Friday, May 21, 2010

Shavuot 5770 - Four Good Reasons to come to Synagogue

(Originally delivered on the first day of Shavuot, May 19, 2010.)

Just eleven days ago, on Shabbat Parashat Behar/Behuqqotai, I spoke here about the importance of coming to the synagogue, of families participating together in Shabbat services and Religious School and the Youth House.

A congregant came to me after this sermon to point out the following: yes, I made a clear case for the value of participating. If the goal is to endow our children with Jewish knowledge and identity so that they will pass these things along to their own children, regular facetime at synagogue is mandatory. Judaism will not seed itself in your child; it must be tended.

But, this person said, I neglected to explain why here, why at Temple Israel, why with a room full of people, some of whom are not friends or relatives, some who are complete strangers? Why not at home? After all, some people hold services in their homes, and today anybody can hire a rabbi who will train your child and perform a Bar Mitzvah at home, or on a beach in Mexico, or on a ski slope in Colorado, or even at the Kotel in Jerusalem. Can we not fulfill these obligations independently of one another? Why do we need this room, this building?

I will add to her question the following: some of you may be aware of a new phenomenon, so-called "independent minyanim." There are 60 or more of these independent minyanim that have sprung up all over North America in the last decade. These are groups of generally younger adult Jews that gather on Shabbat just to pray - in a private home or a rented space - and maybe have a potluck lunch together after. There is nothing else to the congregation - no dues, no Hebrew School, no committees, no employees, no board, and so forth. Some of these minyanim, like the flagship Kehillat Hadar on the Upper West Side, have been tremendously successful. Why not just daven in a minyan when you need to communicate with God? Why pay costly membership dues to a full-service community center like Temple Israel?

Individualism is the hallmark of American society; Alexis de Tocqueville identified this when he visited the United States in the 1830s. He furthermore noted how religion and individualism aided and abetted each other in a way that was unknown in his native France. The freedom of religion in the New World enabled a flowering of religious expression, something that was unthinkable in Europe.

Although de Tocqueville did not investigate American Judaism, we too are subject to the same forces that opened up Christianity on this side of the Atlantic. American Jewry, unlike the rest of the world, never had chief rabbis. We have never had a hierarchical chain of Jewish command. In fact, in the early years, there was virtually no rabbinic control in America. And that led, as it did with Christianity, to a gradient of Jewish options and patterns of Jewish behavior, unheard of in the Old World.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna, in his recent book titled, fittingly, American Judaism, points to the following example: among the 23 Sephardic Jews, originally from Holland, that landed as refugees in New Amsterdam in 1654, there were two extremes. One of them, Solomon Pietersen, soon became the first intermarried Jew on American soil; his children were baptized, although it is not clear that he converted away from Judaism. At the other end of the continuum, Asser Levy was clearly devoted to maintaining Judaism and Jewish practice, observing Shabbat and kashrut (although I'm not sure how he managed that with neither a kosher butcher nor the Vaad Harabonim of Queens).

So goyish was this New World that its first Torah scroll, which arrived from Holland in 1655, was sent back in 1663, leading historians to conclude that they could not make a minyan. (Incidentally, the congregation that this handful of Jews founded, the oldest in America, is still today called "Shearith Israel," or "she-erit yisrael," the remainder of Israel, because they saw themselves as being survivors who had only barely made it to freedom in the New World, or perhaps because they were those who had survived that same freedom.)

356 years into the American Jewish experiment, freedom is still the operating principle. We still have no chief rabbi, and sometimes, depending on where you are, it is difficult to make a minyan. But the remarkable thing about American Jews is that we have have maintained the same continuum of identification. At one end stand the most fervent, the isolated Haredi groups in Brooklyn who only speak Yiddish and never mix with anybody else. At the other, people who were born to Jewish parents, but renounce all forms of Jewish identity. And all the rest of us, all 5 million of us, are somewhere in-between.

Meanwhile, for much of the 20th century, as Bar Mitzvah became, for American Jews, more about the party and less about the religious significance of the transition to adulthood under Jewish law, synagogues developed a monopoly on the process. If you wanted your child to have a Bar Mitzvah (and for most of the last century there was no "bat" for the majority of American Jews; some of you might have noticed that Elena Kagan was the first bat mitzvah at Lincoln Square Synagogue in 1972), then you had to belong to a synagogue. And, of course, if you wanted High Holiday tickets, membership was required.

But no more. High Holidays, even Yizkor, mean less to our children. Most of you will be here tomorrow - take careful note of who shows up just for Yizkor. And synagogues no longer have a lock on the Bar Mitzvah process. Chabad will take any boy, in whatever state he arrives, and "bar mitzvah" him (and I deliberately use the verb form of that word). Effectively for free.

