Kol Nidre

  1. Tzom Kal, I wish everyone an easy fast. A Rabbi once told me that we should not ask for an easy fast because it is the hunger on Yom Kippur that makes our Teshuva so urgent. Maybe. But I don’t believe in unnecessary suffering so I still wish everyone an easy fast.
  1. We live in a world of crisis.  There is the crisis in Afghanistan, the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, the crisis in Haiti, the economic crisis etc. etc. There are so many crises in the world that it is even affecting President Obama, who many claim has a leadership crisis in the White House.  I don’t want to belittle any of these issues. Some of them have global consequences and some of these crises affect the way we live our lives. I will leave it to the political pundits on Fox News and MSNBC to analyze the implications of these and other crises, but there is one crisis that I do need comment on.  It is the crisis in Conservative Judaism.
  1. Conservative Judaism has been in crisis for many years. Ever since the 1970’s our movement has been in a slow decline. Membership is falling in all Conservative congregations. There has been much discussion about if we need a Conservative Movement at all. Some of our members have become more traditional and find themselves drawn to Modern Orthodox congregations. Some feel we are not liberal enough and have found their way to Reform Congregations. In a world where there is only a left and a right, is there a place for a movement in the middle?
  1. There is also the problem that young people don’t really pay any attention to denominations and labels anymore. Young Jews today want a traditional congregation that is also egalitarian. They live in a world where there are thousands of choices as to what they should believe, so they don’t make any decision at all unless they absolutely have to. Jews today want to know what our movement stands for, what do we believe in, who represents our interests on the world stage? These are important questions and Conservative Judaism, for the past four decades, didn’t have any answer to give.
  1. It is not just a problem for young Jews. All Jews find themselves wondering why they belong to a Conservative congregation. What do we get for our dues? Is the only reason we join so we can have a Rabbi at our funeral? How will my life be different or better because I am a member? How will my membership change the world? I am sure that all of you, who have been members of congregations all of your lives, I am sure that you have asked these questions yourself at one time or another and may even have discovered some answers that speak to the way your life has unfolded. But does our personal example translate into a reason others should join?
  1. Over the years, Rabbis have gathered to discuss and debate what we should be doing to save our movement. Our Synagogue organization, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is going through a strategic planning process to better serve the congregations that are in need of help. It will take most of next year to begin to see the effects of those changes; in fact, it will be later this fall until we will even know what changes they are looking to make.
  1. Two of the most respected Rabbis in our movement, Rabbi Harold Kushner, who is a best selling author and well known lecturer, and Rabbi David Wolpe, an author and Spiritual Leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the few congregations that seem to be doing the right things, got together and spoke about why our movement is in so much trouble and what we should do about it.
  1. Rabbi Kushner remarked that Conservative Judaism does not have a coherent message. The problem is that there are two different Conservative Judaisms fighting with each other. There is the Academic Conservative Judaism of the Rabbis and Scholars, who see our philosophy as one of great complexity and our laws as being very intricate. These Rabbis think that Judaism is just fine the way it is and if we leave it alone, its fundamental goodness will eventually shine through and all will be attracted to it. That is how Judaism has always been. On the other side is the Conservative Judaism of the pews, of the laypeople in our movement. They don’t know who the great Rabbis and scholars are (Think about it? Have you ever heard of the great scholars of our movement? Louis Ginzberg, Simon Greenberg, Robert Gordis, Soloman Schechter, and two I mentioned on Rosh Hashana, Louis Finkelstein and Abraham Joshua Heschel? Do you know anything at all about what they taught and why they are OUR scholars and not part of any other movement?)  The Conservative Judaism of the pews demands from our movement the ability to be BOTH proud Americans and proud Jews. We want our Judaism to be able to coexist with our American way of life.
  1. Our friends on the Right in Judaism might say to us, “No, you can’t have both.  American life will “contaminate” Judaism and water it down until we will not be able to recognize it anymore.”  Our friends on the Left in Judaism might say to us, “Why do we need these medieval laws anymore? They prevent us from experiencing the sublime aspects of American life.” Rabbi Kushner said that the role of our movement is to help our members have the best of both experiences.
  1. Rabbi Wolpe explained that when he was in Rabbinical School, he was taught that the role of the Rabbi was to explain American life to the Jewish people. Wolpe objected saying that the new problem was to explain Judaism to the American people. Jews in America didn’t need anyone to tell them about American life, they needed someone to explain why their Judaism was important.
  1. Wolpe called these Americans, “immigrants” to our services.  I have enough members here to understand that metaphor. How many here remember what it is like to be called a “greenhorn”? When you are an immigrant, you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the customs and you make a lot of embarrassing mistakes. Do you remember your first baseball game or first Independence Day celebration? Perhaps you will understand then, how someone feels when they find themselves in our service, trying to figure it all out and someone says, “you are sitting in my seat”. You might as well call them “greenhorn”, it is that embarrassing.
