Category Archives: Sermons

Pride of Place

Kol Nidre 2011/5772

Rabbi Yael Romer 


Ha-makom; what is it about this place that enables us to transcend beyond ourselves?  Kol Nidre 5772 is about renewing our hold on life, committing ourselves to where we are and to where we need to arrive.  Genesis 28:11 and Israel, Jacob, on his journey – va’yifga el ha-makom “he encountered that place”.

Rashi interprets the word va’yifga encountered to be understood as “prayed” teaching us that ha-makom the place ought not be understood merely as a geographical space, but rather the actualization of encountering God.

Ha-makom The Place, is one of the 72 names of God.  How do we understand this aspect of the Divine?  The Jewish sages taught that God is the space of the world, but the world is not the space of God.  We know that God is beyond our actual reality and ultimately beyond our understanding.  Yet we strive to know God as imminent, as being in a place.  A Pantheistic view suggests that the world is the space within which God exists; a Kabbalastic perspective suggests that God is both contained in the world and at the same time not limited to the world.  The aspect of God that is contained within space in the world is called the light that fills the world “or m’maleh kol olmin” and the aspect of God that is not limited by space is called the light that surrounds all worlds “or sovav kol olmim”.  Kabbalah challenges us to identify the space by which we welcome the unlimited light of the Divine to enlighten and enliven the spark of the divine that dwells in the world, defined by obvious, actual and real limitations.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is a time when we are acutely aware of our desire for Ha-Makom, This Place, The Divine Presence.   I am both puzzled by and inspired by the ways in which you, my Congregation, feel and respond on this Holy Awesome Night.  What is it that drives you to desire, want and need to be here, in your Beit Knesset, specifically on Yom Kippur, this High Holy Day?

In an effort to understand, I turn your attention to tomorrow morning’s Torah and Haftorah portions.  On this, the Holiest Day of the Year, the Torah portion is dedicated to a litany of ritual and sacrifice.  The Haftorah however is in intense outpouring of ethical precepts and conduct.  Traditionally, Haftorah, a rabbinic selection of a specific book in prophets is assigned to the Sabbath or Holiday Torah reading by theme in an effort to elucidate the Torah portion studied.  The incongruity between the passages from Torah and Haftorah assigned to the Yom Kippur Torah and Haftorah study passage delivers a very powerful and important message; Judaism stresses and more importantly the Divine becomes apparent when both realms of existence , ceremony and morality, rite and right are honored, limited and unlimited, defined and beyond definition.

Today we touch, embrace and are accountable to a very primary understanding:  Ha-makom  The Place of ritual, rite and prayer leads to and makes possible Ha-makom The Presence of the sacred in how we dwell.  God is not physical, has not physical properties, nor is God in any way limited by or to this space, the four walls of this or any Synagogue.  However we are physical and ultimately can only comprehend the universe from an actual physical frame of reference.   The Place ha-makom is more than just a geographical location, it is a space which is capable of containing, birthing, giving rise to something else, something bigger, the Shechinah.

When used in reference to God, ha-makom signals that conceptually everything is contained within God What accompanies that knowledge is that God, ha-makom is not contained in or limited to or by anything.  Judaism teaches “God doesn’t have a place, rather God is The Place ha-makom of the Universe.

Not just on Yom Kippur but throughout the year we are called upon to encounter ha-makom.  On Passover, the Four children are introduced in the Hagaddah with these words: Baruch ha-makom “Blessed is the Place”.  Blessed is the Place where each of us asks questions?  Blessed is the Place where Torah is studied?  Blessed is the Place where we create sacred gathering that guides our values, our connections and our lives.

When we have sustained a loss, the death of a loved one, we are prompted by the formula  Ha-Makom yinachem itchem  “May Ha-makom comfort you.”  Rav Soleveithcik in his book Meharerei Kedem describes that the attribute Makom appears wherever there is need to show that the Shechinah is present even when Divine Guidance is concealed.  At the time when the individual feels vulnerable, grieving, lost, pained, troubled; this is when we know to affirm that God’s presence comforts us, dwells with us and lifts us up.  “Ha-makom yinachem itchem” the Community affirms with these words, comforting the mourners as they form two lines, like the parting of the Red Sea, protecting the mourner and providing the path by which he is ushered from the Grave to Shivah, an affirmation of life.  Ha-makom yinachem itchem, May the place, provide for you comfort, your community, your Synagogue, your Beit Knesset.

So ha-makom this place, your beit Knesset, your Synagogue, your community is to provide for you, is to facilitate a Divine encounter.  But before it can do so, in order for it to do so, you must be willing to become the prayer that fills the place.  This evening, Cantor opened the Kol Nidre service with the profound and transcending prayer Hinneni.  Do you want to understand Hinneni?  Hinneni is nothing more and nothing less than a compilation of two words, hineh ani, Here Am I, hinneni.  Are you really here?

We are Jacob, we are Israel.  Are we here for the moment or is our identity deep enough that we will create, sustain and commit to a place for the Sacred ba-makom, in this Place.

Genesis 28:11

Vayifgah el ha-makom

He encountered the place

Vayalon sham

& spent the night

Hu lakach ehad m’avnai ha-makom

He took from the stones of the place

Vayishkav ba-makom

And he laid down in that place

Three times in this passage ha-makom is sighted.  And it will be that night that Jacob will encounter the Divine.  He demonstrates a willingness to spend the time there, in that place.  He establishes that what once was an ordinary place can be transformed through his presence, his commitment, his dedication and willingness to erect the stone upon which he will rest.  By marking his intention with the stone, so he transforms the ordinary as a portal for the sacred.  And he lays down, spends time and dedicates himself, his head on a rock on the earth from which the extraordinary is conceived; a yearning for, a reaching for the best within him.

The root for Vayifga to encounter, is peh gimel ayin, literally meaning to wound, mark, change, alter.  Vayifga el ha-makom, for when we truly encounter the Divine, we are changed.  More importantly, we can only encounter the Divine if and when we are able to recognize and welcome change in ourselves.

Kabbalah teaches, the light that is contained within space in the world and the light that is not limited by space but rather surrounds all worlds.  Isaiah 58:8 identifies that light:

“Then your light shall burst forth like the dawn”.  Burst forth: Va’yivakah the letters of the transforming light is yod vav koof ayin.  Change the order of the letters for the word burst forth, instead of yod vav koof ayin yivakah read yod ayin koof vav, Ya-akov.

Yakov, Jacob, Israel, us; each and every one of us.  Moses too encounters ha-makom and he teaches each of us about ourselves: “hineh makom itee”.  Behold there is space with me, behold there is space within me.

Will we be changed?  Will we insist on this Kol Nidre evening that we will not be in the same place that we were before.  Will we prioritize so that the Sacred that we reach for this evening, remain ha-makom the place that will be a part of us and for and with the generations to come.

Living To One Hundred Like Twenty

Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein

YK Kol Nidrei Sermon 5771

Sept. 17, 2010


There is a Hebrew expression: “Ad Me’ah V’Esrim,” “Until 120.”  120 is the age that Moses, Moshe Rabenu, lived to and we hope for the same luck as he had.  However, seeing that so few us have that opportunity (there are only two recorded cases of anyone living to 120 –  Jeanne Calment of France at 122, and Shigechiyo Izumi of Japan at 120) a slight alteration has been made to the saying.  Instead of “Ad Me’ah v’Esrim” “Until one-hundred-and-twenty,” the revised saying is “Ad Me’ah k’Esrim,” “Until one-hundred like twenty.”  More important than just old-age is to live a long life in good health.
In my profession as a rabbi, I have been lucky to have met many centenarians, even witnessing a 107-year-old blow out her own candles, but relatively few were in good health.  This year I was lucky enough to meet two such individuals, both of whom were full of vigor and vitality just like a twenty-year-old.  Tonight I would like to share with you lessons that I learned from these amazing human beings.

The first such individual is still alive.  She is not quite 100 officially, but after turning 99 this past July, she did enter into the 100th year of her life.  As she is an exceedingly modest I will keep her identity a secret, but some of you will no doubt know who she is.
When I met her she had just broken her hip.  A hip is one of the hardest injuries to recover from, especially for a person of her age.  It requires intensive surgery and even more intensive rehab.   After hearing of her injury and her age, I expected the worst.  The injury would mean not just a long and painful recovery, but also a drastic life-style change.  Amazingly, up until this point she had been living on her own.  Breaking her hip would make it very difficult for her to return to home – a discouraging situation to say the least.  And, yet, there she was at the rehab facility not only pushing herself with the demands of the physical therapists, but encouraging others to follow their routine.  To say she is feisty is an understatement.

What I noticed immediately about her was that she had a clear sense of who she is and what she could accomplish in life.  She is not a religious woman by traditional standards, but she said she believed in God and felt a real obligation to do good in the world.
She told me a story of how when she was a little girl she had encountered a young lady with tuberculosis.  While this young lady was suffering greatly, for obvious reasons no one would go near her to comfort her.  Feeling badly for her, she took it upon herself to give this young lady a hug.  What she did not know at the time is that she had already been exposed to TB and was immune.

I was impressed by the level of her conviction and how she was willing to expose herself to danger in order to help out another person.
As she described her life, I saw that this philosophy carried with her throughout her adult life as she strove to do the little things necessary to make the world a better place.  And, she did all of this without hope of reward or personal recognition.  I sat with her in the rehab facility, amazed that a woman of her age could be so full of life, still wanting to help others, even while dealing with tremendous hardships of her own.

Just to give you an idea of her youthful energy, when I met with her recently she showed me the horn she had on her walker (yes, she has indeed recovered now to the point that she could almost walk entirely on her own).  Her great-nephew had given it to her – a colorful, square horn that whirled with lights every time you pulled a lever on the top of it.  While it did not make a lot of noise, and thus would do little good in getting the attention of the other residents of the facility, she put it on her walker for the sake of the little children that would come by to visit.
As we sat and talked I asked her how she was doing.  In her normal self-deprecating style, she said, “I take each day as it comes.  I do not expect much, so that when good things happen I can be pleasantly surprised.”

The lesson I take away from her, and the lesson that we come to embrace here on Yom Kippur, is that every day matters.  Therefore, we must treat each day as if it is our last: being true to ourselves, helping out others, and respecting the world around us.
While this philosophy may come easily to someone who has followed this philosophy for all 99-years of her life, for most us it requires a lot of practice.  Therefore, we set aside one day every year to work on it.

On Yom Kippur, we actively pretend that this is our last day on earth.  We deprive ourselves of all bodily pleasures.  We wear a kittel, the same garment we are buried in.  And, we recite the vidui, the confessional prayers, the prayers we are to say before we die.  By going through these steps, we intentionally come face to face with our own mortality.  Hoping that if we make amends to people and to God now and on an annual basis, we will have made the necessary preparations when our time actually does come.

Jews, of all people, know how finite and unpredictable life can be.  We also recognize that it is human nature to believe we will live forever.  Only a yearly ritual like Yom Kippur can help us recognize that living to 120 or even to 100 is not a realistic goal for most of us.  Living each day as if is our last, makes us accountable for our actions, encourages us to take advantage of every moment, and helps us forgive ourselves and others.
According to Jewish law, we are permitted to do teshuvah, to repent, up until our very last moment on earth.  However, as Maimonides points out, since we never know when that last moment will come, we are required to repent every day of our lives, or at the very least, once a year on Yom Kippur.  We apologize for our misdeeds and we promise to do better in the year ahead.  In this way, we are granted a clean slate.

This leads me to the second lesson a centenarian taught me this past year.  Yom Kippur is not all about struggle and seriousness.  It is also considered the happiest day of the year; by fulfilling our obligations we are given a new chance at life.  Like a student who has just completed finals, the knowledge that we have completed a great project and are beginning anew can be very invigorating.
In just a few days, the Torahs that stood before you tonight will be rolled back to their beginning.  The past year will be sealed and we will be granted a fresh start on life, just as we were when we first came into this world.

Yom Kippur is not only about living each day as if it were our last, but also about living each day as if it were our first.  No one embodied this spirit in all 102 years of his life than Reuben “Ruby” Forbes.  A gentleman to his very last day, Ruby never ceased experienced life “new, fresh and coming into being.”
According to a Kabbalistic understanding of the world “every day creation is renewed” just as it was on the first day of creation.  In this spirit we should view each day as a gift filled with wonder and excitement.  To meet Ruby was to understand exactly what this means.
The first time I was introduced to Ruby was at a special Sunday morning service his great granddaughter Isabella led for him in early June.  We knew it was unlikely that he would make her Bat Mitzvah this coming spring and wanted to make sure that he would be able to see the progress she had already made in achieving this goal.

There were only six of us gathered in the living room of the house Ruby had lived in since moving to Buffalo from Detroit some fifteen-years-ago: Isabella, her two siblings, her mom, Ruby’s daughter and son-in-law, and myself.  We were surrounded by beautiful paintings and sculptures that Ruby had collected over the course of his life.  In the corner of the room plastic toys Ruby kept for his great grandchildren.  But, Ruby’s entire focus was on Isabella.  He listened intently as she led the service, moving through the morning blessings, to the shema and amidah.  Afterward, there were tears in his eyes; he searched for the right words to say to Isabella.  “I’m so blessed,” he said.

