Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Yom Kippur 5770 - The Last Bastion of the Personal

(originally delivered on Sept. 28, 2009)

I remember reading a few years back about some clever wag's technique for dealing with telemarketers. When the offending party would call, this joker would say something like, "It's against my religion to speak on the phone." The telemarketer says, "But sir, aren't you speaking on the phone right now?" And our hero replies, "My God! Look what you've done!" and slams the phone down.

We are all familiar with these intrusions into our lives. They come at us from all directions: of course from the telephone, from our mobile devices, which get ever more complicated and invasive; every possible nook and cranny of our daily existence that might have been free is taken up by somebody else's sponsored message, aimed at you individually, but cultivated to appeal to millions of people, just like you.

Our lives are in danger of becoming depersonalized by a system that is designed to cast the widest possible net and handle as many transactions as possible in as little time as possible. How did this happen? I am pretty sure that my grandparents did not face this. They shopped in small, locally-owned businesses. All of their immediate relatives lived close by, so if they wanted to say hello, they merely dropped in. They did not have cable bills or credit cards. Nobody called them at home during the dinner hour to bother them about magazine subscriptions. If they needed to speak to somebody in "customer service," the manager or shop owner came out to speak with them personally. They did not get connected to an "associate" in Mumbai, or get stonewalled in trying to speak to someone with more authority.

To return for a moment to the telemarketing example, that anybody has to come up with clever ruses to get rid of telemarketers is ridiculous and truly unfortunate. That we live in a society in which it is apparently OK to be so rude to others (rude for them to bring their business into our living rooms uninvited, and rude for us to mistreat them in all the various ways that we do), this is truly heartbreaking.

Sometimes it seems that the world has decided that I am just an assemblage of "marketing metrics" from which my purchasing habits are to be extrapolated. A little information about me says everything: that I drive a hybrid car, say, implies that I will be interested in buying organic milk. The software of my email provider knows enough about me to pick out advertisements that attract my attention; the algorithms of online booksellers make recommendations to me all the time, some of which are disturbingly accurate.

Am I just a formula? Are we all mere function machines whose behavioral patterns are entirely predictable?

Well, I hope that is not the case. But here, within this building, nobody is reduced to such anonymity. Each of us is a person with actual thoughts and feelings. A person who loves and hates, who is sometimes righteous and sometimes not, who is occasionally brilliant and talented but also sometimes stubborn or irritable. A person who can feel the presence of another, or the presence of God. A person who feels joy and contentment, sorrow and loss. As one of your rabbis, I know this well from my daily work in and out of this building.

And this is essentially what a synagogue is for. This is why we come to this place - to be close with one another, and of course to be close to the Divine. Houses of worship are among the last bastions of the personal in American society. This is a place to come where you can have real contact with real humans. And not just humans, real Jews. These people that are sitting around you right now, some of whom you do not know, they are real. (If you have not introduced yourself, you should do so. But please wait 'til after the sermon.)

We all contribute individually and personally in creating this community. One Hasidic tale puts it this way:

"The myriads of letters in the Torah stand for the myriads of souls in Israel. If one single letter is left out of the Torah, it becomes unfit for use; if one single soul is left out of the union of Israel, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) will not rest upon it. Like the letters, so the souls must unite and form a union."

For two millennia, the synagogue has been the gathering place for Jews; it is the place where the letters of the Torah are assembled into their final product. This is the place where we stand together, united as a people. It is the modern miqdash, the holy place wherein the shekhinah (DP) resides.

In some ways, we are far more connected to each other than we have ever been. We have so many more means of contact than people did even 25 years ago. Email, cell phones, text messaging, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. This is a wonderful thing, as it has made our world much smaller. I can call my son now in Israel for less than 2 cents/minute, something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But all of these methods of communication are deceptive - no form of electronics can (at least for now) duplicate the experience of speaking with somebody face-to-face, of registering their body language and facial expressions, the sights and sounds and scents that accompany human speech. We are at once closer to each other, and yet farther. These devices might make it possible to (I'm going to date myself here) "reach out and touch someone," but have they perhaps enabled us to live further away from one another by creating an illusion of closeness?

Well, I have some good news. Spending quality time with our family and friends, will, I hope, never go out of style. And then, there's the synagogue.

Temple Israel is not a franchise operation, one of a chain of identical "Temples Israel" all over the country. We are unique; a congregation is, more or less, a function of the collective personalities of its members and paid professionals. We create this place ourselves, rather than adhere to strict guidelines distributed by some corporate office.

