Monday, September 20, 2010

Yom Kippur Sermon

On Mosques, Philosophers and what really bothers us.

Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

Yom Kippur 5771

Rabbi Larry Freedman

A few weeks ago I spoke about the proposed mosque and community center called the Cordoba Initiative. I solemnly and strongly reminded Jews that we of all people should be first to champion the freedom of religion for all in this great country.

It did not go well. Let me say that part of what I spoke about was frustration at the mindless and ignorant opinions many of the protesters have. Some of our members felt I was including them among those people. I was not. I was speaking of mindless and ignorant protesters screaming not much more than lies and hate. I will presume that our members, a bit more educated than many, hopefully more sophisticated than some can come to conclusions that are thoughtful and considered. Reasonable people can disagree but none of us should give in to ideas that are false or fear based on crude stereotypes.

Why has this mosque, or community center as it really is, stirred up such passions? Is it because it is a victory statement of Islam or is there just something that makes us uncomfortable about an Islamic institution in lower Manhattan or could it be that we, ourselves, harbor, somewhere deep down our own prejudices? Now I know that none of us think that we hold prejudices. Prejudice is what the other guy has but something is bothering us. What could be a better time than Yom Kippur to be honest with ourselves as we try to understand what it is that upsets us so much.

So let’s talk about what is going on. Some people say it is a victory mosque. So then we need to ask, is Islam really at war with America?

There is at least one particular corner of Islam that surely is at war with us. Of this I am certain. That corner includes reactionary Muslims of the Wahabi set championed by Al Qaeda. I know we are in a war because they bombed the World Trade Center, blew a hole in one of our Navy ships, attacked two embassies and then, ultimately, flew four planes at targets on US soil. I know they are at war with us because this group and those sympathetic with them write and preach and broadcast every day that they are at war with us. is just one place you can read translations. So we know that some Muslims are at war with us. But why? Why exactly is at least one corner of Islam at war with us?

The answer is found in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a reactionary Muslim hanged by Gammal Abdul Nassar in 1966.

Paul Berman wrote an essay in 2003 that appeared in the NY Times Magazine section that has long stayed with me about Sayyid Qutb known as Al Qaeda’s philosopher. At its core, Paul Berman highlights Sayyid Qutb’s argument that the separation of the secular and religious worlds is the cause of modern problems.

Qutb’s argument begins by describing a pre-modern state where religious life and secular life was unified. In this pre-modern era the church or mosque or Jewish law, Halacha, held sway over ordinary daily life. Religious law judged everything from contract law to property disputes to proper clothing to the time of prayer. In other words, nothing was secular. Everything was a moral and religious issue. What you wore, how you treated your neighbor, what you ate, how you had fun, what you sang along with ritual practice was all in service to God’s will. There was no religious school and regular school. It was all religious. It was all regular.

Qutb asks, when did this break down? He looks to the Jews and admires the times of Moses. There was a time when Jews lived completely under God’s law and all aspects of life were unified. The mortal, the spiritual all were one and this was good. In time, though, the laws became rigid and lifeless so God sent another prophet, Jesus, to bring some needed reforms, to reset the law so that once again all aspects of life were joined. But Jews and Jesus argued and Jesus’ own disciples perverted Jesus’ message, according to Qutb, meaning that Jesus never was able to give out his true message. Qutb wrote that the disciples strayed too far from Jewish law. They created two realms, the life of the spirit and the life of the flesh and this added to the eventual separation between religious practice and secular life. The famous line, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” was clear evidence of this turn from a unified life. Secular life there. Spiritual life there. The body split from the soul. Day to day behavior separate from moral and spiritual thinking. Centuries went on leading to modern times where that distinction was normal and desired. Religion is one thing. Regular life is another.

Qutb despaired at Modernity, hated it because it separated mosque and state. He believed the Enlightenment and modern society meant a rejection of God’s morality in people’s personal lives. Writing in the 1960’s, he admired scientific progress and economic advancement but he felt that people had put too much faith in the triumph of human reason. (Following the Holocaust, a lot of Jews worried about that, too.)

Qutb’s ideas are not exclusive to Islam. There any number of Christians and Jews who also argue that society needs to rejoin God and religion with the secular world, that society would be better if we rejected secularism. That is fine until some followers of the that school of thought turn to violence and this is the flaw in Qutb’s teaching.

What Qutb could not know or would not accept is that religion separated from the secular world has fared very poorly. Religion away from secular life denigrates and soon discriminates against other religions and eventually develops fanatical adherents. The fanatical religious determine the secular world unredeemable and therefore worthy of attack. Within Islam it is al Qaeda who attacked us because our value of an open society is at odds with their narrow definition of a perfect society found only by a very specific kind of adherence to Islam as they define it. The 9/11 attackers were part of this group.

