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We are the Contenders: Real Jews Reform Jews - for Our Time

Erev Rosh Hashanah
September 8, 2010

We call this day Rosh Hashanah – The Jewish New Year – although our tradition also gives the day another name – Yom Hazikaron – The Day for Remembering.

So, let me begin by asking what you remember. 

Do you remember, for example, who said, “Houston, we have a problem.”  (Tom Hanks,, Apollo 13, 1995)

“Go ahead, make my day.”  (Clint Eastwood, Sudden Impact, 1983)

“You can’t handle the truth.”  (Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men,1992)

“You don’t understand.  I coulda had class.  I coulda been a contender.  I coulda been a somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”  (Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, 1954)

***

People love the movies.  People love to remember. And tonight, since it’s our Yom Hazikaron – our day for remembering, let’s remember some additional parts of the past.  Let’s remember some nice things, some sweet things.  Let’s recall some aspects of what it was like growing up as Jews.  Especially tonight, because this year marks the 200th anniversary of Reform Judaism in the modern world, let’s think about memories and growing up Reform.

I grew up as a Reform Jew.  I lived in Toronto when my parents joined a congregation that was barely 18 months old.  I was a little boy, and I remember that for the first several years of our membership we didn’t have a Temple building.  I remember Kindergarten and sitting on the dusty, wooden floor of a public school the Temple rented. 

I remember wearing a dress shirt and tie for Sunday School.  I remember singing a prayer in English after the Silent Prayer:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, o Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

I remember the prayerbook we used back then.  We called it the Union Prayer Book.  It ran left to right.  On page 52, we read, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might.”  On page 71, we read, “Let us adore the ever-living God…”

But not every Jew at Sinai grew up in a Reform setting.  When we did a survey called Project Soul ten years ago, we learned, for example, that 32% of our congregation came to us from the Conservative movement.

That’s why I know there are other “growing up Jewish” memories in the sanctuary.   The sound of davening is music for some of you.  I remember one congregant telling me that his first Jewish memory involves sitting beside his grandfather in synagogue.  He remembers playing with the fringes of his grandfather’s tallis, and being wrapped in the big tallis as the service progressed.

Memory is often cozy and kind.  Our feelings about religion are often rooted in childhood.  Nostalgia colors the way we feel about religion.

I think that explains why Fiddler on the Roof has become such a classic theater piece.  You gotta love Fiddler.  You gotta love Tevye with the twinkle in the eye, the Yiddish inflection, and the ei-gi-digee-dei of his song, If I Were a Rich Man.  It’s so heartfelt and pure.  

When Tevye and Golda gather the family around the table for Shabbat, light the candles and then sing The Sabbath Prayer song, it really is beautiful and quite sacred.

You can’t help but feel that if we could all go back to Anatevka, we would arrive at a simpler, more pious, whole Jewish life.

Which is true and also not so true at all.  For if you remember well, it turns out that all was not quite so well in Anatevka. Let alone the anti-Semitism from the outside, there was turmoil inside Tevye’s shtetl.  

The real Jewish world had an old bearded rabbi who had a blessing for everything (even the Czar), but there was much more going on in Tevye’s Anatevka.  Alongside the pious Jews, there were Jews who went fishing on Yom Kippur.  There were atheist Jews, secular Jews, socialist Jews, communist Jews, and Zionist Jews.  There were Talmud Jews and some who barely read.  There were wise Jews and superstitious Jews.  Some with a yarmulke; some without.

To paraphrase “Rabbi Nicholson,” here’s the truth “if you can handle it.” A hundred years ago (give or take a few decades) Jewish life wasn’t ideal, and we sell ourselves short if we imagine that somehow back then they did it right leaving us to be mere shadows of the real thing.

The honest truth - There never was one “real” Jew, one “authentic” Jew.  Anatevka and all the shtetls out of which our ancestors came were more varied, complex, and interesting than we usually suspect. 

True, some Jews going back even before the days of Fiddler wore black coats.  Some Jews still wear the black coats. That old look on those Jews today may even make you feel they must know something we don’t know. 

Or perhaps it’s possible that we know something they don’t know. 

For example, we know that Jewish history and Judaism have always been more varied, pliable, and adaptive than nostalgia suggests.  Just as you can be sure our ancestors didn’t cross the Red Sea in black coats and black hats, you can be sure that different Jews at different times in our history have dressed their Judaism in different ways.  

