What follows are my remarks for Rosh Hashanah morning. This is a part of a larger set of ideas I hope to write about in the year ahead and I welcome your thoughts and comments here on this blog or over on Facebook. Shanah Tovah!
Rosh Hashanah Remarks
Rabbi Andy Bachman
September 4, 2013
1 Tishri 5774
In Vienna in the 1870s, in one five block radius of one another, lived Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl and Gustav Mahler. Unknown to each other and certainly not yet the men of stature and achievement they would become, they were rather as yet unrealized manifestations of Vienna’s great turn-of-the-century atmosphere. Little did they or their families realize that Freud would unleash the mind and create psycho-analysis; that Mahler would be among a number of artists critical to the invention of modern classical music; and certainly no one would have known that Theodor Herzl, who dreamed of a bourgeois career as a journalist and playwright, would twenty years later witness the Dreyfus Trial in Paris and change the course of Jewish history by setting into motion the First Zionist Congress and the eventual establishment of the first Jewish state in 2000 years.
At the same time, another Central European Bohemian, Isaac Mayer Wise, was establishing a new American Judaism. Fueled and enamored by the enlightened democracy of a United States less than a hundred years old, Wise believed that an American Jewry rooted in the center of the country--Cincinnati--would emanate outward a new frontier in Jewish history. His prayerbook, Minhag America, and periodical publications like the American Israelite, would position his vision of an American Jewry living according to the full realization of its religious and spiritual essence in this new Promised Land. Wise’s founding of Hebrew Union College, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis would alter the landscape of American religious life down to our present day and lead the way for generations of Jews to Americanize and assimilate into Jewish practice decidedly non-orthodox practice that is now the dominant culture of Jewish religious life.
To grasp the enormity of achievement of each of these Jews, consider that Freud is most likely responsible for more Jews (and others) becoming therapists than is the Lubavitcher Rebbe responsible for making rabbis; and while we’re not certain about the algorithm for Mahler’s First Symphony and membership subscriptions for the New York Philharmonic, it should never cease to amaze us that in 1909, at the founding of Tel Aviv, fewer than 10,000 people spoke the modern Hebrew language; today, the greater Tel Aviv area is more than 3 million people, the modern State of Israel is 8 million people (including 6.5 million Jews, a number equal to the number of Jews in the United States.) And the Reform movement, which this synagogue has been a part of since 1909, comprises 900 synagogues and more than 1.5 million Jews.
This latter point makes clear to us something that was inconceivable, totally unimaginable, a bit more than a century ago--that while the values and principles and narratives and rituals of Judaism have remained fundamentally stable, the Jewish people and how they answer to the call of history and the fulfillment of those values has always evolved and been adaptive enough in order to sustain and renew itself for another generation. And further, that the organizational forms we put into place at one time are not necessarily the forms that sustain us into the future. Early Jewish cultures had houses of learning, houses of prayer, meeting spaces for communal decisions, and of course, burial societies and cemeteries. Most other institutions have adapted, risen and fallen throughout the centuries. Especially in this Season of Return, we do well to remember that the eternal values of Judaism, Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness, have always sustained us no matter where and in what conditions we have lived, as we have held close to us, in the articulation of those values, the identity DNA of Land, Language, Sacred Texts, Faith and History.
Whereas a century ago--decades before the rise of Nazism and Fascism would destroy the mass of European Jewry--the assumption that there were two Jewish communities, American and European (leaving aside, for now, the masses of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, who, for a variety of reasons, did not enter the mainstream Ashkenazi Jewish narrative until well into the 20th century, despite enormous contributions through the ages), and that the organizing principle for Jewry was how to respond to emancipation into civil equality. In Europe there were traditional Torah based cultures; Yiddish culture; Socialism; Bundism; Communism; Capitalism; or conversion to partial and full assimilation. In America, the central organizing principle was denominationalism--the idea that one identified with a philosophical and theological system of belief and practice to his or her liking, such as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and eventually Reconstructionist Judaisms.
The brief utopias of possibility unleashed by the fin-de-siecle mindsets of some Jewish leaders would be shattered, of course, by the traumas and cataclysms of the new twentieth century. A mass migration of European Jewry, fleeing anti-Semitism and seeking economic freedom, would bring more than 3 million Jews to the United States between 1880 and 1920. And by the late 1930s it was clear that the mass of those Jews who stayed in Europe would face great peril--with 6 million Jews eventually facing annihilation and self-sacrifice--”a whole offering”--a Holocaust.
