Sinai Synagogue, Monday AM, September 30, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
In 2013, the Pew Research Foundation study of Jewish Americans, found about 4 million people who identify as Jews. Many more acknowledged Jewish lineage or Jewish connections but only 4 million actively identify as Jews. The survey found that Jews exhibit lower levels of religious commitment than the general public (about 26% of Jews said religion was very important to them compared to 56% of most Americans). Less and less Jews observe traditional rituals such as a Passover Seder or fasting on Yom Kippur. Reform Judaism which is the largest denomination is in danger because a third of their membership is intermarried and their synagogue numbers are boosted by Gentile members. Conservative Judaism is a synonym for failure, according to one Jewish journalist, no longer even attempting to uphold a façade as a Halachic movement. The movement has lost membership at such a rate that in the 13 years between the 1990 Jewish population survey and the Pew Survey in 2013 the Conservative Judaism went from the largest of the three major movements to barely numbering more than Orthodoxy.
But in a welcome deep dive into the Pew Survey and with 160 interviews of rabbis from all different backgrounds, Professor Jack Wertheimer in his recent book The New American Judaism challenges some of the easy assumptions about the supposed weakening of liberal Judaism. When I refer to liberal Jews I mean Jews from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and all non labeled Jews. That is, those who do not strive to live according to Orthodox practice and do not hold Orthodox theological beliefs. This is the vast majority of Jews in our country. But it is important that we not refer to this group by the label Non-Orthodox because Orthodoxy should not be held as a standard to which one either holds or stands against.
Wertheimer recognizes that liberal Jews are no more homogeneous than Orthodox Jews. Amongst liberal Jews, he finds considerable differences in levels of participation in Jewish life and connection to Jewish peoplehood. Some liberal Jews are more committed to Kashrut, Holiday and Shabbat observance. Some are more engaged in Hebrew literacy and Jewish learning; there are divisions on questions of Jewish pride and Israel as a factor in their Jewish identity; and in measures of synagogue membership certain liberal Jews are more likely to join a synagogue even accounting for age.
Why? It is true that more liberal Jews who identify Conservative Judaism or Conservative synagogues score higher on metrics of Jewish engagement, but this is not about Conservative movement chest thumping. Wertheimer does not these distinctions to Conservative Jewish theology. And we certainly all know Jews who go to Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues who are highly involved in Jewish life and practice.
So what is it that distinguishes liberal Jews who are more involved with their Judaism from those who aren’t?
Sarah Hurwitz could be described as a typical Jewish success story in 21st century America. Growing up in a Jewishly identifiable home she hated Hebrew school and fought with her parents about having to go. But she made it to bat mitzvah and then fortunately for her, her parents found driving her to post Bat Mitzvah Jewish education a burden too, so that ended formal Jewish education. But in the kind of education that truly matters to Jewish parents, she was a star. She went to Harvard University, and then to Harvard Law School. She began working on various presidential campaigns, became a speech writer for candidate Barak Obama and head speech writer for Michele Obama.
But in 2014 after a painful break up with a long time beau and a recognition that the world of Washington, DC did not feed her spiritual needs, Sarah Hurwitz did the second hardest thing she had ever done in her life: She took an Introduction to Judaism class at the local JCC. And thus began her journey of discovery which resulted in the hardest thing she ever did: write a book about Judaism titled Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality and A Connection to Life in Judaism After Finally Choosing to Look There.
I love that title because yes, you do have to choose to look at this remarkable, deep, profound religious tradition which has been sitting here all along. Hurwitz delineates what she finds powerful about the ideas and rituals that are rooted in Judaism’s 3000 years of development. What makes Hurwitz’ book about her journey to a more committed Jewish life unique among such books is that her enthusiasm for Judaism and its teachings did not shut down her critical faculties nor encourage her to negate her secular past.
She admits that she is not conventionally observant. She only follows two rules about kashrut – no pork and no shellfish. She does not refrain from work and other activities on Shabbat. And she admits she rarely goes to synagogue. Which prompted one close friend to ask, “Why are you writing a book about Judaism?”
But Sarah Hurwitz has tapped into something that more and more are recognizing about Judaism of America in the 21st century – it is morphing and adapting in new ways and yet still retaining adherents who admire, appreciate and are transformed by the core ideas and lessons that Judaism has to teach.
While Sarah Hurwitz may not fit the conventional category of observant Jew she is certainly an ‘engaged’ Jew. And this is what Jack Wertheimer’s findings suggest. That what distinguishes liberal Jews who observe Jewish holidays to some extent, follow some kosher dietary rules, who make sure that a significant portion of their charity dollars go to Jewish institutions, whose Jewishness is essential and crucial to their identity, who truly care about what happens in the State of Israel, who are supportive and critical of it -- what distinguishes these Jews from others in the liberal camp is that they are engaged, involved and connect out of a sense of duty and indebtedness.
Wertheimer puts its this way: There is no meaning without obligation.
In some sense this is counter intuitive to all the data that currently show that people today refrain from notions of membership and obligation, preferring to pay only for what they use and enjoy.
