Home > Membership > D'vrei Torah from KI Members > Rosh Hashanah Day 2
Hello everybody, and thanks for being here. Thanks for making the choice to be here.
Attending services—especially Rosh Hashanah second day—is a choice. In fact all Jewish practice is a choice. Even being Jewish is a choice.
I wonder if some of American’s most identifiable Jews—like Woody Allen, Billy Crystal and Barbara Streisand are in shul today. I would guess they’re not. In fact, I would be surprised if Woody Allen has been in a synagogue in the last decade. And the Christian world feels that Allen is the quintessential Jew.
In the days of our grandparents or great grandparents there were not many choices as to how you lived a Jewish life. Everyone was Orthodox—they kept kosher, kept the Sabbath, went to a small little shul—I mean walked—to the little shul on the corner and went to cheder every day after English school, if they went to English school at all.
But now there is a plethora of choices and lots of different denominations: Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad-Lubavitch.
But we all know that there are many gradations of opinions on how to be Jewish even within all of those categories. And some of us want to reject the religion part altogether, calling ourselves cultural Jews or secular Jews. We even have choices not to be Jewish at all and convert to another religion. Religious identification is no longer restricted by birth. Anybody can be any religion they want to be.
There is a true marketplace of religious thought and practice out there. Synagogues now find themselves branding their particular image, marketing who they are and defining their unique niche of their audience. In large cities especially, there are many synagogues and defining their religious identity to shul shoppers is important.
Years ago, someone told me about the Jewish ladder. Consider, he said, that all the Jews in the world were on one giant ladder—each one standing on a different rung. The rung you stand on is the only right one. Everyone below you on the ladder are heretics, non-believer and totally non-Jewish. And everyone above you is a totally crazy fanatic. But your rung is the perfect rung. Your particular and unique brand of Judaism is the only right one.
In this era of individual choice, we should think more seriously about the religious choices we make. Each person here today has made his or her choices and I bet they are all unique to the individual.
Several years ago there was a KI family who rarely went to synagogue and would probably describe themselves as secular Jews. Their daughter went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio. In her freshman year she had a late-night discussion with another Jew in the dorm. After the rather lengthy talk, he looked at her and said. What kind of Jew are you? At first, she took offense at the question, but later it really forced the girl to sit and ask herself that question, “What kind of Jew am I?” I believe we should all ask ourselves that question.
That question resulted in a lifelong quest of what Judaism was all about and what it meant to her. She dabbled with keeping kosher and ever wore long skirts for a time. Academically she studied Spanish and became very involved in South American culture and literature, but still explored her Jewish roots. When living on Colombia she finally ended up finding a guy through J-date who lives near Haifa, and that’s where she has made her home, living an orthodox life.
So here we are, all sitting together as a community and making the choice to come together for Rosh Hashanah services. Some of us from Conservative backgrounds, some of us from Reform backgrounds, and some of us from Christian backgrounds. But our little synagogue, Kehillat Israel, is a big tent for everyone. People are welcome if they have the slightest feeling that they are Jewish and never do anything ritually—all the way over to the cultish Jewish sects who are so orthodox that they won’t even eat cucumbers during Pesach, because the seeds look too much like wheat kernels (no hyperbole; this is true).
The fact is, we’re all Jews and we all belong in the tent. We are Klal Yisroel, a Hebrew expression than means all of Israel, or all the people of Israel. Diversity even within Judaism is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it is difficult to work with. It’s all about that rung thing. Our rung is right, and just about everyone else is wrong. For our KI tent to sustain ourselves, as Rabbi Zimmerman spoke about yesterday, we must all embrace each other as fellow Jews on the same quest of spiritual understanding.
Growing up in the Cleveland suburbs in the 50s and 60s, most Jews did not like the Orthodox. They were seen as inflexible, gruff, scary, smelly, arrogant and mysterious. Not many people walked around with a yarmulke in those days and I knew very few who kept kosher. So the orthodox were real oddities. To my parents keeping kosher was the height of craziness. If their fellow Jews kept kosher but also ate out in restaurants or in other peoples’ homes, they were labeled as hypocrites. But if they actually DID keep kosher completely and honestly, then they were seen as just plain nut cases. Clearly the orthodox couldn’t win.
But my mind was changed when I was in the Army stationed in Japan in the late 60s. I went to synagogue in a small place in Tokyo—it reminded me of a Hillel house. Through some devious means I got myself invited over to the home of an American family for shabbos dinner that night.