  1. In the early days of our movement, we used to say that we were the movement of “Tradition and Change”. We believed in tradition and also understood that change was necessary. That only works when the Jews are traditional and need to learn about change. When Jews come to shul without any knowledge of tradition, how are we supposed to help them understand why it is so important? They have lived without it so long that they often don’t see how it can make a difference in their lives.
  1. At the end of his remarks, Rabbi Wolpe said that what Conservative Judaism needed was a “bumper sticker” a short phrase that would sum up what we believe so that everyone will be able to relate to the movement. Rabbi Wolpe, who is from California, wanted to reduce our understanding of Judaism to an expression 4-6 words long. (I guess they have short attention spans in California) but the idea is really not so far fetched as we might think. The great Sage Hillel, in the Talmud summed up all of Judaism as “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary, go out and study it.”  That may be a bit long, but we all remember it. Rabbi Akiva summed up Judaism with the biblical quote, “Love your Neighbor as Yourself”.
  1. This is not about reducing our faith to a simplistic phrase. A slogan can represent much that is complex and difficult. For example, the proverb, “Man does not live by bread alone” is a simple way of saying that human life is very complex. There are many things that are as important to us as eating. So it is with our movement. We need a slogan that will express all that Conservative Judaism has to offer. 
  1. When Rabbi Kushner, who is older and has more congregational experience than Rabbi Wolpe (although both are giants in our movement), was asked what he thought of Rabbi Wolpe’s suggestion, he said that the first thing that came to his mind as a slogan for  Conservative Judaism was: “Asher Kiddeshanu B’Mitzvotav”. It was his introduction to a longer reaction to Rabbi Wolpe and most people didn’t pay much attention to it. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the slogan. In the months since the lecture, there have been all kinds of discussions among rabbis and non-rabbis as to what our movement stands for. I find myself coming back to Rabbi Kushner, intrigued by the implications of his slogan.
  1. Many Rabbis want Conservative Judaism to be a Halachic movement. That is, it should be guided by Jewish Law and the rules that govern how the law should grow and change. They are not happy when Rabbis and our movement’s leadership make decisions about how we practice Judaism decisions that do not depend on traditional ways of interpreting at Jewish Law.  I compare them to Supreme Court Justices who make rulings on American Law looking only to the Constitution as their guide as to what the law should be.
  1. Another way of seeing Halacha is to understand what the law is trying to accomplish and then changing the law so that it can better do what it was designed to do. This is like the Supreme Court Justices who rule based on “commons sense” rules and “How do other countries handle these problems, and will that solution work in our country?” When Halacha is in conflict with moral or other laws, we may need to let the law lapse so that Halacha, the rest of Jewish Law will not become immoral and unethical.
  1. This is the beauty of Rabbi Kushner’s slogan. Asher Kiddishanu B’Mitzvotav, taken from the formula for blessings in Judaism, is an amazing statement of how Conservative Judaism looks at Judaism and why it should appeal to all American Jews.  It speaks directly to the issue of what Judaism is all about from our point of view and why it should be so important in our lives.
  1. We translate the slogan as “Who has sanctified us with Commandments” or perhaps we could paraphrase it as, “Who makes us Holy through Mitzvot” it has a number of elements that are important for Conservative Jews to think about and understand.
  1. First of all, What do we mean when we say “Who”? (sounds like an Abbot and Costello routine: “What throws the ball to Who”) Who is the one making us holy? Who is the source of the Commandments? The answer, of course, is God. God is the power; God is the force behind everything that we do as Jews. We live with faith in God. We express, in prayer, our love for God. And most important of all, we believe that God loves us. The late Rabbi Sydney Greenberg, once wrote, “A loving parent does not show genuine love by telling a child, “Do whatever you want.” That would not indicate love, but lack of concern and abdication of responsibility. The truly loving parent says to the child, “I care very much about you, and although I cannot live your life for you, I want you to have the benefit of my experience.”
  1. God is our divine parent. God loves us enough not to leave us alone in the world, but God gives us Torah and Mitzvot as guides to living a moral and meaningful life. We may rebel against the commandments of the Torah from time to time, but once we realize that Mitzvot are not evidence of God throwing divine weight around in our lives, that Mitzvot are the evidence that God cares very much about us and our welfare, that is the moment when we accept God’s words, God’s commands, and God’s love into our lives.