Ruby was someone who was never shy to say: “I love you;” making sure to tell it to all the important people in his life all the time.  On that morning, he said it many times to all of his family sharing the occasion with him.

Almost exactly two months ago, Ruby became ill and was taken to Millard Fillmore Suburban.  I had been away on vacation when I received the message and went to visit him on my first day back in town.  It was Tisha B’Av, the only major fast on the Jewish calendar other than Yom Kippur, and Ruby was sleeping.
I spoke with his caretaker Barbara who was sitting there watching over him.  I learned that during his hospital stay he had been fed intravenously because of his difficulty in swallowing.  He had only received real food a few hours before. I was going to just let him rest, but she woke him up, telling me that he knew that I was coming and had wanted to speak with me.

I stood on the left side of his bed and introduced myself.  Even though we had only met the one other time, Ruby was indeed happy to see me, and began to tell me his life story and I mean his entire life story starting from his family’s exodus from Europe in the early 1900s, to his birth in Canada.  “You might want to sit down,” Barbara told me, pushing a chair beside me.

For the next twenty minutes or so, he outlined his family’s history, telling me about his parents and his many siblings and their stories.  I listened intently to his small fragile voice, interrupted every minute or so to take deep wheezing breaths.  Imagine that a 102-year-old able to speak about his life in such detail, the memories almost pouring out of him.

The next day Ruby was discharged from the hospital and was able to return home.  That night, sitting with his daughter and son-in-law he had some very specific requests: an imported Belgian beer and strawberry ice cream. He went to sleep in his own bed, passing peacefully in the middle of the night.
On Yom Kippur, we want to both understand the finitude of our lives and celebrate the joy of everyday living; a difficult task in deed and a task that can be best summarized by the rabbinic debate over prayer itself.  When they were establishing the prayer book, the rabbis struggled with which prayers to include.  They wanted to make sure that the prayers were as complete as possible and that there would be a basic structure that all Jews followed when they prayed.  This is called kevah, fixing the prayers into a defined regiment.  But, they also wanted to make sure there was still room for spontaneous prayers, prayers that came directly from the human heart, something they called kavanah.  The debate between kevah and kavanah continues to this day.

Yom Kippur is filled with a structured list of prayers that Audrey and I will lead precisely in their order.  But, hopefully, at the same time the room will be filled with prayers that are not included in any Siddur.  These are the prayers that each of us say as one part of the service, one melody, strikes us as particularly meaningful.

To live between Kevah and Kavanah is like living each day as if it were our last and living each day as if it were our first.  It is moving from solemnity to joy, from struggle to release.

I would like to conclude by sharing a lesson I learned from a centenarian in my own family.  My wife Ashirah’s grandfather, Papa Jack, died two-years-ago, only a month shy of his 98th birthday.  He would have turned 100 this year.  A Holocaust survivor, who lost his mother when he was nine-years-old, had most of his family stolen from him by the Nazis, and had to make his own way in a new world with nothing to his name.  Yet after all of this, Papa Jack would still always say, “every day is a miracle.”  And, he meant it with every fiber of his body.

I feel lucky to have gotten to know him in the last four years of his life.  Like Ruby, he died peacefully in his own bed, next to his now 98-year-old wife Rose.
This beautiful Kittel I am wearing was a gift that he bought for me for my wedding.   It will also be the garment I hope to be buried in.  Every year that I have worn it on Yom Kippur I am reminded of Papa Jack’s great optimism even in the face of a difficult life.  To Papa Jack and to all of us, “Ad Me’ehi C’Esrim,” “Until 100 like twenty.”

An easy and meaningful fast.

Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s Sermon

Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s Sermon.


Hove, Weybridge, Southport, Milton Keynes and Sharston – my out-of-the-ghetto appearances for September to November.  I like to be obliging, so I make discreet enquiries as to whether there is any particular theme that people would like me to adopt in the sermon.  I got a rather plaintive response from Zvi: “The problem of survival for the Jewish religion or individual when living away from the main centres.  Our synagogue has survived and developed but continuity is not guaranteed and the younger generation are not easily inspired to deepen their Judaism in spite of our efforts.  So some words of advice or cheer would be welcome”.

In a British Jewish community declining by 1% a year, a decline partially masked by the ultra-orthodox birth rate, I know that many of those inside the ghetto share Zvi’s anxiety.  The decline of religion in general in this country, the assimilative nature of secularism – they make religious cheer a tall order.  But I’m going to try.  However, not quite in the way you might think.

I was sitting in a dinner at the Mansion House to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the re-admission of the Jews to England – two and a half years ago.  A well-rounded, middle-aged gentleman came up to me and introduced himself.  He said he was Ian Luder, an Alderman of the City of London.  Some of you will know that the City of London has its own local government with ceremonies that go back nearly 700 years, to the time of Dick Whittington.  The Aldermen seem to combine marketing the country’s banking and financial services industry with dressing up in funny hats and tights.

Ian explained that his father, Mike, had been Head of Maths at a large boys’ comprehensive school in Hackney when my father had been Headmaster.  We chatted and exchanged the usual platitudes about how small the Jewish world is.

About a year later, Alderman Luder contacted me again.  He was about to become one of the two Sheriffs of London and would I be his chaplain?  I asked what this might involve.  He seemed to want me to attend banquets and swan around the Old Bailey for which the two Sheriffs are responsible.  As a glutton and former criminologist, I seemed to fit the bill, so I agreed with one proviso.  He needed to join a Reform synagogue.  He’d grown up in our Southgate shul where his family – parents and sister – are still members.  But he himself lived out in Bedfordshire and wasn’t a great shul goer.

He also hinted that if things went well, he might become Lord Mayor of London and get to ride in the golden coach at the Lord Mayor’s Show.  I vaguely recollected that the Lord Mayor’s Show took place on a Saturday but mentally filed the issue – no point in worrying about things that were probably never going to happen.  During September – when I was weekending in Weybridge and Hove – Ian Luder was elected the 681st Lord Mayor of London.

I want now to take you through four days in my rabbinic life a fortnight ago.  And I still haven’t forgotten Zvi’s question.

During his shrieval year (year as a Sheriff to non-City types), I’d got to know, like and admire, Ian and his non-Jewish wife Lin very much.  Ian is one of those Jews who has a strong sense of his Jewish identity but for whom shul going and many traditional observance have ceased to feature.  He’s an accountant with one of the top City firms but, perhaps surprisingly, did a long stint as a Labour Councillor in Bedford before turning his attention to the very different world of the governance of the City.  I suspect the spell as a Labour Councillor reflected the social concerns of his father – and mine – teaching the underprivileged in Hackney.

Ian chose two chaplains – the Rector of the Church in his Ward in the City and me.  He didn’t hide his Jewish identity but during his shrieval year it didn’t figure very large.

On, now, to Friday two weeks ago.  9.00am rehearsal (I’ve been to more rehearsals than Laurence Olivier including one at 5.30am) followed by breakfast at the Guildhall.  Breakfast was ‘his call’.  It was vast but at its heart were upmarket bacon butties for those who so chose and substantial smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels for others.  I smiled inwardly.

Then came the so-called Silent Ceremony at which he was formally appointed Lord Mayor of London.  The ceremony is always followed by a church service – ironically at St Lawrence Jewry.  Ian had hired several London buses and 150 leading members of the City were bussed to West London Synagogue for a 5.00pm special service.

It was a fantastic opportunity for me to formulate a 45 minute service and I chose to focus on that which Jews and Christians share (we sang the 23rd Psalm twice – first in Hebrew and then to Crimmond), on our civic responsibilities and on Jewish business ethics.

Ian’s the 9th Jewish Lord Mayor of London.  I asked him to read Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to God on its behalf”.  His most recent Jewish predecessor, Lord Levene, also took part in the service and read a passage from medieval Spain about the responsibilities of a Jew who takes public office.  I gave a ten minute sermon on Jewish business ethics and the illegitimacy of free markets unless they’re regulated by the biblical values of honesty, integrity, transparency and concern for others, what I termed righteousness.

We finished at quarter to six and many people stayed on for the West London six o’clock Erev Shabbat service.

The following day, the Saturday of the Lord Mayor’s Show, dawned grey and chilly.  David Jacobs and I set off for the Guildhall at 6.15am and by 7.30 we’d started the first ever full Shabbat morning service to be held at the Guildhall – complete with Sefer Torah.  The congregation consisted of Jewish members of City livery companies, members of the Reform Movement Board and some non-Jews who’d enjoyed their first visit to synagogue the previous afternoon.

I then got taken by police Landrover to Mansion House where I watched the Lord Mayor’s Show from the balcony.  I was impressed at how much the Lord Mayor’s focus is on supporting charities for the deprived in London.  I also had a narrow escape.  My grandchildren were watching a recording of the Show that afternoon and spotted me first declining and then eating a sausage.  Thankfully, Clare Balding made it clear that Ian Luder had assured me that it was a specially-made-for-the occasion lamb sausage.

But those of you who read the Jewish Chronicle may have noticed that I didn’t get away from ‘shock horror’ completely.  Last week’s JC contained the following letter headed ‘Shabbat Shock’:

I am not observant.  But my reaction on seeing Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform Movement, riding in the Lord Mayor’s carriage on Shabbat was one of disbelief!

Yes, I did join my Lord Mayor in the coach.  Since we travel on Shabbat, it wasn’t the act of travelling that caused me to think but the purpose – was travelling in the Lord Mayor’s coach a suitable activity for Shabbat?

If I’d had any doubts, they were banished a few minutes later.  I did my fair share of waving to the 400,000 people who lined the route despite the rain and the cold.  I’m  now thinking that should a vacancy for a minor royal occur, I might apply since I’m rather good at waving at people and it seems like quite an easy way to earn a crust.  We came to St Paul’s where the Lord Mayor is blessed on the steps of St Paul’s by the Dean.  Instead of the normal ‘Through Jesus Christ our Lord’ blessing, the Dean substituted, ‘Yevarechecha’  ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’ from the Book of Numbers and instead of presenting him with a New Testament, he gave him a Hebrew bible.  If leaders of the Church are prepared to be flexible in their approach to Jews participating in civic life, then we Jews need to show flexibility as well.

The Lord Mayor’s Show has taken place on a Saturday for 681 years and wasn’t going to be changed for anyone.  The previous Jewish Lord Mayor of London, back in 1998, was advised to walk behind the coach.  He didn’t.

Fast forwarding through Remembrance Sunday, the Cenotaph and the induction of Rabbi Middleton at Middlesex New Synagogue – inside the ghetto – we come to Monday evening and the Lord Mayor’s banquet.  For the coming twelve months, there will be no pork or shellfish on the menu of the many City banquets Ian Luder (and I) have to attend.  For the Lord Mayor’s banquet the menu proclaimed that the usual bread roll had been replaced by a chollah roll.  My grace before meals gave me the opportunity to emphasise the need for balance between Torah, Jewish values and kemach, flour, the material necessities of life.  And the Lord Mayor, in his speech, quoted from ‘my Chaplain’ as saying at ‘my special service at West London Synagogue’ that the markets have to be regulated by the ancient values of honesty, transparency and concern for the rights of others.

So what has all this got to do with Milton Keynes and the challenge of maintaining Jewish life in an area where there are so few Jews and so much reluctance amongst the young to make their identity anything more than merely superficial?  Two things.

First, orthodox Judaism exists for those Jews who respond to a seemingly timeless, traditional way of being Jewish and living a Jewish life.  I’ve great respect for open-minded, tolerant, orthodox Judaism.  Reform Judaism, however, is not watered down orthodoxy but a different Jewish response to modernity, a response which has particular appeal for people who are physically as well as spiritually far removed from the orthodox milieu.  What I hope you heard was Reform Judaism saying as follows:  We Jews live in a non-Jewish society.  We want to fulfil our civic obligations, play a full part in society, contribute to it and yet remain faithful to our own evolving, developing tradition and particularly its underlying values.  What Ian and I worked out was how that was possible.

We introduced a large number of non-Jews to the synagogue and to synagogue services and made those services welcoming and accessible.  I’ve never had such feedback both about feeling welcome and also about the message, the values, the Jewish commitment to righteousness conveyed by the services.  We exposed people to Jewish ethics that could not be more relevant than today as Ian Luder shoulders the extraordinarily heavy burden of trying to restore the good name of the City and Britain’s financial services industry at a time when it’s taken an almighty battering.  We celebrated Shabbat.  And we also played a full part in an ancient and much-prized English pageant with floats which have a strong ethical content.