I guess al Qaeda sees 9/11 as a victory and some of the most vocal opponents of the community center call the building a victory mosque. But when some non-Muslims refer to the community center as a victory mosque, we should ask if Muslims in general see it as a victory mosque. They do not. Not all Muslims. Not all of Islam. Not the people building the community center. We should remember that al Qaeda isn’t building the center so it would have to be a victory mosque built by Muslims who have condemned the actions that such a monument would celebrate. Some people would disagree with that premise and insist we follow the money so we’ll wait and see on that.

Still, the victory mosque idea hits hard. I’ve read numerous references to Muslims building mosques at the site of military victories. I had never heard of that so I asked Prof. Reuven Firestone of HUC. He speaks Arabic, has lived in Egypt for a year and is a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies. He never heard of such a thing either. It is true that mosques are built on top of churches and churches are built on top of mosques. When one would defeat the other, that’s what they would often do but not as a sign of military victory. It has more to do with sanctity. The location might have an aura of holiness or, quite simply, the walls and foundation of a big building were there and it is easier to retrofit than rebuild. This architectural reality, the re-use of a holy site by the next group has been around long before any monotheists were building anything.

If it is not a victory mosque then what is its purpose? Some say that the Cordoba Institute by using the name Cordoba indicates that just as Islam ruled Spain, they will do so here. But, the Muslims lost Cordoba to the Christians so that’s not a great symbol. More to the point, Cordoba references a time of great comity between communities. Yes, Christians and Jews were officially second class. It wasn’t perfect for the Jews but compared to other times it was pretty good. Cordoba represents a golden age of Spain more than oppression of non-Muslims.

So I don’t accept that it’s a victory mosque and I don’t see the evidence that it’s about Islamic supremacy. What troubles us then? The proximity.

To build an Islamic cultural center near the former World Trade Center is insensitive to the victims’ families we have heard. And I know that here in Orange County we have people who were there, people who were killed, people who responded and worked amid the horror so I tread carefully and respectfully. So, respectfully, I have to note that some families oppose the center while plenty of victims’ families are unopposed to the project. There are some families supportive as a way of spitting in the face of Sayyid Qutb and his theories.

Yes, the attacks left a terrible scar on the people of New York and we need to be sensitive to the grieving families but does that mean that the area around ground zero shall never again have any formal Islamic presence? Must all Muslims bear the guilt of some Muslims forever? And how far do we take this? Insensitivity and closeness is an imprecise thing. When they finally finish building on the ground zero site can Muslims working in an office building there have a prayer room? Can a kebab seller set up his cart on the sidewalk if it has Arabic menus?

The proposed building is two blocks away. Some say it is too close. Would three be better? Four? What is the radius that allows some New Yorkers to feel comfortable? I’m not being facetious. I’m asking serious questions. We are talking about making an area of New York City, an area of the United States, restricted from any formal Muslim presence. The majority dictating where the minority can pray is a serious thing to consider and deeply and profoundly un-American. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights make this country as great as it is. It is to our eternal credit that our country has from before its inception, with bumps along the way, allowed people to worship as they please and, subject to reasonable zoning rules, where they please. I can understand if the perpetrators, if the terrorists wanted to set up some display or a museum celebrating their attack but that is not the case. There is a spectrum of Islamic belief and practice just as in Judaism and we must resist condemning the whole because of the actions of a few. And why must these Muslims who did nothing carry the burden of terrorists they abhor?

Perhaps, maybe, many of us carry prejudices toward Muslims. Most of us don’t know very much about Islam. It can be difficult to be immune from the name calling we hear from both sides though here in Newburgh, many people do have friendships with Muslim which helps break down barriers. Most of the time, these prejudices show themselves in benign ways, small misunderstandings, inconsequential slights but for many Americans the prejudices come out as nothing less than hate. By now we have all heard of the pastor who saw it his Christian duty to have a Koran book burning.[1] We can dismiss him as a bigot but he represents merely an extreme version of what many in America believe. There is Islamophobia out there. There is suspicion about Muslims as a group even if we don’t like to admit it. And it is when we fear Muslims as a group, when every Muslim is presumed to share the agenda of the most violent Muslims, that we enter into the realm of bigotry and we leave reasonable discussion.

The mosque included in the Park 51 project is already there. It’s been there for some time as has another one in the neighborhood. The project was given a green light back in December and until a yellow journalism blog[2] started hyperventilating, everyone in any place of authority -zoning boards, community groups- approved it.