We have many more options for religious involvement today than we ever did. That can be a good thing. But it also has led to a diffusion of the strength of institutions like Temple Israel.

Today, only about half of us at any given time belong to Jewish institutions like this one. The rest join when they need to for various reasons, or rely on open spiritual points of access, or perhaps simply have no use for synagogues.

Given all of the above, I ask once again, "Why should anyone bother with being part of a complex, multi-generational community such as ours?"

I am going to give you four answers, each drawing on a quote from Jewish literature.

Number 1. Torah

Today we celebrate our having received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Of note is the fact that we did not receive the Torah as individuals, standing at the foot of the mountain alone, but that we received the Torah as a people, as individuals answering in one voice, rising to the challenge of this new set of laws with the first-person plural promise (Exodus 24:7), "Na'aseh venishma," we will faithfully do it. To this day, many Jewish rituals require minyan, indicating that communal participation is an essential part of the Jewish equation. Our Shabbat morning re-creation of ma'amad har sinai, standing at Sinai, when we read from the Torah together, is a communal echo of the actual event, but the revelation of Torah is an ongoing phenomenon, one that we all participate in together.

We are one people, who received (and continue to receive) the Torah together, and follow its mitzvot together.

Number 2. Ruth

We read tomorrow from Megillat Rut, the story of the first convert to Israelite peoplehood. When the Moabitess Ruth is told by Naomi, her Israelite mother-in-law, to stay with her own people, Ruth says (Ruth 1:16), "Amekh ami velohayikh elohai," your people are my people and your God my God. We share the collective experience of peoplehood. Yes, there are many different types of Jews, from many places, that speak many languages and worship differently. But we are all connected in a way that defies American individualism. We share a common heritage, a common story, and of course one God.

Ruth is, in Biblical parlance, a "sojourner;" in tanakhic language, a resident alien who dwells among Israelites, making her subject to the laws of the Torah as well. She understands that joining with this people comes with obligations.

It is the community, this sacred community that gives our lives structure and meaning. That is one reason why Jews have always belonged to synagogues, and that is why we must come here and participate.

Number 3. The Blessing of Bil'am

"Mah tovu ohalekha ya'aqov / Mishkenotekha Yisrael." How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

These are the words with which Bil'am ben Be'or blessed the Israelites when sent to curse them by a different Moabite, Balaq, the king of Moab. Bil'am was surely speaking about tents that were zoned for residential use, not synagogues (because, frankly, there were no synagogues in the time of the Torah). However, the word "mishkenotekha" suggest the "mishkan," the tabernacle, God's dwelling place on earth.

We say these words when we enter a synagogue, not when we enter our homes, because even though you might be able to worship in your home, we look to the synagogue as the center of our community. This is not just another place to worship, it is a "miqdash me'at," a building endowed with a modicum of qedushah, holiness, from on high.

Number 4. Not separating oneself

We read in Pirqei Avot (2:5) a teaching of Hillel, the first century sage: "Al tifrosh min hatzibbur," do not withdraw from the community. Commentators illuminate this simple rabbinic command by saying that by isolating yourself, you might spare yourself some tzuris, the problems of others and the issues and politics surrounding any communal venture. But you will then also miss out on the happy times as well.

A community not only worships together and receives the Torah together. We also celebrate together and grieve together, comfort one another and exchange good will and swap jokes and schmooze and do all of the things that members of a community do in the interstices of ritual structure. True, you do not need to do those things here. But we live in a devoutly independent era, one in which many of the bonds that have historically brought us together have been severed. We need each other, now more than ever.

Furthermore, Jewish learning and engagement with the words of Torah and rabbinic commentary and midrashim and the music and the art and the culture are all essential pieces of the identity puzzle. We are not Jews for a few hours per week. We are Jewish all the time, and the commandments to love your neighbor as yourself and to return your enemy's donkey are as much a part of the fabric of Jewish life as the obligation to light Shabbat candles or drink four cups of Kosher for Passover wine.

* * * *

Community, togetherness, Am Yisrael - these are essential features of Judaism. Without each other, we will soon cease to be Jews.

My friends, this ain't the Middle Ages, when Jews were confined to ghettos and subjected to rabbinic authority exclusively. We live in an open world, a world of choices, one without borders, as you might recall having heard me say before. But all the more so - WITHOUT the confines that defined the pre-modern Jewish world, we need to actively identify with others - to pray with them, to rub elbows with them at kiddush, to learn with them together in Religious School or the Youth House or my Sunday morning Mishnah class. If we do not seek these opportunities out, they will never present themselves.