Second, I, Ian’s rabbi and chaplain, was with him ever inch of the way.  I went where he was.  We engaged fully with his world and found a way in which his Jewish identity could shine through.  That’s the very essence of Reform Judaism.  It doesn’t work holding out a blueprint for which people have no time and in which people have no belief.  It would have been a failure of my role to tell Ian what he must or must not do and then let him get on with it regardless.  It is painful and challenging to say that Reform Judaism doesn’t work completely even if the synagogue offers a whole range of wonderful programmes and says to people, ‘Come on in’.  Because many won’t.  We have to go out to them, engage with them, understand that the Jewish journey takes many paths and our job is to touch people where they are and facilitate, guide, prompt their individual Jewish journey.  It’s very hard.  You never quite know when someone will want to be reached and will be open to the changes that they need to make in their life to give it Jewish depth and to make it more meaningful.

There are 2 billion Christians in the world 1.2 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and 14 million Jews.  In Britain there are 267,000 Jews and it sometimes seems as though all of them live in Golders Green.  But there are Jewish communities in Hove, Weybridge, Southport, Sharston, and even a small community in Milton Keynes.  Which has been raising the Jewish flag and continuing the Jewish journey for thirty years.

You are real heroes.  I spent 13½ years working outside of North West London, with a community of only seventy families at first.  It’s extraordinarily tough.  Too few people.  No communal facilities.  Scarce resources.  No helpful social pressure.  The forces of secularism getting stronger and stronger.  Yet you’ve sustained Jewish life in the face of huge challenges for thirty years.  I take my kippah off to you.  No its not an Arsenal kippah or Manchester United – God forbid.  It says inside: “Alderman Ian Luder Lord Mayor of London 2008-09”.  Go out to people, engage, be with them on their journey and you too may find yourselves in a golden coach waving to cheering crowds on the streets of Milton Keynes.

This sermon was reproduced with the kind permission of Rabbi Bayfield’s office.

Let My People Know

Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport
Rosh Hashanah 5758


This is an old sermon. I have given it before. In fact, Rabbi Diamond preached this sermon long before I came here. It is actually a rather historic piece, given first in the Reform movement by none other than Isaac Mayer Wise and passed down from rabbi to rabbi since then. In fact, if you listen carefully on Yom Kippur morning, you will hear what I believe to be the original version of this sermon which was delivered by Moses himself to the Children of Israel as they stood on the banks of the Jordan river ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses called it Atem Nitzavim, and it’s all about the future of Judaism. Like I said, this is very old stuff.

But the really fascinating thing about this sermon is that prophets and priests and philosophers and rabbis have been giving this same sermon for more than 3,500 years. And yet we keep convincing our unsuspecting audience that this wisdom is somehow uniquely suited for the struggles which our generation of Jews must face, here and now, in order to preserve this fragile thing called Judaism for yet another generation beyond our own. It has taken our greatest Jewish leaders three millennia to perfect this “sermonic slight of hand” and then some fool confessed it all to Alan Dershowitz.

He, of course, wrote the whole thing down and published it under the title “The Vanishing American Jew” which ruins everything. Not because he had the Chutzpah to cut himself in on the longest running case of plagiarism in human history, but he didn’t even bother to change the title. And anyone knows that if you don’t change the title people will begin to figure this out. Particularly since “The Vanishing American Jew” was used on the cover of Look Magazine back in 1964 and there are still people alive today who remember that issue. (I was only seven in 1964 so some of you probably remember this stuff even better than I do.)

OK, sure he updated the piece a bit and he added some pretty good Jewish jokes to keep it interesting, but look here– Same title, same theme, same predictions of doom if we don’t repent… people are beginning to talk. He probably planned this all along and who is going to sue Dershowitz for copyright infringement. As a matter of fact, anybody who uses this sermon from now on is probably going to have to pay him royalties. So, I’ve decided that the only thing to do is come clean and tell you the whole story.

The truth is, this sermon is the closest thing to pure biblical prophecy you are ever likely to see. The facts are undeniable, the stakes are incredibly high– Jewish Survival Itself hangs in the balance. It is a classic “repent now for the day of your destruction is at hand” message, perfectly suited for the High Holy Days. And yet somehow in every generation, we escape these prophecies of doom which means, of course, that the sermon is still good for another run the next time you really need it.

This is how Dershowitz tells it, which is, I must admit, a pretty good spin on the old tale:

The future of Judaism is in a state of crisis.  The survival of our ancient people has never been more clearly in doubt.

(This, of course, is the most difficult part to sell in the modern age, since just about everyone knows that the American Jews of today are the largest, freest, best educated, most politically and economically successful Jewish community in the history of the world.)

Dershowitz knows this, too, and he knows we know this, so this is his approach: instead of arguing against the obvious, he first proves the apparent case against him beyond a shadow of a doubt. He argues essentially, that never in all of human history have we as a Jewish people been more safe and secure. And, as you can imagine, he pulls together a pretty impressive case.

Anti-Semitism in America has been marginalized to the point of near irrelevance. That is not to say that it doesn’t exist or that the potential for its resurgence in harder economic times may not be real. But for most of us and for most of our lives we no longer live in fear of violence or overt discrimination. The attitudes of anti-Semitism may remain in the minds of some, but without the support of government, church, educational or business institutions to enforce such bigotry, it will remain where it resides in the rantings of the ignorant fringe.

Legal barriers to our entry have been stripped from every field. Jews are now over represented in many of the same board rooms and professions which once excluded our very presence.

Jewish attendance at Ivy League colleges is running at about 10 times our percentage of the population. There once was a time when the president of Harvard questioned openly whether having “too many Jews” on campus would be good for Harvard or good for the Jews. Dershowitz now teaches at Harvard and the new president acknowledges openly that the University simply could not survive without the incredible support it now receives from its philanthropic Jewish Alumni.

Of America’s Nobel Prize winners in science and economics 40% have been Jews.

On a list of America’s 200 most influential intellectuals, half are what Dershowitz describes as “full Jews” and 76% have at least one Jewish parent.

For the first time in history two of the nation’s 9 Supreme Court Justices are Jews.

Countless members of the Clinton Cabinet are Jewish and while it may still be some time before there is a Jew living in the White House, we have for the first time seen an American President and his family praying in a synagogue on the High Holy Days.

There are now 10 Jewish Senators and 31 U.S. Representatives serving on Capitol Hill. And most of these men and women were elected from areas with just a tiny population of Jews. Just for the sake of comparison there are only 9 women Senators and the one African American in the Senate is also one of those nine.

Jews represent 10% of America’s Business Movers and Shakers which is a far greater number than any other ethnic group.

Jewish Charities far outstrip their general counterparts. With Just 2% of the population to draw from, United Jewish Appeal raised more money in one year than any other charity in the nation. More than the Salvation Army, more than the Red Cross, more than Catholic Charities, more than the American Cancer Society. And most of the Jews who give to the UJA are among the strongest supporters of these general charities as well.

Dershowitz presents an overwhelming barrage of statistics until even the most skeptical must concede that in all of Jewish history we have never had it this good.

And yet for all our material success as individual Jews, he argues just as effectively that Judaism and the Jewish community as a whole are facing a crisis beyond any proportion in our long history of exile and oppression.

He states the issues with the clarity and precision of a brilliant jurist:

“American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality. As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, as well as ‘the lowest birth rate of any religious or ethnic community in the United States,’ the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may soon be coming to an end.”

And then he launches again into a barrage of facts the weight of which seems almost crushing in its force:

The Birth rate for all but the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community ranges between 1.5 and 1.6 children per couple, far below the 2.1 “replacement level” necessary for our survival as a community. The rate of unaffiliation among Jews in our urban population centers of New York and Los Angeles is now nearly 75%. Intermarriage rates have crested over 50% and for the first time in American Jewish history there are more Jewish children being raised as Christians than as Jews!

The paradox of our power and our powerlessness is all but perfectly portrayed.

If you play out just those numbers over the 1000 or so people in this room, for just one generation of such dismal expectations, we would lose 250 to low birth rate, another 325 to intermarriage and if this were New York or Los Angeles another 250 to unaffiliation leaving just 175 committed religious Jews left in the room one generation from now.

Now I could argue with those statistics, most of which do not apply to the people who are actually sitting in this room. You are all obviously affiliated with a religious congregation. You wouldn’t be here if you were not. The rate of affiliation in Louisville is about three times that of Los Angeles. Religiously identified Jews have a much lower rate of intermarriage, a higher number of children per family and a much higher rate of successfully raising children who are clearly identified with their Judaism. We could end this sermon now by simply saying that Dershowitz is right HE has a problem. Because for unaffiliated secular East Coast Jews like Dershowitz all of the predictions above do apply directly and it is that stark reality which occupies the next 300 pages of his book.

What would American Judaism look like in the next generation if, like lemmings to the sea, the entire secular wing of our community were to vanish beneath these waves. According to Dershowitz we would be unable to sustain our national prominence amidst the rise of other ethnic and religious communities. The insular orthodox community of Hasidic Judaism would become much more dominant and the few Reform and Conservative Jews who remain committed to involvement with the broader community can, at best, hope to establish themselves as something akin to the small but respected Quaker community of today.

The Dershowitz prescription for the multitude of ills which now befall us is an interesting if sometimes impractical collection of programs and ideas which he groups together under the slogan: Let My People Know! Better Schools, an even more open community, a recognition of secular Jews as an essential element in the leadership of our future, a broad ranging publication project to make all of Jewish learning accessible in English language translations. The establishment of a 24 hour Jewish Television Network somewhat akin to the History Channel which would emphasize the cultural and communal heritage of our people. My favorite suggestion was that we migrate all our communal institutions to the Internet establishing virtual study groups or even prayer services for far flung communities across the globe.

These will not stem the tide, even by Dershowitz own estimates, but they may perhaps salvage a Judaism which will be smaller, less unique, and considerably less significant for its broader impact on American life.

This all assumes, of course, that we are lemmings– unable to resist the self destructive instincts which have set us on this hapless course. Which brings us to an interesting fact which I Iearned from my seven year old son, who is fast becoming a recognized expert in all things related to the animal world. Did you know that lemmings don’t actually run to the sea with the intention of drowning? Actually, they are just very bad swimmers! No, really. When the population of lemmings in a particular area grows beyond its ability to sustain itself on the available food sources, a migration begins which whenever it encounters water, will attempt to swim across. And since lemmings are not particularly well suited for swimming, many invariably drown in the process.

There was a point to that digression. One which Mr. Dershowitz for all his brilliance and insightful suggestions seems to have missed. That having charted a course toward our inevitable destruction we are not somehow honor bound to continue on that path to the sea. A more knowledgeable Jewish community led more directly by our more secular educated elite might well be a worthwhile suggestion, but with no offense meant to Mr. Dershowitz, College professors like him are among the most educated within our ranks and yet they are also among the least affiliated, the least charitable, and the least committed Jews on the planet!

Alan Dershowitz was raised in an orthodox background which he rejected half a lifetime ago and like many “used to be orthodox Jews” he harbors just enough nostalgic memories of those years to make him disdainful of any other branch of Judaism in the alternative. When he chooses to visit his religious past, he visits it where he left it, in an orthodox congregation, for state occasions like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What he finds when he returns are pleasant moments which are, nonetheless, totally irrelevant for the rest of his modern life.

At one point he complains that he has attended more than fifty Yom Kippur services at which the famous Haftarah from Isaiah was dutifully chanted aloud: “Is this the fast I desire, a day for you to starve only your bodies?… No this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness,…to let the oppressed go free,… to share your bread with the hungry, and take… the poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe them and never to ignore your own kin.” And yet never has he heard a rabbi “emphasizing that the Yom Kippur fast is a hollow gesture unless it is accompanied by a commitment …to share your bread with the hungry, to take the outcast poor into your home, to clothe the naked and assist the less fortunate.” The religion he sees is totally insular to his sense of pressing social needs, which all but demands from me the response: Where do you go to services and what there do you hope to find? Certainly no one has ever accused your rabbis of ignoring any opportunity to preach to you about our pressing social needs. He could hear that sermon year in and year out if he would attend any Classical Reform congregation in the country. But at a Reform Temple he would lose that childlike sense of nostalgia he craves, so he rejects his religious heritage entirely in favor of a secular Jewish cultural heritage which provides for him a sense of pride, and a wealth of material from which to teach his Harvard courses, try his cases, and write his best selling books. But a more spiritual, socially driven Reform Jewish experience seems somehow impossible for him to consider.

In a separate section on Reform Judaism, Dershowitz spends several pages lambasting Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment Magazine and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. He likes Leonard and respects much of the work he has done, but he finds his connection between Jewish Religious Values and Social Action to be a prime example of everything that is wrong with Reform Judaism. Social Action is not Judaism he says, it is Feinism– a liberal political agenda which he agrees with, but from which he derives no sense of religious authenticity.