But once our own American fanatic bloggers started saying World Trade Center terror mosque and ground zero mosque and monster mosque and all sorts of other incendiary things you get people going.

For some the syllogism works like this: the terrorists attacked in the name of Islam. This cultural center will be in the name of Islam. Therefore this cultural center is a terrorist center. That is the logic of an awful lot of people. I hear them say it.

Others have expressed their concerns this way. The terrorists were Muslim. This center is for Muslims. Muslims remind me of the attacks. Therefore no Muslim institution can be in the area.

I’m not trying to belittle people who have an emotional reaction. I’m trying to understand how the presence of this center offends people unless we are lumping all of Islam, all Muslims, into one group.

This is not to say we should allow political correctness to keep us from calling it like it is. Fear of al Qaeda and the followers of Qutb is a very good idea. No one knows better than Jews that when a person says he wants to kill us, we take that very seriously. Vigilance is good. Fear of Muslims as a group is another thing entirely.

It’s Yom Kippur. It is a day to search our souls. It is a time to dig down deep and try to understand, really understand where our sensitivity is coming from. It is a day to still the shrill screaming we hear from so many opponents and look into our own souls quietly. If the cultural center is insensitive, what exactly about it is insensitive? What upsets us? Are we upset because of the rumors and false information and outright lies we’ve read? Are we upset by distance? Are we upset that Muslims as a whole haven’t sufficiently humbled themselves, that they don’t know their place? Or do we hold onto a fear of Islam, a fear of Muslims.

Nine years ago, we were attacked in the name of Islam. We were scarred by Muslims who acted as Muslims. They attacked us for our values. That is a hard thing to overcome. It is hard not to look at a mosque or a headscarf or hear an accent and wonder, what do they think? What do they really feel? And some suspicion is good. Some suspicion keeps us alive. But too much suspicion just makes us fearful and mean and we must not be fearful and mean. It is Yom Kippur. It is the time to look deep within and ask ourselves the hard questions. Why do I feel the way I feel?



Kol Nidre Sermon

Yom Kippur 5771

Getting Excited

Rabbi Larry Freedman

Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

This is the sermon I was supposed to give on Rosh Hashanah. That is why, in a moment, I will reference Rosh Hashanah. My thanks to everyone for pitching in last week and especially to Linda and Aliyah for giving the sermon.

When I was little, my mother would get us new clothes for Rosh Hashana which meant we had to suffer an eternity going to stores to get a new suit or new shoes. It was interminable trying things on. I hated it. I’m a boy. Trying on clothes with your mother is no fun. It’s a circle of hell. But my mother had this peculiar thing about new clothes so, whatever, I was stuck.

I am going to cut to the chase because my mother is here and I know she’s waiting for this: Mom, you were right. I was… I was wrong.

It turns out that rabbis for centuries have had a list of things one could do and should do to prepare for Rosh Hashana. One should hear the shofar each day during Elul, the month before Rosh Hashana. We sounded the shofar every Friday night for the past month. One should visit the graves of relatives, a custom that has moved here to the Sunday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One should seek forgiveness from friends and relatives and begin the process of reflection, preparing oneself for reflection during Rosh Hashana. One should have one’s tallit cleaned, change the Torah covers and prepare for a festive meal and clean the house.

And, and, one should get new clothes. Indeed some say it is an obligation for a husband to buy new clothes and jewelry for his wife. Of course, we live in an egalitarian era so gentlemen, pick up something for yourselves as well.

So my mother was right. Buying new clothes is a longstanding custom to prepare for Rosh Hashana. But I didn’t know that at the time.

Let me just tell you that there is only so far I am willing to go to humble myself before my mom. At some point I have to save face.

And I think here my only chance to save face is to say that I never really knew why we were being tortured. I didn’t know that this was a longstanding custom. My mom, as I remember it, basically said something like, you’re a year older, you’re bigger, nothing fits. She probably added something in there about how we get new clothes to match the new year. Maybe, but I don’t remember it.

Let me digress for just a moment and assure my mom that I have since grown fond of nice clothes and sharp shoes so if you want to hit up Woodbury Commons, I’m all for it.

The reason for getting new clothes is really not that complicated. It’s a new year and we want to look our best as we greet the new year. The synagogue fashion show that many people hate or secretly love is really just a version of the long standing custom of putting one’s best foot forward. We come together for a festive day, seeing family and friends we haven’t seen in some time, we have a good meal, we gather for prayer and we begin the intense process of self-reflection as we, in the language of the machzor, stand before God, ready to be judged. Who wouldn’t want to look his or her best for that? The notion that God doesn’t care what we look like certainly is true but we don’t dress up for God; we dress up for ourselves, to prepare ourselves.

