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B'SHALOM RAV -RABBI RON SHULMAN'S SERMONS & THOUGHTS  2018-19 | 5779

a remarkable endeavor

Shabbat Bereshit 5779 | October 6, 2018

 
 
 
We begin again a most remarkable endeavor. For how many centuries have the Jewish people read Torah with an interpretive eye in order to bring forth meaning and spiritual insight? You and I, gathered here on a bright and lovely October morning, are not the original audience for the text we read today.
 
The story we encounter this morning was written for an ancient audience. People who knew about Greek gods, Mesopotamian myths, and Canaanite lore. People who believed gods became mortals and humans divine. Torah myths compete with other fabled traditions to capture minds and teach lessons.
 
Torah comes to us from an ancient time and a different context. Yet, we do with this sacred text precisely what generations of Jewish students and readers before us did. We probe narrative and textual detail, infusing words, stories, and even letters, with significance which may help us in our lives. We draw out ideas to engage us and ideals to inspire us.
 
We read and study Torah each week and every year to find truths not facts, to glean wisdom not data. We read and recount the tales and commands of Torah in order to place ourselves in the ever evolving and continuing story of the Jewish people, in order to bring purpose to being Jewish in a large world with a vast history. We are a small yet proud people who carry with us in every age and place the hope we have something to say for the benefit of all of humanity.
 
“When human beings began to increase on the earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of the humans were and took wives from among those who pleased them. The Eternal God said, My breath shall not abide in human beings forever, since they too are flesh; let the days allowed the humans be one-hundred and twenty years.”
 
It’s a strange tale, perhaps a tall tale. Why is it here? What can we learn from it? Remember, legends about relationships between gods and mortal women were popular in the Ancient Near East. These ancient tales of other cultures often describe how human beings and gods are similar creatures, with comparable features.
 
The core message of Torah is monotheism, that God is unique. The authors of Torah understand humanity has limits. We are not God, though being less than divine we strive in character and behavior to be God-like. It is humility and not arrogance the Torah strives to impart. For all of our physical, intellectual, and creative abilities, we confront real, finite limits on who we are, on what we are able to do, and on what we ought to do.
 
Even the greatest of all Torah personalities, Moses, described as the humblest of men; in Torah narrative lives no more than 120 years. For all of our striving and achieving, for all of our exploring and discovering, for all of our yearning and wanting, for all of our greatness and prominence in life, Torah reminds us. We’re only human.
 
Intended to clarify for an ancient audience the dignity and place of human beings, intended to set forth a new monotheism, which means a new sense of justice, for the world, this message of humility and perspective is no less necessary today.
 
Too often in our contemporary culture arrogance taints legitimate goals and disavows differing perspectives. The Rabbinic sage Reish Lakish observes that when human beings began to increase on the earth “quarreling came into the world.” It’s one thing to differ, to disagree, and to argue. It’s quite another to bluster and berate in order to achieve some false agreement. When someone wins at all costs everyone loses in the end.
 
The very last line of this morning’s Torah portion moves me. After God declares it very good that humanity exists, then seeing how people mess it all up, God despairs at the violence and rivalry people bring into society. We read, “But Noah found favor, hen, with the Eternal God.” Favor, hen, is graciousness and kindness.
 
We, too, hope to find favor in the people around us. Surrounded in our society by so much that is wickedly competitive and cumulatively crass, we need to reclaim the graciousness Noah represents to God.
 
We begin again a remarkable endeavor of the Jewish people, to read Torah with an interpretive eye in order to bring forth meaning and spiritual insight for our times and our lives.
 
Let’s start our venture with hen, with favor and graciousness. Let’s read and interpret Torah this year for affirmation, for inspiration, and for goodness. And, let’s strive to be for one another, if not like God, like Noah, kind and humble individuals.
 
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

my rabbinic letter about meaning

Yom Kippur Sermon 5779 | September 19, 2018
 

 

I hope to make it my practice each year on Yom Kippur to deliver my sermon as a letter to you. Along with a few personal reflections, I hope my letter is about a significant subject for us to consider on this most sacred of days. They say, whoever “they” are, that something isn’t a tradition until it has happened three times. Maybe so, but I can’t get to a third annual letter next year if I don’t deliver a second one today.
 
In my inaugural letter last year, I asked the question why. To answer, I explained why I believe our lives matter, why I believe our lives as Jews matter, and why I believe our Jewish practice and celebration matter. That letter is available here. Today my letter is about when life matters.
 
The practice of rabbinic letter writing comes down to us through the generations. An Iggeret is what we call rabbinic teaching in the form of a letter. Rabbi Israel Salanter of Lithuania wrote a particularly important one in 1858. He titled it, Iggeret haMusar, a letter about ethical behavior, and included this insight about human nature. “We love what is momentarily pleasant without anticipating the consequences, even though its end be bitter.”
 
For myself, and I suspect some of you, I learn Rabbi Salanter’s counsel in thinking about some of what I’m here to confess and atone for. I also recall the story of students in a college writing class who received this instruction about writing a short story. The short story they wrote had to contain three elements: religion, sexuality, and mystery. I’m now going to read you the only short story from the entire class receiving an A+ grade. “Good God, I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it.”
 
