Rosh Hashanah 5775 – Theme of the Year

This is what we call the theme sermon, actually a segue between last year’s and this year’s themes as we launch the year of Food and Jewish Values. This thrice repeated sermon is not a retirement sermon, in case you were wondering about that. I am still retiring this coming summer, but don’t want to spend too much time/energy focusing on that during the year – it’s not good for me or the shul to focus at all on that. When people say, how are you feeling, Rabbi, about this your last High Holidays or  your last Selichot or your last whatever, I tell them “who knows if it’s my last whatever, I may be leading High Holiday services at a small shul that cannot afford a good rabbi, or on some cruise liner going around Easter Island, or at Beth El’s 7th alternative high holiday service as we expand to meet more needs.” There is one retirement event planned, in May, that is more than enough for me. I will say something then, maybe an It’s Wednesday.  So…

This sermon begins from the keynote address of R Harold Kushner, author of among many books the groundbreaking When Bad Things Happen to Good People and one of my most favorite Conservative rabbis, given at the Centennial Convention of USCJ. It was his prescription for what it would mean to be a serious Conservative Jew (remember that was our theme in the year just concluding)  and live a meaningful Jewish life in 21st-century America.

Kushner talks about when he was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, a time when Conservative Judaism was the default choice of American Jews. A Conservative synagogue was invariably the largest synagogue in virtually any city. When the move to the suburbs began after the war, the first synagogue to establish itself would be the Conservative shul. It would be an acceptable middle-of-the- road choice for all the Jewish families moving to town and looking for other Jewish families.

That was then. By the end of the 20th century and into the early years of the 21st, things changed.  Children of Conservative families joined Reform temples, some because they had long given up as meaningless the rituals they had been taught Conservatism stood for, some because it seemed more inviting for interfaith couples.  Some graduates of Solomon Schechter Day Schools and alumni of Camp Ramah were attracted to Orthodox shuls because it struck them as more authentic than the bar mitzvah centered Shabbat services of the synagogues in which they had grown up. What has happened to Conservative Judaism that we are no longer what we were for so many years, the first choice of American Jews looking for a synagogue?

I have spent some sermons and some It’s Wednesday talking about this very question. Kushner’s analysis of the problem of Conservative Judaism losing its edge – it IS a real problem even if we at Beth El are lucky enough to not be experiencing it – is worth sharing. It begins with the observation that there are two Conservative Judaisms, two movements on the American scene competing for the right to call themselves Conservative. The first is the Conservative Judaism of the Academy, the Judaism of men like Solomon Schechter or Louis Finkelstein, the approach to Jewish tradition that hundreds of rabbis of a generation were taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Its fundamental premise is that there is a genius to Jewish traditional law that enables it to change as circumstances change. Jewish law evolves so that it can guide us to respond to problems Jews had never faced before without compromising its basic values.  Jewish law is still seen as the will of God, its demands are to be obeyed, but it grows and changes so that it is always relevant. The Torah is a living document, its message relevant to every generation, even as you are the same person who you were ten or twenty years ago despite the fact that a lot about you has changed.  The teachers at rabbinical school taught that generation,  “These are Judaism’s answers to the challenges of life. If the questions your congregants bring you don’t fit these answers, your job is to teach them to ask more appropriate questions.”

But then, there is a second movement among American Jews that also calls itself Conservative Judaism, one that is significantly different from the Conservative Judaism of the Academy. It has no school that promulgates it, no official body that speaks for it, but it represents more American Jews (not just Conservative Jews) than any other school of thought. He calls it the Conservative Judaism of the community.    This second kind of Conservative Judaism was not fashioned by scholars and theologians.  It was created by hundreds of thousands of East European Jews who got off the boat at Ellis Island and somehow intuited that America offered them something that no European country had ever offered, the invitation to be full citizens and participate in American life with their Jewishness not preventing them from doing so. And they said, “We want this. We want the freedom, the openness, the possibilities. And they are telling us we can have it without having to give up our Jewishness.”