Do you know that major, international fast-food chains, those masters of the impersonal meal, employ professional taste-testers that fly all over the world to visit all of their outlets? They taste the fries to make sure that they all taste alike. They taste the shakes, the burgers, etc. (BTW, Don't eat fast food - it's bad for you, bad for the environment and usually not kosher.)

TI belongs to the Conservative movement. But believe me, there is a wide range of synagogues in the Conservative Movement, and each is its own entity, with its own style and customs and flavor. We have some common features (siddurim, say, or no mehitzah), but there is no taste-tester; this congregation is unique, because all of US are unique.

And to be sure, TI is quite large, and therein lies one of its greatest challenges. So large, in fact, that it violates the Law of 150 that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book, "The Tipping Point" - that organizations of more than 150 individuals can no longer function in a personal way, such that everybody knows each other. Many of you know that TI's automated dialer is usually used for announcements when a member passes away; I suspect that this place would feel somewhat more tightly-knit if we each personally knew the one about whom the dialer is calling.

But TI does not behave like a large, impersonal corporation. We are people - the clergy, the lay leadership, the staff - and it is our constant struggle to reach out to all 950 families of this congregation, to get to know you and have meaningful contact. And believe me, this is a quintessentially human institution; our focus is not the bottom line, but establishing Jewish connections.

I have asked this question before in this space: Why are we here in TI on YK? It is a question that I think must be continually asked and answered.

There is a standard joke about Jews and synagogues, one that (at least according to last weekend's New York Times Magazine, in the great article about prayer's resurgence) seems to have been penned by Jewish humorist Harry Golden. Golden once asked his father, an avowed atheist, why he went to Shabbat services every week. His father replied that his friend Garfinkle goes to synagogue to talk to God, but that he goes to synagogue to talk to Garfinkle.

We read in Pirqei Avot, the sole tractate of the Mishnah devoted to rabbinic wisdom rather than items of Jewish law, "Hillel omer: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur" Hillel taught, do not withdraw from the community. Isolation is strongly discouraged in Jewish tradition. We are social animals, and this is a communal tradition. Why do we require a minyan of 10 people for a prayer service? Why do we require a minyan at a wedding? Maybe it is because that is what God wants, but perhaps moreso it is because this is desirable for people. Unlike other religious traditions that occasionally emphasize isolation, you can not be Jewish alone.

Now I know that there are many reasons to come to synagogue, some of which I solicited from you on RH/YK last year, and the opportunity to commune with our friends and fellow Jews ranks high on the list of important reasons to be here; in fact, I think that it is either first or second.

Our increased isolation, perhaps due to our geographical dispersion and maybe aided and abetted by electronic devices, makes person-to-person contact that much more valuable and necessary. We need to see and touch and communicate with others, and this is a place where we are all welcome and encouraged to do that. But just as we need this kind of contact, qal vahomer, all the moreso, do we need contact with God. And although your BlackBerry might help you stay in touch with people, I think it might be less effective with the latter.

That is what a synagogue is for, and that is why we are here. Yes, for the development of social capital, that is to say, those everyday bonds that connect us to each other. Rubbing elbows at qiddush. Seeing friends, exchanging bits of news, arguing about the rabbi's sermon (I should be so lucky!) and so forth. But really, this building has a higher purpose, one that even Harry Golden's father was engaged in even though he thought it was just his religious buddy Garfinkle. This building is for Avodah Shebalev, for the service of the heart, also known as tefillah. And that is something we do together, in public, as one.

The liturgy and rituals of the HH are particularly rich with imagery that suggests that this is a time that, in particular, we come together for a holy purpose. In every single Amidah that is recited on RH and YK (for the record, a total of 13 during all 3 days of RH and YK), we say, "Ve-ye-asu kulam agudah ahat - let all creatures be united wholeheartedly to carry out Your will." And that's what we are doing here today.

More than that, however, all of the penitential prayers are written in first person plural: "We are guilty, we have cheated, we have stolen,..." and "For the sin that we have sinned against you through causeless hatred,..." and "Our Father our King, we have sinned before you." We are not Catholics, who confess their sins alone, in the dark. We do it in broad daylight, together. We share this deeply personal ritual, here in this building on this day. Introspection may be carried out in private, but hey, we're Jewish! We do it all at the same time, in public.

And yet, some might see a contradiction here. On the one hand, I am arguing that the synagogue experience is personal, but on the other, the rituals of this day (and the rest of the Jewish calendar) are communal. But like the letters of the Torah, the communal experience is dependent upon each individual. Anonymity, even in a communal context, is not consistent with Judaism.