Imagine a choir.  Our people has not survived by singing a single note melody since the days of Abraham.  On the contrary, we have survived because we have sung in harmony.  Sometimes 2 part, sometimes 4 part; more often 20 part or more as Jew after Jew has added his or her notes to create the mix we call Judaism.

Reform Judaism is an approach to Jewish living that embraces this sense of living Judaism. 

Reform says that Judaism has always been alive and in flux. Reform recognizes that we live in a big world and that Jews reflect the complexity of that world.  Judaism grows and changes because Jews of a thousand kinds also grow and change. 

Here’s a story to illustrate the essence of Reform.  We’re in Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1860’s.  The question is what to do about service attendance.  Many congregants want to attend Shabbat services, but many of them are shopkeepers.  They need to work on Saturday in order to make a living.  Many of them also need to keep their stores open for regular business hours on Friday afternoon even when the sun sets early during the winter. 

A man by the name of Isaac Mayer Wise is the rabbi of the Reform congregation in Cincinnati.  He’s learned.  He’s determined to shape a modern Judaism for the Jews of his time, but he also knows that, without Shabbat, Judaism is impossible.  He also knows that, historically speaking, Shabbat services have taken place on Friday at sunset or on Saturday morning. 

If those are the only options, Wise understands his congregants are not going to attend services.  Judaism will have become impossible for them. 

Then Wise remembers the Talmud’s teaching that the commandments are given so that we might live by them – and not perish.  That teaching leads Wise to come up with a new possibility.

In order to save Shabbat, as it were, Wise proposes a reform. 

Let’s have a service late on Friday evening.  Make it at 8 p.m. after people have closed their stores.  The sun will have set.  Technically, Shabbat will have already begun.  But, given the choice between no service or a brand new kind of service, Wise opts for change. 

Jews living in the new circumstance of the 1860’s need a new way of being Jewish.  The so-called late service becomes a reality in 1869 and soon spread around the country, which is why Sinai to this day has a “late” service too.  We change; we grow in the light of new circumstances.

 That’s why we began using a new prayerbook for Shabbat two years ago.  Gates of Prayer, our previous prayerbook, had replaced a prayerbook that was written before the Holocaust and the State of Israel.  New times back in the 60’s and 70’s led to Gates of Prayer.   New developments like feminism and a different feeling for the use of English and Hebrew then made Gates of Prayer outmoded.  Now we use Miskan Tefilah on Shabbat. 

We change our prayerbook as we try to create prayer experiences that reflect the lives we live in our own time.

Reform takes on other issues too.  Consider kashrut.  In the beginning, Reform Jews tended to ignore kashrut.  It seemed to be a relic from the past without any apparent meaning in the present.  When I grew up as a Reform Jew, that was the interpretation of kashrut that I learned. 

But now comes the fun – and the real possibility of Reform.  In these last few years, Reform Jews have come back to that word kashrut, which means “appropriate,” and we’ve asked if the term can’t be adapted.  Perhaps kashrut for us can become a way of thinking about all the implications of what we eat.  Modern kashrut can mean we pay attention to how veal or coffee or any food product arrives on our plate.  Is it appropriate? Is it moral?  Is it kasher?

The point is that a living Judaism (which is what Reform Judaism is) should be part of the living, breathing environment in which we live.  As the world changes, as our sensitivities change, our approach toward living as Jews also has to change.  Sometimes we discard old customs; sometimes we revive them; sometimes we create new observances because we live in a new world.

This is authentic Judaism.  It’s how we Jews have managed to survive for so very long.  It’s what real Jews do.

Here’s an amazing midrash that comes out of the Talmud.  The story imagines Moses somehow finding himself in heaven watching God write a Torah scroll!  Moses notes that God is quite the calligrapher.  God is ornamenting the Hebrew letters with all kinds of decorations. 

Moses asks, “Holy One, why are you creating these squiggles and crowns on the letters.”  God responds, “I’m doing this because in time to come Jews will elaborate and draw meanings out of every word and letter in your Torah that you cannot imagine.”

At that very moment, the story continues, Moses found himself transported to the back of a classroom in which the famous Rabbi Akiba was teaching.  (Akiba lived at least 1500 years after Moses.) 

At any rate, Moses is astonished to hear Akiba and his students discussing Jewish practice.   They refer to the Torah, but their Judaism has changed so much that Moses is lost.  Moses is totally dismayed until one of the students challenges Akiba and says, “How do you know that this is how we Jews should live?”  Akiba replies, “We do what we do because it’s a tradition from Moses.”

At that point, says the midrash, Moses returned to his own time – at least somewhat satisfied.

