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Community (RH1 5776)

Rosh Hashanah begins what the rabbis call the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. I am huge fan of awe which leads to awesome meaning amazing! But our modern understanding of awe as something tremendous is not what our ancestors had in mind when they used the term. When they said awe, they were proposing that fear and trembling were the proper response to awe. When they talked about God’s awesome power, it was something to make us cower. The rabbis talk about Yirat Shamayim, the Fear of Heaven, it is meant to be a core motivation for correct Jewish living, but it is not one that ever appealed to me. I know that fear can be a great motivator, but I have always preferred the carrot to the stick. For years I’ve gone out of my way when coming across rabbinic texts that use the term fear to read them as awe.

Over and over again on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we recite a prayer known as the Amidah, which means “standing”. In it we say a phrase, U-v’khein tein pachdicha Adonai Eloheynu al kol ma’asecha, which our Machzor translates as, “instill Your awe in all You have made”. Recently Rabbi Avi Weiss was teaching this text from the Machzor, he related that his teacher, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitichik had written, “I am not a psychiatrist, but I know that there is one great fear that pushes away all the smaller fears. And what is that fear through which one can push away other fears like the fear of failure, of loss of money, of aging, of losing popularity, of sickness. This is the fear of the Holy One, Blessed be He. This is the meaning of the prayer ... “Allow, O Lord, Our God, Your fear to be upon all of humankind...” (Al HaTeshuva) In other words, we all have things that we fear, but if we fear God, then all other fears seem small in comparison and become manageable. I had never thought of fear that way, he may have redeemed fear for me, it has certainly made me rethink my longstanding opposition to fear as being only negative and if it works for you, that is great. But I’ve always tried to live my life guided by values other than fear and I don’t think I’ll be changing that just now.

The question I’d like you to ponder for a moment is what motivated you to be here today? [wait] If you were very traditional, then your answer might be fear, you come because it is a mitzvah to be here and so not doing it is to incur Divine displeasure. However, it turns out that there are many different theologies for us to choose from. Once upon a time, I thought of God as the old man sitting in the sky looking down upon us. But then as I matured, I found I could not believe in that. At first I thought that I had become an atheist. But then in college I came to the realization that I could no more disprove the existence of God than I could that God existed and I became an agnostic. But as a student of human nature and one who loved to both study science and read science fiction, I came to the realization that I could not accept as plausible that everything came to be by accident. It was just too big a coincidence to meet my standard of logic. Many of the people I’ve met who call themselves atheists are simply individuals who have outgrown their childhood understanding of God, but not yet replaced it with anything more sophisticated. I came across a wonderful little book entitled, Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses. What was enlightening to me was that Judaism didn’t mandate one particular theology that I and everyone had to agree with, but rather acknowledged that God is a matter of faith and so there are many different ways to conceive of God and each person is free to ascribe to the one that works for them.

While it sounds funny to say, Jewish understandings of God have evolved as we have interacted with other cultures. When Judaism encountered Greek culture the great rabbinic philosopher Moses Maimonides synthesized Aristotelian philosophy with traditional Judaism and came up with:

Maimonides believed that God was a simple being. One with no body, whose existence could be demonstrated ... God is pure intellect, the Unmoved Mover of the universe. The attributes of God are only metaphors, understood by our limited mind and expressed in human terminology. God created the world out of nothing. Therefore, though God is pure intellect, God affects the world through angles, pure intellects who are the product of God’s will. Evil comes from human misuse of free will and from the inherent imperfection of the material world. Our goal, therefore, must be intellectual and spiritual perfection. (Finding God p. 66)

Logical, but not particularly compelling, the philosopher speaks to the head, but does not touch the heart. On the other hand, Isaac Luria was a mystic and so gave a mystical definition of God –

For the mystics, God exists but is unknowable. Ten sefiort, emanating from God, gave shape to our physical world. We humans are a microcosm of the universe and unite the “upper” and “lower” worlds. Luria postulated a self-limiting God who voluntarily contracted to make room for the physical world. In the aftermath of the contraction, certain divine vessels shattered, scattering divine sparks throughout the world. Through performing mitzvot and through prayer, we humans can mend the world and bring it closer to perfection. In addition our souls can approach the Divine. (Finding God, p. 77)

Mysticism appeals to some and provides them with a framework for their theology, but for some of us, it just does not do it. Milton Steinberg a 20th century Conservative rabbi posited a Limited theism, basically that it is logically impossible to have a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful and still have evil in the world. This articulation is the one that makes sense to me, but fails to motivate me to action.

Limited theism is based on the assumption that God is all-good, but not all-powerful. This explains the existence of evil... a religious interpretation of the universe makes more sense, even though it is impossible to prove with absolute certainty that God exists. This belief is a matter of faith which, like any other hypothesis must pass a test of plausibility, practicality, and simplicity. Evil ... is a challenge to God and humanity, in that it calls both to join hands for the purpose of eliminating its vestiges. Thus, we become partners with God in the work of creation and in the realization of the cosmic design. (Finding God p. 104)

I’ve had the pleasure a few times to spend time in the summer studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem a place that Rabbi David Hartman z”l conceived of for vastly different caring Jews to come together to study and learn. Simon Cooper recently published a book on Hartman’s Covenantal Theology.