Where Reform Jews were saying “we want to be undiluted Americans, to do the things that other Americans do, and we will make room for Judaism where it doesn’t get in the way of that,” where Orthodox Jews were saying “we want to live fully Jewish lives without compromise and we will share in the American way of life only where it does not conflict with that”, the Jews of  Ellis Island said, “We want both. We want to be fully Jewish and fully American, and if that means having to make 100 compromises a day one way or the other, we would rather do that than give up either of these lives, as Americans or as Jews, because both are so meaningful and so precious to us.”

Kushner then gives us his  all- time favorite example of how that worked; see how it resonates right now in this town. When he was growing up in Brooklyn in 1940s, he and his family were active members of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a large, very traditional right-wing Conservative synagogue. It’s October 1, 1949: the High Holy Days came late that year (like this year). Yom Kippur was on Sunday night October 1 and Monday, October 2, and because it was October, the sun set early and Mincha for Kol Nidre was scheduled for 5 o’clock, with most people starting to arrive at 4:30.  You know where this is going.

Sunday, October 1, 1949, Kol Nidre,  was also the last day of the baseball season and in the other religion of the Jews of Brooklyn, the worship of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Dodgers were fighting for the National League pennant. They held a one game lead on the last day of the season and they had to beat Philadelphia [my team I am sometimes proud to say] to get into the World Series.  At 5 o’clock, when Yom Kippur services got underway, the game was still going on and the score was tied. By 7:30 when services were over in this very traditional right-wing synagogue in an age without cell phones, somehow everyone in shul knew how the game had come out. (The Dodgers won.)  To this day, he doesn’t understand how that happened, but to Kushner, that has always captured the essence of what it means to be a Conservative Jew: fully Jewish, fully American and somehow we’ll work out any conflict.

Now surely the teachers at the Seminary were not happy with that compromise, or with some of the other compromises Conservative Jews were making back then. The official policy of the Seminary was that, for example, if distance or illness made it hard for you walk to Temple on Shabbat, you were permitted to drive to the nearest synagogue but nowhere else. But alongside that official policy, tens of thousands of loyal Conservative Jews were not only driving to shul; they were visiting friends, enjoying Shabbat in what they felt was a legitimate fashioning of a day of rest. They were saying, “I love Shabbat but if one Saturday, I choose to drive forty miles for my grandmother’s 80th birthday party, I want to know I’m not committing a sin.”

Well, as the Ellis Island immigrants had children and then grandchildren with no memories of traditional Jewish communal life in Europe, the gap – between the most that the average Conservative congregant was prepared to do and the least that the official policy of the Academy could accept – the gap grew ever wider.  The official Conservative Judaism of the Academy was a “mitzvah/command” theology: this is what God has told us to do and therefore this is what we should do.  But fewer and fewer Conservative Jews were prepared to obey, especially if it created barriers between them and full participation in American life.    We at Beth El have, I might add, both kinds of Conservative Jews, and we are proud of them both.

So a gap developed between the rules and the reality of CJ, and this explains a lot about the struggles that our movement has been facing. So – now we shift gears – where do we go with this if we are to find a meaningful path that works for our people, a path to a meaningful Jewish life in 21st century America that is not all about Jewish law/ mitzvot done or not done – a path that also gives our movement a direction that makes sense?  What I want to do this morning is to suggest a way of thinking about our lives as Jews, one not designed necessarily to please the Seminary faculty, but to give us a basis for Jewish living and observance on a more acceptable foundation that lets us be fully Jewish and fully American.