I will now begin “My Rabbinic Letter About Meaning.”
 
Dear Beth El Friends,
 
Last Yom Kippur afternoon during the break between services, in conversations with some of you, I decided today’s letter would be about meaning. Your words intrigued me. I listened to your descriptions.
 
“Life feels so demanding,” you said. We’re too busy. We push our children and ourselves toward accomplishment and attainment. It’s an effort to keep up and in our efforts to get it all in we fear something is missing.
 
“Meaning,” I told myself. Through all that engages us, we’ve lost sight of how meaning enters our lives, how we know our purpose along the way. We imagine life’s meaning is illusive. We suspect life’s meaning is some esoteric, spiritual, or unknowable truth. Today I want to offer you a different perspective.
 
Grateful we are together, I imagine what we do and experience here means something different to each and every one of us. We crowd this room with more than people. We fill this room with the contents of our lives, privately held and publicly shared.
 
Here we bring our memories and regrets, our expectations and desires. Here we confront the most mysterious and compelling aspects of our lives. Here we seek to wrest meaning for every other day in the physically and morally challenging spiritual exercise of observing Yom Kippur. We crowd this room with the individual and intimately personal meanings we attach to the successes and failures of our lives.
 
Consider this. Meaning in life results from usage. How we use, for ourselves and in our relationships with others, our words and thoughts. How we use our bodies and strength. How we use our power and position. How we use our talents and traits. How we use our emotions and frailties. How we use our beliefs and values.
 
As I write you this letter, I recall something Albert Einstein wrote. “The person who regards his (or her) own life and that of his (or her) fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy, but hardly fit for life.”
 
I hope you can understand this with me. To be fit for life is to be able to see every experience through the lens of its potential meaning. To be able to look not only at what happens but to see a significant and enduring memory in the occurrence. Let me share a unique example from the very early days of my rabbinate.
 
I was officiating at a Young Professionals’ High Holy Day service at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. We were meeting in the Don Rickles Auditorium. Mr. Rickles asked if he could address the group, and I had been waiting for him to appear – which he did at a very inopportune moment during the service.
 
I approached him and asked, “Do you want to speak right now, or…” Before I could ask him if he could wait just a few minutes, he answered me. “No you Hockey Puck rabbi, I want to speak next week!” Somewhat surprised, I walked him over to the podium and introduced him to the congregation.
 
Don Rickles then spoke sweet and sincere words. Don’t ask me what he said. I don’t remember. All I remember is the moment, a fun memory, and the meaning it produced for all of us who were there.
 
Here’s a more serious memory.
 
I was once witness to a conversation with Elie Wiesel. During the course of his musings and recollections, he thought out loud about the meaning of life.
 
“Life is not made of years, but of moments,” he declared. “Some are great moments. Others are sad moments. But in the end, the weight of those moments is a reflection of what you have done with your life, of what has been done to you.”
 
Those words have resonated with me ever since I heard Elie Wiesel speak them. He is absolutely correct.
 
Life matters in the moments. That’s it. There’s no bigger secret. Life matters in the moments, only in the moments - and afterward in the memory of those moments.
 
Few are the great speeches remembered after they are spoken. Many are the words appropriate to framing a moment and making it meaningful.
 
Few are the great plays made in a ballgame. Many are the plays that make up a game, comprise a season, and result in a successful career or a championship.
 
Few are the special ceremonies that mark the milestones of our lives or our accomplishments. Many are the occasions marking the seasons and stages of our lives.
 
Few are the profound conversations we share with loved ones and friends. Many are the simple words we speak to one another conveying interest, caring, and connection.
 
Few are the extraordinary days of distress or delight that define us. Many are the ordinary days during which we expend most of our efforts.
 
Few are the events of our daily experiences that stand out from the routine. Many are the moments that matter as they happen.
 
Looking back over the years of our lives, and the lives of those whom we remember, we discover life isn’t really about the days, months, or years. The meaning of life is this. Life matters in the moments.
 
Ours is a tradition rooted in moments. Grand and glorious moments like the creation of the world, the revelation of the Torah, and the redemption of our ancestors when we meet God in the religious and historic memories of the Jewish people. Ours is also a tradition rooted in simple and significant moments like the Shabbat and holidays we celebrate, the seasons and years we count, and the life cycle milestones we mark.
 
Judaism is a religion of time. We experience God in time not object, in history not place. We identify sacred time and ordinary time, living in concentric calendars of culture, religious values, public dates and personal occasions.
 
Therefore, understanding meaning in life, we begin with time, our most precious and fleeting possession. The reason we count the years, celebrate Shabbat and holidays, and mark the passing of time is precisely to give our lives their meaning. That’s our continual responsibility, to bring meaning to the very moments we live. Which suggests we have to pause, plan, and collect our moments. Which means we have to choose what and when they will be, how we will be present in them, and not be deterred by so much other busy-ness instead of them.
 
