Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chaye Sarah & The Pew, Shabbat Chaye Sarah 5774 October 26, 2013

Parashat Chaye Sarah reminds us of two primary Jewish concerns: land and continuity.   Land: It isn’t enough for Abraham to have access to land for burying his beloved Sara, he must own the land, a piece of real estate to which his sons and generations following can return.  Indeed, the sons do return before the end of this parashah.  They return to this spot to bury their father.   
  Continuity: After Sarah’s burial, Abraham’s prime concern before he dies becomes finding a suitable wife for Isaac so that God’s promise of progeny can be fulfilled.  And the blessing her family offers as a send off:  May you grow into thousands of myriads; may your offspring seize the gates of their foes.”
אין חדש תחת השמים
There is nothing new under the heavens.   Land and continuity consumed the biblical consciousness.  They remain chief concerns among Jews today; hence, the heated fervor over media reports of the latest Pew Forum on Jewish life in America.   Our continuity, we are told, is at stake:
"… Outside of the Orthodox, Jewish life is vanishing, one in five Jews says he or she has 'no religion,' nearly three in five are now marrying outside the group, and [these] non-religious are more distanced from Israel.  Only a portion of the intermarried are raising their children Jewish."  Couple this with decreased interest and attendance at what were, at one time, very well-attended worship services and synagogue programs, and we have reason to feel dismayed. 
            Despite all of the media attention, the results of this recent survey should not surprise us.  Like Americans generally, Jews are showing weaker ties to faith and community than they did in the past.  Recall that the Pew Forum put out results of a survey on Americans and religion in July (the one to which I referred on Rosh Hashanah) that reported the same result for all Americans that is now being documented specifically for American Jews.  Did we think we were exempt?
            What isn’t being reported, or perhaps even gleaned from the raw data, is that there is something to be celebrated in this most recent report.  We are fully, for better and worse, Americans.  The challenges reported highlight that we have, indeed, fully integrated into American society.  We have opportunities that generations past could not even have imagined: citizenship rights, separation of church and state which guarantee religious freedom, social acceptance, opportunity for and access to economic success.  The liberties we experience today, and expect today, here and abroad, however, have consequences, namely the freedom to opt in or out of involvement with the Jewish community.
            We must face this challenge, yes; but we also must recognize the success behind it.  In my opinion, the best way for the American Jewish community to face today’s challenges is to focus, not on what appears to be going wrong based on past expectations of what it means to be a Jew, but on positive outcomes that are present in this survey.
            The Pew Forum report opens by stating that,
American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.   94% of respondents said they were proud to be Jewish!  Extraordinary!  In my young adulthood, being Jewish elicited feelings of burden, sometimes embarrassment.  Being Jewish could be a cause of problems.  Pride?  Not so much.
 Seventy-five percent reported to have a strong sense of “belonging” to the Jewish people.  Yes, Jews today – particularly young ones - are saying they have “no religion,” but they still say they are Jewish.  They are still seeking to connect to something they understand as Judaism.  Clearly, we’ve done something right as a Jewish community.
            The other vital piece of information this survey provides is that the manner in which Jews are expressing this pride in their Jewish identity is changing, not necessarily disappearing -- changing.   We are quick to assume that this change is inherently bad because “their” expression of Jewish may not look like what we know to be Jewish.    More and more Jews today aren’t interested in expressing their Judaism the way ‘we’ did or ‘we’ want them to; but, is that necessarily a bad thing worthy of piling on the possibility of the dissolution of the Jewish people on their backs?  I don’t think so.
            According to J.J. Goldberg of The Forward, the Pew Forum made some critical errors in their interpretation of the data.  He argues that while we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore trends, the statistics are far less threatening than Pew's researchers claim.  For example, he points to studies that show intermarriage rates leveling off in the 1990’s and remaining stable over the last 15 years.   He also notes that while in 1990, the National Jewish Population Study predicted only 28% of children raised in interfaith homes would remain Jewish into adulthood, this 2013 Pew Study indicates that 43% actually did. 
            Who are we to believe?  Is the end of liberal Judaism as we know it upon us, or is there hope and possibility for a vibrant progressive, non-Orthodox Judaism in the future?  The bottom line is that the results point to a complicated picture of Jewish life in America.  Our affiliation rates and levels of observance fall victim to the same trends that every organized religious group faces in America.   In that regard, we are not at all unique among the nations.  However, at the same time, Jews still want to identify and be Jewish.   What the Pew Forum has successfully proven is that being “religious” has never been the sole criteria, or perhaps even a primary criteria, of Jewish identity. 
Instead of our harping on dire predictions regarding the fall of religion in America (including our beloved Reform Judaism), it seems to me that we should be focusing on how the synagogue can meet that remaining and passionate desire to be proudly Jewish that according to the Pew, still exists.   How do we do so?  I don’t have any fast or easy answers, but our energy should be poured into looking at how we connect with that Jewish pride, bring it in to our community, and welcome it.  Those of us who still find fulfillment in what the synagogue has traditionally offered and want it to remain a central Jewish institution second only to the family, have a vital role.  We have to take the first steps in envisioning the future by being open to change and the possibility that the synagogue can continue to thrive even if it looks different than it did in the past or looks different than it does now.