I had the opportunity to discuss this with Leonard Fein just last week (don’t be too impressed, I don’t often get the chance to have conversations with such personalities) and he shared with me an insight which I thought I might share with you as well. He said that “the life of the Jewish people is a Midrash on the text of Jewish law” and that while he agrees that our broader concern for the communities in which we live is unique to Reform Judaism, that there is a nexus between Judaism and Social Action. The world is not working as it was meant to, as God intended it to be, and it is an essential part of our Religious heritage to repair that breach with our own hearts and hands. Because for Leonard Fein, as for many Reform Jews, Judaism is not a culture alone, it is a Religious Culture which provides values and direction for our lives.

And though secularists like Dershowitz may have a perfect right to cling to the agnostic Jewish culturalism which has defined their lives until now, this “proud secular heritage” is not a Judaism which is particularly well suited for swimming in the turbulent waters which he so eloquently points out on our horizon just ahead.

The Talmud teaches that there are three obligations of every Jewish parent, and that among them we must teach our children to swim. It is time to teach the lemmings how to swim. The motto for our coming age should not be “Let My People Know” however nicely that may rhyme with the original, the motto of a Judaism which will survive through the next generation of intense social change must be “Let My People Care!”

We don’t need to know an amorphous body of facts or theories to keep us Jewish. It couldn’t hurt, it might even help. But the ultimate answer to the problems we now face isn’t how much we know about our Judaism. It is how much we care!

If we cared enough about our Jewish life — Intermarriage would represent a net gain. Because we would be committed Jews who would marry people committed to Judaism by birth or by choice or by their commitment to raise our children as committed Jews. Because Judaism would be so important to us that anyone who loved us would want to fulfill that essential part of our soul.

If we cared enough about our Jewish life –Unaffiliation would become unthinkable because our Jewish Community would offer so much to us spiritually, relationally, communally, an practically that we couldn’t imagine living without it.

If we cared enough about our Jewish life — Raising the next generation of Jewish children, our children, our children’s children, our congregation’s children, and our community’s, would become a priority which we would not only speak about, but commit ourselves to providing the time and talent and funding necessary to truly educate and enrich the lives of each and every Jewish child.

If we cared enough about our Jewish life — then studying our own Judaism wouldn’t require the candy coating of 24 hour TV, or the allure of cyberspace, just the commitment to provide the highest quality educational programs available from cradle to grave.

So let me ask you, do we care enough to survive? To build for our Jewish future? To give of our resources and our time to insure it? To empower this and every congregation as the proven institutions of education, affiliation, spiritual growth and social outreach to allow us to not just survive, but to flourish in the coming age? Do we care enough to commit our affluence, our influence, our vast education and our boundless abilities as a people, to the cause of our own survival as a free people in a free land. Simply put, if we care enough, then we will. And having done so, we will live on as a blessing for many generations yet to come. May this be our chosen path and may this be our certain destiny.


Why be Jewish?

The question I’d like to ask today is a simple one:  “Why Be Jewish?”

If I tried to give this sermon 50 years ago, people would look at me like I’m crazy because people understood that they were born into Judaism and did not have a choice about being Jewish.  Traditionally, if you were the child of a Jewish mother, you were Jewish; end of story, no questions asked – specifically no questions about your religious beliefs.  This was a change from the biblical system which provided that your Jewish status went through your father’s line; the best example of this is the children of Joseph, who go on to be full fledged tribes even though their mother is the unconverted daughter of an Egyptian priest.  Reform Judaism recognizes the child of one Jewish parent as Jewish if the child in raised Jewishly. In a way, this makes Judaism more like a tribe or a nationality than a religion but, unlike a nationality, anyone can become Jewish by converting to Judaism as a result of one’s religious beliefs.  Reform Judaism welcomes converts who are know as “Jews by Choice.”

I submit to you that today, we are all of us all Jews by Choice.  We are completely free to be Jews or whatever we like or even nothing at all, irrespective of the circumstances of our birth.   Many things reveal this; think of interfaith marriage:  My father once told me that he could no more conceive of marrying a non-Jew than marrying a Martian.

In my generation, it was a shonda –  a public “shame” to marry out of the faith, but many did.  In my children’s generation, most say that they (and their parents) would prefer them to marry Jews, but there is very little discomfort and virtually no shame in marrying outside the “tribe.”

Other things also reveal that we are truly “Jews by Choice;”  Synagogue affiliation rates are low, below 20%.  And with regard to Jewish Practice – there is very little pressure on Jews in Camarillo to be kosher, Sabbath observant, tefillin-wearing, three times a day davening synagogue attendees.  My students are making choices between Friday night at the football games as cheerleaders and attending synagogue without any shame or coercion from anyone.  So each of us has a choice whether or not to be Jewish – that is whether or not being born Jewish will affect and inform our lives.

So why be Jewish? – Let me reflect on a few reasons:

The least important reason but a reason none the less is Emile Fackenheim’s 614th Commandment:  “Thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory.”  How tragic would it be if Judaism faded away after the horrors of 2000 years of Antisemitism.  If it turned out that we could survive the world’s hatred but could not endure its love.  A hundred generations of Jews have handed the Torah down to us – many in incredibly trying, even life-threatening times.  Can we hand the Torah to one generation more?  But we must do more than offer negative reasons for being Jewish.

I believe it’s incredibly important to be religious, to live your life as though God is a significant factor – and, just as you cannot speak without a language, you can’t be religious without a religion.  Here are the two reason that I have found so compelling:

(1) Without God, there is no objective good and evil.  We may have our opinions about what is good and evil; for example the Nazis and Communist Soviets thought that mass murder was a proper tool in order to achieve social ends, but we would disagree.  Without  God, who is to say who is right?  How can we “prove” that what the Nazis did was wrong without an appeal to a source of morality that is beyond human opinion?

(2) Without God, life is objectively meaningless.  If we adopt a purely scientific view of the world, then we are a biological accident; a mass of self aware organic hydrocarbons.  If we should live and prosper or suffer and die is irrelevant.  In this view, the Holocaust is simply the slightly premature oxidation of a relatively minor amount of biomass.  Can I prove this is true or false?  No!  I simple refuse to accept it!

So I believe people should have religion in their lives and they should try their “home” religion first before rejecting it.  I confess that I’m afraid of a world that is only secular.  Where the only question is will I get caught? not what is right?  The images of looting in New Orleans (even by police officers in uniform!) remind us of this.  Yes religious people have done terrible things in the name of religion but they don’t come close to what secular monsters have done.  If you doubt this, ask yourself.  “If I were walking down a dark, lonely street, and came across a group of young men walking towards me, would I feel better knowing that they had just come from Bible study?  Even at Jerry Falwell’s church?”  We all bemoan the decline of civility, of manners, of taste and more importantly of respect for parents, elders, law…  I honestly believe that there is no better hope for society than religion.  Like democracy, it may not be a perfect system, it just seems to work better than its absence.

Another reason to be Jewish is that Judaism is a wonderful path to spirituality.  I trust religious spirituality and Jewish spirituality more than “pure” or “new age” spirituality.

With new age spirituality, you can commune with nature, be at peace, have a wonderful time.  Both forms of spirituality can take you out of yourself, with music, with chanting, with meditation, with nature, with study.  But Jewish spirituality requires you to do mitzvot, commandments that direct you to go into the world and make it a better place.

Another reason.  Judaism is to be lived within a culturally, ethnically, spiritually exciting, healthy, and intellectually stimulating environment.  Think of the holidays, foods, customs, language, food, literature, expressions, stories, food, celebrations, ritual, and – oh, did I mention food?  When young couples tell me that they will expose their children to both religions and let them make up their own minds, I’m saddened for many reasons:

Because I know that what the children will be taught is merely a series of holidays, with none of the depth, richness, content and context behind the holidays.

This reminds me of the old story about a poor couple living in the shtetle, Molly and Sol.  One day Sol says to Molly, “Molly, all my life I have watched those rich folks eating blintzes.  Just once in my life before I die, I like to taste a blintz.”  Molly rolls her eyes, “Nu, Sol, we can’t afford the cream to make blintzes!”  “So do without the cream,” Sol responds.  “And the eggs, you think we have eggs to make blintzes?”  “Do without the eggs, my love!”  “And cheese, do you think cheese grows on trees in the yard?”  “So make it without the cheese!  I must taste a blintz!”  So, Molly does the best she can and that night serves her husband the “blintzes.”  Sol carefully and thoughtfully tastes the blintz.  “You know Molly,” he finally says, “For the life of me I don’t know what these rich folks see in blintzes!”  I fear perhaps it will be the same way with our children.  They will be exposed to a stream of holidays without the most important ingredients, without the rich depth of meaning  and context behind them and be left only to wonder what people see in Judaism.

I am also saddened because I know this compromise really reflects the inability of the parents to address this issue.  These same parents won’t let their children choose the kind of toothpaste they will use but they will let them choose their religion?  I am also saddened because I know that this will lead to later strife as the kids use church and synagogue as an intergenerational weapon.  But most of all because I know that these kids are going to be cheated out of the security of knowing who they are and where they fit into this world.

“Why be Jewish?”  I choose to be Jewish because Judaism is intellectually stimulating and rational in addition to being spiritually rewarding.  I am a physicist/scientist.  I could not accept any religion that was not intellectually and scientifically rational.

Judaism is especially so because of its emphasis on what a person does as contrasted with what a person believes.  And, I believe, all the commandments are there to support us in Job #1, to repair the world and make it a better place.

But, in the final analysis, I believe you should be Jewish, not because your parents want you to be Jewish, not because your spouse wants you to be Jewish, not because Hitler didn’t want you (or anyone else to be Jewish) and not even because your rabbi wants you to be Jewish.  You should be Jewish because God wants you to be Jewish and because your soul is Jewish.  There is, in the heart of your Jewish soul, a voice crying out to you to fulfill your mission as a Jew.  That’s the reason you are here, spending a perfectly good Tuesday at the synagogue when you could be doing many other, more productive and more “fun” things.  That’s the reason that you schlep your kids to Hebrew School for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah over streams of protests and not insignificant costs.

That’s the reason that your ears perk up when there is news of Israel on the TV or radio.

That’s the reason some of you have converted to Judaism – how eloquently you have told me of a deep inner feeling about your Judaism.

If you agree with me that it’s worthwhile to be Jewish, let me offer you a challenge:

As I suggested in last month’s Megillah, do one more thing Jewishly this coming year.  It could be Jewish study (such as the classes your rabbi is teaching), dietary observance (start small, give up pepperoni this year), coming to more services, personal prayer, visiting Israel (we are planning a trip for next July), reading and studying on your own, and becoming more involved in Temple activities.  JUST DO SOMETHING!

Dear God, thank you for all the blessings in our lives.  Thank you for the placing us in a world where it is so easy to be Jewish, where the choice to be Jewish does not expose us to significant hatred or persecution.  Thank you for placing libraries, the internet, teachers, rabbis and synagogues into our presence that making our journey so much more rewarding and easy.  May you strengthen our resolve to deepen our Jewish experience so that we may better serve You as You inspire us and all peoples of faith to make this, Your world a better one.


Three Sermons for the End of January—Tied Up in a Bow

Rabbi Jonathan Miller

Temple Emanu-El

Birmingham, AL

January 28, 2011


I wrote this sermon in a hurry.  I have told my son Aaron, the rabbinic student, that the best sermons are the ones that come flying off your fingers.  The ones that we labor over, picking with care each and every word are the ones that become laborious to write and a labor to hear.  I wrote this sermon last night in my sleep, and I awoke with tears on my pillow.

To say that this has been a tumultuous month would be an understatement.  And for me, personally, what is in store is even more upending than what has happened.  So this evening, I am going to share three sermons, and tie them together for you in a bow at the end.

Sermon Number 1: I want to reflect with you a little behind the scenes what transpired in the aftermath of Governor Robert Bentley stinging remarks at the Dexter Avenue Church on Martin Luther King Day, after his inauguration.  After proclaiming his desire to be the Governor for all Alabamians, he got carried away and de-brothered and de-sistered all those people who believe differently from him.  He was truly shocked and saddened at the furor that erupted in the aftermath of these words.  The people outside the church heard these words differently from the way he intended the words to be heard inside the church.  Our rabbis warned themselves:  “Chachamim, hizheeru b’divreichem—Sages, be cautious with your words.”

Immediately, I penned a letter that walked a very fine line between admonishing our new Governor and giving him the chance to make right.  I sent it to him by fax and I sent it to the congregation.  It went viral in cyberspace.  The next day, I was part of a delegation which spent an hour and a half in the new Governor’s office.  We shared a lot with each other, and Governor Bentley apologized to those he offended.  As far as I am concerned, this case is closed.  We ought to move forward.

Our words matter and our voices are heard.  I received more comments from this encounter than anything I have done in my life to this moment.  And I want to reflect with you I have learned.  We speak in a collective voice.  My words in writing to the Governor and what we shared around his table did not come from my heart only.  It came too from yours.  And that is why these words were heard in Montgomery.  We are a small community.  But even as our numbers are modest, the wisdom of our tradition is great.  And we have friends in the non-Jewish world who stand with us.  Most of the time, people will respond positively when we speak to them from the authenticity of who we are as Jews and as human beings.

