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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2019 High Holiday Sermons

FORTY YEARS IN THE RABBINATE: NAÏVE BEGINNINGS

1st Day Rosh Hashana 2019 – 5780

A new rabbi fresh out of the seminary takes his first job at a new pulpit.   Before the first Shabbat, the president of the synagogue asks him what he plans to speak about.  The young rabbi answers, “I thought I would speak about Shabbat.”  The president replies, “You cannot speak about Shabbat.  Our members own businesses which are open on Shabbat.”  The young rabbi says, “Maybe I will speak about the dietary laws.”  The president replies, “You cannot speak about the dietary laws. They are a bunch of old health laws that no one keeps anymore.”  The young rabbi then says, “Maybe I will speak about intermarriage.”  The president replies, “You cannot speak about intermarriage.  Many of our members’ children have married non-Jews.”  So the rabbi asks, “What should I talk about?”  The president answers, “Judaism, rabbi.  Talk about Judaism.”

That story never happened to me.  But I will share a story that did really happen to me.  I was still a student rabbi in Nyack, NY when a woman told me, “Rabbi, you seem very nice.  I like you.  But you are too young.  You have not suffered enough to be a rabbi.”   Over the next few years, she personally made sure that I did suffer enough.  The years have flown, and I have grown up.  I learned from my mistakes.

On Mother’s Day 1979 my parents and my aunt flew in from Los Angeles to New York City to watch me become ordained as a “Rabbi, Teacher, and Preacher in Israel.”  My then girlfriend Evelyn drove in from Boston, meeting my parents for the first time.  There were eleven of us being ordained that day, a small class.  All male.  All straight.  All under thirty.  Mostly married, I was one of the few who was still single.  And so forty years ago last May at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, I became a rabbi.  I would serve 5 more years at the synagogue in Nyack, 6 years in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and now 29 years here in Florida.

Forty years I have been a rabbi.  I know my colleague Rabbi Cain says 40 is a concept, not a real number, like 40 years wandering in the desert.  When the Torah says 40, it does not literally mean 40, just a long time.  But sometimes 40 is a real number.  This year all my High Holiday sermons are going to share a theme – reflections on 40 years in the rabbinate.  They will be my most autobiographical set of sermons.  What have I learned and how have I changed over the past forty years?   What have these forty years taught me that I can share with a congregation?

Much to my surprise, at the ordination I received an award, the best senior sermon in my class.  There was a small sum of money, not enough to get rich but enough to buy a diamond.  I went down to the 47th St. diamond district with a friend and bought a diamond.  Shortly afterwards Evelyn and I were engaged, and married October 1979.  On Simchat Torah this year it will be 40 years of marriage.  I feel very blessed to find a wonderful life partner to help with this journey called being a rabbi.

In those early years, my ideas were different than they are today.  Over these sermons I will share how my ideas evolved.  In those days, for all intents and purposes, I was an Orthodox Jew.  I taped the light in the refrigerator so it would not light on Shabbat.  I avoided non-kosher restaurants, not always easy since no one in my family in Los Angeles kept kosher.  My parents in Los Angeles bought an extra set of meat dishes for Evelyn and me.  We observed the laws of mikveh and family purity.  I wrote an article about those laws that appeared in Moment magazine, and later in my book on sexual ethics.

I was quasi-Orthodox, but my synagogue in Nyack was strictly egalitarian.  Talk about cognitive dissidence.  Perhaps I was naïve; I believed that if I observed traditional Jewish law in a very public way, others would catch on and start observing.  Events would happen that would cause me to rethink and reinterpret my Jewish observance.   I will share some of those events over the course of these sermons.  Today I am a Jew who loves to teach and live by tradition, but I am not an Orthodox Jew.

Let me share the first of those events.  My wife and I were unable to have a family the traditional way.  We decided to pursue adoption.  We had a chance to adopt a baby in a medium size city in the south.  But it would mean spending some time down there.  I did what any traditional Jew would do in traveling to a city.  I called the local Chabad rabbi.  I wanted to know about Jewish life, kosher food, the mikveh.   The Chabad rabbi asked why I was there, and I answered that we were there to adopt a baby.  He was taken aback.  “Why are you doing this?  Why don’t you try prayer?  It worked for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when they could not have children?”  I realize that the Chabad rabbi was young and inexperienced.  This was over 37 years ago when people did not talk about adoption and infertility like they do today.  But his answer struck me not only as wrong, but as very un-Jewish.  Abraham and Jacob did not simply try prayer, they used surrogate mothers.  Michal the wife of King David adopted her sister’s kids.   Mordecai adopted his cousin Esther.  Abaye the great sage was raised by a foster mother.   Nobody just tried prayer.  Adoption was unknown in Jewish law but is a very legitimate Jewish option.

The Orthodox mindset is that God controls everything, and therefore praying to God is the only answer.  In my mind the authentic answer is not prayer but action.  Moses stood at the Red Sea or Sea of Reeds praying, until God said, “Enough prayer already.  Do something.  Take action.”  Only when Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the water up to his neck did the sea part.  Judaism is a religion where if the world is imperfect, we need to act.  We do not ask God to reach down and rescue us, we are God’s hands.  My wife and I adopted our first born Natan.  We eventually went on to adopt our two other children, Aliza and Ben.  We took action.  And the idea of a leap of action to deal with infertility was the central theme of my first book And Hannah Wept, a book about Judaism and infertility.  Suddenly I was the adoption rabbi, the expert on adoption and Judaism.

The second step away from my Orthodoxy was after we returned home to Nyack with Natan.  I had a beautiful community with many young families.  But there was no eruv around our neighborhood.  An eruv is an artificial barrier like a wire that makes an area into a private place.  There was an eruv in nearby Monsey and Spring Valley, but not Nyack.  By Orthodox Jewish law, without an eruv we could not carry our baby or even push a baby carriage to synagogue.  I realized that this was a Jewish practice I could not maintain.  We would take our child to synagogue, even if it meant a break from traditional Jewish law.  There must be a way to be a deeply committed Jew, an observant Jew, without being an Orthodox Jew.  How to practice Judaism without being Orthodox is a search I would continue throughout my career.

The story continues.  I loved Nyack, I still do, but it was time to move on.  When I was in rabbinical school, a friend of mine was married in a synagogue in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  It was a city I had never visited.  But I went to the wedding and fell in love with both that synagogue, Congregation Beth El of the South Hills, and Pittsburgh.  This was not the synagogue that was the target of the horrible mass shooting last year.  For those who have never been to Pittsburgh, it is a beautiful city built on hills and three rivers.  Besides, where else could you go shopping and know the stores were absolutely empty – any time the Steelers play.  Now six years later, the synagogue I had visited was looking for a rabbi.  To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to depart and a time to arrive.”  And so my young family moved to Pittsburgh.  The city will always have a special place in my heart.  Evelyn and I went back there last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of that synagogue.  The kids who were in the Hebrew school when I was there now have kids of their own in Hebrew school.