Occasionally, we may discover meaning in life through unexpected events and our spontaneous consumption of time. I recall an anecdote from another time and place.
 
A woman came to the synagogue one evening. She was in trouble. No place to sleep. No food to eat. No money. Two kids, an old car, and a broken spirit were all she had. She met me walking out of the building. “My name is Carol, can you help me?” I asked her what I could get for her. “Something for my children to eat,” she requested, “and gas money to get down to the shelter. I’ll pay it back, I promise.”
 
I went into the kitchen, found some food for her family, and from my wallet took out some money for her. Carol was embarrassed, hurt, and quietly grateful. I assured her there was no need for repayment and wished her well. I handed Carol the money with the hope that it would last a bit longer than the next few hours. “Thank you very much,” Carol said before we parted.
 
To tell you the truth, over the course of the next few of months, I forgot about Carol, I forgot about that moment we met, until she returned. She was dressed very smartly. She was driving a new car. Her children smiled and seemed well. “Thank you,” Carol said to me. “I have a new job, a new apartment, a new car, and a new life. It all began with those few dollars you gave me. That night at the shelter I decided to change myself. I wanted to live a productive life. I trained for a job. I lifted my kids and myself up. I wanted you to see and to know.”
 
The ancient sage Ben Azzai once observed, “Every person has his or her moment.” Each one of us has a time when we are celebrated. In other words, life matters in the moments we are present to each other and how we honor them.
 
We can honor them with respect. We can honor them with humor. We can honor them with patience. We can honor them by listening. We can honor them in compassion. We can honor them with love. If we can honor each moment with its proper response, through them all, we can best honor their promise and see their actual meaning.
 
Occasionally, we may discover meaning in life through unexpected events and our spontaneous consumption of time. More often, we must consciously and conscientiously mediate the meaning we seek for our lives, anticipating which will be our lives’ meaningful moments.
 
Viktor Frankl, the famous psychologist who survived Auschwitz observes the same thing in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. “What matters,” he writes, “is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” Life matters in the moments.
 
It’s actually a paradox. Life matters in the moments. Yet our memories of the moments sustain us, and when we are gone, and with us our memories, the moments we remember are also no more. Every person we remembered today cherished the memories they knew. Some of those events and memories we share with them. Others we do not.
 
Most of the memories we hold and pass along, memories of particular moments, do not endure. That’s why every moment must inspire us. As we live them, life matters in the moments.
 
My dear friends,
 
I pray you greet many days in this New Year filled with situations of significance and meaningful moments. I encourage you to try and see every experience that comes your way through the lens of its potential meaning. Our precious privilege in this wide world is to mediate personal meaning. Our unique opportunity is to call on Jewish tradition to assist us in finding the purpose we seek.
 
Life’s meaning is not illusive, nor is it really a mystery. It’s present every moment we choose to know it. Meaning is present in life when we dedicate ourselves to seeing it. Like every time we say these familiar words.
 
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam,
she-he-he-yanu, v’ki-y’ma-nu, v’hi-gi-anu laz’man ha-zeh.
 
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
for the gift of our lives, for all that sustains us,
and for enabling us to reach this moment.
 
Life matters in the moments.
 
In this New Year, may you see your life’s meaning in many, many moments and may you know all the goodness of life – health, happiness, and peace.
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Ron Shulman
 
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

God Talk

Kol Nidre Sermon 5779 |  September 18, 2018
 

 

To begin tonight, I want to collect a little background information. How many of you were raised as Conservative Jews? Orthodox Jews? Reform Jews? Secular Jews? Zionists? How many of you come from backgrounds rooted in different religious traditions?
 
How many of you are “nones”? (Not the Catholic type!) “Nones” are people who social scientists describe as having no religious affiliation or particular religious education.
 
Today “nones” is the fastest growing religious group in the United States. They don’t reject God. They reject religion. One observer calls them “the undecided of the religious world.”
 
Gathered on Kol Nidre eve, we are aware that in American Jewish life something else is happening. The way we identify ourselves religiously is changing. Less interested in our classic American denominations, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, or Reconstructionist, we’re morphing into three distinct types: the religiously observant, the religiously engaged, and the not engaged.
 
In other words, as strict religious observance appeals to a growing number of Jews, and little or no religious interest reflects the vast majority of Jews, you and I are still in the middle. We’re not religiously observant and we do practice Judaism in a meaningful way. We’re the religiously engaged.
 
On this day of introspection, we have a chance to understand something more about who we are and how necessary our perspective is.
 
Not to be overly dramatic, here’s the real difference between more observant Jews and folks like us. They talk about God. We don’t. Well, some of us do. Some of us aren’t sure how to. Some of us don’t. Right? I want to be fair to everyone.
 
Religiously observant Jews express their values. They respond to God’s commanding voice, dutifully in delight. Judaism values deed over creed. How we live demonstrates what we believe.
 
Though I have philosophical and theological differences with fundamentalism, I also have great admiration and respect. To love the Jewish people is to embrace and love every Jew, all Jews.
 