My goal with Governor Bentley was to speak to his heart, and then give him a chance to move forward.  I confess to you that I had written an article for the Birmingham News about Governor Bentley’s words.  I had space reserved in Sunday’s paper.  But I decided to pull the article.  I did not want to grow this into a conflict.  It surely would have been satisfying for the moment to pick up the lance and sword and head into the public arena to draw blood.  His words hurt us, and I was ready and prepared to come out swinging.  But I gave myself the time to think. My goal was not to skewer our new governor, even though he spoke hurtfully to us.  I wanted him to be able to apologize and I wanted our state to move forward.  That was my goal.  To what purpose then would be my waging war on our new Governor? Sometimes, those of us who use our words as an arsenal need to be very careful.  “Sages, be cautious with your words”.  And our rabbis taught:  “Who is the greatest warrior?  One who turns an enemy into a friend.”  I hope our encounter with Governor Bentley has helped turn us towards a friendship that we otherwise might not have had.

Sermon Number 2:  What a month this has been at Temple Emanu-El!  Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss shared with me early in the month that he expected to be receiving a call to serve a new congregation as Senior Rabbi, and he will be leaving us June 30th.  He will have been with us for twelve years.  I am thrilled from him, absolutely thrilled.  And I am saddened too.  He has been a trusted colleague and a wonderful teacher for all of us, and especially for me.  Here is a groundbreaking observation:  In the world of rabbis and synagogues, rabbis come and go.  It is not at all uncommon for rabbis and congregations to link up and then decouple as each moves on.  But that is not the case here at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham.  Take note, no rabbi has left this congregation, Temple Emanu-El, for the past 21 years.  In its history, going back to 1882, no rabbi has ever left this congregation after serving more than five years.  So while we are so very excited for Scott and his family, we feel some measure of loss.  And frankly, we are somewhat bewildered.  What do we do now?  Should we engage a new rabbi?  What are we looking for?  How do we communicate to the congregation?  How do we best assure that we will maintain our tradition of innovation and outreach?  Over these twelve years, we have emerged from being a functioning congregation to being a synagogue of excellence, a congregation on the cutting edge.

So we are finding our way.  Our Temple leadership will be communicating with you in the weeks to come.  Please read your emails and engage us in conversation.  We have important decisions to make, and not too much time to let pass.

All of this came against the backdrop of my twentieth year anniversary here at Temple Emanu-El.  I will be absolutely honest with you.  With all the tumult going on in Montgomery and here at our Temple, I wasn’t too focused on last week’s celebration.  And purposefully, I was kept in the dark about the Shabbat events.  From the moment I walked in to our beautiful atrium, I was overwhelmed by the love I felt from this congregation.  True love is not a one way street either.  I was also overwhelmed by the love I felt for this congregation.  The words offered by my son Aaron, our president Mackie Horowitz, Dr. Roxanne Travelute, Rabbi Freelander, Rabbi Scott and Cantor Roskin were each more lovely than I would have imagined.  And I was heartened to hear my friends and congregants share, “Twenty more years, rabbi.  I hope you will be with us twenty more years!”  That is a long time and a lot of work, twenty more years.  I cannot imagine it.  But I am extremely grateful that nobody stood up to lead the chant as they do at political conventions:  “four more years.”  That would have been disheartening, to say the least.

This has been quite a month for us at Temple Emanu-El.  As I look backwards and as I look ahead, I am not entirely sure where we are going.  You will tell us in the month to come and in the years to come.  We will listen to you.  But this I know.  We will be guided by kindness, generosity and love.  This is a loving congregation.  We may not do everything just right.  But everything we do, we will do with great love.  We will be fine.  We will go from strength to strength.  That has been our way.  The future is always more compelling than our past, and our glory will be how we build for our future.  We do best when we love the most.

Sermon Number 3:  Because of this tumultuous month, I have been able to bury deep down in my kishkes the difficult task I have in front of me.  This week, we are dropping Benjamin off at college.  He is finally starting college.  Twenty percent of his 2014 graduating class starts in February.  He is the last of my children to go.  He was born here on a beastly hot July day at St. Vincent’s hospital.  And I will drop him off in Middlebury, Vermont.  It will be snowing and the predicted high temperature will be 13 degrees.  These are the bookends of his childhood.  I am reflecting on Benjamin’s life and I am reflecting on my life too.  And I am thinking about all of you.  Life, no matter how well we plan it, never goes according to our plans.  If we were in control, things would never change.  My baby would always be my baby.  I would always be twenty eight.  The stock market would always return 12%.  I would never grow.  I would always be the same.

But life doesn’t give us these kinds of options, and God doesn’t give us options either.  We live with free will, but life has its own plans.  If it were up to me, I would have frozen my life in 1994, just as Benjamin emerged from diapers, and Aaron and Alana were in the second and fourth grade.  I would have frozen my life before my father died.  I would have remained the same then as I was now, about to turn forty years old.  It was a sweet time for me.  I was old enough to have some wisdom and too young to be hurt by life and its struggles.  But my life moves on.  So does yours.  My children grow up.  So do yours.  My kids leave home to make lives of their own.  And so do yours.

So this Wednesday and Thursday, we will trudge through the snow and unload the rented minivan with Benjamin’s clothes, sheets, towels, snowboard, computer and printer, help him unpack—which is a useless task because he never puts his stuff away—put up a mezuzah, and shuffle out of there shedding the last child of our youth, wishing him well and saying goodbye.  It’s not over.  I know it’s not.  I am still his father and he is still my son.  And this is a transition that is so good and so sweet and so painful and so wrenching.  And we will talk to him and text him and email him and find reasons to holler at him and praise him and mommy and daddy him.  We will always love him, and he will always love us.  Only now we do it from afar.  I wish nothing would ever had changed and that my life as I had lived it would always be the life I will lead.  But God has wisdom far beyond mine.  And God has brought us all to this place where life changes and the world changes and we change and we know it is for blessing.  And I am so sad at the same time.

When my baby was born, he was a stranger to me.  But I promised to protect him and nurture him and provide for him.  And I loved him.  Now, I can no longer protect him or nurture him, not too much anyway.  I still have a few years to provide for him.  And I love him still more.  It’s just now I will have to love him from afar.  But loving from afar is still love, and that gives me comfort.

Tying up the bow:  Friends, here is my end of January message; kindness and love help us get through the difficult times in our lives.  It is that simple.  We cannot stand still.  We cannot take back yesterday’s moments or relive our journey.  We just keep moving forward.  We can only see ahead in life a few step at a time.  But our life’s spin through the years is a journey of miles and miles.  When we take God as our companion and walk with the people we love, it will all turn out alright.  It does.  It all turns out alright.  God sees to that.  And we move forward with kindness and love.

Shabbat Shalom

Nurturing Souls: Learning for Life – Make for yourself a teacher

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Stanford University

July 5, 2009/13 Tammuz 5769

University Public Worship

(Exodus 18:1-27)


The year 2009 began with three losses, braided in my mind like a havdalah candle, whose wicks are woven together, burning brighter and stronger for their interconnection. Jews light this distinctive candle to end the Sabbath, when we bid farewell to the extra soul that embraces us on the day of rest. In my mind, the braiding of the havdalah candle was like the entwining of these three thoughtful souls, and, although they likely didn’t know one another, I bid farewell to them together with sadness and appreciation. Michael Signer, Alan Lew and Thom Massey died within a week of one another. All three were taken when they were at the height of their powers. All three were educators.  Two had the title Rabbi.  One had the title “Multicultural Educator” Each of them enriched his teaching, his journey, and his wisdom by venturing into unfamiliar territory and sharing freely what he learned.

Rabbi Michael Signer was my professor and sermon advisor in rabbinic school.  He was a brilliant medievalist, with all the eccentricities we often associate with scholars in such a field.  My classmates and I lampooned his peripatetic lectures, by choreographing a dance of the steps he routinely took walking around the classroom, looking up at the ceiling, all the while, teaching without any notes.  The coke bottle glasses he wore belied the generous vision he brought to his encounters with others.  He was a gentle man, but nonetheless direct and honest.  I rewrote my senior sermon multiple times under his tutelage until it passed muster.  Michael was a fixture within the small faculty at the Reform Movement seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, teaching countless rabbinic students–until he left it to teach Judaism at the University of Notre Dame.  His deep appreciation for Christianity was met there by a concomitant openness to Judaism.  I thought of him as a Jewish ambassador in a Catholic world, and he thought of himself as an interpreter of Christianity to the Jewish world.  He co-authored a groundbreaking statement, Dabru Emet, “Speak Truth: A Jewish Statement on Christians And Christianity”, which challenged Jews to rethink their perspective on Christianity, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, as Christians, grappling with that cataclysm had rethought their own views on Judaism.

Rabbi Alan Lew was a poet and on the way to becoming a Buddhist priest at the Tassajara Zen Center when he found his way back to Judaism and was led inexorably to the rabbinate. He instituted meditation and mindfulness practices in his San Francisco synagogue.  He led retreats with his close friend, the Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, Norman Fischer.  From both traditions, he derived a commitment to compassion and justice.  He was often found at vigils in front of San Quentin when an execution was imminent. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the city’s homeless. Zen paradox and Jewish humor lived side by side in Alan. He wrote a book called, One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, another called, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, and a third called, Be Still and Get Going. And sadly, his death brought new meaning to “be still and get going”—he died while jogging at a retreat where he had come to teach rabbis how to meditate. Alan made room for scores of Jews who were enthralled with Buddhism to find again a home within Judaism.  Although he was ordained as a rabbi in the Conservative Movement, he was anything but conservative in his embrace of Buddhist wisdom with a Jewish accent.  He, like Michael Signer, was a bridge-builder.  And he knew that wisdom from one religious tradition could enrich and elevate another one.

Thom Massey was Stanford’s multicultural educator, and his place at Stanford spanned more than four decades, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, and then as an assistant dean of students, and as a Resident Fellow.  Thom was instrumental in helping Stanford to become a more diverse and welcoming community.  He was active in the African American community and the Native American community and he was unflagging in his belief that we all had much to learn from one another.  He taught conflict resolution and he had a quiet presence that enabled him to “sit in the fire”– no matter how hot the controversy–with calm and respect.  Shortly after his untimely death rocked the campus, Hillel hosted a glorious photographic exhibit called “Jews of Color: In Color”, featuring the stories and photos of rituals and people in places as far flung as Uganda, Peru, China, India and Uzbekistan.  These Jewish faces were black, brown, red, yellow and white. The exhibit was dedicated to Thom Massey, a reflection of the close ties he forged between people of all colors, cultures and backgrounds, and of his deeply held and always personified belief that we all can learn from one another.

Each of these three men– Michael, Alan and Thom– were teachers who experienced the world by building bridges and escorting others across great divides.  They saw possibilities for connection where others might see only a chasm. They found teachers, and then they became teachers who valued the wisdom of those who had been unseen or unappreciated by others. They were able to take and transfer the learning of those who had not been designated as teachers within their fixed universes. Their vision was expanded by what, for others, might be seen as foreign or frightening.

In this, they were like Moses, who is identified in Jewish tradition as Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses, Our Teacher”.  Moses, the quintessential Jewish teacher, is first described as a learner, and his teacher was the Midianite Jethro, his father-in-law.  Moses had reasons born of history and kinship to respect Jethro’s wisdom.  This respect caused him to listen to and heed his father-in-law, a man from a different culture and background, when Jethro offered Moses advice.  “But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you cannot do it alone.  Youu will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.   For the task is too heavy for you; You cannot do it alone.  Now listen to me.  I will give you counsel, and God be with you!” (Exodus 18:17-19)  The counsel Jethro gave was nothing less than the construction of a judicial system that for Moses to institute.  He does so and that very system becomes the model for the judiciary throughout the Bible, discussed and reaffirmed in the book of Deuteronomy (1:9-18) and it is still the model of the judicial system in the Western world.  That a foreigner thought it up does not diminish its power.  Indeed, the weekly portion read in synagogue concerning this story is identified as “Jethro”, in his honor.  But more than the structure that Jethro creates, the words he speaks teach us yet another important lesson. “For the task is too heavy for you.  You cannot do it alone.”

In the best-known book of the Talmud, the Ethics of the Fathers, Pirke Avot, there is wisdom that is a bright star in the pantheon of teachings that have guided me for decades.  Indeed, it forms the link for this sermon series.  “Aseh lecha rav”  “Make for yourself a teacher”.  “Kneh lecha chaver” “Acquire for yourself a friend.”  And, a few lines later, “Yehi beitcha beit va’ad lachachamim.” “Make your house a gathering place for the wise.”

Aseh lecha rav.  Make for yourself a teacher.  Moses, like Michael, Alan and Thom, chose to find–to make– a teacher of a person or people who had neither the appropriate authority nor the pedigree to be his teacher.  After all, God made Moses the leader of the Israelites, not his Midianite father-in-law.  It was Moses who responded to the burning bush.  It was Moses who challenged Pharaoh. It was Moses who brought his people out of Egypt, and led them safely across the Red Sea.  Yet, when Moses heard wisdom coming from the mouth of this man, he made of its giver, a teacher.