I first heard this midrash in Jerusalem during my first month of rabbinic school, and I have always loved it for two reasons.  First, it demonstrates a sense of history.  The great Rabbi Akiba, living in the second century of the common era, is a Jew who knows he can’t stand on his own. He has to relate to the Jewish past.

Secondly, the midrash is extraordinary because it communicates the sense of the rabbis  that they were changing Judaism.   These are the sages who spoke regularly about Moses as the supreme teacher of Judaism.  But that didn’t trap them in nostalgia for the good old days.  They loved Moses, but they also knew Moses didn’t live in their time and place.  So they grew their Judaism.  (That’s why Moses was so lost in Akiba’s classroom.) They reformed Judaism for their time just as we reform it for ours.

One of the 19th century’s great rabbis put the matter this way. His name was Abraham Geiger. He lived at essentially the same time as fictional Tevye a few hundred miles to the west in Germany. Unlike Tevye, however, Geiger did go to university.  He also spoke the language of the land fluently.  No Yiddish for Geiger, who saw himself as a very modern man. 

Writing in German, Geiger taught, “Not everything that has been handed down to us from ages past stems from Mount Sinai…Later periods have grafted many a twig onto the ancient trunk and have added many a new link to the Jewish tradition…Judaism is not a finished story.”

By the way, Geiger was one of the central rabbis in Europe who pioneered Reform Judaism. He was born in1810, which allows us to say the origins of Reform Judaism are 200 years old.  More than that, he was born in the very year – 1810 – when another German reformer built a new synagogue, placed an organ in it, organized the singing of songs and prayers in Hebrew and German, and initiated a service called Confirmation for teenage boys and girls.   This pioneer was named Israel Jacobson.  All this in 1810 – Not because Israel Jacobson was running away from Judaism but because he, Jacobson, believed that unless Judaism adapted for the needs of his time, Judaism might not survive. 

And here we are 200 years later – September 8, 2010.

Not a black hat among us.  No Yiddishisms a la Tevye.  Not too many beards.  Moses wouldn’t recognize us; Tevye would also marvel at the look of us, his great greatgrandchildren.

But here’s the real question:  What do we see when we look at ourselves?  Are we proud Jews?  Are we authentic Jews?  Are we good Jews?

Not by some external standards.  At Sinai Temple, we don’t take attendance.  We don’t count your mitzvot. 

On Rosh Hashanah, I only ask if you’re being the Jew you want to be. 

If you’re finding strength in who you are, if you’re finding joy in who you are, if you’re finding your life enriched because you are a Jew.

If you’re looking for meaning, if you’re looking for a glimmer of the spiritual, if you’re trying to make sense of your life, does Judaism figure into the search.

Does Reform Judaism help you grow towards the you you want to be.

It can.  We’ve got the goods here dressed for the 21st century.  Vital.  Alive.  Evolving for today and tomorrow.  All here, as it were, for the taking, learning, and growing.

Like so much of life, the honest truth is that it really is up to you. Up to me.

To paraphrase Rabbi Brando with whom we began this evening:  It’s not like I coulda been a contender.  If I want it, I can be a contender.  We can all be contenders for the Jewish lives we want through the possibilities of Reform Judaism.

***

Once upon a time there was a young student who was jealous of the rabbi in his town.  Everyone praised the rabbi as the wisest man in the land.  But the student was determined to prove himself smarter than the rabbi. Day after day he would try to present the rabbi with a question he couldn’t answer.  It never worked.  The rabbi always had a proper response.

Finally, the student thought of a clever plan.  He caught a small bird and brought it to the rabbi, holding it between his two hands.

“Rabbi,” he said.  “I have a question you cannot answer.  I am holding a tiny bird in my hands.  Tell me.  Is the bird living or dead?”

And the student smiled for he was sure the rabbi could not answer the question.  If the rabbi said the bird was alive, the student would crush the bird.  If the rabbi said the bird was dead, the student would open his hands to let the bird fly away.

The rabbi paused, thought, and then responded.

“My son,” he said, “you are holding a life in your hands.  As you consider what to do, choose well.  It’s up to you.”

***

The same holds true for us.

Judaism is in our hands.

We Jews – Reform Jews – are real contenders.

We’ve got history, the present, and all the creativity in the world at our disposal.  So much here:  the wisdom of the past combined with the hearts and souls of today.

What we do with it all is up to us.  It’s in our hands for blessings going into this great New Year. 

Shana tova. 

May all of us contend well.  May all of us choose well.

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