I am a Conservative rabbi who accepts, admires, and has good relations with all serious and sincere expressions of Judaism in today’s world. That said - I don’t desire to live my Jewish life like those religiously to my right or my left. I am a passionate religious centrist.
 
I’m also worried. Aware of the religious trends in our community, I warn you. If you and I, if we cede the conversation about what Judaism teaches about God to the Orthodox alone, we risk losing the attention and interest of those unengaged Jews who find conventional religion intellectually and spiritually unappealing.
 
We also risk giving greater prominence to fundamentalist teachings that do not respect our pluralistic values and do not authentically represent the whole of Jewish history and tradition to the world.
 
This chair I place beside me, let’s call it Elijah’s chair, represents our children and grandchildren. Perhaps it’s a placeholder for many of us, as well. This chair is for everyone who has real questions to ask about God. I would love it if we could take the time to have those of you who want to come sit here and ask your questions. Instead, we’ll do that tomorrow afternoon when we meet for our question and answer session.
 
For now, imagining you are sitting beside me, I’ll pose the three God questions I’m asked most often.
 
First you ask. With everything we know about the world today, science and technology, history and archaeology; upset by everything that troubles us with natural disasters and disease, and in the evil people perpetrate against each other, (here comes the question) is it still possible to believe in God? “Yes.”
 
Second you ask. Are the Bible’s stories of miracles and wonder true? Do you think they really happened? If yes, see question #1. If no, then what is it possible to believe? “A lot.”
 
Third you ask. There are so many different religions and religious traditions. They seem to divide people. They cause disagreement, disrespect, and conflict. Who’s right? Why do they matter at all? Isn’t it enough just to be a good person? “No.”
 
Thanks for asking! How much time have you got?
 
First you asked, “Is it still possible to believe in God?”
 
Ok, let me attempt to answer your question. Yes, I believe it is still possible to believe in God. For me, it depends on how you understand God’s essence.
 
Aware of everything we do know, and so much more we hope to discover and understand, I believe that life’s mystery is God’s reality.
 
As such, I do not believe that God is a physical being. Instead, I find God within the workings of the world, innate to our experiences, not beyond them.
 
I hope I’m being clear. What’s that? “Doesn’t science also explain the mysteries of the universe?”
 
Yes, it does. Science is a crucial and important human endeavor. The purpose of science is to explain how the world in which we live works. Religion, on the other hand, is the search for the answer to why we live and exist, our ultimate questions.
 
I find absolutely no conflict between the discoveries of science and the teachings of religion. I understand that they are seeking to answer different questions, and I want both answers.
 
“Different questions?” What do I mean by that?
 
I’ll tell you a cute story. A thousand years from now when scientists have solved all the questions that plague humanity, they are finally ready for the ultimate challenge. They elect a representative to address God.
 
“God,” says the scientist in charge. “You are no longer needed. You served a function in Your day, but that day is gone. We can do everything that You can do, so goodbye.”
 
There is a moment of silence. Then a voice booms out of the sky: “Everything?”
“Can you make a human being from dust?” “Absolutely.” “Ok,” says God. “Let me see you make a human being.”
 
The scientist reaches down and digs his hands into the earth. “Oh no,” says God. “Get your own dirt.”
 
You see, I’m a religious person. I believe in God. But, I do not believe faith to be fact.
 
Religious descriptions of God’s design for human life and the world establish the meanings and purposes of our existence. They are not attempts, even in their ancient origin, to explain how the processes of being and life take place.
 
Here’s what I’m trying to explain. It’s a classic divide. Religion asks why. Science learns how. God’s reality is found in the mystery and wonder that we exist at all.
 
I hear you, yes, perhaps the hardest part of your question is about all that troubles us in the world.
 
Personally, I’ve never understood why we pin that on God, but then again, my own view is that things don’t happen to us because of some external controlling force or fate.
 
No person’s evil act or natural tragedy, no person’s illness, is God’s will. Neither are our achievements. Rather, God is present through us, through our responses to life’s challenges and joys, and through the world’s wonder.
 
You’ve never heard that before? Ok, well spend more time with me!
 
Let me say this politely, but very clearly. God’s reality is not that of a magician granting our personal wishes. Instead, through our plans, and as a result of our reactions to every day’s surprises, we make progress.
 
My faith trusts that because God is intrinsic to our being, within our lives and not external to them, God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to succeed.
 
“Well then, rabbi, why do you pray?”
 
My prayer is for inspiration and encouragement. It is an exercise in evaluation, a moral check on my purpose, and a humble affirmation of my identity. It keeps me aware of God.
 
Think about it this way. Imagine our competition for God’s attention if the decisions of health or world events were really God’s to make.
 
Jewish tradition teaches us that God is present in all of life. Every instance of pain and comfort, of fear or resilience is a sacred moment in which God’s blessings touch our lives.
 
Remember my definition, God’s reality is present in the mystery, not the activity, of all of our lives’ experiences.
 
Second, you asked me about the Bible. Are the stories of miracles and wonder true?
 
Remember, because in my view faith is not fact, my belief in God is firm enough to root me and elastic enough to assimilate whatever new information comes to be discovered.
 