Although this might be counter-intuitive in the age of the iPod, Judaism de-emphasizes the "I," and favors the "we." The synagogue is a kind of "wePod." And it plays the following tunes:

Na'aseh venishma, Amekh ami velohayikh elohai, Mah tovu ohalekha ya'aqov, and Al tifrosh min hatzibbur.

This is the formula for Jewish community, and the formula for Jewish life. Make it yours as well.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Behar-Behuqqotai 5770: Shemittah and the Jewish Child

(Originally delivered on May 8, 2010.)

Shabbat shalom!

Some of you may have noticed that during the past year my appearances in this space at this time have been few and far between. It has been somewhat difficult for Rabbi Stecker and I to find opportunities for me to give a sermon on Shabbat morning because of my other commitments, specifically the Machon Alone service, which is for 5th-7th graders, the Shabbat HaMishpahah program, which is for all the students in our Religious School, and the Adult Learners' service, which is for anybody else who wants to learn some of the history, meaning, structure, and mechanics of the Shabbat morning service. All of these things are important - they each serve a group of learners. And learning, my friends, is where it's at, Jewishly speaking.

Why, after all, do we celebrate Bar or Bat Mitzvah? It is not merely about the party, or even about the Saturday morning demonstration of a child's abilities. It is about acknowledging that the Bar/t mitzvah has achieved enough learning to join the ranks of Jewish adulthood.

Amy, who has learned a few things from me and a few things from her other teachers, has learned the most from her parents, and that is how it should be. Her family is committed to Jewish learning more than most, perhaps exemplified by her mother Moji's many years of teaching at the Waxman Youth House, which is a truly unique learning environment located just across the parking lot.

Amy told us this morning about the shemittah year, the Shabbat for the land. With her permission, I am going to use her devar Torah as a jumping-off point for a slightly different discussion.

But first, here is a piece of ancient wisdom about fertilizer:

Mr. Cohen retires and moves south. He buys a home in rural Alabama, adjacent to farm land. One day, as he is sitting on his front porch, one of his neighbors drives by in a tractor, pulling a cart full of an unpleasant-smelling brown substance.

"Howdy, Mr. Cohen," says the farmer. "Hello, my friend," replies Cohen. "Tell me, what's in the cart?"

"That's cow manure," says the farmer.

Says Cohen, "Oh. And what do you do with it?"

"Well, Ah spread it over the strawberries."

Cohen replies, "My friend, you should stop by our house one Sunday morning. We use sour cream."

Some of you have no doubt seen me working in the garden in front of our house (not on Shabbat, of course!), as you are driving by on Old Mill Rd. Like Amy, I too love to garden.

When we moved in, three summers ago, that garden was full of cherry tomatoes. They were completely untended - no water, no cages to climb on, the vines were crawling all over each other. It looked as though they had seeded themselves from tomatoes that had grown there the previous year. I picked as many as I could, but the vines were full, and many were falling off and moldering on the ground. It was an unexpected bounty of what my father (also an avid gardener) likes to call "volunteers" - they simply appeared.

Back for a moment to the point that Amy made. For six years, says the Torah, we tend the land. We work it hard, and we harvest its bounty. In the seventh year, we do not work the land, and yet we are still able to eat what grows naturally, the "volunteers." OK, so you're thinking, that doesn't sound so bad, right? Well, in today's world of refrigeration, factory farms, and produce shipped from all over the world to keep supermarkets stocked with out-of-season items year-round, it might be difficult to see this as a hardship. But in ancient Israel it must have been quite a challenge. One midrash tells us that the shemittah year is the great economic equalizer. That is, in the seventh year of the cycle, rich and poor alike must scavenge for food, eating whatever they can find.

Farming is, undeniably, a difficult way to make a living. (Are there any farmers here? Virtually all our ancient ancestors were.) Farmers know that agriculture is a business of very slim margins, very demanding schedules, and a precarious lifestyle that rises and falls with the amount of rain.

I am going to propose the following: that raising a child to be a decent human being is not unlike raising a successful crop of tomatoes, or corn, or soybeans. In each case, constant care and attention is required. The environment must be continually monitored, and adjustments must be made when necessary. Proper amounts of nutrition and other supplies must be purchased and applied correctly.

And all the more so for raising a Jewish child to be a Jewish adult, a knowledgeable, self-aware Jewish adult with a strong identity, who seeks out Jewish friends, Jewish activities, Jewish institutions, and ultimately raises Jewish children of his/her own - this is far more complicated than growing cherry tomatoes. And I'll tell you why - because, unlike tomatoes, Jewish children do not seed themselves. Or, more properly, in today's world, Judaism does not seed itself in your child.