The modern world reflects the conundrum that the chicken and pig had when they wished to do something for their farmer.
A Chicken and a Pig lived on a farm and they wanted to do something nice for the farmer who was so good to them.
One day the chicken approached the pig and said, “I think it would be lovely if we made him breakfast.”
The pig said, “I’d be happy to help - What do you suggest we make?”
The chicken responded, “Well I know that the farmer loves ham and eggs!”
The pig paused “That’s Ok for you, you’re just making a donation but I’m making a real commitment!”
We are told that in our generation, people do not respond to commitment or obligation. Yet Rabbi Michael Wasserman, rabbi of the New Shul in Scottsdale AZ, argues that it is not avoidance of obligation but a desire to achieve meaningful obligation:
“The reason why people resist conventional dues is not that it is premised on obligation but that it trivializes obligation. And the reason why people respond generously to the voluntary model is not that it eliminates obligation but that it deepens obligation.
Putting a price tag on membership cheapens it in that it reduces membership to a purchase and members to buyers. It defines belonging as a market transaction…They are consumers of a product, not partners in the work of building community…
On the other hand, … the voluntary model … redefines what membership is. If membership has no price tag, then it cannot be a purchase. It must be something else: a commitment to help build community. …We should say out loud what people already know at an unspoken level: that there is no meaning without obligation. To experience meaning is, by definition, to feel that something larger than us has a claim on us, that we are not in this world for our benefit alone. To the extent that synagogues offer meaning, it is by responding to the deepest human need of all: the need to be needed. Instead of eliminating obligation from our discourse, we ought to call for a more substantive, more meaningful sense of obligation.”
And when obligation has attained a level of meaningfulness then our Jewish obligations are no longer static, closed, relics to be preserved but rather dynamic, fluid, expressions of the deepest utterances of the soul. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Religion is not given to us once and for all as something to be preserved in a safety deposit box. It must be recreated all the time. Mitzvot are forms: to fulfill a mitzvah is to fill it with meaning. (God in Search of Man p359)
Today is Rosh HaShanah, the Birthday of the world. Breshit Bara Elohim. Yet our observance of Rosh HaShanah is not a celebration of nature and the natural world. We link the creation of the world to a day of judgment because Judaism connects the Creation of existence to purpose.
B’reisheet, the first word in the Torah is difficult to translate because b’reisheet is a noun in construct form which lacks a noun to follow it. Bara, the next word is a finite verb. And so translators and commentators exert great effort to find a proper way to explain its meaning and translate the phrase – is it “In the beginning God created” or “When God began to create” or “At the beginning of God’s creating”? A midrash however suggests a completely different way to parse this initial word in the Torah.
It divides the word B’reisheet into two parts – b’ - a proposition meaning “in” which can also mean “for the sake of” and reisheet meaning first. Thus the opening word in the Torah is read – ‘for the sake of firsts’ God created heaven and earth. What ‘firsts’ is the world created for? The midrash offers a number of choices – Torah - because Torah is called a ‘first’ in the Bible: “The Lord created me, Torah, at the beginning … As the first of God’s works of old.” (Proverbs 8:22). Another explanation is Israel – the world was created for Israel, for the Jewish people are also referred to as a first – “Israel holy to the Lord, The first fruits of God’s harvest.(Jer.2:3)” A third alternative is rendered – “For the merit of the first yield of your baking, for the merit of the firsts of your new grain and wine and oil and the merit of first fruits.” Each of these ‘firsts’ were gifts that the ancient Israelite farmer or shepherd would offer to God in gratitude for the gift of the Land and the gift of liberation. Okay so the first two answers that the world was created for Torah or for Israel we can understand. It is a self-serving interpretation of course, but Torah and the Jewish people are kind of central to the Rabbi’s belief system. But the world was created so that Jewish farmers could give gifts to God? Couldn’t God have circumvented all the tzuris with human beings if God just wanted some decent fruit.
What is the significance of these first harvest offerings? The offerings mostly went to the priests and Levites who had no portion of land like the other tribes. Their sustenance depended on the gifts in return for their holy work. So the offerings allowed Israelite society to function. And these gifts were obligations – the farmer, in order to eat of his own crop and to benefit from his labors, was commanded to offer first a gift of gratitude.
The point of the third opinion is that the world was created for the sake of the obligation to appreciate, to express gratitude for existence. It’s not enough to feel grateful, for the world to exist one must be obligated to acts of gratitude.
“There is no meaning without obligation”
Despite the dire warnings of the Pew report and other naysayers about the Jewish future in America, Jack Wertheimer’s deep dive into the Jewish community of 21st century America finds hope for future liberal Jewish communities and lays out several areas that are essential for these hope to come to fruition.