If tomorrow we discover something contradictory to the tradition as we have it, it’s not God that’s different. It’s our understanding of the past that changes.
 
Oh, so what you really want to know is “why is the Torah important?”
 
I understand the Torah to be religious memory and literature. It expresses awareness of God in the collective memory and history of the Jewish people. It lays out values and roots us as a people and binds us together today and through the ages.
 
Please understand, however. Torah is our first expression of faith and practice, not our only.
 
“Rabbi, we can’t change what the Torah says though, can we?”
 
No, of course we don’t change what it says. We seek to understand it in the context and times from which the Torah’s texts emerge. We struggle with difficulties and we reject what our consciences can’t abide. We interpret the Torah for today.
 
“Really? My conscience and sense of ethics is relevant to the Torah?”
 
Yes, it most certainly is. We bring our questions and all that we’ve learned. We bring everything we’ve got to the Torah. We agree with what it says, and we disagree.
That’s why Jewish tradition and Jewish community are the on-going debate society that we cherish.
 
“Aren’t you making Judaism too subjective? It can’t just be what I want it to be?”
 
True. You and I can’t just choose for ourselves (though most people do.) In our community, however, we do define how we interpret what we’ve inherited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “the Bible is a book about man, not God.”
 
Third, you asked me about religious variety. Isn’t it enough just to be a good person?
 
Let me show you a cartoon. It shows God’s words observing, “You know…people are funny. They are always claiming to know what I think. Throughout history people have twisted, mangled, and misused my words. Making rules and starting wars. What makes people presume they know exactly what I think?”
 
“God only knows,” responds the cartoon angel. “That’s my point!” God shouts.
 
I think Judaism is unique in this respect. Judaism does not claim to know God’s will. What we possess is our best current understanding of God’s will. Whatever anyone of us may claim to believe, at best it reflects only one small insight of a much larger and greater truth no one comprehends.
 
That’s why different religions result from different group memories and interpretations of experience through the ages. Each one explains and presents the consciousness of God for that group.
 
Judaism believes in One God, but not in one religion. Our responsibility is to honor what we believe, and respect the beliefs of others. From our diversity and difference there ought to come great sharing and dialogue.
 
‘That’s nice, rabbi, but it seems easier said than done.”
 
That’s right. It is. However, I fault neither God nor religion for human weakness. I look to both God and religion for the strength to heal what’s broken.
 
So to answer your question directly, yes. One can be a good person and not a good Jew; one can be a good Jew and not a good person. People of all faiths or no faith can be good people.
 
I like the way Karen Armstrong puts it. “The point of religion is to live intensely and richly here and now. Truly religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance.”
 
She also explains that belief in God emerges historically from people’s attempts to “honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being.”
 
That said, we still have to choose the kind of people we will be, and the way we think about God as we make our choices.
 
Let me tell you one more story.
 
The story is told of a man who came to confess to his rabbi, the Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotz, that he could no longer believe in God.
 
“Why not?” asked the rabbi. “Because I doubt that the world has any rhyme or reason. The righteous suffer, the wicked prosper.” “So why does this concern you?”
 
“What do you mean why does this concern me? If there is no justice in the world, there is no God in the world.” “So what do you care if there is no God in the world?” “Rabbi, if there is no God in the world, my life makes no sense, it has no meaning at all.”
 
“You care that much about the world?” asked the rabbi. “Yes, I do; with all my heart and soul, rabbi.” “If you care so much, if you are pained so much, if you doubt so much, the truth is, you believe.”
 
You want a summary of all I’ve just said? Hmm, I’ll try.
 
I believe in mindfully rational religion, intellectually rooted in sacred history spiritually based in conscience and common sense, expressing wonder and worry, asking questions and seeking answers, cherishing hope and dignity, helping me to be aware that life’s mystery is God’s reality and our lives are gifts to cherish and celebrate. I believe in our world such honest religion can be a path to meaning, community, and purpose.
 
I also believe we have to put these kinds of ideas, authentic to what Judaism teaches, out there clearly and passionately. We have to renew our ability to talk about God and to believe what we say.
 
You’re quite welcome. Thank you for your questions, and for considering my answers.
 
I presented this dialogue because today is about introspection and return. The majority of our sins involve our behaviors. The things we shouldn’t have done. The things we shouldn’t have said. We mislead ourselves in thought, too. Yom Kippur is a day to challenge personal assumptions, a day to ask ourselves what ideas are core to our souls.
 
What motivates and animates our behavior? What truth of life in our experience compels us to be here? To repent? To regret? To grow? To change? To live better this year as an individual, a spouse, a partner, a parent, a child, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, a human being, a Jew?
 
Believe what you will. My goal is to challenge you, not to convince you. Except of this.
 
We who are non-Orthodox Jews, well-educated and worldly people, we who pride ourselves on being Jewish and being part of the Jewish community, we have to reframe how we understand what Judaism is and reclaim our ability to talk about how we believe in God.
 
Our children and grandchildren, and in my view, the religious future of the Jewish people, all depend on it.
 