Time for fresh clothes to match a fresh start. Time for a new outfit that doesn’t carry any baggage from the last year. Time to wear something that promises a good future.

It’s actually a nice sentiment, isn’t it? It turns clothes and shoes and jewelry from mindless consumerism into a spiritual expression. Our very clothes tell a story of what we are doing here tonight. Like an actor who truly feels a character after putting on the wardrobe for the first time, we can use our clothing to finally feel what the day is about: formal but festive, serious but joyful.

That’s a real spiritual moment. When one can take something in the physical world and use it to develop a more thoughtful expression, that’s spirituality.

That is what we do when we are here in synagogue and for many of us, we feel that. We embrace that spiritual moment that arises from being physically present, hearing the music, wearing our new clothes. But for some who are here and for many who are not here and who will not be here or any synagogue, this moment is not very enjoyable at all. No one told them what it all means. No one explained to them or re-explained over and over the deeper meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the power our customs and rituals provide. The High Holidays are more burden than joy. No one got them excited.

It’s not that we don’t try to help everyone feel a personal connection. The Jewish community across North America has built beautiful buildings, created communal institutions, religious schools. We have dedicated and warm volunteers and lay leadership all working to make Judaism vibrant. But we’ve also created forms and paperwork and appointments and committees and boards and dues. We’ve created membership with the positive goal of creating a happy community keeping itself going only to see it misunderstood as something offputting and elitist.

Into this mix comes Chabad. As I’m sure you know, Chabad has sent a young couple to be the shlichim, the emissaries to Newburgh. We already have Chabad in Poughkeepsie and in Goshen and now here in Newburgh so we’re moving up in the world.

Chabad is an acronym for chochma, bina, deah. Wisdom, understanding, knowledge. It is the second name of the Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism.

In the late 1700s, there was a revolt against the stuffy, book driven elite expression of Judaism. It was a Judaism where uneducated peasants would scratch out a living while the elite yeshiva students studied complicated Talmud in order to draw closer to God. The Ba’al Shem Tov was the rabbi who rebelled against this and created the idea that joy and ecstasy were equal to study as paths to God. He created the niggun, the wordless melody and ecstatic dance that could transport a group upwards. He taught a life of joy in the mitzvot. This movement became very popular.

In time, the Hasidic movement created a number of groups that centered on a leader, a Rebbe from a certain town. Schneur Zalman also known as the Alter Rebbe was from a Russian town called Lubavitch and the group became known as the Lubavitchers.

Hasidism grew for almost 200 years until the Holocaust devastated them. A few groups survived and moved to America. Most stayed to themselves. What little they had seen of the outside world was enough. The Lubavitchers however took a different approach. The last rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson looked around and saw the world filled with holiness, untapped holiness. He believed, as we’ll get to in just a moment, that Jews had a special gift to tap into that holiness and bring it out into this world. And his Hasidim there in Crown Heights were just the type of Jews to go find other Jews and bring that holiness out. Shlichut, this role of being an emissary, became a defining aspect of what it meant to be Lubavitch.

These shlichim are highly motivated, highly energetic and focused on a singular mission. Find Jews and make them aware of how special they are and how they can use their unique gift. And they’ll do it for free. Well, free for a little while.

Chabad’s business model is simple. They give seed money to a couple who is expected to be self supporting in about a year. The shlichim can do this because they are willing to work very hard for very little pay. It also helps that they sometimes ignore zoning laws or fire codes or town ordinances or even, at times, courtesy to neighbors by turning their homes into the central meeting place.

They are also successful because they don’t worry about all the things synagogues like ours have to deal with. Since it is a one man operation, or one man and one woman, there are no boards, there are no committees, there are no members. All of a Chabad rabbi’s time can be spent focusing on individuals. They have nothing else to do and they want nothing else to do than be with Jews, sit with Jews, visit with Jews. We have a building where programs take place but then struggle to get people to come in. Wherever they go, that’s where the program is. A neighbor’s home, Starbucks, a borrowed office conference room. And they are much better at personal, pastoral care than anybody else. Where I might spend my days moving the program forward, tending to the institution, and making appointments for the next day or next week, they meet Jews.

They also have another advantage. They are unapologetic and in love with what they do with no constraints on their enthusiasm. I promise you, Chabad children know all about new clothes for Rosh Hashanah and they are psyched about it. Indeed, that kind of unbridled enthusiasm is what attracts many Reform Jews to Chabad. They get Jews excited. It’s difference with us.