We start with a core concept that I want to teach. There is a verse in the Book of Leviticus that we read on YK that is translated differently in Jewish and Christians Bibles, and the difference in translation says a lot about the two traditions’ attitude to how we should live in the sight of God.  The verse is about fasting on Yom Kippur, and the Hebrew reads “v’initem et nafshoteichem.”  The King James Bible takes that to mean “you shall afflict your souls,” that is, Yom Kippur is a day of punishing ourselves, depriving yourselves of everything pleasurable, food, sexual intimacy, and so on, to make up for all the self-indulgence of the past year. But listen to how the same verse is rendered in many Jewish translations: “you shall practice self-restraint.”  We  fast on Yom Kippur not because food and sex represent the sin of giving in to gross physical desires; we do it as an affirmation of our humanity.

“You shall practice self-restraint.”  We don’t fast on Yom Kippur because eating is self-indulgent. We fast on Yom Kippur to show that when we set our minds to it, we are strong enough to say No to appetite.  Similarly, when we put our minds to it, we are strong enough to resist the temptation to make money by blurring the line between legal and illegal, and we are strong enough to guard our mouths from speaking ill if we want to.

When we put our minds to it, we can practice self restraint of all kinds. That is the sign of an authentic human being, and it can bring great rewards.  Now the essence of manifesting ourselves as authentic human beings, says Kushner, can be summarized in four words that will constitute the core of my message today: impose choice on instinct.  That is uniquely human, something no other creature can do, to impose choice on instinct, to be tempted to do something and choose not to do it.  Animals are totally ruled by instinct.  It tells them what to eat, when to sleep, when and with whom to mate.  For human beings, as the essence of our being human, every one of those things is a matter of choice. And we also have moral choices, animals do not, and we modern Jews have our own special take on that:  morality is not about serving God by obeying rules that may not make much sense to us, but is about changing the flavor of our lives by letting our human sides prevail over our instincts, what might be called our lower natures. That may not sound like a lot of fun, it’s not sexy, but to me it provides a unique pathway to the meaningful Jewish life that I am suggesting today. Let me explain that by giving you two different kinds of example of how this idea of “choice over instinct” works and the rewards it offers.

Example One. Do you remember the game they used to play on Sesame Street, “Which of these things is not like the others?”  All right, which one of these is different from the other three: a day, a week, a month, a year? The answer is …a week.  The other three are all natural phenomena.  They are defined by the relative relationships of the earth, the sun and the moon. A day would be just as long, a month would be just as long, and a year would be just as long,  even if there weren’t a single human being on earth to keep track of them.  But a week is a human invention. As such, it represents the unique human ability to impose our pattern on time.  That’s why Shabbat is holy, because it is our invention, it represents our imposing our will on time, rather than time doing that to us as it does to every other creature on this planet.  No other creature can do that.  No other creature can choose to take a day and say it is special because we choose to make it special.

You know this.  You wake up one morning and it feels like just any other morning until you remember it’s your birthday or it’s your wedding anniversary, and suddenly the day feels special. And should you forget that it’s your anniversary, if it feels like just another day to you, that’s all right too as long as you don’t mind eating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner for a week. [My wife after RH said that is sexist talk, but we know who is most likely to forget and who is most likely to put out the food, so I think it’s realistic talk. But we digress. ]  But that’s what we are doing here today.  We’re taking what might otherwise be just another Saturday and we’re deciding to make this a day of supreme holiness, and by our doing that, by the simple act of our deciding that, we make it happen.  Similar is the reward for making Shabbat special in your home and family. It’s not that we need the rest.  It’s that we are changed by that sense of empowerment, the power to work magic with time, our ability to take the ordinary and make it holy. Imposing choice on time is one good example of the pathway I am preaching, and the rewards of a Shabbat or holy day with your family and your community can be great.

Second Example. I think this same value plays itself out in numerous ways that we group under the heading “food.”  This is our year of food. Surely this is a bad day to be talking about it but I will anyway.  Is there anything in our lives that we think about more often than food? Teenage boys might answer differently, but most of us are not that. We think about food a lot each day.  Animals do too, as much as they think.  But here is a second area (besides Shabbat and Yom Tov) where we impose choice upon instinct, and the choices we make matter – for us and the world – and they speak to how a Conservative Jew can make a meaningful path through life.

