each of our lives has a meaning. That is the highest level of what it means to be human.
Abraham Maslow developed a pyramid of human needs, a hierarchy of what it means to be human. We need physical survival. We need safety and security. We need family and community. We need self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. And we need self-actualization, the knowledge that we are fulfilling some kind of divine purpose. Judaism has profound things to teach us about each of these five levels. We need to know who we are; we are not simply human beings but Jews.
There is much more to say about how Judaism meets fundamental human needs. But we are out of time. I invite you to come back tomorrow for part two. Meanwhile, when someone asks you what are you, proudly answer I am a Jew. May God help us see the powerful wisdom of Judaism, and let us say
2nd Day Rosh Hashana
On Being Human – Part 2
I heard a story about a woman soldier stationed in Afghanistan. She saw an Afghan woman, dressed very modestly with a scarf, walking to the marketplace with her husband. The woman made a point to walk five paces behind her husband. Then she saw them walking back; also five paces behind. The soldier could not understand, and finally, through a translator, went to speak with the woman.
“Don’t you know that the Taliban are no longer in power?” “I know that” said the woman. “Don’t you know that you are no longer required to walk five paces behind your husband?” “I know that” said the woman. “Don’t you know that men and women are treated equally in the new Afghanistan?” “I know that” said the woman. “So why do you insist on walking five paces behind your husband?” The Afghan woman looked at her, “Very simple. Land minds.”
This is certainly not the ideal marriage. But it gives some kind of message of doing for your spouse. Today I will speak briefly about marriage. I want to build on my talk from yesterday. Remember yesterday we spoke about what humans need. We spoke about the work of the psychologist Abraham Maslow, and of the human hierarchy of needs. There were five levels of human needs which Maslow put in a pyramid. The lower levels must be fulfilled before we humans can fulfill the higher levels. The lowest level was physical survival – food, clothing, shelter, etc. The second level was security. The third level was relationships, family and community. The fourth level was a sense of achievement and self-esteem. And finally on the highest level was a sense of purpose. In life the goal is to build up level by level.
Here is where things became interesting. I had just finished a first draft of yesterday’s sermon when someone handed me an article to read. “Rabbi, you will like this.” The article could have been entitled “Abraham Maslow was wrong.” And the person who handing me the article had no idea I was talking about Maslow. The article spoke about a psychology experiment. Subjects were asked to play a computer game with what they thought were two other people, while electrodes were hooked to their head to measure brain waves. Suddenly the computer switched so that it seemed like the other two were playing with each other, leaving the subject out. Although it was only a computer game, the subjects became more and more upset. The brainwaves showed a brain reaction to being left out equivalent to the brain reaction of someone denied food.
The message of the experiment was clear. People denied other people have as hard a time being alone as people denied food. The article went on to say that Maslow was wrong. At the base on the human hierarchy of needs is not food and water. At the base of the human hierarchy needs is other people. People are social creations. On the most fundamental level, people need people to survive.
As Jews we have known the truth of this for thousands of years. The Bible says that Adam was planted in the Garden of Eden, filled with every good thing to eat, but without someone else. God looks at the man He made and says “It is not good for man to be alone.” To quote the interpretation of a rabbi I knew, “to have everything and nobody is to have nothing.” People need people. The need for people is more important than the need for food. God tries to bring a companion for the man, bringing all the animals to be with him. But none is a fitting helper. In the end God forms Eve from the rib of man and brings her to him. Adam says, this one will be flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones. Therefore a person shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh.
This is the reason why I consider marriage to be so important. I realize that I am treading in dangerous waters when I speak of marriage. Some people have not found a marriage partner. And some marriages end badly. But in my mind the Bible and the psychology experiment were both right. It is not good for man to be alone. This is one reason I made a very controversial public statement this year. I came out in favor of gay marriage, and agreed that under the right circumstances I would be willing to perform such a marriage. Why? Because deep in my heart I believe that it is not good to be alone. To tell someone gay or lesbian that they must live the rest of their life alone I believe to be wrong. The most fundamental need of a human being is another human being.
My first cousin’s son in California is getting married next summer. On my recent trip out there, I spent a lot of time talking to him and his lovely bride. They shared a true story. They found a venue, a gorgeous botanical garden with an outside gazebo. At the beginning of the walkway was a big, beautiful birdcage. But the cage was empty. The couple asked why, and the manager of the botanical garden answered. There used to be a parrot in that cage. But someone had taught the parrot to speak a phrase, and the parrot would speak before every wedding. What was the phrase? “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” Needless to say, the parrot had to go. The message we need to hear is “do it.”