At its best Reform Judaism found a way to bring Jewish living to modern Jews. But at its worst, Reform Judaism had the unintentional consequence of limiting Jewish expression and teaching our own people to hold back on too vibrant a display of Jewish living. We have made it comfortable for Jews to put their Jewish living up on a shelf, taking it down from time to time and then putting it away until the next time.

A lot of that has changed. Reform Judaism is more forward today, leading in social justice and reinvigorating Jewish living but it can’t be denied that the enthusiasm and zest we have can’t be compared to the zeal the Chabad shlichim have. Reform Jews may be proud of being Jewish but we just don’t have the same all consuming focus and drive Chabad has. I suspect there are a few reasons for that. Let me tell you about one of them.

Rebbe Zalman, the Alter Rebbe, wrote a major work on the nature of the soul and a mystical guide to self-improvement. The work is called the Tanya and after Torah it is perhaps the most important book for Lubavitch Chasidim. I’ll be teaching an adult education course on it this year.

It is in the Tanya that I find one source of Chabad motivation that may be surprising. The Tanya teaches and Chabad believes that the Jewish soul is better than the soul of the gentile.

You heard that right. The Jewish soul is better. Let me remind you that this is not a general Jewish teaching. This is a Chabad teaching. It is from the Tanya, their book, not ours, not anyone else’s.

How can a soul be better than any other soul? Reform Jews, I would say most Jews believe that at a basic human level, all of us are equal creations of God. We are all children of God, equal in all ways at our essence. The Reform Movement lays our whole interest in tikkun olam on the premise that Jews are called to help alleviate suffering regardless of who suffers because we are all, at our core, equal before God.

But the Tanya teaches that this is not so. Here is the logic. A man goes to his wife with idea of creating a child. He has great concentration in this matter and with one single cell sperm, he creates a child. Note that the Tanya doesn’t mention women or that she needs to contribute her own one single cell but come take the course with me and we’ll have fun discovering such things.

So we have a single cell from the man and from this cell develops an entire child. An entire child from one cell. The Tanya tells us to realize that from that single cell develops the most impressive and important parts of a child, like for example the brain as well as less important, lower level parts like a toenail. We all would agree that surely the brain and the toenail all originate from that single cell but we could not agree that they are all equally important. There is a hierarchy in the value of the cells a child has. Lung, high, appendix, not so much.

And this is why that if there can be different kinds of cells that come from the same origin and if all human beings are creations of the one God, if their souls are imbued within them from this singular God, it is possible that not all souls are equal in value. Some souls are like the brain and some souls are like a toenail. All are from the same source but not all have the same value.

Guess which one the Jewish soul is? If you are offended, don’t blame me. It’s not my teaching, it’s theirs.

The Lubavitchers have a very real and clear sense of God present in their lives right before them. They believe that there is the chance for holiness at every moment, a very real opportunity to create an aura of holiness, to bring a sense of the Divine down to this world and they, with the superior Jewish soul, are perfectly poised to do this. No one else can create that holiness the way a Jew can. This is why they can be so motivated. They have a superior ability to do something amazing. And only they have it. “With great power comes great responsibility,” goes the famous Stan Lee line and they believe it. This is why they go after any Jew they can find because that Jew also has a superior soul even if it is latent, even if it has not yet been inspired to reach its true full potential.

Their approach to non-Jews has softened in recent years. Where once they would ignore non-Jews, today they remind non-Jews of the Noachide laws, the seven rules of basic civility that God wants everyone to follow. And after assuring the non-Jew that he or she has a role in the world as well, an important role, they then turn their attentions back to the Jewish superior soul.

And they are very nice about it. They are friendly and charming and persuasive and warm and filled with yiddishkeit and totally and completely sincere as they help Jews and Jewish families increase Jewish living and increase joy in Jewish celebrations one mitzvah at a time.

And what could be better? After all, shouldn’t we also do that? A Reform synagogue should encourage our people to develop Jewish living, to take on a new mitzvah, little by little. A Reform synagogue should guide Jews and Jewish families to experience the joy and meaning of our heritage. Of course, we do it by welcoming and including non-Jews as members of our community and we presume women will have nothing less than equal status. We look to tradition but embrace Western education. But even with all that, we should consider spiritual growth and ritual growth as something good and positive. The children learn, why not the adults? What if someone in her 50s started saying Kiddush at home every Friday night? What if someone in his 30s decided to stay away from email in order to concentrate on his family all Shabbat long?

That would be good. That would be praiseworthy. It certainly is as much a goal in the Reform Movement as it is in Chabad.