Cooper's lucid and accessible analysis of Hartman's covenantal theology shows how Hartman responds to what he considers the most powerful element of the modern critique of religion: the tendency of religion in general and Judaism in particular to promote feelings of resignation and powerlessness. Hartman insists that the Jewish tradition possesses a covenantal metaphor which not only instills a sense of human adequacy but actually empowers the Jew. The tradition at times depicts the covenant between the Jew and God as resembling the relationship between husband and wife. God can thus be understood to have invited the Jews to enter into this intimate relationship, and the Jews, for their part, commit themselves to a life of mitzvot, which constitutes an expression of the human love of God rather than mere acceptance of divine authority. God also acts within this relationship as a teacher, encouraging His human partners to assume increased responsibility and initiative. (Ari Ackerman “The Covenantal Thought of David Hartman)

What appeals to me about this is the motivational aspect. I want a God concept that calls upon me to do mitzvot, which calls me to prayer and to Torah study; that calls upon me to engage in actions to improve this world of ours. Which brings me back to my question, what brought you here today? There could be as many answers as there are people in this room, but I’ll tell you what motivates me – community.

When the Wayne Conservative Congregation began it was a tight knit community of people who worked together to build something out of nothing. We are blessed to be the recipients of efforts. We owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. But over time as the Congregation grew, it added more and more members who didn’t necessarily know each nor were interested in building or running a synagogue, what they wanted was a place to pray, to educate their children and to celebrate their lifecycle events. All valid reasons to join a synagogue, but it made us less cohesive. Friends would join with each other and that was good for the synagogue, but they would not necessarily expand their circle to include others.

During my tenure as Rabbi here, one of my goals has been to form us into a caring community or to use the Hebrew term, a Kehila Kedosha, literally a Holy Congregation. I can look at us now and say that we are, al ha derekh, on the path. Every time people come to support a Yahrzeit Minyan, I see our Kehila Kedosha; every time people show up at a shiva house for someone they are not friends with, I see our Kehila Kedosha; every time we make a call, send a card or a meal to someone who is ill or grieving, I see our Kehila Kedosha at work. But we still have a long way to go. It would be nice to be able to expand our Mitzvah Corp and include a Bikur Cholim group, so that we know every time someone is ill or need of help that we will have the necessary volunteers to provide it. I know that we still miss the boat sometimes, we fail to recognize when someone has a need and so do not provide the support that they would value and benefit from and so our task is incomplete there is much more for us to do. In fact, we can leave them feeling rejected and unloved, unwelcomed like they are not an important part of the community, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Each of is important, each of us matters.

I am not a creative person or an innovative rabbi, but I’m good at finding resources and recognizing quality when I see it. I read a lot and talk to colleagues to learn from them and try to bring useful innovations here for us. One of the most accomplished rabbis in America is Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA. They have taken the concept of a caring community to the next level; they have established a Congregational Covenant. They have said that synagogue membership is not just about filling out forms and paying dues, it can and should be more than that, it is about becoming part of a community. So they created a covenant or in Hebrew, Brit, a sacred term in our tradition. We bring baby boys into the Covenant of the Jewish people with a Brit Mila. We often bring baby girls into the Covenant of the Jewish people today too with a Brit B’not Yisrael, the Covenant of the Daughters of Israel using candles or a tallit or a Torah scroll. The Jewish people entered into a Covenant, a Brit, with God at Sinai when we accepted the Torah and we recommit ourselves to it with every Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony when a Jewish adolescent declares him or herself to be a party to this Brit. At VBS Rabbi Feinstein created a Covenant of Membership. Here is what he wrote:

By Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein:

B'raysheet “In the beginning...” I share the responsibility of creating a community of holiness at Valley Beth Shalom, a community that embraces and embodies the ideals, ethics, faith and culture of the Jewish people.

Sh’mot “These are the names...” I will deepen my own Jewish identity and nurture my Jewish soul through Torah/Learning, Avodah/Worship, Gemilut Hesed/Action, and Hevrah/Fellowship.

Va’yikra “And God called...” I will answer the call to become God’s partner in bringing wholeness and holiness to the world. I will answer the call to repair the world’s brokenness and heal its suffering.

Bamidbar “In the wilderness...” I will seek shalom, the blessings of wholeness, peace, and solidarity in my family, my circle of relations, my community, in my city and in the world.

Devarim “These are the words...” I share the responsibility of transmitting Judaism to a new generation.

Just as Hartman’s Covenantal Theology motivational aspect appeals to me, so too does Feinstein’s Covenantal Membership appeal to me. I want us to be a place where we do more than drop our children off to learn, I want us to be place that you want to come more than just on the High Holy Days, I want us to be a place that adds meaning to your lives. I want us to be a place where your Judaism has a vibrancy that excites you and those around you. I want Shomrei Torah to be a place where commitment is contagious. I love Judaism and I want to help you feel that same love, devotion and excitement courses through me.

So I have an invitation for you. I know that at VBS they created a Covenanting Ceremony that they did with every member that wanted to participate and they now do it with every new family that joins. I will find out what they did and I invite you to let me know if you’d like to participate in it. I want to make this a year where each of us wants to learn a little more about Judaism, where each of us is willing to do a little more for others, where each of us is willing to enter into a covenant with one another. Because if we can do that, then I have no doubt that this year we will be blessed and we will be a blessing and we will be living our lives in partnership with God as we improve our world and ourselves.

Wishing a Shanah Tovah, a Happy, Healthy, Sweet New Year!

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780