As leaders in Washington continue to debate immigration policy and reform, we’d do well to remember the countless stories of migration, dislocation and most important, and particularly meaningful during these Days of Awe--the sacrifices--that were made by prior generations so that American Jewry could be, in the main, as truly fortunate as it is.
The sacrifice of past generations. It’s a phrase, an idea, that is particularly and deeply resonant in these Days of Awe, especially with the story of the Akedah, Abraham’s binding and sacrifice of his son Isaac, a reading central to generations of Jews, on these days, for centuries.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is without a doubt one of the most well-known of all the Biblical stories. The example of all examples of faith for generations of Jews. A text as challenging as it is troubling. Evocative of the greatest complexities of man’s relationship to God and religion as any story in any sacred text and a call to philosophers and theologians to crack its code and reveal its meaning for each new generation of readers.
In the main, the Jewish tradition, as we have said, has understood the story as nothing less than purely heroic--a virtuous role ascribed to both Abraham and Isaac, who, in the eyes of the Sages, seemed to both understand the depths of God’s call to them. From God’s call to Abraham in Lech Lecha--to go forth from the familiar homeland of Ur to “a land that I will show you,” to be great, to be a blessing, and on through the early iterations of God’s covenantal relationship with the Jewish people, as God says of Abraham even before the birth of Isaac, that the purpose of the relationship is a relationship between God and the Jewish people, rooted, cultivated, and meant to bear the fruit of a just, righteous and peaceful world. Just moments after Abraham’s circumcision at age 99, God comes to him to warn him of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh and to enlist Abraham’s sense of justice in determining what innocent lives ought to be spared. God has chosen well, as the text teaches that God says aloud of Abraham, “for I have known him, to the end that he will command his children, and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Eternal, to do righteousness and justice.”
That is to say that the central, operating principle of Jewish civilization--from its foundation to today--is that the Jewish people are meant to understand their history, their tradition, their sacred texts, their rituals, their languages and their relationship with their God as nothing less than the call to bring justice and righteousness to the world. All we do, all we say, all we sing, all eat, all we pray--is but a vast, sacrificial act to level the scales of justice in our world.
It is monumental; it is humbling; it is true.
Maimonides could not be more clear on the matter. Abraham’s heroic gesture of total sacrifice is for all to see, “to perpetuate the opinion and draw people to it.” It is, he wrote, “the most extraordinary thing that could happen in the world.”
Isaac Arama echoed this idea, claiming that the story’s depth was so great, its meaning so jarring and provocative, precisely because “every generation was meant to understand it.”
Rav Kook, the chief rabbi in British Mandate Palestine, wrote that the purpose of the story was to teach each generation of Jews the vital importance of passion and self-surrender; that there is something greater than us; that we are not our mere 80 years on this planet but part of a greater family, a nation of families, with a unique voice and a unique role to play in history.
In the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon, an early rabbinic text, the Sages argue that when Abraham lay his son on the altar, Isaac opened his eyes and saw not only the sufferings of future generations of Jews but saw the redemption of the Jewish people as well. He saw that there was a purpose to sacrifice and suffering, though with himself bound on the altar, he clearly knew that his own role in was transitional--that he was but one step on a long road toward that realization of justice and righteousness for the whole world. That despite the perils, the challenges, of past generations of Jews, the place of sacrifice, as the Torah demonstrates, is called “hashem Yireh,” the Eternal will see. Every generation of Jews--especially those living in danger, in oppression, or even lining up for gas-masks as our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel are at this very moment in time--every generation of Jews, in living as Jews, are an eternal testimony to the idea that Source of Life will see--and be seen--in the future. Seen in order to bring justice and righteousness to the world.
And of all the world’s religion’s visions for the promise of redemption, for the messianic era, for life in the world to come--from banquets to peace to walking in the garden with Pick Your Messiah to virgins in heaven and, to quote the great sage Al McGuire, “seashells and balloons,” what is more extraordinary than an eternal, covenantal promise of justice and righteousness for all?
Without the sacrifice of another generation, who would be here? Without sacrifice of another generation, which one of us would really stake a claim to our lives?
Using these ideas of sacrifice as the fulcrum to our argument, I want to bring the focus back to the beginning of the American 20th century and the nascent ideas that have, for the past century, animated Jewish life. They are fundamentally the denominations and the spectral choices for theological engagement; the ongoing communal work of handling millions of Jewish immigrants from Europe over a twenty year period and establishing synagogues, cemeteries, schools, communal funds and institutions that care for the poor and elderly; and, on the perimeters of American Jewish life, there is Zionism--the least favored of all those choices. The pipe dream. The crazy experiment. Finally, there is, unleashed already in Europe and gaining a foothold in the United States, the foundational ideas of a radical Jewish secularism--Freud uncovering the unconscious and Emma Goldman in 1907 sponsoring for “Freethinkers and Radicals” a “Yom Kipur Picnic.” One can see, even in this kind of Jewish assimilationism, an undying commitment to Abraham’s sense of “justice and righteousness” made manifest in the labor movement, in the public school system, in immigrants rights--ideas and struggles still very much at the forefront of our own current political discourse in the United States, in Israel, and around the world.