The first seems somewhat obvious - that frequency of participation leads to greater levels of commitments. Some of you know that I have been working on a doctorate in Jewish Studies at Spertus college for about 12 years. In order to finally get some traction on writing the dissertation, Susan Blum invited me to sit in on her class on how to write Academic journals and papers. The first lesson in our workbook is you have to write every day. If you wait to carve out a week of free time to write your article, it’s not going to happen. Writing 15 minutes a day will make all the difference in the world. The same is true for our Jewish lives. If you only come to shul on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, while it is great to see you, the impact Judaism, in all its wisdom and complexity, is going to make on you will be quite limited. On the other hand if like Sarah Hurwitz, you only come to the synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but like her, you read Jewish books, go to Jewish meditation retreats, observe a traditional Shabbat once or twice a year and study on line in one of the myriad Jewish on line learning opportunities now Judaism is making a major return on your investment. So one needs to find some path to increase Jewish participation.
And yes, for Jewish meaning and participation to be most effective as Sarah Hurwitz found out, a level of Jewish literacy is required. Art Green, a great Jewish scholar, has a sister who is one of the leading Buddhists in America. He once told a group of rabbis that the genius of Buddhist teachers who wanted to promote Buddhism in America was that they translated everything into English. An American can become a frum Buddhist in this country with no way to access essential Buddhist texts in their original. We Jews have not been successful in this. Part of the reason why is because not only are ideas and concepts embedded in our sacred texts but the vessel for the transmission of these ideas is essential. Hebrew is our sacred language. Hebrew is also a depth language as Rabbi Marcia Prager calls it. Each word conveys a great deal of meaning on a horizontal level – the word barukh contains the meaning of ‘blessing’, but also ‘pool of water’ thus blessing is linked to that which is the source of life. It is also related to the word for ‘knee’ thus we bend our knee when we say some blessings. And the word barukh is connected vertically – the word bracha is nuanced by the many contexts this word is found in the Bible, such as God’s directive to Abraham to ‘be a blessing’, after Abraham it will be humanity that will bestow as well as receive blessing. One needs some background in Hebrew to make these connections which is why Hayim Nahman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet likened learning Jewish texts in translation to kissing a lover “through a veil”.
Thirdly Wertheimer stresses that Judaism is a religion to be observed in all settings, that is, the home and in one’s private life while recognizing that it takes synagogue community to create a social support system for Jewish religious life. For Jewish life to be most meaningful it has to be part of one’s home life – home observances such as lighting Shabbat candles, making Havdalah on Saturday night, reading PJ library books to our children, lighting Hanukkah candles and having meals in sukkot. But it also requires communal interactions with ritual so as to offer a plausibility structure for religious behavior, especially behavior deemed alien by the larger culture. It is so much easier to make Shabbat a special day of the week when we spend time on Friday night and Saturday mornings together in the synagogue.
What Wertheimer and Hurwitz are truly arguing for is the self-empowerment of Jewish community. Too much expectation has been placed on the synagogue to carry Jewish meaning and the rabbi to fulfill Jewish ritual. 30 years ago when I was graduating the seminary, Professor Ed Greenstein, a prominent scholar of Bible, told our class that our goal as rabbis was to become inconspicuous. That is, the rabbi in modern synagogues had become too prominent and central in Jewish communal life. Our goal should be to teach and inspire and allow the Jews in the synagogue the space to organize their community.
This takes on even greater significance as the congregation is aware that in 9 months I will be on Sabbatical for 14 weeks. During this time the congregation will have to lead worship services during the week, lead services on Shabbat, read Torah each week, prepare the Haftarah as well as a Davar Torah on the Torah portion for the week.
In that spirit, I am making as many opportunities as I can to teach Hebrew reading skills, davvening, Torah and Haftarah recitation, Gabbai preparation. All of the weekday and Shabbat davvening melodies that we currently use are available on audio files Dropbox or on a zip drive. You can find in our HH brochures upcoming classes in How to be a Gabbai and Hebrew. I will offer two Hebrew classes beginning in November, an introductory class to learn to read and an advanced class on the prayerbook to learn davvening skills. I will work with anyone interested in learning how to read Torah and Haftarah, just contact me and we can set up lessons. To that end, we have scheduled every month through May a triennial reading to give people an opportunity to read Torah when the reading portions are much smaller and to mimic the triennial reading schedule that will be followed during the time I am on Sabbatical.
That is why you have been given a large post card asking for your commitment in the coming year. It is much easier to respond to you saying “I want to learn this skill, teach me” than for me to hope my pleading and beseechings get response.
On the post card you have a number of choices. It asks for commitment, it obligates you. Not for my sake but for the sake of maintaining this wonderful congregation and for your sake.
Sarah Hurwitz writes, “Like it or not Judaism tends to be in the image of the Jews who most actively participate in (it)…Each of us has the power to vote with our voices and our feet for the kind of Judaism we will to experience. But that requires us to show up -- to classes services and gatherings of all kinds – and to do some learning, questioning, and wrestling. To undertake this effort, we must first decide that there is something worth showing up for – something in which we’re willing to invest our time, trust and hope.
That is the paradox at the heart of her book and of Judaism in 21st century United States: To create the kind of Judaism worth choosing we need to start choosing Judaism.
I hope that this year you will choose to deepen your commitment to Judaism and to our community by taking on new challenges and responsibilities in our congregation.