Food. It’s remarkable how a conversation about food in the 21st century branches out in so many directions. In our theme year we will take many of those directions.  Where does our food come from?  How do we grow it, transport it, package it? Do we eat the flesh of animals? If so, which ones, and how did they live, and how did they die?  Do we bless our food, and if so in what way? Do we cook our own food, eat with our families, or at school, or at work, or in a restaurant? How do rhythms of eating connect us or separate us from other people?  And to get closer to home, does what and how we eat influence our sense of Jewishness in the world?  Does being Jewish influence the ethics of our eating? And how do we treat those who have less food– much much less – than we do, and does Judaism speak to that?  This is a conversation that goes on in our community all the time, because being Jewish and being an American puts it right in the center of our laps. And it involves so many choices, often imposing choice on instinct.

This conversation that is going on can be framed from a more political standpoint. Hazon (the largest Jewish environmental group in North America) puts it this way in its guidebook Food for Thought,  “it goes without saying that how we eat has become a key challenge, some would say an obsession, of the world we now live in. Obesity, vegetarianism, food packaging, genetically modified foods, carbon footprints, battery caged hens, fast food – these are the daily diet of TV and newspapers. Our food systems in North America …  and around the world are out of balance. Our eating has become symbolic of our lives: hurried, reactive, disconnected from land, family, tradition and place. This is the world we live in. Now what do we do? “

Jewish tradition and thought have a lot to say about this, and I will highlight some of that with the lens of imposing choice on instinct and how that frames our food discussion in meaningful Jewish ways that can help shape our lives and world in good ways. Let it play out in just two of many possible areas:

One is the dietary laws, the system of keeping kosher. If there was ever a case of imposing choice on instinct, imposing upon the animalistic act of eating all kinds of regulations,  here it is.  But why?   It’s not because pork products are unhealthy.  They may be, they may not be.  That’s totally beside the point.  It’s not because we learned that certain foods don’t do well in the heat of the Sinai desert. No, it’s a way of doing something that no other living creature can do.  Animals instinctively know what is good for them to eat, and when they have access to it, they will eat as much of it as they can.  Their instincts tell them to do that.  In the same way that animals cannot choose to do what we will do next Shabbat, they cannot choose to fast when food is available, they can only obey their instinct. We on the other hand proclaim our humanity, reinforce self discipline, are reminding ourselves of our Jewish identity as many times a day as we eat, are teaching delayed gratification, and more, we are infusing our diets with holiness, when we impose choice on instinct by taking the route of keeping kosher. When we do so, we are eating as human beings might best do.

Gail and I often have the following experience.  We eat at a kosher restaurant, choosing anything that appeals to us on the menu.  Then, how many days later, we dine at a regular restaurant.  Before we order dinner, we check to be sure the soup has no meat stock in it (it often does), we try to be sure  that the fish we are ordering is actually that fish not a similar looking non kosher substitute, we study the salad ingredients, and we have a nice dinner. But in the latter case,  we are much more aware of the fact that we kept kosher in the restaurant than we were at the kosher deli, much more aware of the fact that we were making moral and not only taste choices, because at the restaurant we had to say No to certain foods. We were being more fully human, and more fully Jewish,  and still getting a good meal.  When you do that, you discover that there can be holiness, not only nourishment, in every meal you eat.

Example two regarding food and imposing choice on instinct is about hunger.  Kashrut was number one.  Hunger is a world wide major major problem. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, and things are far worse now, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”  But our own hunger drive can be intense. Judaism has always understood the need to match our hunger drive (that ever present instinct) with the food needs of the world, so that we learn to share our table with the hungry even though it goes against the instinct of filling our own bellies. The seder drives the message home: let all who are hungry come and eat, a message that sticks with us throughout our lives. And our Manna Food Drive on Kol Nidre makes it tangible on this most holy day.  The Torah, given to a people without wealth or status or much to eat,  speaks about Shiekhecha: leaving sheaves of barley that we “forgot”/don’t pick up the first time around in the harvest. It speaks of Peah, the corners of our fields that we do not harvest. It speaks of Orlah – when we see the first fruit on a young tree, we don’t eat it, till the fifth year – picking and eating sooner would cause the tree to spend its energy making new fruit rather than strengthening the roots and trunk and branches, so we choose to wait. Choice over instinct..