What else do humans need? Let me share an idea that Maslow never speaks about in his hierarchy of human needs. Animals live their lives in nature. Humans live their lives in culture. Animals are far more attuned to the ebb and flow of nature than humans. But more important than nature is culture, the great collection of art, music, theater, religion, politics, sports, and all the other institutions that give human life value.
Let me teach you a new word. The word was coined by the biologist and strident atheist Richard Dawkins. As a general rule I disagree with everything Dawkins has written and taught. This is the man who teaches that to teach a child about religion is child abuse. Wrong! But there is one thing that Dawkins got right. Dawkins invented the term “memes.”
What is a meme? A meme is to culture what a gene is to nature. Genes allow biological information to be passed on from generation to generation. And memes allow cultural information to be passed on from human to human, from generation to generation. Memes give dimension to our lives. When we give famous quotes from the theater or movies – “to be or not to be,” “play it again Sam,” “let it go, let it go” – we are expressing memes. When we speak of the Mona Lisa or the Statue of Liberty, or even Keeping up with the Kardashians, we are expressing a meme. When we dip an apple in honey or hear the shofar blown or sing the words b’Rosh Hashana yikatevu u’v Yom Tzom Kippur yekhatemu – “on Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed” – these are memes. These are powerful religious memes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Animals survive on their genes. But we humans need memes to truly survive. We need art and music and theater. And we need religion. On a regular basis I hear from someone, “Rabbi, I don’t need religion. I am spiritual.” My answer is that being spiritual is nice but it lacks an entire dimension of existence. It lacks community. It lacks tradition. It lacks a culture shared by people around the world, a culture passed down from generation to generation. This past year I had a young lady come to our Saturday evening service. She told me afterward how she saw havdallah for the first time. She had heard of havdallah, but she had never seen it. She loved it.
Let me tell you something about myself. How did I get into a more traditional Jewish life? When I went to college at the University of California San Diego, there was no Hillel. We formed a group called the Jewish Students Association. Eventually I became president. We began by getting together Saturday night, doing havdallah, and then having some activity. It may be a campfire on the beach or a trip to a concert, or even simply having pizza and chatting. But it began with havdallah. I was not familiar with havdallah. But it quickly became my path back into Jewish life.
Humans need culture. They need rituals. They need all the powerful memes that link them to one another, to Jewish history, and yes, to God. Maslow does not mention it but we human beings need culture. It is culture that adds a powerful dimension to our lives. But there is something deeper, even more important, that human beings need.
Humans need ethics. They need a sense of right and wrong, a sense of good and bad, a sense of proper and improper. Many of you know that I teach philosophy at Broward College. Every fall and springs semester the college asks me to teach the Introduction to Ethics course at their downtown campus. So every semester I meet my young and not so young students, people of all races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. And I say something like this. “You all probably agree that to kill an innocent person is wrong. Can someone tell me why it is wrong?” Why is murder wrong? It is not as easy a question to answer as you might think.
Some of you might think that we can learn ethics from science, from studying nature. But does nature teach us that murder is wrong? Tennyson wrote that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Killing is part of nature. Darwin’s whole theory of evolution is based on survival of the fittest. In my class we will try to find a scientific basis for ethics. But at least in my mind we will not succeed.
Usually when I ask why murder is wrong, someone says “because of the Ten Commandments.” It is a great answer that does not quite fit in a philosophy class. What about the people who do not believe in the Ten Commandments? What about people who do not believe in God? And if you say that murder is wrong because God said so, what about today’s Torah reading. What about a God who tells Abraham to kill his son?
Ultimately it is religion in general and Judaism in particular that teaches me that murder is wrong. Judaism teaches that human beings are created in the image of God. They contain a spark of God in them. And to harm another human being is to harm God. The Talmud tells the story of a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism, but only if he can learn all of Judaism while standing on one foot. He first went to the great sage Shammai, who chased him away with a stick. He then went to the great sage Hillel. Hillel stood up on one foot and answered with one of the great statements of Jewish tradition. Hillel answered in good Aramaic, D’elach s’nai l’haverech lo taavid. Zeh he kol haTorah kolo, v’eidach perusha he. Zil gemor. “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
One can certainly be ethical without basing that ethics on a religious tradition. In fact we spend much of the semester exploring that option. But a belief in human dignity and a belief in the Golden Rule, fundamental to Judaism, are vital for the ethical life. In the old days, when someone did something wrong, his or her parents would say in Yiddish that iz pasht nicht. I do not know Yiddish but I know what that means. It is unseemly. This is not how Jews behave. Today we need more of this teaching.