The years in Pittsburgh were good years, being a young family in a synagogue with other young families.  The synagogue was also egalitarian.  It had a daily minyan at 7 am, and I became used to going every day.  When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of my professors said, if you want a synagogue with a daily minyan, you better go to that daily minyan.  I even went one winter day when the temperature reached 17o below zero.  One does not move to Pittsburgh for the weather.  There were religious issues I had to deal with, that caused me to continually reevaluate my understanding of Judaism.  Perhaps the biggest issue for me was how to deal with homosexuality and Judaism.  My younger brother came out of the closet as gay.  He would die a few years later, another victim of the horrible AIDS epidemic.  How do I find an authentic Jewish way to deal with people who are gay?

It was at this time that I decided to write a second book, this time on sexual ethics and Judaism, Does God Belong in the Bedroom?  I knew that the book would break with Orthodoxy.  According to an Orthodox understanding, sexual ethics are clear.  An action is permitted or forbidden.  Everything is black and white.  And any sexual activity of a non-married couple, including gay sexual activity is forbidden (at that point gay marriage was not even on the horizon.)  Even within marriage, some things are permitted, and some things are prohibited.  As I wrote my book, I asked myself, can I come up with an non-orthodox way to understand sexual ethics?   Let me share my answer.

In my book on sexual ethics, I described a ladder of holiness.  Some things are on the bottom of the ladder, clearly unethical.  One thinks of Harvey Weinstein.  Some things are higher up the ladder, perhaps ethical but short of holiness.  And some things are at the top of the ladder, truly holy.  Where does sex outside of marriage belong on the ladder?  Where does a gay relationship belong on that ladder?  The idea of a ladder of holiness was not a new one.  The late Rabbi Robert Gordis who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary told a Hasidic story about such a ladder.  The Rebbe asks his students, two men are on a ladder, one on the second rung and one on the seventh rung.  Which is higher?  The students all answered of course, the one on the seventh rung.  Wrong, said the Rebbe.  The answer depends on whether they are going up or going down the ladder.  One needs to climb the ladder of holiness.  One does not need to observe everything at once.   One should seek some level of observance and try to grow their Judaism.

My years in Pittsburgh were mostly quiet, but I also had my adventures.  In 1988 I attended a meeting of the Pittsburgh Board of Rabbis.  A leading Reform rabbi in town threw out a challenge.  The Soviet Union still existed.  It was a time of refuseniks in the former Soviet Union, Jews who wanted to leave for Israel but were forbidden by the Soviet government.  Often these people lost their jobs or were even arrested.   They needed support from American Jews, particularly rabbis.  The Reform rabbi said that he knew Orthodox and Reform rabbis who had visited refuseniks.  Where were the Conservative rabbis?  Would I go visit refuseniks in the former Soviet Union?  He had thrown down the gauntlet.  That December I found myself travelling with a colleague on a Pan American flight to Moscow, with a suitcase filled with books, kosher food, and ritual objects.  I also bought a heavy-duty ski parka.  Moscow in December makes winters in Pittsburgh seem balmy.  Someone on the streets of Moscow actually offered to pay me 500 rubles on the spot for my parka.  I did not sell it.

It was quite an experience.  My friend and I visited people in Moscow, spent Shabbat in Riga, Latvia, and then several days in Vilnius, Lithuania.  I visited synagogues, brought food, gave a Hebrew lesson to a young girl, had a fish Shabbat dinner with a refusenik family, sang Hebrew songs in someone’s apartment, and enjoyed visiting Jews.  We also were tourists, seeing the sights of Moscow including a classical music concert.  Did I make a difference?  Maybe in a small way.

I wanted to fly home on Pan Am to get the frequent flier miles.  But there were no flights.  I flew back to New York December 21, 1988 on KLM, the Dutch airline.  When I arrived at Kennedy Airport exhausted, the airport was filled with the press.  I learned that Pan Am flight 103 had been blown up that day by terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on the plane and 11 people on the ground.  Later I checked to see if there was a possibility I could have been on that flight.  The answer was no.  But when you come so close to life and death, it focuses the mind.  It made me think, what did I want to do with my life?  And what did I want to do with my rabbinate?  What kind of rabbi did I want to be?

There are rabbis who live for opportunities to fly overseas, dealing with Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union or other places.  I admire such rabbis.  But I realized after this trip that this was not me.

There are rabbis who are dedicated to the chaplaincy, finding work in hospitals or hospices or jails, comforting Jews wherever they are.  I admire such rabbis.  But I realized that this work is not me.

There are rabbis who become the Chief Executive Officers of large synagogues.  They handle the budget, and every decision, not only regarding ritual but regarding staffing.  I wonder whether such rabbis long for the corporate world.  I admire such rabbis.  But I realized that being a C.E.O. is not for me.

There are rabbis who find joy in the world of academics.  They become professors on college campus rather than serving synagogues.  I knew one rabbi who was also a college professor.  Each day when he put on tefillin and said the morning blessings, “Thank you God for not making me a pulpit rabbi.”  I admire such rabbis.  But I realized that the world of pure academics is not for me.

I used my years in Pittsburgh and my early years in Tamarac to think about what kind of rabbi I wanted to be.  I came up with some answers, which I will share further tomorrow.  Meanwhile, after six years in Pittsburgh, Evelyn and I realized that it was time to move on.  We had three children in a small townhouse, and we could not afford the beautiful single-family homes near the synagogue.  We felt isolated.  People don’t come to visit Pittsburgh.  And the winters were rough.  But still, it was a painful decision to leave.  We had made friends in Pittsburgh that we would have for life.

When I first met Evelyn, she was living in Boston but her parents and brother lived in Florida.  I told her that I am a Californian, I would never move to Florida.  The Psalmist says, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains.”  I need mountains around me.   Never say never.  I heard about a synagogue in Tamarac looking for a rabbi.  On the Shabbat before Passover, I flew down here to try out for the position.  There was a bar mitzvah that weekend, so the synagogue was relieved to have a visiting rabbi.  But it was a synagogue with challenges.  They had been without a rabbi for a year.  A number of families had left.  My synagogues in both Nyack and Pittsburgh were egalitarian, but in Tamarac only men were allowed on the bimah.  The synagogue knew it had to face the egalitarian issue – eventually.  The interview worked, and Evelyn and I found ourselves driving to Florida with an eight year old, a five year old, and a one year old.  A new life was about to begin.

At that point I had been a rabbi eleven years.  I had learned a good deal, I was less naïve, but I still had a lot of learning to do.  What were those years like down here in Florida?  To hear the answer, you have to come back tomorrow.  As I enter my forty-first set of high holidays as a rabbi, I can only pray, May you be written and sealed for a good year.   And let us say

Amen.

FORTY YEARS IN THE RABBINATE: A DECISION IN MEXICO

2nd Day Rosh Hashana 2019 – 5780

The Pope was finishing a week-long visit to the United States.  His limo driver said, “You have a few hours.  Before I take you to the airport is there anything you would like to do?”  The Pope answered, “I am driven anywhere, I never get to drive anymore.  Let me drive the limo.”  So the Pope and the driver switched places, the Pope sat behind the wheel and the limo driver went into the back seat.  Now the Pope was not a very good driver, and soon he saw a flashing light in the rear.  He pulled over and a policeman asked, “License and registration.”  The policeman ran back to the squad car and called the station.  “I have a problem.  I just pulled over a very important person.”  “Who?  A mayor?  A congressman?”  “More important.”  “Who?”  “Let me put it his way.  His limo driver is the Pope.”