The difference is that we create ways for eternal values to speak to each new generation in concert with modern life. Chabad uses modern technology to keep alive an 18th century value system. We promote Jewish living through a central location that costs money to run. Chabad is more personal, not focused on their building focusing on free or low cost but somewhere, someone is donating or paying. Maybe a few wealthy donors will keep Chabad free for the rest or maybe donations will be requested in time. And let me digress to say that there is something noble and good with our system of having everyone pitch in. All our members can take pride in knowing their support through time, energy or money is what keeps this community going.

What Chabad does best is get Jews excited about being Jewish. What they don’t do well, in fact, it is not their goal, is to create Jews who live within their system. They don’t expect you to become Orthodox. They just hope you’ll do one more mitzvah.

What we do well is create a system all our Jews and non-Jews can live in but we don’t do a good enough job of getting people excited. We do have a goal of getting Jews and non-Jews excited about modern Jewish life and taking on more of it because, ultimately, it is good for our souls. Our ordinary equal-to-everyone-else’s souls. Building Jewish life in our own lives, in our own homes is good because it makes us better people and enriches our lives and brings a sense of spiritual connection. But we need to do a better job of bringing the excitement and joy. And we need to teach messages better so they’ll stick.

So come study with me this year and get excited. Take that first step of clearing your calendar and committing to some study for your own benefit. We will have a Taste of Judaism class which is three weeks and perfect for intermarried couples or Jews or non-Jews, members or not, who want to learn a little bit more about Judaism and Jewish living. In fact, this class is aimed primarily for non-members so let people know. We will study Tanya, Hasidic mysticism and take away teachings that fill our spirit as well as ideas that just might not work for us. We will have an adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah class this year and of course, come speak to me if you are ready to discuss conversion. Aside from formal classes, you can always call with a question or point to discuss. Just pick up the phone. You can join us for prayer, an hour of thoughtful contemplation. We have every Shabbat morning Torah study that is one part text and one part free wheeling discussion.

We have all these things so that you can get excited, so that your Jewish life is not up on a shelf but a vibrant part of your day. You don’t need a superior soul to be motivated. You just need your spirit fed, your soul nourished, your mind challenged and your life vibrant, connected with our people all over the world throughout time. Start with one thing. Try one thing.

And beyond formal study, there are any number of opportunities to gather with your friends and neighbors here at the synagogue as well as off site. I know it can be hard to take advantage of what we have here. People are busy and all that. Jewish study is something that doesn’t naturally register on most people’s calendars but you’ll see. It’s good to gather together. Take the first step and come in.

Rosh Hashanah has come and gone. Yom Kippur is here. I hope you have something new to wear for the season. If not, maybe something before Simchat Torah? I wish you all a meaningful experience while you are here in synagogue and a meaningful Yom Kippur while you are at home as well. Engage the message of the holiday to look into your soul and this year do something new for your soul, just like you should do something new for your body with those new clothes.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Rosh Hashanah 5771

A Mystical Approach to God

Temple Beth Jacob

Rabbi Larry Freedman

Kellee is a friend of mine. That’s not completely true. She’s a Facebook friend. She was in high school with me.

When I first got on Facebook, Kellee friended me in the digital world and I was pretty surprised because I don’t recall us being friends in the analog world. Let’s just say she ran with a sleeker, smoother, less geeky crowd. And I see she lives in Miami now and based on the photos of her at all sorts of swell parties I would say she continues to run with a smoother, sleeker, less geeky crowd, the kind of crowd where everyone dresses like they are 26. But Kellee’s not fooling me. I graduated with her so I know exactly how old she is. 46. And three quarters.

I bring up Kellee because a little bit ago she posted a loaded statement on her profile looking for comments. She wrote this: “Ok...I do NOT do "church" my "god" is the earth, the air, the trees and the spirit of light, goodness and positive energy...I don't need to read a book or go to a building to celebrate all that is true... Just sayin. (Had to get that off my chest.)”

Some of her friends responded shaking their heads with promises that they would pray for her.

Another person offered a secular amen. A few people offered books she might be interested in.

I chimed in too. I chimed in like an elbow patch tweed jacket at a South Beach fashion show. Like Birkenstocks at a Jimmy Choo boutique.

But, she friended me first, right? She was asking for comments. Here’s why I tossed in my two cents: because I hear this sort of thing all the time. I hear it with kids, I hear it with adults. I hear it at camp, I hear it at synagogue. The ideas of God that many people have, that they were taught just leave them cold. I’m guessing Kellee had a little church as a child but as an adult couldn’t buy into it. She just can’t accept whatever it is people try to tell her God is. But, despite this, she has maintained a sense of awe that moves her. She doesn’t care much for God but she has a great sense of wonderment. I suggested as part of my less smooth, more geeky post that she might just be a mystic.