If Jewish education functions like the shemittah year, then we will never produce Jewish adults. Rather, parents, teachers, and rabbis must function like farms during the other six years of the cycle: watering, pruning, fertilizing, and so forth. It takes time and commitment. Sometimes, it even takes cow manure.

I cannot tell you how many times in recent years I have found myself truly saddened while sitting here in this sanctuary as I observed benei mitzvah families wherein the parents are singing along with Cantor Frieder at appropriate times, and the children are not, because they do not know the words or the melody. Sometimes, these are families for which the Shabbat morning of the child's bar/t mitzvah is the first (or perhaps the only) time that I see them in this sanctuary. Occasionally, there are parents whom I see regularly in services and around the building on various committees, but the children who live with them I do not even recognize.

My daughter Hannah, whom many of you know correctly as the cutest thing on earth (beli ayin hara), is not yet three years old. She cannot yet read or write, and can barely put together a grammatically-correct sentence in English. She has never set foot in Religious School. But she knows many prayers in our siddur by heart. Not because I taught her, mind you, but because she has heard them over and over and over, because she comes with me every Friday night to Temple Israel, and goes to Morah Ronnie Katz's Tot Shabbat service every Shabbat morning. And that is really all it takes!

Sure, you're thinking, but he's a RABBI. Of course his daughter knows how to pray at age 2. Well, let me tell you something. If you brought your 2-year-old to Temple Israel every Friday night for a year, she or he would soon know all of those prayers. And learning it that way is far more effective than any Religious School can possibly be. Every hour spent in the synagogue in your child's younger years will make her or him that much better prepared for Bar/t mitzvah and beyond. That great rabbinic sage Woody Allen said, "80% of success is showing up." Well, you do not have to be a rabbi to give your children the gift of Judaism, but you do have to show up.

Jewish children do not seed themselves. Amy's family is exemplary in this regard - they show up, they bring their kids. They are not leaving Jewish education to chance. They are not metaphorically counting on the volunteers of the shemittah year, like our ancestors did.

OK. So here is the idea. Take your kids to the Temple. As often as possible. Come Shabbat morning. Come Friday night. And don't let them run around outside, playing with their cell phones (which, by the way, are better left at home on Shabbat). Make them sit with you. Show them the pages in the siddur. Encourage them to sing along.

The parents and grandparents in this room are equipped with tremendous potential for producing Jewishly-knowledgeable, strongly-identified children. Merely having Shabbat dinners every Friday night and showing up for benei mitzvah and particular holidays will never be enough. You must bring your family to the synagogue. You must bring them to the Tot Shabbat services with Morah Ronnie Katz, and Junior Congregation, and Shabbat HaMishpahah. If you do not do so, your children will never feel comfortable in this room, never feel comfortable with the rich tradition of Jewish learning, wisdom, music, and liturgy; never feel truly comfortable among their own people. The default today is not "Jewish," as it was in the shtetlakh of Eastern Europe or the homes of Kashan; the default today is "unaffiliated." And just one generation after "unaffiliated" is "not Jewish."

We cannot ensure Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren simply by dropping off our children at Religious School and expecting them to learn. We must model for them. And fertilize, and water, and prune.

And furthermore, we cannot tell them that they are done with Jewish learning after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The adolescent years are critical to your child's development as a Jewish adult. This is the time when they begin to question the lessons that they have learned, to knit together their own identity, to ask the tough questions about God, about tradition, about family obligations. Think back to your own teenage years, whether you attended a Hebrew High School or not; you will surely remember this as a time of great change and development, and your external influences at the time had a strong impact that has, most likely, lasted until this day.

Just think about the pop music of your adolescent years - what was playing on the radio when you were in high school? Those songs became the soundtrack of your life.

We all want Judaism to be a part of that picture, that adolescent stew. We want at least a few of those songs to be Jewish songs.

Well, the best way to do this, in addition to bringing them with you to Shabbat services regularly, is to enroll your children in the Youth House, and make sure that they show up. Many of you know that I will be the director of the Youth House next year, and Moji and I have already planned an exciting, vibrant year of learning and fun. By showing up at the Youth House, your teenagers will not only have a good time socializing with their peers, but will also come away with lasting attachments to Judaism that will be with them for the rest of their lives as well-informed, strongly-identified Jews. We will cultivate that Jewish soundtrack.

Let me conclude by saying that sometimes a child needs to be given his or her own freedom to develop organically, and sometimes more direct involvement is required. The proper proportion that we can glean from the mitzvah of shemittah is 6/7ths of careful, labor-intensive fertilizing, and 1/7th of laissez-faire.

I know that I will see Amy and her family here in this sanctuary and elsewhere at Temple Israel in the coming years, metaphorically watering, pruning, and weeding. Let me see more of everybody here doing the same thing.