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

best for me or we

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5779 | September 10, 2018
 

 

I think this is remarkable. Truly. All of us gathered together in synagogue. All of us bound together by this tradition we share, by the variety we represent, and by the ideals of goodness, renewal, and hope we cherish. In this room we sit: hundreds of individuals, choosing to be here, who outside of this space are involved with every imaginable type of career, business, academic pursuit, and personal interest.

 
Briefly stepping away from all that engages us elsewhere, we come here to touch the sacred, to mark the passing of time, to take stock of our lives, and to remember that whatever else we may do and wherever else we may go, we do so as Jews proud of our heritage and identity.
 
I think this is remarkable. Thank you. We do not give ourselves enough credit for the significance of this day we share each year. What we do here together is worthy of praise, grateful for each and every soul in this room. Sensitive to the transcendent truth of our connection, we are one precious synagogue family beginning another year in the continuing life of the Jewish people. As a result, something happens here that we need to carry away with us when we leave.
 
After one year here at Congregation Beth El, I am proud to celebrate with you and about us the diversity of life experience, heritage, and opinion present in our synagogue community. Our variety inspires me. It also makes me curious.
 
Can we create among ourselves, and for our neighbors, an environment where self-interest is balanced by shared interest? Where disagreement fosters discussion? Where knowledge leads to understanding? Where diversity is the source of unity?
 
This morning I want to discuss how being Jews and drawing on Jewish wisdom can help us through the maelstrom of social discord and division, ethical lapses and difficult debates we monitor every day.
 
First, here’s some context.
 
For the past many years in a new global era, we evolved into a “what’s best for me” culture and lost sight of a “what’s best for we” society. This, in part, explains our polarization, the wide gulf in our perceptions of reality, and our inability to talk with each other about all of it. What’s best for me isn’t always what’s best for we.
 
Professor Steven Brill explains it this way. Over the course of decades, with no bad intention or design “America all but abandoned its most ambitious and proudest ideal: the never perfect, always debated, and perpetually sought-after balance between the energizing inequality of achievement in a competitive economy and the liberating, community-binding equality of power promised by democracy.”
 
In other words, with the education, attainments, status, and outlook I earn, due to my hard work, a fortunate circumstance, or even inherited privilege, I am responsible for helping to safeguard opportunity and dignity for others in society who, for whatever reason, have not or cannot achieve what I have.
 
You know this. Long ago, Rabbi Hillel said the same thing in simpler style. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am only for myself, what am I? Ukh-sh’ani rak l’atzmi, mah ani?” Even as I take care of myself,” teaches Rashi, “I have an obligation to take care of you, too.”
 
At our last Beach Shabbat in August, a man pushing a grocery cart filled with his possessions happened upon us and sat down in the back row of chairs we put out for the service. A couple of us smiled at him and let him be. A few minutes before the crowd arrived, I walked over and introduced myself to him. I asked for his name. “I’m Paul,” he answered.
 
I told Paul we were about to conduct a religious service, after which he was welcome to join us for dinner. I invited Paul to move the chair and his belongings over to a shady area just beside our makeshift prayer space and rest. During the service I noticed whenever we rose, so did Paul. When we bowed in prayer, so did he.
 
After the service, our good friend Laurielynn invited him to help himself at the potluck buffet. Instead, Paul chose for her to bring him a plate of food, though he did ask for and help himself to seconds. After he ate and spoke politely with a few folks, Paul said thank you and pushed his grocery cart on down the road.
 
The Torah story we read earlier introduces us to our matriarch Sarah’s handmaid, “Hagar HaMitzrit, Hagar the Egyptian.” Yet, consider this. Because the Torah scroll has no vocalization marks, the vowel signs of the Hebrew language under and beside the Hebrew letters, the name Hagar can also be read “ha-Ger, the stranger who is Egyptian.” “Cast out that slave-woman,” Sarah demands of Abraham. Without name and seemingly out of place, when we meet an unknown other, a supposedly undesirable other, we don’t actually meet the person he or she is.
 
In 2018, in the 5,779th year of Jewish consciousness, I’m struck by how many people still have trouble with the stranger, the other one. The other one who looks different than I do. The other one who believes differently than I do. The other one who comes from a different place than I do. The other one whose life circumstance is so different from my own. Or, whoever the other one may be. Realize with me on this sacred day, it can’t only be about me or us. In this New Year, it also has to be about you and them. It can’t only be “what’s best for me.” It also has to be “what’s best for we.” “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
 
We need to get past false dichotomies and choices like me or we. We need to see the world through a larger and more perceptive lens.
 
Consider this series of questions. Think about and answer them for yourselves. For lunch today, do you want Brisket or Turkey? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Do you drive a Tesla or a Toyota? That was the first, easy set of questions.
 
Now, answer these questions. Do you love your mother or your father? Do you care about the Jewish people or humanity in general? Do you care about Americans or Israelis?
 