Our Torah portion recounts the years of Sara and Abraham.  It ends with the generations of Ishmael and leaves us ready to review the generations of Isaac.   Sara and Abraham were, by virtue of that covenant of promised land, blessing, and progeny, the first Jews.  Generations later, we sit here in a synagogue experiencing worship in a very different manner than they could have ever imagined; and yet we do so as an expression of that same Jewish connection and identity, viewing ourselves in the line of their progeny.   Imagine -- what if they weren’t open to change?

Bereshit: Myth or Truth

           A myth is defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as a traditional story or parable of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world-view of a people or explain a practice, a belief, or natural phenomenon.  We assume myths are false, untrue.  Indeed, an abbreviated definition of the word myth offered by this same on-line resource identifies a myth as “a story that is believed by many people but that isn’t true.”
            I believe Merriam-Webster has mixed up “truth” with “factual.” 
            This same dictionary restrains from this mix-up in at least one of its suggested offerings for the word true.  There “true” is defined as “something that is conformable to an essential reality.”  “Something that is conformable to an essential reality.”  Not necessarily a factual reality, but an essential reality.  Isn’t that ultimately what we believe is true?  What we believe is true more often than not is something which conforms to a reality we have already accepted as essential – whether based on fact, supposition, assumption, fear, or just plain laziness. 
Bershit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz, At the start, God created the heavens and the earth.  Our parasha opens with a familiar and orderly creation myth.  Creation stories are foundational to human existence.  Virtually every culture has one or more - a narrative, or narratives, that work to explain how the world, and how humanity, came into existence. Despite differences in when and where these various stories arise, remarkably, they have a number of commonalities. 
One of the most common similarities among these creation “myths” is that a supreme being is almost always central to the story. Another is that order is often imposed or grows out of a primordial undifferentiated muck, in our Hebrew story what is labeled to’hu va’vo-hu.  As a species, we humans find comfort in the thought that there is a divine motivation and structure to existence.   The presence of human life is also almost always accounted for in these stories of creation, and not surprisingly – we wrote them, humans are generally introduced into the story in a manner which places them on the hierarchy below Divine beings but above the rest of the animal kingdom. 
Our sacred biblical story of creation: myth? Or, truth?
            Let’s first remind ourselves that we have two pretty well fleshed out and contradictory tales offered within the first three chapters of Torah – the opening story which gives us the neatly packaged 7-day plan of creation and the less orderly but far more dramatic (and probably older) tale of Adam and Eve.  Are these stories factual? Not necessarily.  In my opinion, not at all.  Do they offer important and lasting truths.  Certainly.   The creation of Adam from adamah, from the earth, for instance, reminds us that we are but dust; it serves to instill us and ground us with humility and respect for the world around us.  The assertion that we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, demands from us that we act responsibly not only towards each other but for the other forms of life over which we are told we have dominion.  Adam and Eve’s partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and subsequent expulsion from Eden reminds us that intellectual curiosity may complicate our lives but also has the power to expand our world exponentially. 
Myth and truth: must they always be viewed as exclusively independent categories.  Regardless of whether our biblical creation myths are factual, they have inherent value and truth to them.
            At the same, our biblical tradition, our religious canon, cannot replace scientific exploration.  Religion is not science.  It was never intended as such.  Appreciation of these ancient stories born between the 10th and 6th centuries BCE, before the Common Era, should never be allowed to squash modern critical thinking and further exploration into scientific inquiry.   Appreciating the value of these stories must never cause us to turn a blind eye to learning more about the science of our world so that we can commit ourselves to the continued ‘creation,’ the continued existence of this world.  If we truly understand ourselves as made in God’s image, than it is our responsibility to be fully open to understanding the science of creation.
Conversely, acknowledging the veracity of evolutionary theories of creation, of scientific explanations of how our world has come to be, where the world is going, and how the earth needs to be protected and cared for as it continues, need not cancel out the truths we gain from our religious narrative.
            There is room for both.  We must make room for both. 