There is actually a Hasidic version of this story.  A great Hasidic rebbe was being driven from town to town in a carriage.  The carriage driver said, “We come into town and everybody showers you with attention.  They do not even notice me.  Before we get into the next town, let’s switch places.”   So the driver climbed into the carriage and the rebbe guided the horses.  They came into the next town and a crowd gathered around the man in the carriage.  “Rebbe, rebbe, we have been waiting for you.  We have so many questions.”  They asked a complex question of Jewish law.  The carriage driver laughed and said, “That question is so simple.  Even my carriage driver can answer it.”

Some rabbis love being the center of attention, getting all the accolades.  Others simply want to quietly serve their communities.  I will share a time in Mexico City when I became the unwanted center of attention.  But first let me continue from yesterday.  Yesterday I spoke about the first years of my rabbinate, my slow break with Orthodox practice, the growth of my young family, the writing of books, and the move from Nyack to Pittsburgh to Tamarac, Florida.  I spoke about how Tamarac needed a rabbi who was a healer.  They had been a year without a rabbi.  The synagogue was going through a time of transition.  It was struggling with the question of whether to give women aliyot or count them in the minyan.  Could I be that healing rabbi?

In my try-out sermon on the Shabbat before Passover here in Tamarac, I compared Moses and Aaron.  Moses was a man of the law.  As the Talmud teaches, Moses would say yikov hadin at hahar -“let the law pierce the mountain.”  The law is the law and there is no room for compromise.   Moses’ brother Aaron on the other hand was a peace maker.  The Talmud teaches Aaron was ohev shalom v’rodef shalom – “loved peace and pursued peace.”  A good rabbi has to find the balance between Moses and Aaron, advocating for the law but being a healer.  You must have heard my message because you hired me.  I pray that I have been the healer you were looking for.  I have served here 29 years.  You have watched all three of my children grow up, celebrated three b’nai mitzvah, watched my daughter get married, and my wife and I become grandparents. You have also watched us struggle as the sandwich generation, dealing with elderly parents and eventually watching our parents pass on.   You have also watched as my ideas about Judaism have evolved and developed.

Yesterday I described my trip to the former Soviet Union and the question, what kind of rabbi did I want to be? Did I want to be an international political activist?  Did I want to be a chaplain?  Did I want to be a corporate C.E.O?  Did I want to be a university professor?   Shortly after coming here I began to find a niche.  I had written a book about adoption and a book about sexual ethics.  Soon I wrote a third book about family relationships, God, Love, Sex, and Family.  What do we owe our parents, our siblings, our spouse, and our children?  I found that there are ideas in Judaism that are powerful, and that I wanted to share not simply with Jews but with non-Jews.  Judaism has something to teach the world.  I wanted to be that teacher.  I wanted to be a rabbi who shares ideas with the world.  And so I continued my writing and speaking.  And thus began another adventure.

I saw an ad in a magazine about an international conference on the family.  The conference was to take place in Geneva, Switzerland.  I looked at the list of speakers – Protestants and Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, even a Buddhist or two.  But no Jews.  All these speakers at a pro-family conference, but no rabbi.  I had written a book on family life.  So in a moment of chutzpah, I contacted the organizers.  Would they be interested in a speaker on Judaism and the family?  The conference was organized by a Christian family values group out of Rockville, Illinois.  Next thing I knew, I had a plane ticket to Geneva and a hotel room, and I was on the schedule to speak.  I loved the conference.  I spoke about a couple of verses in the Torah.  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  “Therefore, a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife.”  It does not say that a man shall leave his mother and father for a life of casual hook-ups and one-night stands.  Those who attended the conference loved what I had to say.  The press covering the congress said it was a gathering of religious Christians and Orthodox Jews.  I guess I was the “Orthodox Jew.”  Then the organizers invited me to be on the planning committee for the next such conference.  They wanted Jewish input.

The follow-up conference was to take place in Mexico City, but the planning meeting was in Venezuela, a couple of hours outside Caracas, on a hacienda owned by the family that makes Santa Teresa rum.  Hugo Chavez had just come into power and turmoil had not yet descended on Venezuela.  I was the only Jew on the planning committee and it was a marvelous experience.  I even brought back several bottles of rum.  So we planned a Mexico City conference.  Again, I would speak in Mexico City.  Thanks to the kindness of our board, at the suggestion of Morris Small alav hashalom, I was able to bring Evelyn along to Mexico. It was the Spring of 2004.  We were wined and dined, both by people at the conference and members of the Jewish community of Mexico City.  It was a great trip.

Again, I spoke about family.  My speech had a simultaneous translation into Spanish.  This time I became the unwanted center of attention.  Immediately after the speech the Mexico City press surrounded me.  I thought they would want to know about Jewish family life.  No, there was only one question they asked me.  Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ had just opened.  What did I think of it?  I had actually seen the movie, in a theater full of people who cried as Jesus suffered and died.  My only thought at the time – this is not my story.  I told reporters that Jews understand the power this movie has for our neighbors, but it is not our story.

Our planning committee met at the conference.  They were thinking about the next conference, which was to take place in Warsaw, Poland.  Someone said, and I quote, “At our next conference, we have to deal with biggest problem facing family life today.  The biggest problem is that gays want to marry.”  That is when I opened my mouth.  “No, the biggest problem is not that gays want to marry.  The problem is that nobody else does.”  I realized that I could no longer participate in these conferences.  I did not share the view of these Orthodox Christians about the gay and lesbian community.  I had lost a brother who was gay, and friends who were gay.  There would be no more international conferences for me.  By that decision, I missed out on a lot of world travel.  They have had meetings in Sydney, Moscow, Amsterdam, and this year in Verona, Italy.  But I could not be part of it.  Within a few years, we would invite a gay-lesbian synagogue to meet in our building.   Several years later, I would officiate at my gay wedding.  I was making a serious break with the near Orthodoxy of my younger rabbinate.

One more story about this entire adventure.  In Geneva I had spent time talking with an author I really admired.  His name is David Blankenhorn (not Jewish) and he had written a book called Fatherless America.  His concern was the number of fathers in America who were abandoning their children, and the number of children growing up without dads.  I loved his book and I enjoyed meeting him.  This fit into my idea of cleaving to one’s wife and being there for one’s children.  When I met him, Blankenhorn was a very traditional conservative thinker about family values.  A few years later I heard him on the radio.  But he had changed his mind.  He still was concerned about fathers and family life.  But on the radio, he was expressing a new message.  We need to permit gay marriage!  When the Torah says, “it is not good for man to be alone,” he said that this refers to everyone including gays.  Our understanding of the world is changing.  Blankenhorn is a Christian, but as a Jew I agree with him.  Our understanding of Jewish law and practice must also change.