So why do we need Judaism? Judaism teaches us that it is not good to be alone – humans need companionship. Judaism teaches that humans need culture and ritual, those memes to use Dawkins phrase which add a beautiful dimension to our lives. Judaism teaches that humans have an inherent dignity and that proper living is ethical living. There is one more thing that humans need and Judaism teaches. It may not be at the top of Maslow’s list. But it is pretty high on my list. In order to explain, let me share a true story that happened to me this past year.
I was at a party when I was confronted by someone who wanted to talk to me. Or should I say, I was confronted by someone who wanted to challenge me. This person is a member of a Conservative synagogue – fortunately not mine. But he wanted to drive home to me what is wrong with the Conservative Movement in general, and Conservative rabbis in particular. And he was quite vocal.
So he began his story. His daughter was in college and had begun going to the local Chabad. I have often commented on why college students so like Chabad. Where else can that get free booze? Anyway, the Chabad rabbi befriended this young lady. Chabad rabbis are really good at that. One day the young lady became sick with the flu. She was laid low in her dorm. Then she heard a knock on the door. It was the Chabad rabbi with a thermos of chicken soup. The rabbi said, “My wife made you this soup. Eat some and you will feel better.” The man went on to tell me, “I guarantee that no Conservative rabbi would do that.”
I had to respond. I will admit that my wife makes a wonderful chicken soup. But I have never in my career brought a thermos of my wife’s chicken soup to a sick college student. Maybe I should have but I haven’t. But I had to answer his challenge. Let me share with you what I answered.
“You are right. Chabad rabbis will love you to death. But suppose when she got better, your daughter had some deep fundamental questions about life. Where did the world come from? How can you believe in God and evolution? Why is there suffering in the world? What is the purpose of my life? Why should I marry? Whom shall I marry? What will happen when I die? The student can go to the Chabad rabbi and will get answers. But the answers will ignore the best of science and the best of philosophy. The answers will ignore Biblical scholarship and modern psychology. After all, Chabad is a movement that denies evolution.
If the young lady came to me, or her own Conservative rabbi, with these questions, she would receive profound, thoughtful answers. She will receive answers that combine Judaism with the best of modern science, the best of philosophy, the best of modern scholarship, the best of psychology. I believe that the most important thing I can do is provide authentic Jewish answers to ultimate questions.
What is this great human need? People need answers. They need answers to questions on how to be human. They want to know what they owe their parents and their siblings. They want to do who to marry and how to make a marriage that works. They want to know how to raise children with good values. They want to know why there is suffering in the world and what they can do to alleviate that suffering. They want to know what to do when they have gone down the wrong path and how to make themselves better people. They want to know how to fight addiction. They want to know how to earn a living and provide for themselves and their families in a moral way. They want to know where the world came from and where they came from. They want to know if they have a soul and what does that mean. They want to know what happens when they die. They want to know if religion is true. And finally, they want to know if there is a God, and if there is, what does God want them to do.
These are what I call ultimate questions. And these are questions which Judaism attempts to answer. These are questions which I as a rabbi attempt to answer. If young people come to me, I cannot promise chicken soup. But I can promise thoughtful answers to ultimate questions. And that is a fundamental human need.
Over the past two days I have talked about what humans need. I talked about how Judaism can provide answers to those needs. Yesterday I said that humans need food, security, community, achievement, and a sense of purpose. Today I said that humans need family, culture, ethics, and answers to ultimate questions. Part of the greatness of Judaism is that it provides answers to all of these human needs.
My God help us see the powerful wisdom of Judaism, and let us say
Kol Nidre
A Relational Synagogue
There is a story about a Jewish man who finally decided to bring his young son to Yom Kippur services. Over the years he had complained, “Why should I have to pay to pray?” But his son was getting older and he knew it was time to expose the boy to his religion. So, still feeling a bit bitter, he bought tickets and brought his son to kol nidre services. The boy was awestruck by the beauty – the white Torah covers as the ark was open, the white coverings of the Torah lecterns, the white robes of the cantor and rabbi, the beautiful music, the huge crowds. Finally as the ark was opened, the boy asked his father, “Dad, does God live there?” The man cynically answered, “No, this is God’s business office.”