Rosh Hoshanah 5774: Will the "nones" have it?

            It has been six years.  Six years since our congregation was faced with a critical decision: merge with another congregation in order to become part of a larger institution with a bigger staff and a grander building, or re-envision our focus and recommit to being a small and intimate congregation where, to quote a pop-relic,  “everybody knows your name.”  Meetings were held, and the decision was clear.  There was an outpouring of passion for Temple Emanuel and a desire to remain independent in order to serve the needs of Jews living in Northern Baltimore and Carroll Counties and to preserve the congregation’s legacy of social action, modern and uplifting worship, and intellectual integrity.  It was a bold decision especially when viewed in hindsight considering the economic crash that soon followed and impacted so many of our families.
            Six years have passed.  Each year since that decision, I have taken the opportunity at the High Holidays to speak about the importance of re-engaging with the synagogue – our synagogue.  I have spoken about our need, as Reform Jews, to be dedicated to the universal values of social justice that impact far beyond our own personal walls.  I have addressed the need to support the State of Israel even when her internal politics challenge us.  I have stressed the necessity of remaining committed to personal autonomy in matters of ritual observance.  I have emphasized the need for our synagogue to be a place of personal, face-to-face and direct human connection all the more so in this digital, social media age.  Most recently, a year ago today, I invited you to engage by telling me what it is that you want from your synagogue -- how we could meet your needs and engage you better.
            Perhaps I have been less than clear.   Let me try to be more so this year.   All of these issues become irrelevant without the synagogue; and, the synagogue – this synagogue -- will not survive without you.  Based on the responses we received from that survey distributed a year ago, those who come are generally quite pleased with Temple Emanuel, its offerings, and its warm, engaging manner; and, yet our congregation remains on the precipice of survival.   Being “pleased” isn’t enough to ensure our survival!
Similar to congregations throughout our country, Jewish and Christian, , our congregation is feeling the stark decrease in religious affiliation that is ubiquitous today.  The religiously unaffiliated, the “nones,” as they are commonly known, are on the rise.  As a 2012 Pew Forum investigation uncovered, it isn’t God that is losing out: strikingly – and frankly, surprisingly, 90% of Americans report to believe in God.  Impressive.  The institutions, such as our very synagogue, however, and the people served by such institutions are losing out.  
That same Pew Forum investigation reveals, not surprisingly, that there is a decrease in trust in religious organizations that is coupled with both a decreased interest in attending worship services and a decrease in societal pressure to do so.    A longitudinal study conducted by researchers at U of C, Berkeley and Duke University found that “one in five, or 20% of, Americans claimed they had no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990.”   To place that in context, in 1972, only 5% of those surveyed admitted to “no religious preference.”
I certainly speak to the national trends of decreased affiliation rates, but I can address you. Is this congregation – is Temple Emanuel – an institution about which you care?  Perhaps I have been less than clear.  I can continue to stand on this bema and argue that we must re-invigorate our synagogue with a re-affirmation of Reform, of a Progressive Judaism, as Reform Judaism is labeled internationally, that responds to modernity in a thoughtful and honest way, that offers worship and study opportunities that inspire and challenge, that provides a central place and opportunity for the pursuit of social justice and social support; but, if religious apathy reigns – if you have no paramount interest in supporting and preserving our community, than my arguments are in vain.  They become nothing more than an idealized vision for a world in which no one, save for but a committed few are interested.   I cannot ensure the survival of this synagogue – or any synagogue  -- on my own.   Neither can our Temple President and his Board.  Only you can do that.