Meanwhile, our synagogue was going through our own transformation.  It was happening slowly and carefully, but it was happening.  In 1993 bat mitzvahs were moved from Friday night to Shabbat morning.  At first the father took the aliya to the Torah and the daughter chanted the haftarah.  Then we decided to give women aliyot.  The first aliya given to a woman was on Yom Kippur.  That same Yom Kippur we introduced duchening, having the kohenim bless the congregation.  People were confused.  Was I moving us to the right or to the left?  I answered, “Yes.”  We are moving towards more participation.

We continued on the path to egalitarianism.  Women were counted in the minyan.  Women could lead the service.  Eventually we changed the wording of the Amidah to include not just the fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but the mothers – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.  We made other changes.  Some were successful – moving to a shortened Torah reading in the main sanctuary with an alternative full Torah reading in the chapel.  Some were less successful – using a guitar and professional song leader at Friday night services.  Some were simply the direction of the Conservative movement.  I was still not permitted to perform a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew.  But I can call a Jew and a non-Jew up for an aufruf on Shabbat morning and give them my blessing.  Over the course of a number of years, we went from a synagogue where women were not allowed on the bima to a synagogue with a talented, young woman cantor, Cantor Jenna Kramarow.

Over those years, I tried to share ideas with the world.  I had written three books, on adoption, sexual ethics, and family life.  Now the idea for a fourth book was developing in my mind.  Tradition teaches that God tested Abraham ten times.  Perhaps God tests each of us ten times.  I wrote a book called The Ten Journeys of Life.  It was my most universal book, written not just for Jews but for anyone.  And I found a wonderful publisher, the same people who had published Chicken Soup for the Soul.  Around the time the book was published, I began sending out a weekly spiritual message.  I have now published those messages every Wednesday for twenty years.  They go to our members, but also non-members, rabbis and Christian clergy, students I have taught over the years, people in many countries, and a variety of spiritual seekers of many faiths.  The key point is that they are not just messages about being Jewish but messages about being a human.  More and more, that has been my calling as a rabbi.  What does Judaism teach about being human?

Let me explore with you the last chapter of my book The Ten Journeys of Life.  That chapter is about our Torah reading this morning on the second day of Rosh Hashana.  It is the story we Jews know as the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  It is one of the most difficult stories in the entire Bible.  God says to Abraham, “take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”   Abraham obeys God, leads Isaac up a mountain, and almost sacrifices him.  An angel stops Abraham at the last minute.  How can we possibly explain this story?  Let me give two explanations that totally disagree with one another.  The first comes from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who built his entire philosophy on this Biblical story.  The second comes from me and my book The Ten Journeys of Life.

Abraham is the great hero of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.  He is a man of faith.  He is willing to obey God even if God demands something unethical.  To Kierkegaard, ethics is secondary.  Faith is what is important, even if faith leads to absurdity.  Kierkegaard invented the phrase “leap of faith.”  Abraham took the ultimate leap of faith, to the point of almost killing his own son.  He is a hero.  Life is about living with a passionate faith in God, even if that faith leads to absurd conclusions.  Life is about suspending the ethical to do God’s will.  We should all be people of faith, living in God’s presence even if it is absurd.  I love teaching Kierkegaard, but on this question, I believe he was wrong.  There are too many people who do absurdly unethical things in the name of faith.

I think we need to look at the story differently.  When Abraham and Isaac went up the mountain, twice the Torah says they went up together.  When Abraham went down the mountain, he was alone.  There was a total estrangement between father and son.  Never again in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk with one another.  The Midrash teaches that when Abraham returned to his wife Sarah to tell her what happened, she immediately died.  Perhaps Abraham failed the test.  Perhaps the test was not about obeying God but disobeying God in order to sanctify life.

In ancient times, human life was cheap and child sacrifice was common.  To get a sense of how cheap human life used to be, watch any episode of Game of Thrones.  People kill each other for the slightest of reasons, or for no reason.  There is even one episode where a father kills his daughter because a religious leader, a red witch, tells him to do so.  Her sacrifice will help him win the war.  What is the lesson of the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac?  Kierkegaard said it is a story about absolute faith and obedience to God.  My Orthodox colleagues would say the same thing.  God said it, the Torah says it, tradition says it, we have to do it.  I have seen a bumper sticker that says, “God said it.  I believe it. That settles it.”  I disagree with that bumper sticker.  To be a Jew is not to submit to God, that is the meaning of Islam.  To be a Jew is to wrestle with God, that is the meaning of Israel – “wrestles with God.”  Abraham argues with God regarding Sodom and Gemorrah.  Why did he not argue with God regarding his own son?  I am not a believer in blind obedience.  There are times when something is written in our sacred text where I have to say, “No!”  That is one of the reasons I am no longer an Orthodox Jew.

There are times when we must break with tradition, do what we believe is right even if God and Torah teach differently.  There are times when I must do what is in my heart, even if Torah and tradition teach differently.  I made a break with the Orthodoxy of my younger days.  But to me, this is the Jewish path.  I was happy with the direction of my rabbinate.  But like so many people, I would face a midlife crisis.  That midlife crisis would take me to Israel.    But to learn more about that, come back on Kol Nidre night.

May each of us find our own purpose in life on this Rosh Hashana.  And may you be written in the Book of Life for a Shana Tova, and let us say

Amen.
FORTY YEARS IN THE RABBINATE: A CAFÉ IN JERUSALEM

Kol Nidre   2019 – 5780

Two men were standing in the middle of the road holding signs that read “The End is Near.”  A car drove up and the driver shouted, “Get out of my way, you religious fanatics.”  The car drove forward and the men heard a crash.  This happened a few more times.  Finally, one of the men said to the other, “Do you think we should change the signs to read ‘Bridge Out Ahead.’”

“The End is Near.”  All of us reach a time in our lives when we start to realize that we are closer to the end than the beginning.  Remember that wonderful scene in City Slickers when Billy Crystal looks in the mirror and says, “This is the best I am going to look for the rest of my life.”  All of us, even if we are happy with our job and like what we do, hit a point where we say, “Is this all there is?”  “Am I doing what I want to do?”  “Where do I go from here?”  Even rabbis have mid-life crises.

I have met men who deal with a mid-life crisis by buying a red sportscar or having an affair or going off to live on a commune in Oregon.  None of these are my style.  For me, the way to deal with a mid-life crisis is to go for a spiritual recharge in the one place I call “a spa for the soul.”  And that spa for the soul is Jerusalem.  And so, in the summer of 2001, by myself, I took off for Israel.  I used every airline point I had to buy a business class ticket.  It was the only time in my life I have ever flown to Israel business class.  It was luxury.  I stayed in Jerusalem for a solid week, sitting in a café with my computer, eating kosher onion soup and writing.  At first I wrote sermons.  But those sermons eventually turned into a book which I called The Kabbalah of Love.