The turn-of-the-century radicals sacrificed their particular religious Jewishness on the altar of universal rights of all people. Similarly, on the altar of Americanization, past generations bequeathed a future of tolerance and success by changing their names, giving up observance of the Sabbath, kashrut, exclusively endogamous relationships. We assimilated. Our synagogues moved to the suburbs and became just like the church on the corner--parking lots, social halls, even Bingo nights. Whereas the Torah scholar was once the mythic realization of Jewish intellectual and spiritual aspiration, by mid-century the American Jew had new priorities, placing the highest value on a secular education and a well-paying profession. With virtually no barriers to Jewish advancement anywhere in the U.S., those immigrant Jews’ earlier sacrifices have born the fruits of sweet success.
Without a doubt there are those who decry these developments. Who take the view that every generation of Jews is the last generation of Jews. That we are “Israel the ever-dying people.” But imagine that ours is the generation that Isaac saw when he was laid upon the altar by his father Abraham. That we are the future where God and the Jewish people are still seen. A nation of 6.5 million Jews in Israel; an army of psychoanalysts unleashed on a nation of neurotics; and the most diverse, successful and free generation of diaspora Jews in our three thousand year history.
At home in an American culture where to be American is to be yourself; an increasingly diverse expression of language and nationality claiming this place as home; younger generations claiming multiple identities, bi-and tri-racial identities and individuated lives rooted in instantaneous communication and self-expression; real-time gender realignments; visions of a post-ethnic Judaism (Russ and Daughters notwithstanding); and finally, not monolithic institutions or even synagogues built exclusively on denominational lines but rather communities of choice and election, of pluralistic voice and expression.
As many of you know, our community has spent the past year writing a new Torah scroll to celebrate our 150th anniversary in Brooklyn. Apropos of what was unimaginable 150 years ago, this is the first Sefer Torah written by a woman scribe in New York City history, (and we will finish it and dedicate it on September 22.)
And if we could open up the scroll to the story of the Akedah, to Abraham making great sacrifices, as past generations of members of this community made great sacrifices to keep this community alive (just as generations of Jews have done for their communities around the world for generations) imagine if we’d see, among Isaac’s visions of the future, our own generation, having survived because of others’ willingness to make sacrifices, obligating us in turn. Imagine Isaac’s vision as our own vision for the time in which we live as a Jewish community in Brooklyn.
We’d see in Isaac’s eyes a woman writing a Torah scroll; we’d see a multi-generational community remaining deeply engaged; we’d see a synagogue that has doubled in size--from 500 to 1000 families; we’d see a radical re-invention of Jewish youth education through Yachad and Keshet; we’d see a diversity of young Jews in Brooklyn Jews and Altshul staking their own claims to Jewish life, text and ritual; we’d see one of North America’s most successful engagement model for Israelis in Brooklyn; Shabbat experiences on Friday nights that mirror civic sing-a-longs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; CBE family trips and students trips to Israel each year that establish and expand the unique and extraordinary connections between the two largest Jewish projects in the world; one of the city’s best daycare programs in our ECC; after-school and camping programs that keep our diverse neighborhood engaged allowing working parents to afford child-care; social action projects from tutoring students at John Jay to visiting prisoners in the New York State system to forming a gun violence protection advocacy group after Sandy Hook, housing the homeless in May and June, and of course, to feeding more than 500 New Yorkers each day since Hurricane Sandy struck last fall.
Looking into Isaac’s eyes would we not see Maimonides’ understanding of the moment Abraham placed him on the altar: “the most extraordinary thing that could happen in the world.”
Because no one could have anticipated would what come from late 19th century Vienna with Freud, Herzl and Mahler unknowingly circling around each other within a five block radius (Vienna was the goal, the end to be achieved) or what Isaac Mayer Wise envisioned for an American Judaism organized along denominational lines not unlike the American Christian Protestant traditions, we ought to be both humbled by the ideas and models we inherit while at the same time celebrating the unpredictability of it all, of the ways in which the only real models that remain unchanged are the narratives, the languages, the customs, the land. Or, as Shimon HaTsadiq so succinctly taught us two thousand years ago, על שלושה דברים--that the world stands on three things--on Torah, on Prayer and on Deeds of Lovingkindness. What more really distinguishes one Jewish community from other visions for life in our complex world?