Is this God’s business office? It is always difficult to speak about the business of synagogues. How do synagogues afford to keep their doors open and pay their expenses? The older generation which felt an obligation to support the local synagogue is passing away. I remember going to Yom Kippur services when I was young and hearing the president of the synagogue speak. He gave some numbers. This is our annual budget, and this is the number of families who belong. Divide it and this is the number it costs per family to maintain the synagogue. I remember it was $2000 several hundred dollars and change. My dad went home and wrote a check for $2000 several hundred dollars and change. He told me, “I want to tell the synagogue that I will not depend on others. I will pay my fair share.” How many feel that obligation today?
Synagogues are experimenting with all kinds of financial models. Some like ours continue to charge dues, make arrangements for those who cannot afford the dues, and ask those who can afford more to step up to the plate. Some have gone to a fee for service, an a la carte model where you pay for what you use. Some, including a nearby synagogue, has set up a “no fixed dues, set your own” program. This seems to be a trend, but the verdict is still out whether it will work. And some are following the Chabad model – don’t charge any dues at all, pull people in, love them to death, and somehow collect money after the fact. Will any of these models get a younger generation to support synagogues?
Many have said no. At least five of you forwarded an article to me that originally appeared on Facebook. The gist of the article – younger people are not going to join synagogues, no matter what the dues. The article was very pessimistic. Even if synagogues were free, most young people will not join. They will not join until they are convinced that not simply the synagogue, but Judaism, will make a difference in their lives.
Let me quote from that article: “If rabbis are sought out mainly for lifecycle events and two holidays a year, rather than for moral, ethical, and spiritual development, then why would a free membership make any difference to the community long term? If rabbis do not have relationships with their members that are personal enough to help those members grow in their Judaism or to introduce members to the idea that Judaism has the potential to improve their lives, then after the lifecycle events or in the long years between them, it’s no wonder the value of membership becomes a pressing questions. Provide value and people will pay. Show members the joy of Judaism and empower them to bring that joy home. Engage members with discussions on how to be a better person, a better parent, sibling, spouse, friend, and a more ethical business person, and they will come back for more. If Judaism cannot answer the big questions in life and be relevant in our homes and everyday life, then members will go somewhere else and take their dollars with them.”
That is throwing down the gauntlet to myself as a rabbi and to our synagogue. How do we provide value to people’s lives? It is a question that has been asked by Professor Ron Wolfson, the strongest voice for synagogues to change their ways. He is the author of the book Relational Judaism; Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. I have known Ron since we were students together in Los Angeles at the American Jewish University. Ron is a wonderful educator who has taken on the challenge of changing synagogue culture. I have heard him speak a number of times. Every time Ron gives a lecture, he stands at the door greeting everyone who arrives and chatting with them. He says that as a speaker, you cannot teach people until you relate to people. Ron has made it clear to us rabbis – deep learning and brilliant sermons are not enough. It does not matter how much you know until people know how much you care. Or to share a similar quote that I have heard attributed to people from Teddy Roosevelt to Zig Ziglar, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Synagogues must become places of relationships. People must greet people when they enter; the rabbi must greet them. It is not easy to conduct services and walk around greeting people at the same time. But I try. That is why, even on the High Holidays, I have told the congregation that I do not care how long it takes to carry the Torahs through the congregation. It is my chance to greet everyone. Synagogues are about relationships. They are about the relationships between Jews and other Jews, between Jews and the community. They are about the relationships between Jews and their Torah, their rabbis, cantors, and teachers of Torah. And finally, they are about relationships between Jews and God. Let us look at this more closely.
There are three different terms in Hebrew for a synagogue. The first term is a beit k’nesset – literally a “house of gathering.” It is a place where Jews, and many non-Jews, come to be with other Jews. It is a place to meet people and make friends, to do things together. It is a place to share simchas and sorrows – to share a bar mitzvah Kiddush or participate in a shiva minyan. It is about people meeting other people.
One of our greatest successes these past couple of years has been the formation of numerous havurot. Havurot are people who get together to study, celebrate, or simply enjoy each other’s company. We have a havurah for young people, a havurah for school age parents, a havurah for empty nesters, and a havurah for seniors, plus a few others. We have an active award winning Men’s Club and a sisterhood that is the envy of the region. We need to make it clear to everyone who walks through our doors – come join us, you are welcome. That is the key to being an excellent Beit Knesset.
A synagogue is a Beit Knesset, a place of gathering, a place for Jews to relate to other Jews. We Jews are part of a synagogue, but we are more. We are part of a greater community. We have a Jewish Federation, which represents the entire community. We have numerous local Jewish organizations from the Jewish Community Center to the Jewish Family Service. For years I served on the board of the family service, an organization that helps everyone from Holocaust survivors to families in crisis. To be a Jew is to be part of something greater than ourselves.