We’ll call these Either/Or questions. Some Either/Or questions are simply a matter of choice. I’ll have the brisket, not the Turkey. Some are a matter of ethics. When asked, we ought to choose right over wrong, good not bad, fair not unfair. But, other Either/Or questions define who we are and how we act in the world.
 
If I choose one parent over the other, it reflects a problematic situation in my family or my life experience. If I say, “I care about the Jewish people,” it sounds as if I don’t care enough for humanity. If I say, “I care for humanity,” it sounds as if I do not care sufficiently for my own people. These types of Either/Or questions are traps. Do I care about the members of Congregation Beth El or Paul? Do I do what’s best for me or we?
 
A Jewish outlook on life is usually more nuanced than Either/Or choices. The rabbis see God in nature and beyond nature. The rabbis imagine God rejoicing at Israel’s freedom and crying as Egyptians drown in the sea. The Hebrew prophets seek ritual and justice, national pride and compassion. Jewish tradition announces our people’s special mission and seeks out the righteous of all nations.
 
Think about the discussions and controversies engaging us these days. In a sense, we’re in the midst of a series of Either/Or debates and the tensions they produce. Try to answer these next questions for yourselves. Then, later on, try these questions on your old-enough children and grandchildren. I suspect you’re in for an energetic dialogue.
 
Can I disrespect an elected leader, agree or disagree with his or her policies, and still love my country? Can I maintain my relationships with family and neighbors who support what I oppose or oppose what I support?
 
Can I defend against anti-Semitism where it is present and protest racial bias toward others where I find it? Can I agree with you about the facts and disagree with you about their implication? Can I believe in equal justice under the law and express partisan preference?
 
If I believe that Israel is the Nation-State of the Jewish people, does that mean I don’t desire equal rights for all of Israel’s citizens? If I rejoice in Israel’s intense and innovative society, if I proudly and passionately demand security for Israel and the recognition of Israel’s historic legitimacy, does that mean I can’t be concerned about Palestinian distress? Does validating someone else’s experience actually diminish my own?
 
Can I hold different feelings simultaneously? Can I honor America and object to disparities in our society? Can I take offense when a Conservative rabbi is arrested for performing a traditional Jewish wedding in Israel and take pleasure when our children travel to Israel and encounter the richness of Jewish life in the Jewish state?
 
Can I be an American whose Jewish identity is shaped by and seeks to speak in this society, and understand an Israeli whose Jewish identity is shaped by and seeks to speak in that society?
 
These are hard questions. I want to be honest with you. In my line of work, at this time of Either/Or debates, it is challenging to teach social ethics, which is the public purpose of Jewish values and Torah study. It is challenging to teach social ethics and Judaism’s moral vision because it is hard to be heard as respecting the different and strongly held ideological views among us.
 
I choose to think we’re capable of better. I choose to believe we’re capable of more. I can’t and I won’t accept the devolution of culture and social discourse present in these false choices. I will not sacrifice an ideal in a clash about what is real.
 
My answer to each of the questions I posed is, “Yes!” Is the only way to affirm who I am to minimize who you are? Am I the only source of good ideas? Is mine the only valid claim? Of course not!
 
While we’re on the subject, let me share one other concern I have about we who are the Jewish people. There are two poles of opinion in Jewish life today. I reject the absolutism present in these two opinion constructs. At one end, Jewish particularism prioritizes the welfare of the Jewish people over the concerns of others, and the rituals and customs of the Jewish tradition over other activities. At the other end, Jewish universalism prioritizes the welfare of humanity and protests injustice where seen.
 
Both ends of this continuum of Jewish outlook present us with a false choice. The true Jewish response to all of these complex questions is not Either/Or. It is Both/And.
 
Our particular Jewish identity is unique in the world. Only we live it out and profess its ideals. Only because we are rooted in our particular vision and values, covenant and convictions, only because we participate in Jewish life, do we have anything to say to everyone else. Especially because we are rooted in our particular vision and values, covenant and convictions, because we participate in Jewish life we can be open to what everyone else may have to say.
 
V’yei-esu kulam agudah ahat, la’asot r’tzon-kha b’lei-vav shalem.” The Mahzor, the very text we use today, celebrates the Jewish people, the Jewish land, and the Jewish tradition only after it declares of God, “You have created all of humanity bound together as one, carrying out Your will wholeheartedly.”
 
In this New Year, let us be about the particular values we believe in and believe in the universal value of what we do. Kindness is not a choice. Neither are honesty, compassion, and human dignity. Judaism teaches us to use words carefully and to act with integrity.
 
Ethics, equality, goodness, justice, honesty, compassion, respect: these are not modern inventions. These are not liberal or conservative inclinations. They are not optional pursuits. Neither are celebrating Shabbat, studying Torah, or any of the mitzvot and unique privileges of Jewish life. All of these are part of the core purpose of living in the world as practicing Jews, people who choose to step away from the world at large for a few hours of holy day celebration and contemplation before returning to it.
 
Learn this Talmudic text with me. “Rabbi Elazar be Azariah taught: ‘the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai sharply disagreed on matters of Jewish law. And so they were asked, if the Torah is given by a single God, how is it the case that there exist differing interpretations?’” They debate the question, and then comes this answer for us all. “Make for yourselves a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shamai and the words of the House of Hillel.”
 