            There was a brief moment in modern history, immediately following World War II, when Reform Judaism could boast as the largest and continually growing American Jewish denomination.  My generation was raised in that era of religious institutional expansion that America, generally, was experiencing.   In the decades following WWII, American religion was, in the words of the historian Michael Meyer, “liberated…from apathy,” an apathy that was constant in the decades (not years, mind you, but) decades leading up to that period.  God entered our American pledge of allegiance to our flag during this period following WWII.  This was the time during which “In God we trust” became our motto in this country.  “Belonging to a church and believing in God,” Meyer reminds us, “[were] hallmarks of Americanism.”  (Meyer, 353, ff).
That moment has passed, my friends.  Belonging to a religious community is no longer a priority for most.   Godlessness isn’t the issue, recall: 90% of Americans are apparently believers.  Perhaps we are simply on the other side of the wave of religious institutional devotion that was spurred by the horror of war.  Few are willing to look at the reality of history and demographics for insight.
It is easier to point fingers, and there are plenty of places to which we point:  at the political arena, for instance, for equating being religious with the political far-right , a movement that has sadly succeeded at enmeshing religion and politics in a manner that makes most of us squeamish and then uninterested at ‘being religiously affiliated.’   We could point to our overall comfort and sense of American belonging – our complacency replacing a need for religious affiliation and activity.      
Others, particularly day school advocates, point to a weak religious school system that forces adults to make choices with regard to religious engagement based on a religious education that ended during adolescence.  Still others blame religious apathy on the rise of intermarriage; though, those who do clearly haven’t met the number of non-Jewish spouses who make Jewish life a priority and help to re-engage their entire family into the synagogue.  Talk about commitment.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the soon to be former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, blames the break down of the traditional family structure for decreased synagogue affiliation and goes as far as to state that encouraging women to be “stay-at-home” mothers would go a long way to solving the problem of increased secularism in his country.  
Clearly, we should stop pointing fingers!  The blame game just furthers our denial of the problem and leads to irrational deductions.
 The most insightful, and at same time challenging, explanation of religious apathy may come down to that theological emphasis on individual autonomy that is central to being a modern Jew.   Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, who explores the challenges of modern Jewish affiliation has stated, that  “As the Reform movement has increasingly emphasized religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful, it has become impossible to compel members,” to compel you, to come to “and contribute to the vibrant well-being of [the] congregation.”  (Forward article, 2011) 
Kaplan has a valid point.   Put simply, religious obligation is no longer a motivating factor in affiliating with or getting involved in synagogue life.  Guilt perhaps, but even that is fading among my generation, and with regard to synagogue affiliation, is virtually non-existent in the generations coming up after mine.
            What are we to do then?  There is no other choice than religious autonomy for Reform Judaism, or as I have stated on previously, modern Judaism generally.  Our history underscores this.   Our modern and progressive theology demands this.  Religious commitments whether to ideology or to practice, even those commitments that are made within the context of community, ultimately stem from the free will of each individual.   One may choose to accept the yoke of traditional Jewish law, of halacha, as a mandate, but in order to be theologically valid, that decision must be viewed as just that, a conscious and individual choice.
            What we seem to have forgotten in this quest for religious autonomy is that religious free-will need not equate with a religious free-for-all expressed by doing only what feels good and is comfortable.  Making a choice to opt-in to the demands our religious community, namely the synagogue, makes on us, is not a denial or repression of our autonomy; it is, davka, an expression of it.
            Shai Held, co-founder, dean, and chair of Jewish thought at Mechon Hadar, a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Israel, labels our liberal conceptions of autonomy as “impoverished.”  While I rarely agree with “Modern Orthodoxy,” Held has a keen grasp on the essence of our dilemma.  As he explains,