There are only two things that I have discovered that make people in NYC turn heads and pay attention to you as you walk down the street. One is a very cute baby. The other is a polished antelope horn shofar. I had the opportunity this week to take my shofar into Manhattan last Wednesday, turning heads and exchanging remarks with strangers on the subway and the street, as I went to a demonstration near the UN against the speech of Iranian president (elected or otherwise) Ahmadinejad. I and about 70 other rabbis from the NYBR stopped traffic on 1st Ave, sang Oseh Shalom, and sounded a teqiah gedolah.

On the way back, I passed through GCS, and was tempted to sound the shofar in the middle of the Main Concourse. I did not, perhaps for fear of being thought a lunatic. But I wonder if the sound of that curious, ancient instrument would have made an impact on all the people rushing by, just like it does when we sound it here. And although I would like to think that those old-world notes would have pricked up a few ears and lifted a few spirits, my suspicion is that it would probably not have done so. In this building, the shofar has an emotional resonance, a holy timbre that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Here, it is personal. In Grand Central Station, it would have simply been out of place.

The connections that we make here with God are direct and unfiltered, and these we also do together. When our voices rise as one in the recitation of the Shema, or the Qedusha, or any of the holy words of our tefillah, or when we hear the Shofar sounded, we share in the collective communication with the Divine.

And yet, in those moments of the qol demamah daqah, the still, small voice that is heard (or perhaps merely felt) after the Shofar blasts have been completed, we also find our own intimate, individual connection to the God we seek, even as we sit here among hundreds of people. I hope that many of us feel the silent presence that Martin Buber dubbed the Unconditional, the unnamed "Thou" that transforms us directly, individually, without any outside intervention or assistance. Our relationship with God is the most intensely, deeply personal relationship that there is. That is why Buber (in English translation from the original German) uses the archaic 2nd-person subject "Thou," the equivalent of the not-quite-so archaic German "Du" indicating the informal "you," the one used in many langauges for those close to us. God is an informal you, because we approach God without conditions. Says Buber:

"The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation with it. Hence the relation means being chosen and choosing..."

The Thou is always there for us, just like the still, small voice. However, one way that we "step into the direct relation" with Buber's Unconditional is, I think, to step into the synagogue. I am not sure if Buber would agree with me, but it is here that we are open to God more than we are anywhere else. Here we find our personal connections to the Divine. Here the Thou finds us as we choose to seek the Thou.

There are times when we seek God together, as a community, as the individual letters in the Torah form a whole. And there are times when we seek God by ourselves, directly, unconditionally; and both of these types of seeking happen here. The Hasidic story that I mentioned before continues, referring to a specific law that applies to the way a Torah is written:

"But why is it forbidden for one letter in the Torah to touch its neighbor? Because every soul of Israel must have hours when it is alone with its Maker."

Although we pray together, confess together, bend our knees and bow together, we also have the space within these services to approach God individually, in the very personal way, the non-digital, human way that each of us has.

In this weekend's NYT, there was a front-page article about one of the last seltzer-delivery men in NY. Did anybody else read it? There are plenty of people out there that insist on having seltzer personally delivered in the old, heavy glass bottles, paying handsomely for it, because they insist that the quality of the seltzer is much better than what one can buy in a store or make at home. I will admit to being a heavy consumer of seltzer, and I am not convinced that the quality is better. However, it surely must feel much more satisfying to know and trust the guy that delivers it, and that personal interaction coupled with the literally and figuratively hefty, non-mass-produced bottles enhances the seltzer in ways that our grandparents would never have considered, because they never had it any other way.

Living in the 21st century will increasingly be a quest for the personal, and I hope that Jews will continue to find it here; consider this a challenge for this New Year, 5770. But perhaps we can take the model of the synagogue outside this building. I suggest that we all seek out the personal in the other spheres of our lives, and here are some examples. Try joining a CSA or shopping at farmer's markets for locally-grown produce - the opportunity to interact with the people who grow your food, and sharing personal moments with others involved with community-supported agriculture is invaluable; patronize mom-and-pop shops, places which are rapidly being pushed out of business by Big Box Mart; look for the personal interactions that can only occur when you walk or take public transit rather than drive. Carry a shofar with you if you must, even if it is just for show. These things will all make the world more human.

Help put a stop to the creeping depersonalization of our lives. Look for those personal opportunities, and grab 'em. And keep coming back to Temple Israel for real communication, human and Divine.

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