Can we do it? Can we be people with hearts of many rooms? Can we make space for different perspectives and preferences? Can we move beyond Either/Or thinking to Both/And understanding? Can we live with ambiguity, feeling conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty? Can we do what’s best for me AND for we?
 
I sincerely believe we can. I believe we can be people with hearts of many rooms, open to people with different experiences and from different backgrounds. I believe we can balance anger and frustration in one part of our lives with compassion and contentment in another. We can accept life’s complications along with life’s simple pleasures. Respect those with whom we disagree and disagree with those whom we love.
 
I also believe we here at Congregation Beth El, diverse and inclusive as we are, can set a tone for our families, friends and neighbors. Our learning can produce insights. Our discussions can open minds. Though our individual interests may diverge in our shared experiences we can merge.
 
In this New Year, we make this commitment. We make this choice. What’s best for me can also be what’s best for we. After all, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
 
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

living history and today

Shabbat Mattot-Masei 5778 | July 14, 2018
 
On Tuesday, after 18 days of drama that gripped Thailand and the world, the last people exited the flooded cave complex in which 12 young soccer players and their coach had been trapped. Yet, while we were focused on that scene, 124 people died in torrential floods in Japan.
 
Each and every day as so much happens in our lives and in the world around us, we can’t manage all of the information we receive. We have to make choices. Pay attention to this. Respond to that. Remember this. Do something about that. Our attention spans seem to contract just as our need to process events and emotions expands.
 
True for each of us personally, it’s also true for us collectively. True in our personal experiences, it’s also true in our memories as members of a family, a nation, and a people. Ten days ago, on July 4th we celebrated 242 years of American independence.
 
Here’s a piece of historical trivia. July 4, 1776, the day our founding fathers made their declaration of independence, was on the Hebrew calendar the 17th of Tammuz, a Jewish fast day declared by our ancient sages to commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70.
 
Though most years the dates do not coincide, this year the 17th of Tammuz was observed July 1st, it’s their theoretical overlap that intrigues me this morning.
 
On the Jewish calendar, we are in the midst of a three-week period of sadness leading up to Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, a day of fasting and mourning to commemorate the tragedies of Jewish history, in particular the destructions of the First and Second Temples that stood in Jerusalem.
 
What are those ancient events to me, to us? July 4th moves me as an American citizen every year. I celebrate and cherish this nation and the ethos of its founding. Tisha B’Av also moves me every year. I commemorate my people’s history and our moral memory. But…
 
To what degree is my Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning I seek for my life rooted in historic, ancient events I did not witness? To what degree is my Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning I seek for my life rooted in current experience, in the things I see and experience now?
 
Is it more important to remember the fall and the breach of Jerusalem’s walls and to know about the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem? Or is there a statute of limitations on memory? Ought we celebrate today instead the reunification and the rebuilding of Jerusalem?
 
Is it more important to mourn the Babylonian and Roman destructions of the ancient Temples or to think about Israeli society today and the transformation of Jewish life in Israel? In the modern State of Israel, what does it mean to be a majority with responsibilities for the minorities in our midst?
 
It’s not a new question. Even the Talmudic sages, with real memories of the Second Temple amidst its ruins, wondered. “Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did several unusual things. He planted a sapling on Purim. He bathed in Tzippori in public on the Seventh of Tammuz. He sought to abolish the fast of the Ninth of Av. And with respect to the Ninth of Av, the Sages did not agree with him.”
 
The Talmud also reports that Rabbi Akiba laughed while walking amidst Temple ruins. He laughed, explaining now, in the aftermath, God’s promise of a redeemed and rejuvenated Holy City can be achieved. For many years I have learned and taught to observe the fast of Tisha B’Av in the spirit of Rabbi Akiba’s vision. For half a day my spirit grieves and my body fasts. And then, for half a day my spirit revives and my body renews.
 
Over time our memories, personal and shared, blur. What events of long ago or recent days ought to continue their hold on us? How long shall we mark them? I fundamentally believe history is the foundation and backdrop giving our Jewish identities context and purpose today. I equally believe our Jewish identities have to be lived out as real reflection of the world in which we live today. I remember Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s famous insight. “The past has a vote, not a veto.”
 
For each of us and all of us, these questions challenge and motivate our Jewish sensibilities. How do any of us transmit all we have lived and witnessed to those after us for whom our experiences are not personal memories? How do our children and grandchildren, who don’t feel what we once felt, who didn’t see what we once saw, remember what we do?
 
By reclaiming our memories for themselves. By making new memories of their own. This is the way we Jews retell, recount, and recast our story in every generation. We encourage those who come after us to find themselves in what we pass along. Simultaneously, we empower them to find meaning in what they encounter each and every day.
 
Or as the contemporary philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote, “Life itself is the mysterious, incomprehensible blending of the new and the old, of what already is and what is coming into being.”
 
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Tue, October 23 2018 14 Cheshvan 5779