“Freedom, as imagined by the book of Exodus, is decidedly not about casting off the burdens of service altogether. …while we often cite the demand that Pharaoh “let my people go!” we omit the telos of that call, “that they may serve Me.”   The Torah is … concerned with a journey from slavery to freedom, but it imagines freedom in ways that are … antithetical to) the way freedom is commonly spoken of in contemporary…America.  Doing whatever I want, whenever I want, is arguably not freedom at all, but en-slavement to impulse. …. Authentic freedom, Jewish theology insists, is found in service to something …” (Shema, High Holiday 5774 edition)

Which leaves me with questions and challenges that only you can, and frankly, you must, address: what is your commitment to the synagogue?  Should we still strive to support and grow our Jewish communal institutions, specifically the Reform synagogue, this synagogue, Temple Emanuel?  Is it important to you to identify strongly and clearly as Jewish not only by filling your JNF boxes and providing your child a place to mark Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but by committing yourself to the continuity of Progressive – of Reform Jewish communal life, inclusive of worship and Torah, not just those loving acts of kindness  -- Mitzvah Day alone cannot sustain our congregation!   
In ten days, on Yom Kippur, we will be reminded that there are consequences to our choices.   Uvacharta bachayim – choose life!  We can choose a path of sustainability and vitality by stepping up our involvement in and our commitment to the synagogue; or, we can choose not.  We can choose to remain ambivalent and apathetic.  Which will it be: survival of our beloved synagogue or joining the growing sea of the unaffiliated.


Nitzavim: Today! Shabbat Nitzavim, 5773

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – this well-known textual nugget, according to Rabbi Bradley Shavit-Artson, can be read, perhaps must be read, as an admonition against venerating the past: כלכם היום נצבים אתם, You – all of you - stand here TODAY!  This day you enter into God’s covenant.  Not yesterday.  Not back at Sinai, but now – this very day.  The beauty of the grammar is that every time we read this text, it reads in the present.   Each year, as we will in just 12 days, we recite these words from the bema to perhaps the largest kahal, the largest congregational gathering, of the year.  This day you stand here, the text describes – it demands of us that we remain present, open, and willing to hear and do God’s covenant. 
 The past is a vital component to our relationship with this covenant, and as such, it is ever present in the words of our Torah, the texts of our liturgy, and in the rituals in which we engage; but, each time we come to this parasha, we are reminded, that the present and the future are equally – if not more – important to Jewish continuity. Moreover, the present and future are fully dependent not only on continuity flowing out of the past, but on our very willingness to stand up and be present and open to accepting the mandate of being Jewish and Jewishly engaged in our own day.  Nitzavim assumes our rapt attention to the here and now.
Our tendency is to look towards the past.  There is certainly a lot of it, and much of it is rich and worthy of our attention.  If we solely venerate the past, however, then we have lost complete sight of the Jewish concept of ongoing revelation.  The author of Parashat Nitzavim makes it clear that God’s covenant was never intended to be a relic, it was intended to be renewed in each and every generation.

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – I challenge all of us to be fully present as we enter the yamim noraim together.  The call of the shofar is ancient, our response to it must be fully present.