Kellee ignored me. As she always did.

But even though Kellee ignored me again, she would find good company here with many Jews who struggle with God. Lots of Jews struggle with the idea of God and yet, despite not believing in God or being skeptical about God, these Jews come here tonight and fully embrace the themes of the holiday, enjoy reflective moments and leave renewed and refreshed. The idea of deep self reflection and honest self-assessment leads to meaningful moments even if one is skeptical about God.

For others this holiday is very much a day with God. These are Jews with a deep sense of God in their lives. These are Jews who find an immanent God, a being or something, apart from themselves to which they can turn to and pray to and lean on and confess before. The liturgy of Rosh Hashana sings out to them without being metaphor or poetry or anything other than an honest turning over to a higher power. And so they enter and then leave the day feeling grateful that their prayers have been heard, that God cares, that God desires to turn from punishment, that God prefers forgiveness if we just do our part.

And we all come together easily because our way doesn’t require one path. Our sacred stories and teachings and holidays may refer to God, they may presume God’s existence but we do not have a doctrinal requirement to believe in God in order to gain value and benefit.

But is that it? Either skeptics who enjoy the themes or believers who turn themselves personally over to a higher power? What about people like Kellee? She can’t accept God as others are preaching but she still wants something more than poetry. What can we offer people like her?

I actually think she is on to something. She represents a third path, a path that ambles between the classic idea of God as a being distinct from us and the rejection of God entirely. Kellee talks about trees and air and the earth. She suggests wonderment at the world at large and gets a spiritual charge from that, a moment to see amazing things and feel connected. And she doesn’t need some building to teach her that. How could she see the grandeur of a sunset if she’s sitting inside?

So I added my comment suggesting that she is describing a mystical approach, a kabbalistic approach even.

And I would like to share it with you. Now, let me say that going to Hebrew Union College, a seminary firmly rooted in German enlightened rational thinking, mysticism was not offered at school. Mysticism is the stuff of poets and not serious students of theology they would sniff. But outside the seminary, mysticism brings an idea of God many always imagined but couldn’t identify. Mysticism frees agnostic Jews from images of God they can’t stand and envelops Jews who believe earnestly in God. And it may just give atheists a chance to appreciate a sense of God without having to accept supernatural phenomenon.

The idea of taking in the air and stars and all that refers to an idea called panentheism. Not pantheism. Pantheism is the idea that everything is a god and leads to worshipping various natural things. Panentheism is the idea that God is the whole of everything. God is the entirety of the entire universe and so you and I and the wind and sun and mountains and sea, that book, this wall are all part of God. The world, the universe is the manifestation of God. We enter the idea of the nonduality of God meaning that all is within God, everything is an expression of God. We may regard the world as separate from us but this mystical idea says that the world is not separate from us at all. We are part of the world. We are one with the universe.

This can be hard to imagine.

It’s hard to imagine because mortals that we are, we need to characterize, we need to codify. We need to say this is here and that is there. We are organized to distinguish one thing from the next. It’s hard for us to see everything as an entire whole.

Imagine we go to a museum and we see a painting of a landscape. We will notice the field or sky or mountain. Our eye will move about from element to element. That’s pretty normal. This part is here, that part is there.

But sometimes, for a moment, we can grasp the whole canvas, we can see the whole picture as a totality. Our eye stops roving and we see it all and if we are truly lucky, we cease to see anything else but the scene and we lose sight of the walls of the gallery and we are within the scene. At that moment, we have a brief sense of non-duality. The landscape ceases to become oil on canvas; it becomes our world, all that we are. We are in the painting. We are part of the painting as a whole. We are enveloped.

It’s what happens when people have that Grand Canyon moment at the Grand Canyon or a mountain peak or looking out at the ocean; because that is what it takes to shake us out of the usual idea that I am here and that is there. We are, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, on top of the mountain, at ocean’s edge, enveloped by the tableau before us, finally achieving that sense of oneness with all that is before us. We realize how small we are and yet at the very same time, how we are part of something so vast. We realize the unity of the whole universe and that is given the name God. God is the totality of everything and we are part of it.

Back in the gallery, the painting is all around us, we are in the painting. But then, we notice we are in the painting, we become aware of feeling enveloped, we recognize the awe and that very awareness thrusts us out of that thinking. We return to the usual boundaries. The gallery walls, the floor underfoot. The painting there and me over here. And the moment is gone. Awareness is gone. But for that moment we have a fleeting moment of being one with the universe and thus one with God. We gain a sense of things as all connected and then, that awareness is gone the moment we recognize we had that sense of things.