Israel has always been an important part of my life.  When I was nineteen years old, I bummed through Europe with a pack on my back, ending up in Israel for two weeks.  During that trip I decided to go back for my junior year of college.  I was a mathematics major and actually took mathematics classes in Hebrew at the Hebrew University.  Thank God I met an Israeli friend, religious, who helped me survive those classes.  It was during that year that I first thought about becoming a rabbi.  I went back to Israel for another year during my Rabbinic studies.  I went with my wife when we were newlyweds, and then back again with my entire family when my children were young.  I have led a synagogue trip and gone for a convention, and a couple of years ago I even went for a wedding.  But that trip in the summer of 2001 was different.  It was for a spiritual recharge.  I thank Evelyn for letting me go.

I was in Israel during the time known as the second intifada.  Shortly before I arrived, terrorists had blown up the Dolphinarium Discotheque in Tel Aviv, killing 21 Israelis including 16 teenagers.  There was tension in the air and security was very tight.  Many Americans refused to go to Israel during that time.  And yet I felt I needed to go, not just for the sake of Israel but for my own sake.  Later we would hear of the constant attacks on buses and cafes.  I totally understand why Israel needed to build a wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories.  With the wall, the terrorist attacks mostly stopped.  But that year, 2001, terrorism would come to haunt us in the United States.

What was my book The Kabbalah of Love about?  It was my first work of fiction.  It is the story of a rabbi who goes to Israel while facing a midlife crisis.  They say that if you are going to write fiction, write about what you know.  There in a café while eating onion soup this middle-aged rabbi meets a man he used to know when he studied mathematics in Israel.  The man tells him a story.  Although my book was fiction (I do not know what became of my fellow math student from my junior year), it was based on my real feelings at that time.  The rabbi in the novel, living through me, finds his sense of purpose once again through his meetings with this mathematician – kabbalist.

When I finished my book, I sent it out to a publisher in California.  She sent me a beautiful note.  “I read your book and I’m in love.”  She sent me a contract.  I flew to California to meet with her.  Everything was going well.  She worked on editing the book.  Then one day I received word.  Her publishing company had gone broke.  She would not be publishing my book, nor any other book.  Life is filled with disappointments.  She gave me back the rights to my book and I self-published it on Amazon.  Needless to say, it was not a huge commercial success, although it is still out there.  One day I hope some movie producer will stumble across the book and decide to make a movie about a middle-aged rabbi who meets a kabbalist in a café in Jerusalem.  Perhaps Brad Pitt can star in it.  But writing the book did spark my interest in kabbalah, something that is still part of my Jewish life today.  I will have more to say about kabbalah tomorrow.  And writing my book reinforced my love of Israel.

I flew back from Israel to meet my family at my brother’s home in Philadelphia.  My youngest son Ben, twelve at the time, and I decided to spend a day in New York City.  It was a wonderful day, including a Broadway Show and a trip to the top of the World Trade Center.  Who would have dreamed that two months later, on September 11, 2001 the World Trade Center would be gone, together with thousands of lives?  Among those precious lives were two young people from our synagogue – Michelle Goldstein who taught in our religious school and whose wedding I had performed the previous winter, and Josh Rosenblum, who was about to be married that coming fall.    Like so many of us, when I think about that horrible day, I am forced to confront my own mortality.  Why am I in this world and what must I accomplish while I am still here?

Let me return to Israel as a spa for the soul.  In early Zionism there was a great argument between two major thinkers, Theodore Herzl and Ahad HaAm.  Herzl believed in political Zionism.  The Jewish state would solve the political problem of the Jewish people; Jews would finally have a homeland.  Herzl had little use for religion or spirituality.  He was a totally secular Jew.  Ahad HaAm had a totally different vision.  He dreamed of an Israel that would be a spiritual and cultural center for the Jewish people.  Hebrew songs, Israeli folk dance, Jewish art, Jewish theater, and even new ways to observe and practice Judaism would go out to the world.  Judaism was like a bicycle wheel with multiple spokes, with Israel as the center.  This is how I saw Israel, as a center for Jewish life.  Who could have dreamed that one of the most popular television shows in America would be Shtisel, an Israeli show in Hebrew about an ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem?  Both Herzl and Ahad HaAm were correct.  Yes, Israel is a political home to Jews throughout the world.  But Israel is also a spiritual and cultural center of Jewish life.  For me that summer, Israel was a spiritual center.

Nonetheless, for much of the world Israel has no right to exist.  Much of the world asks the question, how can we destroy this country?  In fact, there have been three different tactics used by Israel’s enemies to remove Israel from the map.  The first tactic was outright war.  When David ben Gurion declared a Jewish state in May of 1948, five Arab countries attacked her.  Their goal was to push the Jews into the sea.  The world stood by, waiting for a second Holocaust.  Most countries including the United States withheld weapons from the fledgling state.  And so began a series of wars to destroy the Jewish state – in 1948, in 1956, in 1967, in 1973, a war of attrition, several wars in both Lebanon and Gaza.  Finally, slowly the Arab world realized that war would not destroy the Jewish state.  Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel.  Even the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have had quiet relations with the state of Israel.  They share a common enemy – Iran.   And the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Let me share a memory.  I was with a group of rabbis who met with a prominent American political leader.  He spoke of a meeting he had with Golda Meir during these difficult times.  She shared with him the multiple threats to Israel from every border.  And yet she seemed strangely serene.  He finally asked her, how do you handle the pressure and keep calm?   Golda Meir answered, “You have to understand.  We Israelis have a secret weapon.”  “What is your weapon?”  He asked.  Golda Meir answered, “We have nowhere else to go.”

The second tactic to destroy Israel has been terrorism.  In a schoolhouse in Maalot, at Ben Gurion Airport, at the Olympic Games in Munich, on an Air France flight hijacked to Entebbe, in a discotheque in Tel Aviv, the goal was to kill Israelis, and if possible, other Jews.  In 2000 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Yasser Arafat and President Clinton at Camp David.  Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital.  Arafat said absolutely no.  And the Palestinian reaction was the second intifada, the bombings and killings which we have already described.  War has not destroyed Israel.  And terrorism has not destroyed Israel.  So today there is a third tactic to destroy Israel, challenging the very legitimacy of Israel in the eyes of the world.

Today, the world is debating whether Israel has the right to exist at all.  No one ever challenges whether Ireland or India or Colombia have a right to exist.  Only Israel is open for debate.  And there is a very aggressive attempt to question the very legitimacy of Israel.  I am not talking about how to make peace with the Palestinians.  I am talking about whether there should be a nation called Israel at all, whether the Jewish people deserve a state.  There is a major movement called B.D.S. boycott, divestment, sanction, to isolate Israel.  Some of the strongest anti-Israel voices are heard on college campuses.  Our youngsters are subjected to this.  Israeli speakers are prevented from speaking, demonstrators have their anti-apartheid week vilifying the existence of Israel.  Often what begins as attacks on Israel becomes attacks on Jews.  Our students can testify to this.