It’s true, for example, that just as Vienna was end in its time, so, too, were the movements of American Judaism originally conceived of and intended to be the ends in themselves; and, that the distinguishing characteristics of each, the theological and ideological battle lines delineating the differences between one synagogue and another, between one Jewish community and another, were the whole point of the matter.
This community, founded in 1862 as a German orthodox synagogue, evolved over time and by the time it moved from downtown Brooklyn to Park Slope in 1909, was affiliated with the Reform movement. The movement in general considered itself a manifestation of liberal American exceptionalism wedded with European Enlightenment values that continue to resonate today: a critical and historical reading of sacred texts; a commitment to the equal roles of men and women and gays and lesbians in all matters of ritual life and leadership; openness to inter-married families; the centrality of social justice and universal human values; the centrality of Israel and the Hebrew language, along with the Torah, as the three eternal pillars of the Jewish people.
So in our commitment to these values, of course we remain proudly connected to the principles of Reform Judaism. On the other hand, as ideas travel over time and continents and the exigencies of history, these are not exclusively “Reform” values. The Conservative movement now ordains gays and lesbians as rabbis and cantors. Orthodox communities are rapidly expanding roles for women and in some quarters, even ordaining women as rabbis. And Reform Jews are re-embracing kashrut and tefilin. It’s a beautiful, mixed up jumble of Jewishness.
What has truly emerged after a century and a half of migration, plurality, dislocation, conflagration, and the establishment of the first Jewish state in two thousand years is a multi-vocal, ethnically and spiritually diverse global Jewish people.
If Isaac could speak into the present/future where we find ourselves, he’d say that the movements of American Judaism were not the ends but the process; they were the means by which we argued about what truly mattered during the experience of establishing our communities, determining what was sacred and which rituals we’d follow on the path of becoming American but not the only thing that mattered. He’d say that if Torah is at the center, then the manifestation of God’s claim for Abraham could stand a chance of being made real. He’d say, “Hope that you can merit what reward of words my father received in making sacrifices of faith so that another generation could live: “for I have known him, to the end that he will command his children, and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Eternal, to do righteousness and justice.”
Wherever you are going on the Jewish journey, traveling the path of the particular Jewish vision of righteousness and justice is really what it’s all about.
We return to Vienna and the United States in the few decades between the 1870s and 1920s, to one snapshot of a time in Jewish history where certain Jewish leaders were establishing what they thought were the structures of Jewish life that would answer to our time, structure the narrative of our existence, and sustain us for another generation. And while honoring the great sacrifices made by those who stood before us, how can we not also marvel at all that we have not foreseen? A robust, dynamic Jewish state of nearly 7 million Jews and an equally robust, diverse, and increasingly complex American Jewry, where, here at CBE (to use a quintessential example) new forms of post-denominational, pluralistic Jewish life are taking root.
Denominationalism has bequeathed to us critical thinking about texts and equality of place with regard to Torah and leadership, to be sure. But we are as much a synagogue of those raised in Reform Judaism as those raised in Conservative Judaism as those raised in Orthodox Judaism as those raised in other faiths or no faiths.
We are a Jewish community. Coming together in a New Year. Reading and praying and engaging and working through the covenantal ideas established nearly 4000 years ago when Abraham encountered his God in the desert and was challenged to be a great nation of blessing and inspire the other families of the earth to embrace the idea of blessing as well.
Through prayer and study; through children and the elderly; through meeting high school students for a tutoring session in math or rallying to end gun violence in our nation; through travel to Israel and engaging the endless questions and challenges that face our family there; to providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, for closing the gap between rich and poor.
No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, today is the day on this New Year to humble yourself before the past sacrifices of those who came before you and to see the reality of the future that Isaac saw when he opened his eyes upon the altar: the vision for the realization of the most extraordinary thing that could happen in the world: the realization of the values of Jewish civilization as they have both evolved and stood the test of time, in varieties of forms, with a multiplicity, a pluralism of expression. As one Sage said, “It’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there.” Sometimes it’s the voice of Tradition; at other times it’s radical innovation.
May your Rosh Hashanah be a year of unique journeys and inspiration; may your learning increase; may your connection to your family and the world around you deepen in meaningful ways; and may you be inspired to do your part to bring a great sense of justice and righteousness to our world.
L’Shanah Tovah. Gmar Hatimah Tovah.
May you be written into the Book of Life for another year of well-being and peace.