They were pearl dealers in Tokyo and lived in a modest sized apartment. As we sat down for dinner, the head of the house said to me, “Ken, we don’t know you. We don’t know what your family is like. But right now, this is your home. Feel free to do whatever you feel like doing during our shabbos rituals. But just know that you are now part of our family, you’re home.”
For a 20-year-old kid 5,000 miles from my little neighborhood, that meant a lot. But it also was an eye-opening experience, because these folks were orthodox and kept kosher, even in Tokyo. They taught their Japanese maid to speak snippets of Yiddish and they had their meat flown in from LA. But they weren’t gruff, or smelly or arrogant or inflexible. They were warm and sincere and we became good friends.
So what kind of Jews are we? Jewish life in 2012 suburban America sits on top of a huge fragile house of cards of thousands of fragments that make us who we are; the Torah, the 2700-page Talmud, the rabbinic traditions, the holocaust, Israel, modern society, and more. We must choose who we are very carefully or the entire house may fall down. At least we don’t have to make horrific choice that Abraham made in the Torah portion today, to sacrifice his son. But he made it steeped in his deep faith in God.
Choosing what kind of Jew we are is far more complex than you think. First off, the choices are bewildering and confusing. Because with each choice you also have to look at what you're missing or giving up by making the choice. For instance, let’s consider the choice of keeping shabbos: That would seem like an easy choice—a no-brainer in current jargon. Who would want to really keep Shabbos today? After all, who would want to give up driving, football games, shopping, and electricity every Saturday?
But the shabbos question has more layers than you may think. It’s not so crazy to have one day a week that we are not shackled to electronics and technology. Turning off the cell phone, the computer and the plasma TV for one day a week may not be such a bad idea. It would make a true break—a weekly sabbatical—from the everyday.
When I was in Jerusalem, Shabbos was a lovely time. As we walked to shul together, the streets were filled with other families all walking to shul. In the afternoon, families would walk around the neighborhood and visit each other. No reason to call, no one was going anywhere and everyone was home.
And what was really happening—a Jewish community was being built. People were spending time with one another without going to a movie, catching a phone call or going for coffee. In our super fast world, this island of time called shabbos makes sense. Shabbos dinner with friends, singing songs, lighting candles and eating challah. Saturday morning going to shul, then talking, visiting, napping, reading and relaxing in the afternoon, and lighting candles in the dark for Havdalah makes for a beautiful day.
One family I know has a special Friday night event called Shabbat Time Theater. The kids host a variety hour in the living room where each child and each adult comes up to the front of the room to sing or dance or tell a joke. It lasts for a couple of hours and is goofy and fun. The mother told me, “If we didn’t have shabbos, we would never have this special time together. The kids would all be at friend’s houses or stuck in their room with video games. They always find a different set of games to play during shabbos.”
I am not arguing for everyone here to become shomer shabbos—heaven knows I’m not—but simply to look at the choices we make considering all the alternatives and what we’re missing and giving up by making certain ones. Some folks get so incensed about some of the arcane rules of shabbos—you can’t put flowers in water, you can’t carry anything outside your home including a tallis bag or your child, you can’t open an umbrella—that they discard everything. They throw away the baby with the bath water.
Many people are turned off by all the myriad of rituals of Judaism that surround holidays, services and daily life. One friend, a very down-to-earth practical person, was decrying all of the seemingly senseless Jewish rituals. A few days later he came by to take me to a Spartan game,. He showed up at my door all bedecked in Spartan gear. And when we went to the stadium he had a certain order for everything he did—the entrance he usually went into, the food he bought, and what he did during half time. Everything was ordered and ritualized.
While many of us don’t want to be tied in to all the holidays and rituals, should we throw everything out? The joy of dancing around and acting crazy with the Torah on Simchas Torah, building a succah at home with the family every year and having meals there, giving away cookies and treats as mishloah manot for Purim.
All of these rituals make being a Jew special and unique. It’s fun for the children and the extended family and it defines us. The whole idea is building and nurturing community and a love of being Jewish, not being overly concerned with how observant or not observant other folks are. We’re all klal Yisroel.
Anti-semitism is raging in Europe, world wide support for Israel is at an all time low, Jews need the synagogue and the community to stay whole. And if we want to truly think about sustainability at Kehillat Israel and in Judaism in total, I think we should seriously explore deepening our Jewish lives, with understanding of what has come before us. The Jewish census is declining in America every year and of course so is synagogue membership.
Let’s celebrate our lives as Jews with our children, and give them a real reason to be Jewish and to live and identify with Jews of every stripe under the same big, diverse tent. Let’s be together, worship together, celebrate together and grieve together as a community of diverse Jews.
L’ shana tovah
September 18, 2012
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