We are living in an age of growing antisemitism.  When I think about this growing antisemitism in the world today, I am reminded of the 1965 humorous song by Tom Lehrer National Brotherhood Week – “The Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Protestants hate the Catholics, the Hindus hate the Moslems, and everybody hates the Jews.”  We are hated on the right and we are hated on the left.   The far right has always hated us, the white supremacist racists, the skinheads and neo-Nazis.  On October 27, 2018 one of those white supremacists burst into Tree of Life synagogue in the quiet, Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, PittsburghIt was not my old synagogue, but it was not far.  I had been there for many meetings and programs.  When the man was finished, eleven Jews at Shabbat morning prayers had been massacred.  He blamed the Jews for Moslem immigrants.  Then on April 27, 2019 it happened again in Poway, California, near San Diego, not far from where I went to college.  A gunman attacked Jews at prayer in Chabad, killing one and injuring three, including the rabbi.  In Europe, extremist attacks on Jews is becoming more and more common, to the point where Jews are fleeing France and Germany.

It is not only the right that hates us.  More and more the progressive left hates us, the ones who call Israel an apartheid state and would not permit Jews to march with a rainbow Jewish star in a gay pride parade.  The rainbow star was forbidden but Palestinian flags were permitted.  At the University of Michigan, a professor refused to write a letter of recommendation required for a student to study in Israel.  Professor John Cheney-Lippold declined to write the letter because he supports the boycott of Israel.  None of his students would be allowed to study in Israel.  This is what Jewish students are facing.

I believe many rabbis in the country are dedicating entire sermons on this set of holidays to antisemitism.  I deliberately chose not to write such a sermon.  I think about the well-known book by the French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, Antisemite and Jew.  According to Sartre, Jews only exist because anti-Semites exist.  Without anti-Semites there would be no Jews.  I do not agree with Sartre.  I will not let Jew haters define me.  I am a Jew and I am a rabbi, not because someone hates me but because I love Jewish tradition.  And I am a Jew and I am a rabbi, not because people want to destroy Israel but because I love Israel.

It is for these reasons that I have made a choice over the last number of years to become active in AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.)  The purpose of AIPAC is to strengthen the ties between the United States and Israel.  It is not Democratic nor Republican, but simply American.  Each March I join with about 18,000 of my closest friends including about 1000 rabbis in Washington D.C. for the annual AIPAC policy conference.  I go to many conventions and meetings, but this is probably the best one I go to.  This coming year, working with our Cantor and our early childhood director Ronit, we are bringing a delegation of fifteen teenagers to Washington.   In a world that has come to demonize Israel, this is our part to strengthen Israel.

Does that mean Israel is perfect?  Not at all.  Israel is facing some serious issues.  It is not just war and peace or relations with the Palestinians.  There are serious questions about the role of religion in the life of Israel.  Right now an ultra-orthodox rabbinate has control over all religious life including marriage and divorce, conversion, and burial.  As a Conservative rabbi, I am forbidden to perform a wedding or a funeral in Israel.  In fact, this past year Israeli police arrested a Conservative rabbi in Haifa and dragged him to the police station at the crack of dawn.  His crime – performing an unauthorized wedding.

Most of you know that I performed a number of conversions in South America, in Cali, Colombia.  My most negative experience with Israel happened when one of my conversion students, a teenager, won the annual Jewish Bible contest in Colombia.  She was supposed to represent Colombia on Israel Independence Day in Jerusalem at the National Bible Contest.  But Israel refused to recognize the conversion and would not let her come.  I called the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem to fight on her behalf.  In the end, she flew to Miami, did a quicky Orthodox conversion, and was permitted to participate in the contest.  There is no reason Israel should turn away a legitimate conversion done according to Jewish law by a legitimate rabbi.  But this is the politics of modern Israel.

Having said that, I love Israel.  It is a spiritual center of Jewish life.  I grew up in a world where Jews bought Israel Bonds and put money in a pushke to plant trees in Israel.  My grandparents and parents saw Israel as a miracle.  I am working hard for the survival and prosperity of Israel.  I love Israel and sometimes I disagree with Israel.  It is like my children.  I love my children and sometimes I disagree with my children.  We must fight those in Israel who refuse to recognize legitimate conversions.  We must fight those in Israel who refuse to allow Women of the Wall to say their prayers and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.  We must fight those in Israel who will not allow me or any other Conservative rabbi to perform a wedding or a funeral.  But even as we participate in that fight, we must fight those who seek to demonize and destroy the Jewish state.  As I remind people, if Israel had existed in the thirties and the forties, there would not have been a Holocaust.

This set of High Holidays I have been reflecting on my forty-year career as a rabbi.  I have not travelled to Israel as often as many of my colleagues, my Hebrew may not be as strong as it used to be, but as I think about it, I realize how Israel has been a vital part of my rabbinate.  I have studied there.  I have visited there.  My children have participated in various Israel programs including the Alexander Muss High School in Israel and Birthright.  And when I am truly feeling down about Israel, a memory comes back of that first trip I took to Israel when I was nineteen years old.  It was a period of my life when I loved folk-dancing.  And so, in Jerusalem, I went Israeli folk-dancing.  It was also the period of the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal, shortly before the brutal Yom Kippur War.  A member of their folk-dance group had been killed on the canal.  The dancing stopped for some brief reflections.  I did not speak any Hebrew at that time, but someone translated the words for me.  They had a moment of silence.  And then the music started up and we were dancing once again.  I realized that the wars, the terrorism, the hatred of Israel, would not stop Israelis from dancing.  It would not stop people from celebrating the joy of a Jewish state.

Tomorrow before Yizkor I want to share one last reflection on my forty-year career as a rabbi.  If you remember my words at Rosh Hashana, I was near Orthodox in my beliefs and practices.  My ideas have evolved.  Where do I stand today?  What do I believe?  And how did I get there?  Come tomorrow as a share some new insights on what it means to be a Jew.

Meanwhile I pray that Israel become an important part of our lives, not just as Jews but as Americans.  And let us say, Amen.

FORTY YEARS IN THE RABBINATE: DOCTOR OR RABBI?

Yizkor   2019 – 5780

A rabbi and a doctor became best friends.  The rabbi went to the doctor for a check-up and agreed to eat better, exercise, and take care of himself.  The doctor went to the rabbi and agreed to become more involved in Jewish life and start coming to Shabbat services.  So, their friendship grew, at least for a while.  Then one day the doctor called his rabbi friend and said, “I need a favor.  Can you send me a copy of your last four High Holiday sermons for one of my patients?”  The rabbi was thrilled.  He asked the doctor, “What is your patient suffering from?”  The doctor paused a moment and then answered, “Insomnia.”

We Jews love stories about rabbis and doctors.  But what happens when a rabbi becomes a doctor, earning a PhD?  Does he become rabbi doctor or doctor rabbi?  Which title comes first?  I faced that question as I earned my PhD in 2016.  I decided that in the synagogue I am rabbi and when I teach college, I am doctor, and to the rest of the world I am just me.  I am Michael Gold, a native of Los Angeles, a brother, husband, father, grandfather, rabbi, teacher, preacher, and these last few years, doctor of philosophy.  Earning a doctorate, something I meant to do in my spare time, deeply affected what I am, including my beliefs about Judaism.   I have been speaking throughout these High Holidays about reflections on forty years in the rabbinate.  Today let me speak about the past decade and a half.