The conversation continues with  issues about food that we call sustainability – how we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. All these will be on our theme year agenda.  Eating meat is one big issue, with cattle production wreaking havoc on the earth’s ecosystems, overgrazing of semiarid and arid lands leaving parched and barren deserts on four continuents, the industrialization and brutalization of animals (were the walls of our meat industry, so removed from us, to become transparent, we would see things that would shock us. [JDS trips to Empire Poultry created many problems when the kids wouldn’t eat chicken anymore]). Overfishing has made almost every naturally growing fish nearly extinct. [pause]  Sustainability, friends, is not a Jewish invention, but taking it on surely fits with the focus on applying choice to instinct, in this case thinking about the future at the expense of that delicious piece of Chilean Sea Bass that could be on tomorrow night’s dinner plate. The rewards of such a focus are not to be minimized, for our children if not for ourselves.

I could go on, but back to the core.  There are so many issues and challenges that we confront when we choose to live fully Jewish and fully American lives. How we deal with them, the challenges we talked about – how to consecrate time in our busy lives, how to impose choice on the way we eat, how to not forget those with little to eat or generations that are to follow – the challenges can elevate us and sanctify our lives. Dealing with them in the context of Jewish tradition and community offers a good way forward for all human beings, but especially for those of us who have thrown our lot in with the great experiment called Conservative Judaism,  the hundreds of thousands of us who are looking for it to thrive with a new direction.

Now as I conclude I want to be very clear on one point.  When we started out, we talked about two Conservative Judaisms, that of the Academy and that of the community, the latter representing the multitudes who want to be fully Jewish and fully American, and are willing to make 100 compromises a day one way or the other because both are precious to them. Now, what I am offering you this morning is not what we call in Monopoly a “get out of jail free” card.  I don’t want anyone going home and saying, “The Rabbi never talked about mitzvot being important so we don’t have to focus on the mitzvot if we don’t feel like it because they are not really something God commanded.” I am not positive if God did or didn’t. What I am offering you today, what Conservative Judaism as I understand it offers you, is the opportunity to add something very special to your lives, the daily experience of holiness, the profound sense of having met God in your life. When you practice Judaism as I am recommending, not as obedience to commands you may not understand and not as a gesture to a vaguely remembered past, but as a way of being fully and uniquely human, when you learn to turn every meal into a religious moment,  when you come to feel the power you have to take an ordinary day and make it special as we are doing this morning or any Shabbat morning, so that you feel entitled to say “Baruch Attah Adonai/ Praised are You, O God,” not as a mumbled rote formula but as an authentic response to an authentically profound experience, when you learn to revel in the unique experience of seeing yourself as a human being with the power no other living creature has, the power to impose choice on instinct, then every day becomes a holy day, then every place you find yourself in becomes the Holy of Holies, and everyone you meet is recognized as an incarnation of God. That is what being a Conservative Jew, a Shabbat observer, a Jewish foodie, can offer.

As I conclude, I cannot resist sharing with you a food story that I have been carrying around with me for years.  In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10 year old boy entered a coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. “How much is an ice cream sundae?” “Fifty cents,” replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. “How much is a dish of plain ice cream?” he inquired.  Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was getting a bit impatient. “Thirty five cents,” she said brusquely.  The little boy again counted the coins. “I’ll have the plain ice cream,” he said. The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier, and departed. When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies – her tip.

Talk about imposing choice upon instinct?  And talk about the good that little boy’s decision did on so so many levels, and the wonderful path it represents?  Talk about it.      Shanah Tovah.  Amen.