Finally, to be a Jew is to have a relationship with the Jewish homeland, with the land of Israel. This was a difficult year for those of us who love Israel. Israel became a divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans. And the Jewish community became divided. This is the first time I remember reading rabbis who called for Jews to boycott the synagogues of other rabbis because they disagreed on the Iran agreement. When we Jews go to war with one another over Israel, something precious is lost.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting Israel. It was a brief visit; I was there for a wedding. The day I arrived I took a long walk through the streets of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is hardly a spiritual city; it is not Jerusalem. But I walked around looking at Jews – some religious, men with black hats and tzitzit, women with hair coverings and long dresses. Some not so religious – men and women covered with tattoos, with lots of skin showing. Lots if children. People of all races and colors. All of them were speaking Hebrew. Here is a language that nobody in the world spoke a little over a century ago. Here was a city that was a giant sand dune a little over a century ago. Here was a country booming, that has been called the “start-up nation.” The national bird is the “crane,” cranes building sky scrapers. I took all of this in, and the words of David Ben-Gurian kept popping into my head. Anybody who does not believe in miracles is not a realist. Israel is a miracle. If you have not done so, or if it has been too long, you need to visit Israel.
We need to have a relationship with Torah and Jewish tradition. The second name for a synagogue is a Beit Midrash – a place of learning. People want to learn. They want to learn from me and the cantor, from other gifted teachers and lay leaders, they want to learn from each other. Again I am proud of what we offer, from my monthly Sunday rap-with-the-rabbi to my weekly Wednesday learning in Coral Springs, from the cantor’s classes in Torah reading and services to Ava’s Hebrew reading classes, from Professor Lichtenstein’s exploration of the Bible to our weekly bagels and Bible after every Shabbat morning services.
With all of this, I hear the voices of those who spoke out on Facebook. Rabbi, teach us why we should be Jewish before you ask us to set foot in synagogue. With that in mind, I want to try something new this year. I want to set up a class on line where people can join me wherever they are. And I want to deal in that class with the fundamental questions of Judaism. I hope to call it “A Rabbi’s Guide to Being Human.” Keep you computers turned on. Information to follow.
Finally, we have a relationship with God. A synagogue is a Beit Tefilah – literally a “House of Prayer.” Jews want to talk to God, to relate to God. I am well aware that many Jews who come to synagogue do not come to talk to God. It was the wonderful Jewish humorist Sam Golden who probably said it best. Someone asked him, “Why do you go to synagogue? You don’t believe.” He answered, “You’re right. I don’t believe. Now Garfinkel, he believes. He goes to synagogue to talk to God. Me? I go to synagogue to talk to Garfinkel.” I think that is the reason many of us go to synagogue services. We don’t necessarily believe in God. But we want to be with friends, with others, with our fellow Jews.
Still, prayer services are central to synagogue life. And I am very proud of something we do here that is not done in the majority of Conservative synagogues around the country. We have a minyan, a service here 365 days a year, every morning and every night. Occasionally we struggle but usually we get a minyan, the ten adult Jews we need to say the most important prayers, including the mourner’s kaddish. Sometimes we get a crowd. And mourners know that they can come here every morning and every evening if they choose, in order to say kaddish for their loved ones. And many of those mourners, when their eleven months of kaddish are finished, keep coming. They know that there will always be new mourners, and those new mourners will need a minyan. As others were there for them, so they want to be there for others.
What about Shabbat? I love our Shabbat services. Friday night we gather to sing through the prayers. The mood is informal. When the hour long service is over, we gather around a table to make Kiddush, drink wine, and say a hamotzi. Sometimes we stay for Shabbat dinner, but other weeks we go home to enjoy Shabbat with our families. I love our Erev Shabbat services. But I have noticed a problem. There was a time when a lot of young children came. Of late I see fewer and fewer children. I have asked young families why. The answer I have received is that some people make them feel uncomfortable when they bring their children.
Children do not always sit still. But a successful synagogue is one filled with children. It is a guarantee that there will be a younger generation to come to synagogue. I have met with the cantor, Ava, and Sydney and we plan to implement something new. Call it Shabbat Beyachad – Shabbat Together. Once a month, when the pre-school has its tot-Shabbat, we will have a more children and family oriented service. Hors d’oerves will be chicken nukkets or little hot dogs or something else children can eat. Services will be somewhat abbreviated and conducted off the bimah. I will gather all the children with me on the steps and tell a story. And there will be an understanding that this is a service where young families with children are welcome.