Let me go back to the Fall of 2005.  Evelyn and I flew to New York City for a special ceremony.  We saw the show Wicked on Broadway.  You know that I have a tradition of quoting a line from a Broadway show at least once in my High Holiday sermons.  My favorite line from Wicked is, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”   I can say that about so many of the people I have encountered here at TBTST in my position here since 1990.  I can say that about this reunion with my Rabbinical school classmates.  My classmates and I received honorary doctorates for surviving twenty-five years in the rabbinate.  It was actually twenty-six years; the seminary was a bit slow following through. Not all of eleven of us showed up.  Some had left the rabbinate.  And one of our classmates, who many of us were extremely close to, had tragically died.  Part of the ceremony was a tribute to him.  But the philosophy of the Jewish Theological Seminary was, if you can survive twenty-five years at this job, you are worthy of honor.  The technical term is a doctorate honoris causa, to use good Latin.  And so I received an honorary doctorate.  Shortly afterward a thought began to develop which I shared with my wife.  I did not simply want an honorary doctorate; wanted a real doctorate.

In my seminary days, there were two kinds of rabbinical students.  There were those like me who were planning to work in synagogues.  And there were those who were planning to receive PhDs and enter the academic world.  There was no question whom the professors favored, whom they invited to their homes, whom they joined for lunch in the seminary cafeteria or whom they spent time getting to know.  The future academics were the in-group, and as a future pulpit rabbi, I was not part of that in-group.  I did not want to go into academics, to spend the rest of my life in a library doing research.  I wanted to work with people.  No PhD for me.  I was going to enter the synagogue world.

Then twenty-five years went by and I changed my mind.  Sometimes when I think about that PhD, I think that if I had known how hard it would be, how much time it would take, how much it would cost, I would have thought twice.  But the time was right, and at an age where I was older than many of my professors, I became a student again.  I wondered whether I should use my AARP card or my student card to get a discount at the movies.  I do thank my wife Evelyn and my children for having infinite patience during this time.

I was lucky.  Florida Atlantic University has a PhD program called the Public Intellectuals Program, for people who speak out on public issues.  That certainly describes me.   They would allow me to enter the program on a part time basis.  That was fortunate because it took eleven years, six years of classes and five years to write a dissertation.  It was a full PhD – language requirement, they allowed me to pass in Hebrew and eventually Aramaic.  PhD project – they accepted the books I had published.  Comprehensive exams – I remember taking the exam on-line, twelve hours on my computer at home.  In the middle of the exam our dog ran away.  I told my son Ben and his friend, Buddy will have to find his way home on his own.  I cannot chase him right now.  I finally interrupted the exam to search for our dog, but was so flustered I drove over my cellphone.  And of course, there was the dissertation, basically writing a book for four people, an original piece of academic research.

The dissertation for public intellectuals had to be written in two academic departments; I chose philosophy and Jewish studies.  For philosophy I studied Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of process philosophy.  Process philosophy has become extremely popular in some Jewish and Christian circles, my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson, the head of the Ziegler Rabbinical School, recently published a book on it.  For the Jewish Studies, I studied the creation story in the Zohar, the great medieval book on kabbalah.  I do not know what was harder to understand, Alfred North Whitehead’s English or the Zohar’s Aramaic.  Thank you, Cheryl Temkin for being my study partner in the Aramaic.  My final dissertation was an interpretation using Whitehead’s thought to read the creation story in the Zohar.  I successfully defended the dissertation, and so became doctor rabbi.  The synagogue was kind enough to honor be at Shabbat services and several congregants celebrated my success, or perhaps the fact that I was finally finished.

Let me share a true story.  Shortly after receiving the PhD, I ran into a prominent Jewish leader, not a rabbi, in our community.  I will not share his name for reasons that will become obvious.  He asked me what I wrote my PhD dissertation on.  I told him the whole story, Whitehead’s process philosophy and the mystical creation story in the Zohar.   He gave me a stern, almost accusatory look.  Then he harshly said to me, “Tell me.  How is that going to make this into a better world?”  I was truly taken aback.  I did not know that a scholarly piece of research was meant to make this a better world.  But I suppose the rest of this sermon is an answer to his question.

I did write a book based on my dissertation that I called Three Creation Stories, my first book in over a decade.  It was published a year ago by a publisher out of Oregon.  I suppose the purpose of the book was to explain my ideas to the world.  In many ways, my work helped me rethink my very conception of Judaism.  In December I will be sharing my ideas at the biennial convention of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Boston.   These ideas helped me come up with an understanding of Judaism that I believe can help change the world.  I will turn to that in a moment.  But first, let me teach you something that was at the heart of my dissertation.

I want to teach you a fancy new word – hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics.  It means “interpretation,” in particular, “the interpretation of Biblical texts.”  So why not just use the word “interpretation.”  Because I was writing for the philosophy department, and philosophers do not like the word “interpretation,” they like the word hermeneutics.  I had to devote an entire chapter of my dissertation to it. The central question of hermeneutics is, what do the words of the Torah actually mean?   Does a passage from the Torah mean what the author had in mind when he wrote it?  The author could be God, or Moses, or according to Biblical scholars J, E, P, and D.  When I read the Bible, do I assume the text means what the author said?  Or does a text mean what the interpreter says it means?  Do we have the right to interpret the Torah, often far from the meaning of the original text?  Can I be creative in interpreting a text?  Does the meaning of a text change over time?

On Rosh Hashana I spoke about how, as a young rabbi, I was nearly Orthodox.  I looked at the text as if God wrote it and I read it very fundamentally.  But as I have shown throughout this series of sermons, my beliefs have changed.  I have come to believe in what I often call “the chutzpah of the rabbis.”  I believe in the right of the rabbis to interpret and reinterpret texts.  The rabbis teach that every verse of the Torah has seventy different interpretations.  There are multiple ways to interpret the Torah.  The great rabbi and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, AL, famously said, “the Torah is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.”  Hermeneutics says a text means not what the original author says it means, but what the rabbis in each generation say it means.  It reminds me of Humpty Dumpty’s famous words to Alice in Wonderland, “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  Now, after writing an entire chapter in my dissertation on hermeneutics, I believe in the right of each generation to interpret and reinterpret the Torah.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is to look at a question we all face, what does the Torah say about death and life after death.  Let me apply hermeneutics to the question of life after death.  It is the central question of Yom Kippur.  How do we confront death?  How do we understand our mortality?  Judaism teaches that when we say Yizkor, we are literally helping the souls of our loved ones who have passed on.  That is why Yizkor at Yom Kippur is the most crowded time of the year in every synagogue in the world.  Death is a reality for all of us.  Does Yizkor really help the souls of our loved ones?  How are we to understand death?

There is an old Buddhist story about a woman, Kisa Gotami, who married a very wealthy man.  She had only one son, and then tragically, she lost her only son.  She was inconsolable and carried her son’s body on her hip from place to place.  Who can restore him to life?  Finally, someone told her to go to the Buddha.  She approached the Buddha with her dead son and told her sad story.  The Buddha answered, “I can help you.  But first you must go from house to house and find someone to give you a mustard seed.  One more rule, the mustard seed has to come from house that has never been touched by death.”   The woman felt great relief and as she went from house to house.  But she learned very quickly, there is no house that has not been touched by death.  Having learned her lesson, she returned to the Buddha and finally buried her son, becoming a follower of the Buddha.