  1. So what are Commandments, What are Mitzvot that they are so important? They are not mere suggestions that God shared with us, nor is God telling us that keeping Mitzvot is a “good idea”. In the United States, laws are made by human beings and subject to change and amendment all the time. Even morality that seems to have absolute lines between right and wrong has those lines move as times change. Commandments are God’s way of telling us that there are some things we need to do and there are some things that we must not do. We live better lives when we know what God wants and when we live each day according to God’s command.
  1. And here is the problem. What exactly are these “Commandments”? I don’t mean, what is the list of things we are supposed to do or not to do, but what is the reason, what is the purpose behind the system of Mitzvot? Are they required actions in our life, or do they point to a better way of living? For example, is keeping Kosher about how long we need to wait between eating Milk and Meat, or is Kashrut about kindness to animals and paying attention to the things that go into our mouths? Is Kashrut only about a painless way to slaughter animals or does it extend to the way the animal should be treated before it is slaughtered and does it extend also to the way the workers at the slaughterhouse are treated?
  1. The key here is the third word, “Kiddishanu” “Sanctification”. “Holiness.”  God’s commandments must be for the purpose of bringing holiness into our lives. When we find a commandment that no longer achieves this purpose, we have to abrogate it for others which do fulfill that purpose. In Conservative Judaism, when the prohibition of driving on Shabbat began to keep Jews out of synagogue because of suburban sprawl, attending services became more important than the prohibition of driving a car. While it still may be preferable to walk instead of driving on Shabbat, since Shabbat is about more than just synagogue and services, still this change emphasized the importance of davening as a community. When the role of women in society changed so that it was no longer considered an insult to have a woman lead a service, the law was changed to give women a greater role in synagogue life. To do less would no longer be ethical, it would be an example of sexism and bias.
  1. The Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, has written, “Halakah should be understood as the practice of walking with God.  God’s commands give structure to the walk but so do God’s values as they are portrayed in the sacred literature. If God is said to be (in Psalms) “good to all, God’s mercy is upon all God’s works,”  then our imitation of God had better be good and merciful.” …  “ Halakah” is often understood as a noun, as an established body of law. But this definition is inaccurate. Halakah is a dynamic system, not a code. Even the Halachic codes composed by Joseph Karo and Maimonides are surrounded by commentary, like a garden path bordered by plants. Halacha is a living, changing system, not a fixed and limited object.”
  1. Commandments must make our lives more holy. We often were trained as children to see Mitzvot as rules that make our lives harder. Mitzvot limit the things we can do and sometimes, the details of the Halacha seem petty and irrelevant. Perhaps holiness means that we see Jewish law differently, that one violation does not constitute a “gotcha” moment that establishes all of our Halachic decisions to be untrustworthy. This is what we mean when we say that Mitzvot must make us Holy. That we place value in the spirit of the law, rather than in the extended letter of the law. This is not to say that pious people are not holy. But how we Conservative Jews choose to live by the Mitzvot is more important than the Mitzvot themselves.
  1. Rabbi David Hartman, the philosopher and founder of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, writes, “Maimonides guides us toward the knowledge of God’s ethical attributes, God’s desire to do justice in the world, to pursue kindness. That is what Maimonides understood as the ultimate knowledge of God. To know God is to become a person who lives in an ethical dimension. Ethics is not separated from faith or ritual but rather it becomes the embodiment of the God seeker.” If we seek to bring God into the world, we best remember what the Prophet Micah said, “What is required is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Asher Kiddishanu B’Mitzvotav, teaches us to keep our eye on the holy and not sweat the details.
  1.  There is, I believe another value that comes from using the Hebrew phrase “Asher Kidishanu B’Mitzvotav” more than its English translation. The phrase in Hebrew is readily understood and most Jews are well practiced in saying these words. We say them on Shabbat, Holidays and Hanukah when we light candles. It is part of the Kiddush. We recite these words whenever we are about to perform a Mitzvah, like shaking a Lulav or blowing the Shofar. These words tie us to the words of Torah through the Mitzvot and to God who gave us these commandments. They teach us that there are some ideas that don’t translate well from the sacred language of Hebrew into the more secular English. In Hebrew these words carry a symbolic value that is lost in translation.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
  1.  If our movement can just focus on this, Asher Kidishanu B’Mitzvotav, if Conservative Judaism would only focus on how our commitment to Mitzvot will add holiness to our lives, our members will become more confident in who we are and our movement will only grow stronger. When somebody should ask us, “What do Conservative Jews believe?” we can say that we believe that what is most important in our understanding of Judaism is “Asher Kiddishanu B’Mitzvotav” that God loves us so much that we are given Mitzvot which will add holiness into our lives. All the rest is commentary. We should go out and study it.
May God help us live a Judaism in the year ahead which is kind, meaningful and a Judaism that will lift up our souls in holiness as we say…..

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