What about Shabbat morning? Again I love our Shabbat morning service. It includes prayers, singing, Torah learning, lay people reading the Torah, simchas from bar/bat mitzvahs to baby namings and aufrufs to birthdays and anniversaries. It includes a wonderful sit down Kiddush each week, and then for those who want to expand their mind, bagels and Bible, usually led by lay people. I love this. But I know that not everyone likes what I like.
Some people would prefer a full traditional Torah readings in the chapel, with a small crowd so that there is a better chance to get an Aliya. We offer that every week. Some people would prefer an Orthodox service, with a mehitza between men and women and the use of an Orthodox siddur. We offer that every week. Some people prefer a more spiritual experience, meditation instead of the traditional prayers. We offer that once a month. Some people feel lost in services and would prefer a learner’s service. Based on a program of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, we are introducing that this year. I have had other requests. Some would like a yoga service. Some would like to spend the afternoon in the synagogue, playing sports or board games. All of these are in the planning stage.
I am proud that United Synagogue has seen fit to give our synagogue two Solomon Schechter awards this year, the only synagogue in the nation to get that honor. They will be presented this fall at their convention near Chicago. One award will go to Jack Alboukrek’s brilliant program called Six Million Steps, a program first conceived by our religious school children. I was glad to participate in that program. The other award will go to our synagogue for a Variety of Shabbat Experiences. I hope we can continue to add programs, programs that will bring more people into our synagogues.
The theme of my Rosh Hashana sermons was how Judaism can meet human needs. Perhaps the best way to understand this sermon is to ask – how can a synagogue meet human needs. People need relationships. Synagogues must be a place of relationships. It must be a place where people come to relate to one another. It must be a place where people come to relate to the Torah and Jewish tradition. It must be a place where people come to relate to the greater Jewish community and to the state of Israel. Finally, it must be a place where people come to relate to God.
May Temple Beth Torah Sha’aray Tzedek be a place where all those relationships can flourish. May we always be a place that meets fundamental human needs, and let us say
There is a story about a very pious barber. One day a Catholic priest comes in for a haircut. He asks the barber what he owes him. “You are a man of God. I will not charge you.” The next day the priest comes by and gives the barber a crucifix to show his appreciation. A few days later a Baptist minister comes in for a haircut. He asks the barber what he owes him. “You are a man of God. I will not charge you.” The next day the minister comes by and gives the barber a New Testament to show his appreciation. A few days later a rabbi comes in for a haircut. He asks the barber what he owes him. “You are a man of God. I will not charge you.” The next day the rabbi comes by – with another rabbi.
The Jewish comedian Joel Chasnoff spoke about this joke. He says it is the kind of joke that if a non-Jew told it, he would be considered anti-Semitic. But if a rabbi tells it to a Jewish audience, it is proper. We Jews are allowed to laugh at ourselves. In fact, perhaps our humor is part of how we Jews have survived. To be a Jew is to be different. But what makes us different from Catholic priests and Baptist ministers. Can the difference be summarized in one word?
To answer that question, I want to share a memory. The year I graduated college I participated in a month long program called Brandeis Camp Institute, today Brandeis Bardin Institute. It was founded by an Israeli educator named Shlomo Bardin, who wanted to give American college students an intense kibbutz-like experience in Simi Valley, California. There were about 90 of us on the month-long program, and we became very close. We had chores to do, just like a kibbutz. We had to participate in the arts – I played my accordion in a kind of klezmer band, others did Israeli folkdancing or choral singing. On Friday night we had to wear all white to welcome Shabbat, and after services we had a traditional Shabbat dinner. One memory is that on Friday night we always served apple butter with our challah, a practice I still follow to this day. On Saturday we had a very abbreviated service built around three of us who volunteered to prepare a d’var Torah.
So it was a physical, cultural, religious experience; but most important, it was an intellectual experience. There were lectures every day. An Orthodox rabbi came, and a Conservative rabbi and a Reform rabbi. In fact, the Conservative rabbi was Elliot Dorff who later became one of my teachers. There was a secular Israeli who spoke of Zionism and a woman who spoke of Judaism and women’s issues. But for me, the most important was the teacher who served as our scholar-in-residence. His name was David Weiss, a professor of immunology at the Hebrew University who had chosen both Aliya to Israel and Orthodoxy. In fact, I carried on a correspondence with him for many years. But one lecture he gave sticks in my mind. Can we summarize various cultures and various religions in one word?