The point is that we are all touched by death.  The Bible teaches in the book of Exodus, kee ain bayit asher ain sham met.  “There is no house where there was not someone dead.”  On Yom Kippur we relive our own deaths.   Like angels, we do not eat or drink, wash or wear comfortable shoes, anoint ourselves or have conjugal relations.  Confronting death is painful.  As Woody Allen famously said, “I do not want to achieve immortality through my works.  I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”   On Yom Kippur we say Yizkor for those who have died.  As I mentioned, the basic idea behind Yizkor is that our actions here in the world of the Living can benefit the souls of our loved ones who have passed on.  When we say Yizkor, the living help the dead.  But is that true?  What does the Torah say?  Here is where hermeneutics comes in.  The Torah says one thing.  The Rabbis, unhappy with the Torah’s answer, totally reinterpreted what the Torah says.  The mystics, unhappy with the Rabbi’s answer, totally reinterpreted what the Rabbis say.  There is layer upon layer of interpretation and reinterpretation.

What does the Torah say about death and the survival of the soul?  In truth, very little.  God formed humans from the dust of the earth, making us material creatures.  We have bodies.  Then God animated those bodies by breathing into them a breath of life.  We are bodies animated by the breath of God.  And when we die, the dust returns to the ground from where it came.  And the breath returns to God.  There is nothing about a soul surviving in the next world, let alone a soul coming back to this world.  In fact, there is nothing about a soul at all.  There is simply the breath of God animating bodies.  The Hebrew word for the soul neshama literally means breath.  In the Torah there is no life after death.

A good analogy is the computer.  A computer is made up of hardware and software.  The hardware is like the body, pure electronic parts that just sit there.  It takes software to animate that computer.  But when the computer dies, when the hard drive crashes, the software becomes useless.  I learned that a few years ago the hard way.  My computer crashed right before the high holidays, taking with it my carefully written sermons.  I did a panicky rewrite of everything.  And I learned to back up my computer.  The software of the computer is comparable to the breath of God.  Where does the computer software go when the computer dies?  Where does the neshama go when we are gone?  According to the Torah it simply returns to God.

The Rabbis who developed Judaism did not like this idea.  Neither did early Christianity nor early Islam.  There had to be more to the story.  According to the Rabbis, God created countless human souls and stored them in a place called guf.   When the time is right, God tells the soul to enter a body.  The soul is reluctant to go but is given no choice.  So we Jews say each morning, haneshama she’karata bi tehora hi.  “The soul You made in me is pure.  You created it.  You formed it. You blew it into me.  Someday you will take it from me, only to return it once again in the future.”   God created souls, God gives them to us, God one day will take them to some eternal place.  But in the end, God will send them back.  It is called mechiya hametim, the resurrection of the dead.  That is Rabbinic Judaism.  It is a radically different view of the soul.  And according to this view, our prayers can help those souls in the next world until they return to this world.

Where did this idea, accepted by Jews, Christians, and Moslems, come from?  Let me surprise you.  It comes from the Greeks.  It comes from Plato.  Plato taught that our souls come from a perfect, eternal place, which he called the World of the Forms.  They are sent into this imperfect world, but only temporarily.  One day they will return to the perfect place.  The only difference between Plato and Judaism is that Plato taught that the soul will not come back here.  It longs to escape from this world.  Judaism teaches that it will come back.  Certainly there is much that is comforting in this Rabbinic rethinking of the meaning of the soul.  It is nice to think that my soul was created by God, rather than being mere software that runs the hardware of my body.  This is what classical Rabbinic Judaism teaches, but it is a reinterpretation of the Torah.  It is hermeneutics at work.

Many people in the Middle Ages were unhappy with this Rabbinic view.  There was too big a gap between God and the world, God and our souls.  The question reminds me of one of my favorite stories.  A student asks his rabbi, “How far are we from God?”  The rabbi answers, “As far as east from west.”  “That far.  At the equator it is 25000 miles from east to west.”  The rabbi answers, “That far.”  Then as second student asks the rabbi, “How far are we from God?”  “As far as east from west.”  “That close.  I can be facing east, turn around in the same spot, and be facing west.”  The rabbi answers, “That close.”  The Rabbis of the Talmud were like the first student, who saw our souls as very far from God.  The mystics wanted a new interpretation, like the second student, where our souls are close to God.

This is what the mystics did in the system known as kabbalah.  According to classical Rabbinic Judaism, God created the world and God created our souls.  According to the mystics God did not create us at all.  God literally flowed into us.  God emanated into everything, including each of our souls.  Each of us is part of God.  It is as if we are waves and God is the ocean.  You can see each individual wave, but each is simply part of the greater ocean.  We are all part of the vast oneness.  Perhaps the Hindu tradition said it best.  Our individual selves are called atman.  The universal reality is called brahman.  But as Hindus teach, atman is brahman.   Everything is connected.  All is part of the universal oneness which is God.  This is what Hindus teach, and this is what Jewish mystics teach.

If you accept this mystical view, suddenly Yizkor makes sense.  My soul is part of that universal soul.  But so are the souls of my father, my mother, my brother, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, my grandparents, and all who have passed on.  What I do and say in this world can affect what happens to them.  For we are connected, everything is connected.  We can see the appeal and wisdom of the mystical tradition.  This is the power of hermeneutics, of reinterpreting rabbinic tradition.

According to Heschel, the Torah itself is an interpretation of God’s word.  Rabbinic Judaism is an interpretation of that interpretation.  And Jewish mysticism is a further interpretation.  God gave us the Torah and God said to interpret it.  The Talmud tells the story of Moses putting the little crowns on the letters of the written Torah.  He asked God, what are these for?  God says let me show you.  God brings him forward a couple thousand years to the classroom of the great Rabbi Akiba.   Rabbi Akiba is interpreting all those little crowns, and Moses does not understand a word the rabbi is saying.  Moses begins to feel weak.  Then Rabbi Akiba said, this is the Torah Moses gave us at Mt. Sinai. Suddenly Moses feels better.

Over these holiday sermons I have described how my ideas about being a rabbi have grown these past forty years.  Let me share one last thought.  People sometimes ask me, what is the most important ingredient of being a good rabbi?  Here is my simple answer.  You have to love Judaism and you have to love Jews.  I hope I have shared my love of Judaism through these sermons and stories.  What about my love of Jews?  I have been the rabbi of our congregation for twenty-nine of those forty years.  You are a second family to me.  I have been with you for life’s happiest moments, brises and baby naming, bar and bat mitzvahs, high school and college graduations, weddings and anniversaries.  But I have also been with you through life’s saddest moments, illness and growing old, death and mourning, and watching the torch passed on from an older to a younger generation.  I feel blessed to have been with you through the years, and hope to continue for a number of years to come.

May God bless our community as we begin to say our Yizkor prayers, and let us say,

AMEN.