In explicating “Aseh lecha rav”,  “Make for yourself a teacher”, the medieval philosopher Maimonides focuses on the verb “aseh”, “make”.

“ ‘Make for yourself a teacher’: That is to say, even if he is not suited to be your teacher, put him in the position of being your teacher until it seems to you that he is indeed teaching.  Thus you shall acquire wisdom, for learning from another is of a different quality than learning on one’s own.  Learning on one’s own is good, but learning from another endures longer and is more clearly understood.  This holds true if he is your equal or even your inferior in wisdom.”

Think about what Maimonides teaches about the learner.  There is no hint here of an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the pearls of wisdom coming from on high.  Rather, the learner is the one who reaches out to the teacher, who takes the initiative and recognizes that even someone who, on the face of things might not be a conventional or even an “appropriate” guide and mentor, nevertheless has something to teach. Finding a teacher requires an act of will, and an act of commitment.  It requires humility—recognizing that teachers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, cultures, perspectives and worldviews.  Perhaps they may choose us as their students, but this text and the Jethro story remind us that we also choose them as our teachers.

Educator Parker J. Palmer, who wrote a groundbreaking book called The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, tells a story of his first mentor—a man, he said, who broke every rule of good teaching.  He lectured without regard for his hearers. He listened poorly, if at all, to his students.  It was as if, he thought, “Who needs twenty-year olds from the suburbs when you are hanging out with the likes of Marx, Hegel, Durkheim and Weber?”(21, 137)  But it was that very passion and engagement with ideas that captivated Parker Palmer, a first generation college student. So Palmer claimed this socially ill-adept man as his mentor. He writes, “What mattered was that he generously opened the life of his mind to me, giving full voice to the gift of thought.  Something in me knew that this gift was mine.” (22) As an educator, Parker Palmer often asks people to talk about a teacher who made a difference in their lives.  That question isn’t hard to answer.  Names and contexts easily come to mind.  But then he asks a question that stopped me in my tracks when I read it, a question that claimed me.  Not “What made your mentor great?” but, “What was it about you that allowed great mentoring to happen?”  Aseh lecha rav.  What was it about you that caused you to make this person your teacher, to be open to the wisdom that he or she could impart, to pronounce this person your rav?  Think a moment.  When you envision your own mentors, when you remember the people who taught you and touched you, what did they see in you?  What did you reveal to them that caused them to want to become your teacher?

We are all moved by stories of people whose lives have been altered by the faith a teacher has placed in them.  Some of us, many of us, I would argue, are those people.  I certainly am.  But that faith would not have come to fruition, had those students not been open to making for themselves a teacher, to allowing the flame of wisdom to light the candle that is the student.

Teaching is a sacred enterprise in Judaism.  Our most valued religious leader is called Rav, teacher.  Our sacred book is called Torah, Hebrew for “Teaching”.  Making one a teacher is an act of holiness, of finding and affirming not only the humanity and gifts of human beings who teach us, but also of the divine presence.  “When two sit and study Torah together, the Shechinah, God’s imminent presence, dwells among them.” It is no small thing to make of another a teacher.  It is, indeed, the very essence of what it means to learn for life, to nurture souls.

As we celebrate the summer, the time of hiatus from traditional classrooms, the time of pause in the busy routine of our lives, let us consider those we have made as our teachers, and who we might, in the future, make as our teacher.  Let us ask who we might learn from in surprising new places.  Whose souls might we nurture?  Who will recognize the divine spark within us?  May we be nourished by those who claim us as their students.  May we be filled with gratitude for those who make us their teachers.  May we know the blessing of bringing together distinct and disparate worlds, entwining our own light, like the colors of the fireworks that illumine yesterday’s sky, to illuminate and heal our world.  Ken yehi ratzon. So may this be God’s desire.

The Darshan: Preacher and Teacher of Talmudic Times

by Marc Bregman

Throughout the Rabbinic period, one main instrument of popular education-particularly what would today be called “adult education” – was the scriptural sermon given in the synagogue on Sabbaths and Festivals. The “preacher” who fulfilled this important pedagogic function was known as the darshan, from the Hebrew root DRSH, meaning to interpret or explicate scripture. The public explication and elaboration of the Bible has a long and varied history. Its roots may well reach back even to Biblical times (see, for example, Ezra 7:10). And though public preaching in the synagogue may have been banned by the Byzantine authorities at the end of the Talmudic period, Jewish homiletical art did not die, but has continued to flourish up to the present day. While a great proportion of the voluminous Talmudic-Midrashic literature seems to be derived from actual sermons given in the synagogue, the development of the Darshan’s role and the nature of his oral homily are not entirely clear. For, the main sources of our information about this living institution are literary adaptations of such homilies which were largely redacted at the close of the Talmudic period when oral preaching was apparently in decline. These sources reveal some aspects of Jewish homiletics which were remarkably similar and others which were surprisingly dissimilar to what we are accustomed to in the modern synagogue. The following discussion is an attempt to describe some of these aspects by looking at the role of the Darshan as preacher and teacher of Torah.

Masters of the Aggadah

Though many Darshanim were certainly ordained rabbis, a scholar who was truly master of all liturgical skills was apparently rare enough to deserve special note. Such a talented teacher was R. Elazar berabbi Shimon, who served as “Torah reader (or: “Bible teacher”), prayer leader (or: “Mishnah teacher”), synagogue poet and preacher” (Leviticus Rabbah 30:1 according to some versions, cf. ed. Margulies, p. 690). However, some rabbis seem to have specialized more in Halakhah (ba’ale halakhah), while others were more renowned for their homiletical achievements. It was apparently these “masters of the Aggadah” (ba’ale aggadah) who normally served as Darshanim in the synagogue.

Some synagogues seem to have had not only a head rabbi who preached the main sermon on the Sabbath, but “assistant preachers,” who received a salary, as well. This arrangement naturally led to the occasional exegetical disagreement, as the following story illustrates:

Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yehudah bar Nahman would receive two selaim each Sabbath to assemble and occupy the congregation before Rabbi Yohanan would enter. Rabbi Levi entered and taught that Jonah the prophet was from the tribe of Zebulon. But when Rabbi Yohanan entered he taught that Jonah was from the tribe of Asher. The next week Rabbi Levi said to Rabbi Yehudah bar Nahman: Though it is your Sabbath, you take the two selaim, but let me enter and assemble the congregation before Rabbi Yohanan. When he entered he said to the congregation: Though Rabbi Yohanan taught last Sabath that Jonah was from the tribe of Asher, actually his father was from the tribe of Zebulon and his mother from the tribe of Asher.

According to the version of this story in Genesis Rabbah, R. Yohanan responded to Rabbi Levi’s resolution of their difference of opinion by expressing the hope that his assistant would “deserve” to teach his own opinion when he became a full-fledged Darshan. Happily, the Midrash tells us that Rabbi Levi did go on to serve in that capacity for no less than twenty-two years (Genesis Rabah 98:11, cf. P. Sukkah V.1, 55a, Deuteronomy Rabah 7:8).
Itinerant Preachers

Smaller synagogues, however, were not able to employ even one Darshan on a regular basis; and some of the Darshanim seem to have been itinerant preachers (see B. Sanhedrin 70a, 88a, Hullin 27a, cf. Matthew 4:23, Acts 13:4). The arrival of a Darshan in such a smaller community was an event of such significance that certain leniencies in the observance of the Sabbath were permitted to allow people living nearby to attend: ” A man may make conditions about his Eruv by saying: If a sage comes from the East, let my Eruv be to the East; but if from the West, let my Eruv be to the West; if one comes to here and there, let me go to the place I wish” (M. Eruvin III.5). Similarly, though it was generally deemed improper to run on the Sabbath, it was acceptable and even praiseworthy to do so in order to arrive in time to hear a sermon (see B. Berakhot 6b, Sheiltot Bereshit 1, Tanhuma Bereshit 2).

A Darshan arriving in such a community did not necessarily know ahead of time on what verse he would be expected to preach (see Leviticus Rabbah 3:6). This is understandable in light of the fact that in Talmudic Palestine there was no single fixed lectionary cycle. Rather, each community seems to have read through the Torah, not in one year, but in about three years, determining its own consecutive Torah portions and related Haftarah portions. This custom made considerable demands on the Darshan’s ability to improvise an entire sermon on short notice. However, anyone planning to preach was warned against relying on previous knowledge and experience to give him the right words on the spur of the moment. The Darshan was expected to rehearse what he was going to say on any particular occasion; though the actual delivery could be, and most likely was, largely extemporaneous (see Exodus Rabbah 40:1).

Aggadah: A Laughing Countenance

The lively and dramatic inventiveness of the Darshan’s homily was probably one of the main factors that contributed to its enormous popularity, particularly among the less academically inclined levels of society. Indeed, the sages bewail the fact that many people avoided the rigorous study of the Halakhah, preferring instead to listen to the more entertaining Aggadic elaborations of Biblical stories (see, for example, Pesiqta DeRav Kahana 12:3). Significantly, in comparing the major divisions of rabbinic study, the Bible is described as having “an angry countenance,” Mishnah ” a neutral countenance,” and Talmud “an understanding countenance”; but Aggadah is described as having “a laughing countenance” (Pesiqta deRav Kahana 12:25). Such a statement points up the fact that the Darshan, while fulfilling an important pedagogic function, was expected to do so with a sense of humor and even with an attitude of intellectual play.
One feature of preaching in Talmudic times that added to the listeners’ affective involvement in the educational process was the possibility for the active participation of the audience within the framework of the homily. Several sources suggest that the sermon, like the liturgy, was sometimes punctuated by congregational responses such as the public recitation of the Kaddish (See Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:15.7; Midrash to Proverbs Ch. 10). One kind of homily, found frequently in the Tanhuma and related midrashic works, actually may have begun with a question raised from the audience, usually about a halakhic point, which was asked in a formalized pattern: “Let our Master teach us…” (yelamedenu rabbenu…).

A variation on this patten, somewhat similar to the format found in the Sheiltot, is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 30a-b). Here, Rabbi Tanhum develops an elaborate homily in answer to a question about the permissibility of extinguishing a lamp on the Sabbath in order to help a sick person to sleep. However, other scholars could be overcome by such questions offered from the audience. It is related that when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi sent a scholar to the people of Simonia at their request, they built him a pulpit, sat him upon it and began by asking him questions of Halakhah. Though he did in fact know the answers, the young scholar, Levi bar Sisi, was so flattered by all the attention that words failed him. Whereupon, the people asked him to address himself to a purely exegetical question, which he also failed to answer. Realizing how unsuccessful he had been in publicly imparting his knowledge, he rose early the next morning, left town and returned to the school of his teacher (Genesis Rabbah 81:2). Happily, Levi bar Sisi seems eventually to have mastered the art of public preaching, for elsewhere he is numbered among the “masters of words, good readers, good preachers” (Pesiqta deRav Kahana 24:18).

Discourteous Congregations

It would appear that some congregations could be quite discourteous when they found the Darshan’s comments unacceptable. According to several sages, when Mordecai was once unable to find a wet-nurse for Esther, he himself produced milk and was able to suckle her. However, when Rabbi Abbahu related this legend in a sermon, his audience is said to have laughed. But this Darshan was well prepared to counter their incredulity by retorting: “But is this not in accordance with the Mishnah which teaches: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: The milk of a male is ritually pure!” (Genesis Rabbah 30:8).
Other Darshanim, faced with the difficulty of holding their audience’s attention, did not hesitate to purposefully shock their listeners:
Once when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was sitting and preaching, he realized that the congregation was beginning to doze off. In order to awaken them he said: In Egypt, a woman gave birth to six hundred thousand at one time! There was a student there by the name of R. Yishmael berabbi Yosi who asked: Who was that? He replied to him: That was Jochabed who bore Moses who was equivalent to all the six hundred thousand of Israel! (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:15.3).
It would seem that, by and large, such questions raised by members of the congregation during the sermon were not a sign of disrespect. Rather, such interchanges between the Darshan and his audience reveal the dialogical nature of rabbinic homiletics and the Darshan’s willingness to adapt his presentation to the specific needs and responses of each individual audience.