Professor Weiss began his lecture. “What is one word that summarizes what it means to be an American? I believe the key word to understand America is the word `rights.’ We Americans are obsessed with rights.” The American emphasis on rights goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which spoke of the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a change to John Locke’s original statement, that humans have a right to “life, liberty, and property.” A fascinating question is why property changed to the pursuit of happiness.
David Weiss gave that lecture in the early seventies. Civil rights for people of color was the major concern. Women’s rights were beginning to be on the agenda. The argument between the right to life and the right to choose was only beginning. Rights for the disabled was still unknown. And at that point in time, rights for gays and lesbians, the right to marry, was not even on the horizon. How our country has changed over forty years! I believe that Professor Weiss was correct, that we are a country obsessed with rights. And yet as I have mentioned in many sermons, rights is not a Jewish idea. In fact, there is no word for rights in classical Hebrew; modern Israel invented the word zechuyot.
Let me leave Professor Weiss’s lecture for a moment; I will return to it in a moment. Let me go to modern times. I was in Israel a few weeks ago and I read a fascinating article in the Jerusalem Post by researcher Samuel Gregg. Gregg asked why the Israeli economy is flourishing while the economy of so many European countries is stagnant. He answered again by giving one word. In Israel people value liberty, in particular economic liberty. This is ironic, because for so many years Israel was a socialist county. Economic liberty and entrepreneurship is new to Israel. In Europe on the other hand,” people value security, in particular economic security. To quote him, “placing a premium on security has economic consequences and helps explain why Western Europe has such low levels of entrepreneurship and innovation.” Does a country value liberty, economic liberty, even if it allow some people to become rich and some to be left behind? Or does a country value security, economic security, which protects everybody but can prevent innovation. One word makes a difference.
Let me return to Professor Weiss’s lecture. He turned to religion. What is the one word that differentiates the three prominent religions in America – Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism? Again in the seventies, Islam and Buddhism were barely on the map. Weiss first turned to the Catholic faith. He taught us students that the Catholic faith is built around the word “sacrament.” Sacraments are holy acts where God, or one should say Jesus’s presence is literally brought down to earth. In the Eucharist ceremony, which must be led by a Priest, a wafer becomes Jesus’s body and wine becomes Jesus’s blood.
This point was driven home to me many years ago when we hired a new maintenance woman who happened to be a Catholic. It came time to clean up the Kiddush wine after Saturday morning services. She refused. In fact she refused to touch it. “Rabbi, that is holy wine. I cannot throw that wine away.” I had the hardest times convincing her that it was simply ordinary wine that we said a blessing over. After that incident, I wondered who cleans up the wine in the Catholic Church after their holy communion.
There are many other sacraments in the Catholic Church, from Baptism to the confessional and from marriage to what used to be called holy unction, blessing on those dying. But a key sacrament is the ordination of Priests, who become the ones capable of performing these acts. How different from Judaism, where you do not need a rabbi for any Jewish ritual. He Catholic faith is built on these sacraments.
Professor Weiss continued, “What makes Protestants different from Catholics?” The key word for Lutherans and Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, is faith. Martin Luther when he hung his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church, was protesting the corruption of the priesthood. He spoke of a priesthood of every man. People can be saved not by their works – what they do, but by their faith – what they believe. Anybody who has ever been confronted by a born again Christian, and I have been countless times, is told “It does not matter what you do. It only matters what you believe.” Believe in Jesus and you will get to heaven. Don’t believe in Jesus and it does not matter how pious a life you lead. You will not be saved. I admit that I admire the faith of many of my Protestant Christian friends. But as I will show shortly, Judaism teaches the exact opposite.
Let me leave Professor Weiss once again and give some more modern examples. What about Islam? Can the Moslem religion be summarized in one word? Religious Moslems would answer that question very simply. The word is “submission.” The very name of the faith Islam means “submission to God.” Moslems speak over and over again of “the will of Allah.” Whatever they do, it must be “the will of Allah.” Whether a Moslem prays five times a day or fasts during the month of Ramadan or participates in the sacred Hajj, he is fulfilling the will of Allah. And to the extremists, the crazies, the ones committing terrorism and beheadings in the name of Islam, they also say that they are submitting to the will of Allah.
I recall speaking to my Israeli friend Andy who went to visit a Moslem friend of his. The Moslem was a proper host, bringing tea and cakes to share. The trouble was that it was the middle of the day during Ramadan, when Moslems are required to fast. Andy asked him why he was bringing food and drink during his fast day. His friend answered, “What do you think? Only you Jews can be Reform.” There has actually been some Moslems who have called for a Reform Islam, for rethinking their religion. But it is much harder. We Jews wrestle with God. We argue with God. Think of Abraham confronting God about Sodom and Gemorrah. Moslems on the other hand submit to God. It is at the heart of their faith. How do you Reform a religion that is all about submission?
