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.

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