The Seat of Moses

In a very literal sense the Darshan did not stand above his audience. Though, as we have seen, the preacher might speak from a raised platform or pulpit (bimah), he did not stand, as we might expect a public speaker to do today. Rather, the Darshan normally was seated. This practice is clear from the fact that throughout Talmudic literature the expression used to introduce what happened or was said by a particular Darshan during a public sermon is “He sat and preached” (yashav vedarash) (see Avot deRabbi Natan, Version A, Ch. 4; Song of Songs Rabbah 1:15.2; cf. Luke 4:20) It may be that in some synagogues the Darshan was seated facing the congregation on a kind of special throne. This may well have been the function of the “seat of Moses,” mentioned already in the New Testament (Matthew 23:2) as occupied by “scribes and Pharisees.” Examples of such thrones have been discovered in the excavations of synagogues from Talmudic times, at Hammat Tiberias and Chorazin in Israel. A splendid example comes from the synagogue on the Aegean island of Delos, thought to date from the first century B.C. The Darshan could actually make use of such synagogue fixtures in graphically illustrating his interpretation of scripture, as we can see from an otherwise elliptical midrash on the biblical description of Solomon’s throne: “And the top of the throne was round behind” (I Kings 10:19). R. Aha said: Like this seat of Moshe (kehada kathedra demoshe) (Pesiqta deRav Kahana 1:6). It would have been most fitting to refer to the throne on which the Darshan sat as the “Seat of Moses,” since his role was specifically equated with the role of Moses as teacher of Torah, as we can see from the following midrash: “And Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet” (Exodus 7:1). Just as the preacher (hadoresh) sits and preaches and the Amora speaks before him, so you (Moses), “Thou shalt say all that I command thee and Aaron thy brother shall speak, etc.” (Ibid.,2) (Tanhuma Va’era 10, Exodus Rabbah 8:3).

A Living Loudspeaker

This midrash also illustrates another interesting feature of the public sermon in Talmudic times. The Darshan did not speak in a loud voice directly to his audience. Rather, this was the function of the Amora or Meturgeman, who served as a kind of “living loud-speaker.” The Darshan apparently communicated his comments in a low voice or whisper to the Meturgeman who, standing, then “broadcast” them to the congregation with great rhetorical flourish which may even have taken on the character of chanting or a kind of song (See Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:5). Similar to the practice of having the Darshan seated, possibly on a special throne, the use of the Meturgeman was probably meanto to emphasize the dignity of the Darshan. For the sage was expected to speak only in a quiet, restrained voice, leaving any histrionics to the Meturgeman. Indeed, the Meturgeman, who did not hesitate to raise his voice to the audience was thought to lord it over the simple congregants: “The words of sages are better heard in quiet” (Ecclesiastes 9:17). This refers to the Darshanim. “Than the shout of him who rules over the simple” (Ibid.). This refers to the Meturgemanim who stand over the congregation (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, ad loc.).

Elites vs. Masses

Though the public sermon given in the synagogue seems to have been particularly intended for the instruction of the less well educated strata of society, such instruction was considered important for all. The Talmud warns that two respected families in Jerusalem died out because they preferred to take their Sabbath meal at home just when the sermon was being given (see B. Gittin 38b). It is possible that such people felt that the public sermon was too popular in content and style, or they may have disdained to mingle with the lower classes who attended the sermon both as a source of entertainment and education. Indeed, in Sepphoris, apparently even the thieves came to hear the sermon; though what they learned about the “modus operandi” of the Generation of the Flood was, unfortunately, put to professional use! (See P. Ma’aser Sheni V.1, 55d, cf. B. Sanhedrin 109a).

Given the great differences in educational level, the Darshan had to be able to adapt his remarks to the audience he was addressing on a particular occasion. It is related that Rabbi Levi had two very different metaphoric interpretations of the same scriptural passage, “And the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 11:2). The one which he reserved for his academic colleagues (lehavraya) is quite poetic: “When a man begins to cry his eyes stream with tears.” But when he preached to the uneducated (leboraya), he did not hesitate to interpret this biblical passage using an analogy which, to us at least, seems shockingly scatological: “When a man begins to make water, feces come first” (see Leviticus Rabbah 18:1). The Darshan’s willingness to relate to his audience on their level reflects not disdain but rather a certain respect for those who were less academically inclined. Indeed, even the most respected rabbis were willing, it seems, to include in their public sermons a good midrash learned from an ignorant man, and were even willing to quote it in his name:

An ignorant man (in the Aramaic: am deara, i.e., Am HaAretz) said to Rabbi Hoshaya: If I tell you a good one, will you quote it in my name in public? He answered: What is it? All the gifts that our father Isaac gave to Esau, the nations of the world will return to the messianic king in the time to come; what is the proof? “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles will return gifts” (Ps. 72:10). It is not written that “they will bring gifts,” but that “they will return gifts.” R. Hosayah said to him: By your life, you did tell a good one; I will quote it in your name (Genesis Rabbah 78:12).
“He…will sit in Paradise and Preach”

The many different forms which the public homily may have taken on various occasions and at different times during the Talmudic period is an interesting and complicated question which deserves fuller discussion elsewhere. However, one feature, which is suggested by the complex “literary” homilies found in such works as Leviticus Rabbah and Pesiqta deRav Kahana, bears mention here. It was apparently customary to conclude the homily on a note of hope, by mentioning the promise of the messianic age. The same tendency to conclude each section or session of learning on a similar or positive note can be seen in the conclusions of many tractates of the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmudim and in the formal ending of the Passover Haggadah with the hopeful expectation: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to the Darshan as preacher and teacher of Torah was to compare his role to that of God Himself in the world to come:

In the future the Holy One, blessed be He, will sit in Paradise and preach. And all the righteous will sit before him. And all the righteous will sit before him. And the heavenly host will stand on their feet; to His right, the sun with the constellations and to His left, the moon and the stars. And the Holy One, blessed be He, will interpret to them the teachings of a new Toah which He will give to them in the future through the Messiah. And when He comes to teach Aggadah, Zerubbabel ben Shealtiel will rise to his feet and say: May His great name be magnified and sanctified, etc. And his voice will be heard from one end of the Universe to the other. And all those who dwell on the earth shall answer: Amen! (Alpha Beta deRabbi Aquiva, Bet HaMidrash, ed. Jellenik, III, p.27-28).

Published in The Melton Journal, Spring 1982, No. 14, Sivan 5742

At the time of publication, Marc Bregman, a student of the late Professor Joseph Heinemann, was completing his doctorate in Midrash at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was serving then as the director of the program in classical Hebrew texts at the Hebrew Union College Jerusalem campus.

Current Contact Information:

Marc Bregman
Bernard Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies
Department of Religious Studies, 111A Foust Bldg
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, NC 27402
Phone: 336 510-9612, Fax: 510-6198, Email:

The Conversion Crisis: Where are we Headed

Bechukotai, 5768

Shmuel Herzfeld


Last week I was called for jury duty.  The judge called 75 of us into a room in order to pick a potential jury.  He asked us to promise not to lie.  He called me to the front and asked me if I knew anyone in the room.

I said: “I know you.”

He was shocked: “When did we meet,” he said.

I said: “Three years ago I sat in your court and listened to a case before you.  I am deeply disappointed in your decision that day.  I believe it has terrible consequences for millions of people.”

He asked me if I could be fair in this case.  I said: “I am a fair person.  I believe I can do a better job than the judge, but I have a low opinion of this court.”

The judge excused me from jury duty.

Sometimes, no matter the consequences or the fall out, we have to stand up to judges and tell them what we think of their opinions.

Recently Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a judge on the High Rabbinical Court in Israel whom the Jerusalem Post calls “the most important rabbinical adjudicator in the country” issued a devastating ruling in Israel.

In Israel religion is mixed with state so that a person’s status as a Jew is decided by a rabbi whom the state appoints.  The rabbi’s decision is legally binding and has many consequences, such as a person’s right to citizenship, a person’s right to marry a Jew, be buried as a Jew, and a person’s entitlement to certain economic benefits reserved for new citizens in the land.

Rabbi Sherman—an ultra-orthodox rabbi–ruled that thousands of converts converted by Rabbi Haim Druckman were invalid.

Rabbi Druckman had converted many people over a period of more than ten years.  He had been appointed as the head of the Chief Rabbi’s official Conversion Authority.  He is a person of great stature: a former Knesset member, a Rosh yeshiva of a major Zionist yeshiva, and a beloved mentor to thousands.

Many of those who converted with him were being told by another rabbi (also appointed by the Chief Rabbi) that even though they had lived for the last ten years as Jews, many of them devoutly religious Jews, nevertheless their conversions were invalid, since all of Rabbi Druckman’s conversions were now invalid.

This is an unprecedented ruling in its scope and in its direct attack upon Rav Druckman.

Some estimate that more than 100,000 people are affected by this ruling—whether directly or indirectly as spouses who must divorce or children who suddenly discover that they are not Jewish.

As we speak, many are in limbo and are unable to determine their status.  So for example, if they choose to get married in Israel, they may be denied permission.

The ruling was harshly condemned by many great rabbis and major rabbinic organizations including Tzohar in Israel, the Rabbinical Council of America (an Orthodox rabbinical fellowship), and the International Rabbinic Fellowship led by Rabbis Marc Angel, Saul Berman, Avi Weiss, and Shlomo Riskin.

Nevertheless, the ruling was defended by some of the most respected Talmudic sages in Israel.  This week the Conference of European Rabbis declared that they were no longer recognizing Rabbi Druckman’s conversions.  And, in a blatant capitulation to the Hareidi camp, Rav Druckman received a letter this week from Prime Minister Olmert’s office that because he was too old he was being removed from his position as head of the Conversion Authority.

It is very difficult for me to speak about this topic since I shake in fear at the prospect of criticizing great Torah scholars, but the Torah commands us not to be quiet when innocent people are being attacked.

This week we read Parshat Bechukotai which contains both blessings and curses that Hashem promises our people.  If we follow the ways of Hashem, we get the blessings; if we, Heaven Forbid, do not follow Hashem, then we face the curses.  The most generous blessing is the promise of the generosity of the land; and the most severe curse is exile from the land of Israel.

Usually this portion is read with Parshat Behar and many have pointed out that the blessings and the curses that come in this portion follow directly the laws laid out in Behar.  If we follow the laws of Behar, then we will be blessed and if not we will be cursed.

One of the axioms of Behar is that we need to remember that we were oppressed in Egypt and thus we cannot oppress others.  When we arrive in the land of Israel, we are reminded Ki gerim ve-toshavim atem imadi, we are both gerim (newcomers) and toshavim (dwellers).  Over and over in our Torah we are reminded “Do not oppress the ger, for you were oppressed in the land of Egypt.”  According to the Talmud in Baba Metziah, it is forbidden to even remind someone that he is a convert to the faith.  Once he/she is Jewish then they are as Jewish as everyone else.  One who oppresses a convert violates a Biblical commandment as it says, ve-ger lo tilchatz (Exodus 23:9).

This attack by the court of Rabbi Sherman—if it carries the day—is absolutely something that can cause us to lose the land of Israel.  Not only because it is a direct violation of the Torah, but also because it is an attack upon Zionism and Zionist rabbis who have chosen with great courage to try to integrate Halacha with the realities of a state.

Rabbis like Rabbi Sherman who now control the rabbinical court system in Israel categorically reject the very basis of what these Zionist rabbis stand for.

Let us be very clear, this is about something much, much bigger than the status of converts (and that is big enough).  It is not only a rejection of the religious significance of the modern State of Israel it is also a rejection of an approach to the Torah that seeks to be as inclusive as possible, and use the Torah to open doors rather than close them.

One of the rabbis who rushed to the defense of Rabbi Sherman was a Rabbi Avraham Dov Levine.  Here is what Rabbi Levine stands for.  In the year 2000, Rabbi Levine was the chief marriage registrar of the Jerusalem rabbinate.  In that capacity a girl came to register to marry.

The mother of this girl had been married to a young man who served in a tank in the 1973, Yom Kippur War.  The man’s tank had received a direct hit and he had been killed.  If he would not be declared dead, then his wife would be considered an “agunah” (literally: chained) and be forbidden to marry anyone, as her husband’s status would be uncertain.

A week after he was killed some fragments of his clothing were found.  On that basis the rabbis of the IDF ruled that her husband was killed in the tank and his widow could now remarry.  She remarried and subsequently 27 years later her daughter from the second marriage was now trying to register to allow herself to get married.

In a shockingly cruel decision, Rabbi Levine ruled that this woman could not remarry on the basis of the ruling of the rabbis of the IDF.  He said that their ruling was suspect and that the daughter needed to go to a “God-fearing” court to determine her status.

Rabbi Levine was able to marshal some sources for his argument.  But he completely ignored the fact that for centuries rabbis have never questioned a woman who had been allowed to remarry by a reputable court.  In his reversal he was declaring that this woman was possibly a mamzeret and would thus never be able to marry anyone.  It is a callous ruling.  It is not surprising that we are now also seeing gittin (religious divorces) revoked retroactively.

The blame for this lies in a system that has empowered rabbis who are not sensitive to the needs of their community.  The blame for this lies in a system that supports a religious bureaucracy with governmental responsibility.

I am also sorry to say that the RCA of which I am a dues paying member has recently made a catastrophic decision by inviting the chief rabbi’s office to oversee conversions done by RCA rabbis here in America. Their thinking was that in doing this they will be protecting those whom they convert, but the reality is sadly different.  Once we grant authority to this system there is no limit: conversions will be revoked retroactively, marriages will be annulled, and children will be thrown out of schools.  There is no end.