A Jewish mystical name that speaks to this vision of God is ein sof. That means, without end. It is the idea of God as no thing. God as no individual thing, no single thing. It removes the idea of any thingness about God at all. It removes any sense of God with boundaries, any sense of God as apart from all that goes on in the universe. The idea of ein sof suggests the idea that the universe -which is without boundaries- is in its totality God. All things are within God. Or to put it another way, God is no one thing but all things. There is no thing other than God.

But like any good mystical idea, it takes some quiet contemplation to imagine the ein sof, the idea of God without boundaries because if we can imagine God ein sof, without boundaries, all that is in the universe, we can also remember that we are part of that universe and thus, part of God.

How are we doing? Confused? Well, this sort of discussion is best suited for small group study, not a sermon. And Torah has fed us a constant stream of episodes of God as a separate being, a separate character in the Torah. We have a repeating cycle of God as watching, speaking, doing and performing supernatural miracles. This is the vision of God that is the essence of most types of Orthodox Judaism and the classic idea given to Jewish school children.

It is also the image that has been spurned by generations and generations of free thinkers or enlightened thinkers or rational thinkers. And it is the vision of God ridiculed by the new atheists. We shouldn’t ridicule of course. Faith is a method to something larger so a classic image of God may work for some but what is most important to know is that it does not have to work for everyone. Judaism has welcomed new ideas of God for a long time. That’s why I don’t worry too much when parents come to me upset that their child doesn’t believe in God. The simple answer to those kids is to ask, what God are you rejecting? The answers often describe some variation of the man with the beard in a chair and a vision of God that is more magician than Creator. They describe to me an idea of God that I couldn’t possibly adhere to. Somewhere, somehow, people are picking up unsatisfactory ideas about God, find them absurd and assuming that’s all there is to it, reject the whole enterprise. Truth be told, the idea of this sermon came from adults, our members, who have no use for the synagogue because they don’t believe in God. I would bet I don’t believe in the thing they are rejecting either. I would also bet that given a chance, many of these adults might enjoy a Jewish approach to awe once we dispense of supernatural miracles.

I have to say that I’ve never rejected God but I’ve never really embraced the classic vision either. I appreciate Maimonides who pretty much says we can’t describe what God is, we can only say what God is not. And for starters, God is not a man with a beard on a throne.

I like Martin Buber whose famous I-Thou approach offers the notion of relating to God in a profound, internally felt manner that can only be experienced. We have a profound moment where we know. Once we begin to describe it, we lose that brief connection.

And I like the mystics who use a little poetry, a little creativity and a willingness to see the whole world as one.

There is more to mysticism and I propose we study it a bit. I’m going to teach two classes this year about mysticism. One will be some introductory reading of some basic mystical ideas. And, since I’m not a mystic myself, we’re going to go on this journey together. But I’ve already read the book so I’ll be your guide. This is the chance for everyone who has rejected God to see alternatives to that idea you rejected. This is a chance for those with faith to explore another way of understanding the unknowable. There’s no goal in the class other than awareness. This approach has made me more comfortable with ideas of God, more certain in my rejection of other ideas of God, happy to have some kind of logic and intellectual thought to the mystery of God. I encourage all of you to come try it out, especially those of you who rejected God a long time ago.

The other class will be on the Tanya. The Tanya is the pre-eminent text, next to Torah, I suppose, for the Lubavitch Chasidim, also known as Chabad. I’ve already started looking at some of it and it is fascinating. The Tanya will be thoughtful and mind bending at times with meditations on the soul and how we can elevate our souls to be the very best we can be. And it will be maddening at times as well.

No prior knowledge is required. We’ll take our time and move at our own steady pace. If you are up for something you may love or hate or love to hate, this will be for you. It will be a chance to study something with little practical application but great personal potential. And what could be more mystical than that? I hope you can see that as enticing.

Kellee, in her effort to cast aside church was actually embracing something larger. She is open to something larger than herself, the first mystical step, and open to the idea that all that is around her is interconnected. She is willing to feel the awe of being at the edge of the Grand Canyon without having to be at the Grand Canyon. And she is willing to feel that awe wherever she is. Kellee lives in Miami so I don’t think she’ll join us but I hope you do, especially you who are here but are uncomfortable at best with all the God language. Those of you who strain to be polite with our addressing an immanent being, those of you who rebel against turning ourselves to a God of emotions should join me for the study. I hope you do. I hope you join to fine tune your anger, open yourselves up to greater awareness and walk away with language to dismiss what you know and maybe embrace something new. Rosh Hashanah is the new year and we’ll begin with some new study.