What about the Eastern religions that have become so popular in this country – Buddhism and Hinduism? They are very different kinds of faiths. Can they be summarized in one word? I remember speaking to a man who had returned from a trip to India. He told me how he had witnessed real suffering, and also real serenity. People had made their peace with their lot in life. That is why I would choose the word “serenity.”
What is the basis of finding such serenity? I believe it is linked to the idea of karma. The world karma does not mean fate, which is more a Greek word than a Sanskrit word. The word karma is based on the idea that what goes around comes around. A person’s actions in one lifetime will affect their life in the next. A person who suffers in this life must have done something in a previous life to deserve the suffering. That is his or her karma. And if they accept this with serenity and live decently in this life, they will be more fortunate in the next lifetime. That is the real meaning of karma. And that is why those who practice these religions are able to live with such serenity.
So let’s get to the heart of this talk. What did Professor Weiss want to tell us college students about Judaism? How does Judaism differ from other religions, other world views? What is one word that can describe Judaism? He said that the one word which can summarize Judaism is “action.” We are a religion of action. Other religions talk about faith. The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke about taking a “leap of faith.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel responded with the words, “Judaism is not about a leap of faith. Judaism is about a leap of action.”
There is a story about a group of Jewish prisoners being held in a Nazi concentration camp. They decide that they are going to put God on trial. And so they carry out an entire trial, with someone playing the prosecutor, someone playing the defense, and someone playing the judge. They call witnesses, and in the end, they find God guilty. God is guilty of the Holocaust. And when the trial was over and the verdict read, someone declared, “Okay, now it is time for mincha, the afternoon prayers.” And the prisoners all davened mincha.
That story is so Jewish. One cannot imagine Catholics or Protestants or Moslems or Buddhists telling that story. But Jews can challenge God, argue with God, even find God guilty, and then go say the traditional prayers. The Talmud actually quotes God as saying, “I wish my people would forget about me and keep my Torah. Only by keeping my Torah will it bring them back to me.” Luther taught that faith, not works are important. It does not matter what you do. Judaism teaches that works are the only thing that is important. Ultimately we are judged by what we do.
Judaism is filled with teachings about the importance of action. In the Bible, we stood by the sea with the Egyptians pursuing us. Moses prayed and prayed. Finally, God said, enough prayer. Do something. Tradition teaches that Nachson ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah jumped forward into the sea. Only when the sea reached his neck did the waters part. Only after taking action could we cross the sea.
I think what Professor Weiss was trying tell us skeptical college students is – don’t worry about doubting. You can doubt all you want. You can even doubt if God exists. But at some point what you believe and what you think is secondary. What is important is to take action. Do something about being Jewish. Listen to the shofar blown on Rosh Hashana. Fast on Yom Kippur. Eat in a sukkah. Light Hanukkah candles. Attend a Passover seder. Say the sh’ma Judaism is about what you do. And do it, even if you are not sure what you believe.
How relevant this is on Yom Kippur morning as we prepare to say yizkor. On a regular basis I counsel people who have lost a loved one. They are stuck. “Rabbi, what can I do? I cannot get past the loss.” I will talk to them about life and death, this world and the world to come. But at some point, the conversation goes in a certain direction. I tell the person suffering from a loss, “I want you to take action. I want you to come to synagogue and say kaddish. Come every day if you can. Come once a week or once a month but come. Come four times a year and say yizkor.”
I tell people to take action, to say kaddish and to say yizkor. And they ask me, what that help the soul of my loved one. My answer is “I don’t know. Jewish tradition teaches that kaddish and yizkor help the soul of the departed. Maybe they do. But I know one thing. Saying these prayers will help your soul.” A leap of action helps the soul of the living.
Can a nation or can a religion be summarized in one word? I believe it is a truly useful exercise. In the United States we speak about rights. Part of Israel’s path to becoming the start-up nation is liberty, economic liberty. Part of the problem facing Western Europe today is security, economic security. Catholics have built their church around sacraments. In contrast, other Christians have built their church around faith. Moslems built a religious tradition around submission. Eastern religions have a theology which leads to serenity. But what about Judaism?
At the heart of Judaism is the call to action. Judaism is about mitzvoth, things we do. Judaism teaches that what you believe as secondary. Judaism says that through our actions we can help our own souls. And Judaism says that through our actions we can create a better world. May God help us on this Yom Kippur take a leap of action, and let us say