Recently I got a call from a cousin in Israel.  He said to me: “Our Grandma was the daughter of a second marriage.  Do you know for certain that her mother received a get from her first husband?  Do you have proof of that?”  I explained that my great-grandparents were pious people and that there surely was a get involved.  Furthermore, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik married my parents and he would not have officiated if he was concerned.  But you see…once we begin this line of questioning and overthrowing years of precedent, we will all be disqualified.

The only thing we can do is stand up, as unpleasant as it may be, and declare that these rabbis are wrong.  Rabbis of good conscience must declare that we will not unduly afflict the vulnerable members of our society.  We will declare that we will be their voice of protection.

In this I take solace in the fact that we are continuing a great tradition of rabbis standing up for those who need a voice.

I received my rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.  This school is named after Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (1817-1896). He was a great Torah scholar, a decisor of law, and also chief rabbi of Kovno.  But he was perhaps most renowned for the efforts he put into freeing agunot, women whom the law had constrained from remarrying.  This was a major focus of his scholarly and communal pursuits.

After freeing one agunah and allowing her to remarry, he wrote: “I praise Hashem for Hashem helped me to produce the correct path in freeing a “chained” woman according to the truth of the Torah.  Everyone knows my weaknesses and how difficult it is for me to write, nevertheless I worked very hard on this matter in order to make a great repair because mitzvah rabbh hi meod—it is a great mitzvah—as it states, “kol hamatir agunah echad ke-ilu boneh churvah echad michurvah yerushalayim whoever allows one agunah to remarry, it is as though they have repaired a ruin in Jerusalem.”

Until the day he died he was involved in “heter agunot” allowing women to remarry.  It is said that he was able to rule leniently in every case that came before him except for one.  In the week before he died, he was struggling mightily to find a way for this one woman to remarry.  As he lay in bed fighting a terrible illness, he arose in the middle of the night to work on this last case.  He found a source to allow her to remarry and he exclaimed: “Baruch Hashem hi muteret.”  Praise God she is allowed!

May the spirit of Rav Yitzcah Elchanan guide our rabbis today!


To all those who Rav Druckman converted, I say to you: “Please stop by and visit our synagogue.  We would be honored to have you join us in prayers, call you to the Torah, and marry our children.  You are as Jewish as I am.”

The Soul

Sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5772

October 8, 2011

Rabbi Adam Zeff

Germantown Jewish Centre


My God, the soul that You have placed within me is pure

You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me

And You guard it within my body

And You are the one who will take it from me

And return it to me in the time to come

While the soul is in my body, I thank You

Lord, my God and God of my ancestors

Master of all creation, Lord of all souls

Blessed are You, God, who returns souls to lifeless bodies.

This prayer from the morning service that we say every day gives thanks for the soul as a divine gift, and from ancient times, Jewish texts have spoken of the soul as something that is placed in the body by God.  Of the first human being, the Torah writes, “The Lord God formed the human from the dust of the earth.  God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.”[1]  The Hebrew word translated here as “breath” is n’shamah – in Yiddish, n’shoma – the same word we usually translate as “soul.”  The first human being is made up of a body, formed from the dust of the earth, and a soul, given by God, which animates that body.  Rashi comments, “Thus the human being is a combination of the earthly and the divine,” and that has been the predominant Jewish view of the make-up of the human through the centuries.  The Talmud puts it this way:

Our Rabbis taught:  There are three partners in the creation of the human being:  The Holy Blessed One, the father, and the mother.  The father supplies the white substance, out of which are formed the child’s bones, the sinews, the nails, the brain and the white of the eye.  The mother supplies the red substance, out of which are formed the skin, flesh, hair, blood and the black of the eye.  God provides the spirit, the soul, the beauty of the features, eyesight, the power of hearing, ability to speak and walk, understanding and intelligence.[2]

But there are several things about the Jewish view of the soul that are a little surprising, and they have to do with the soul’s relationship to the body.  Rather than seeing the two as opposing forces, constantly competing for control, Jewish sources tend to see them as complementary parts of the whole, each of which holds the possibility of both holiness and sin.  Both body and soul can lead us in the divine path, and both body and soul can lead us astray, and they usually do so together.  The rabbis tell a parable to illustrate this point.  You may notice that this parable features the same characters we met on Rosh Hashanah – Antoninus, the Roman emperor, and Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, the leader of the Jewish community:

Antoninus said to Rabbi Yehudah: ‘The body and the soul can both free themselves from judgment. The body can plead: The soul has sinned, [and the proof is] that from the day it left me, I lie like a stone in the grave [powerless]. The soul can say: The body has sinned, [and the proof is] that from the day I departed from it, I fly about in the air like a bird [and commit no sin].’ Rabbi Yehudah replied, ‘I will tell you a parable. To what may this be compared? To a human king who owned a beautiful orchard which contained splendid figs. Now, he appointed two watchmen in it, one lame and the other blind. [One day] the lame man said to the blind, “I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Come and take me on your shoulders so we can take some figs and eat them.” So the lame man climbed on the blind man’s back, took the figs, and they ate them. Some time after, the owner of the orchard came and asked them, “Where are those beautiful figs?” The lame man replied, “Have I feet to walk with?” The blind man replied, “Have I eyes to see with?” What did the owner do? He placed the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders and judged them together. So will the Blessed Holy One bring the soul, place it in the body, and judge them together.[3]

There is no idea here of a holy soul trapped in a sinful body, as in some other streams of religious thought.  Instead, the rabbis argue that body and soul must be judged together, both because they each bear the potential for sin and because they are deeply intertwined in the living, breathing human being.

Despite this deep connection between the body and soul, Jewish sources also acknowledge the truth we know – that the period of time in which body and soul are bound together is all too short.  When the soul is placed in the body, that is what we call life, and when the soul leaves the body, that is what we call death, and we return the body to the earth from which it came.  But for the ancients, death was not the only moment at which soul and body could be separated.  When the prayer speaks of returning souls to lifeless bodies, it is also referring to the simple process of waking up in the morning.  According to the rabbis, when we sleep, our souls go wandering, free from our bodies, which is what accounts for our dreams.  When we wake up, the soul comes back into the body, and that moment is as miraculous as the moment of birth when the soul first joins the body.[4]  So although body and soul are deeply connected to each other, every day we get to re-experience the moment when the two were first joined, an experience for which we thank God in the prayer Modeh or Modah ani  that we say upon waking – “thank you God for returning my soul to me.”

We give thanks to God for the miracle of being a combination of body and soul because of all the possibilities for joy and holiness that this hybrid existence offers us, but we know there is also a down side.  The unruly mixture of earth and heaven that makes us human also makes us vulnerable – vulnerable to loss, to pain, to sin, to wandering off the path we are trying to follow, losing the thread that gives our lives meaning.  But our vulnerability is just the other side of the immense potential for gain – for love, for happiness, for connection – that our lives hold.

Let my soul praise the Lord

I will praise the Lord with my life

I will sing to my God with all that is in me[5]

            What are we to do with this precious gift, this all-too-short time in which our souls and bodies are combined?  One answer, given here in the first line of Psalm 146, is that our souls should praise God, echoing the prayers we looked at earlier.  But the psalm goes further.  It asks us to praise God not just with words but with our lives.  What does this mean?  We are to live our lives in such a way that we take account of the miracle of having a soul and body joined together.  So it is not just words of praise that we need to offer, but a pattern of living that pays God back for the gift we have been given, a life that gives the soul’s placement in the body meaning.  Here is the sense of obligation that we see so much in Jewish life.  We are obligated to perform mitzvot, to live lives of holiness, at least in part because we were created with this capacity implanted within us.  Not to realize that promise is to betray a lack of appreciation for the gift.

There is also a hint in this psalm that the particular way that we praise God might differ from person to person.  The soul is individual, and the life we live is individual as well.  Each soul has the potential to sing a song to God that is distinct from all others, to create an understanding of the world that is different from anyone else’s, to form loving relationships that are unlike any others.  In fact, this is what we treasure about human beings and what we miss about those whom we have lost.  The song and the understanding and the love that their lives created can never be replaced or reproduced by another.

The last word in the part of the psalm I quoted is b’odi, which I translated as “with all that is in me.”  Rebbe Nahman has a beautiful teaching about this verse and this word in particular, which literally means “with my ‘more.’”  He writes that whenever you feel distant from God, when you feel that you can’t even open your mouth with a single word of prayer because you are so far from holiness, you have to take a step back.  You need to begin your preparation for prayer by focusing on what is “more” about you – on something worthy about yourself, the virtue or talent or personal quality that is particular to you.  If you can concentrate on this “more” – the unique element of value and goodness in yourself – you will find that it will help you discover the praise of God that you are intended to sing, and it can even help your life itself sing to God.[6]  And this song, like the soul, can outlast the life of the body, as its echoes are still heard in other lives even after the soul and the body have separated.

It shall be a day of complete rest for you

And you shall afflict your souls

A law forever[7]

On Yom Kippur we try to reconnect with the gift of our souls, and we try to recapture the song of our lives, the moral center of our best selves.  Among all of the complicated ritual procedures and sacrifices that the Torah prescribes for observing Yom Kippur, there is one instruction that stands out because it is about the soul.  We are told:  “v’initem et nafshoteichem” – “you shall afflict your souls,” or, more literally, “you shall bring your souls low.”  On this day we come face to face with the disconnect between the holy potential of our lives, the song we are meant to sing, and the way we have been living in the past year.  It is not an easy place to go.  It requires us to examine our actions and confront our shortcomings unblinkingly in the clear light of truth.  We need to bring our souls low in order motivate us to make a change, to bring ourselves back in alignment with God and with ourselves.

It is not surprising that on such a day, we should also remember our losses, the pain of parting from those who were dear to us, whose souls and bodies have separated and who no longer walk beside us.  This, too, can bring our souls low, as we mourn afresh the absence of that unique human being in our lives, that one whom no one can duplicate or replace.  As we move through our lives, we carry more and more of these losses with us, and their weight can bend us down to the ground, often seeming to be more than we can bear.  And yet, the very fact that we remember, that we miss that individual touch or voice or presence, shows that the song of that soul has not been stilled.  At the graveside we read the prayer Tziduk Ha-Din, which tells us that God would never permit the impact we make on the world to fade, and we see the truth of that in our own lives.  Despite the passage of years and the weight of experiences, we carry within us the echoes of the songs of all those whose souls have become close to our own.

Scientists and theologians have often disputed the exact location of the soul.  Does it reside in the heart?  In the head?  In the brain?  Some scientists have argued that “soul” is simply a word used to describe the “black box” of undiscovered or poorly understood parts of the human brain, and that once the entire body has been mapped and understood, no room will be left in which the “soul” might be said to exist.  In reply, some theologians have argued that there will always be something irreducible in the human being that will never be adequately described or understood by science, and that is where the soul resides.

The most intriguing idea I have heard in these debates is that a person’s soul might not simply reside inside their body.  Instead, some suggest that the soul, the unique part of a human being, actually exists in the space between people.  Instead of being the “property” of a person, perhaps the soul is relational, something shaped by a person’s connections and interactions with others, in much the same way that language is a shared interaction between people rather than simply a message sent by one discrete person to another.  The idea that the soul somehow exists between people does seem to fit the experience we have when a person dies.  We know from Jewish tradition that death is the moment when soul and body separate.  And we know that in our tradition, we return the body to the earth, from which it came.  But what becomes of the soul?

Some say that the soul, placed into the body by God, returns to God when it leaves the body, like a wave returning to the ocean.  But this explanation seems incomplete.  How could the soul simply vanish from the world, when we can often feel that soul’s presence so palpably in our lives?  But if the soul exists in the space between people, if it can occupy some space other than a person’s body even during that person’s life, then is it so strange that it could persist in doing so even after death?  The rabbis taught that the soul and the body are not easily separated, not only in life but even after the moment we call death.  Even though life has ended, the soul stays near the body and close to those to whom it was connected.  The rabbis taught that the year of mourning allowed time for the soul to completely separate from this world, but I think our experience shows that it never really separates completely.  When a loved one dies, we become, at least in part, the guardians of their soul, and we can feel their presence years and even decades later.  Instead of bringing our souls low, however, the presence of the souls of those dear to us can lift us up and inspire us to put this time when our souls are in our bodies to good use, to sing our own song of praise to God, and to make our lives themselves holy songs.  May our prayers and thoughts on this Yom Kippur day, and the memories of those whose souls remain close to us, move us a little closer to that goal.

[1] Genesis 2:7.

[2] Babylonian Talmud Nidda 30a

[3] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 91a-b.

[4] See the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 14:9.

[5] Psalm 146:1-2.  Others translate the 2nd and 3rd lines differently:  “I will praise the Lord in my lifetime; I will sing to my God while I still exist.”  The difference in translation is, as always, a difference in interpretation.

[6] Likutei Moharan Kama 282.

[7] Leviticus 16:31.