- SHABBAT SHALOM
- Although I am thoroughly disgusted with the advertising for all the candidates for political office today, I have noticed one thing in all the mud slinging that it going on. I have discovered that politicians have to be either perfectly good or else they are perfectly evil. There is no middle ground. There is no category of a politician who is “good enough” to represent us. Now more than ever we live in a world of dichotomies, a world of extreme positions and no middle ground.
- Have you noticed that you have to be either secular or a religious fundamentalist? You have to be community oriented or else you must be an aspiring individualist. Even for Jews, we have to either be concerned with Jewish identity or else we think that only Jewish survival is important. And we either have to be true to our ethnicity or else we are pluralists; there is no middle ground. There is nothing really new in the parameters, In the 1950’s, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were either followers of Professor Mordechai Kaplan and his understanding of Judaism as a society, a religious community, or else you followed the mysticism of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and understood that the basic unit of Judaism is the individual who aspires to draw closer to God. What was true then is true today, there must always be a middle ground.
- It does not matter if we are talking about politics or religion, whenever we are presented with these kinds of dichotomies, we should know that they are all false choices. There is a path in between. Conservative Judaism, the Judaism that we practice here at Temple Emeth, is all about finding the proper path between extreme choices. Maimonides taught that one must walk a path that is midway between fire and ice; if we stray too far in either direction, we will either freeze or get burned. Finding our way on that middle path means learning to make important choices in how we live our lives.
- The Middle Way is not about making final decisions. It is about the journey through life, and deciding what kind of a person we want to be. We have to place ourselves on a path that leads from somewhere and goes somewhere – lest we discover that we are stuck in our position and really going nowhere. The current Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Chancellor Arnold Eisen would have us chart our lives in the space between the extremism of our age. We don’t have to look far to see the problems of fundamentalism, in the Christian world and its right wing agenda, with Moslem extremism, and the excesses of the Haredim in the United States and in Israel. And we don’t have to look far to see the problems of the rampant secularism that is promoted in movies, television and in our literature. If all points of view are equally valid, what kind of a “moral compass” can we hope to acquire in life?
- There have been many who have tried to find the middle way in Judaism. There are those who talk about Jewish Identity, that we should identify ourselves in a Jewish way, but it never really tells us what it is that we need to do. We say that we are ethnically Jewish, in that we eat Jewish foods and use Jewish lingo in our speech. And yet, these days are times in which ethnic lines are more blurred and ideas of ethnic purity are seen as racist. We talk about Jewish survival but is it really enough just to survive? If we don’t set some parameters, then everyone will do what they want and then what will happen to Jewish traditions?
- In our Parsha, Abraham faces similar problems. He is a man of faith but his survival is not assured because he has no son or heir. He wanted to do the right thing, and even insisted that God must also do what is right and just, but we see that Abraham sent away Hagar and Ishmael, and he tried to sacrifice his only son. He was identified as a Hebrew but he was never clear about what the obligations were. Did it require fighting with his allies to protect his family? Did it require him to lie, that his wife was his sister, when he went down into Egypt? For Abraham, finding the right path was not easy. We can not expect it to be any easier for us either.
- I can tell you that I believe, with all my heart and soul and might, that Judaism would have us do the right thing in every aspect of our life. It is not about being a fundamentalist or nothing; that is a false dichotomy. Judaism gives us a wide range of actions that we can bring into our lives and the only real question we have to confront is just how Jewish do we want to be? That seems to be the underlying question as I go around asking my friends and students about how we decide what we will do in our religious Jewish lives. The question always boils down to how public we want to make our observance of Judaism? Are we afraid of what people will do to me or what they will say about me if they find out I am Jewish?
- We insist that all who worship with us in synagogue should wear a Kipah when we pray. Even non-Jews are asked to cover their heads when they come here to join us for Shabbat or daily services. But what would happen if we were to wear a Kipah when we are not in shul? Should we wear it all the time? Even if we eat in trayf restaurants? Even if we eat trayf in trayf restaurants? We all agree that it is important to have a Seder on Pesach, but why don’t we take Matzah with us for lunch for the rest of the week, when we go out to lunch with our friends? Judaism today is asking us about what is distinctive in our lives that identifies us as Jewish and still allows us to be accepted by the rest of society. And when I talk about the “rest of society” here in Delray Beach, I understand that I am talking about the other non-observant Jews in the community who may be living in fear that others may find out just how estranged from the Jewish community and from Jewish observance they are. So they ridicule any Jew in their social circle who would “dare” to act “more Jewish”. Should we allow these self-hating Jews the right to tell us how Jewish we should be?
- Once we ask ourselves what is the religious meaning in my life that comes from being a Jew, we understand that being Jewish also implies a certain number of responsibilities. We call these responsibilities, “Mitzvot”, commandments from God about how we should live our lives. We all know that tradition tells us that there are 613 Mitzvot that are contained in the Torah. The reality is, however, that there are less than half of them that are even possible to perform in this modern age, and there is nobody, in any branch of Judaism, who performs all the Mitzvot. We need to establish the importance of Mitzvot in our lives and then work to bring those that we consider most important into the fabric of how we live every day. Chancellor Eisen has written, “By opening up the possibility of what Mitzvah can mean, and how people can apply it in their Jewish lives, we begin to generate a new vocabulary of practice which suits both a deep reverence for tradition and the creative individuality of our constituents.”
- Let me give an example. One of the Mitzvot that has been a signature in my life is walking to shul on Shabbat. I have done it since I was a child, walking with my parents. When we first moved to Florida, and lived in what was a very Southern Baptist neighborhood, my parents were concerned how our neighbors would feel seeing Jews walking to synagogue on Shabbat. I have to tell you, our neighbors had no idea about who Jews were and what we believed. But they clearly understood a family that would go to pray together on the Sabbath, even if it was a different Sabbath than they observed. We were always treated with friendship and respect. Just this week, an employee at Delray Hospital mentioned that he saw me walking to synagogue one Shabbat and realized that she knew me from my work at the hospital. She was rather proud that one of the people she knows and works with take religion seriously.
- The focus of my Lunch and Learn sessions on Tuesday Morning (not the one today, which has a different topic) will be bringing Mitzvot into our lives. Chancellor Eisen calls it “The Mitzvah Initiative”. It is a world wide movement that is not about Halacha, Jewish Law, but it is about our response to the commandments of the Torah. How we fulfill them can be a matter of personal choice, THAT we fulfill them is a Mitzvah, a religious obligation. The discussion about choosing our own signature Mitzvah and how we will bring it into our life can be one of the most important discussions we can have. Mitzvot are a challenge to us, in how we can use them to bring spirituality and faith into our lives. Abraham did not have Mitzvot to guide his life and so he struggled every day to live a life of faith. We have Torah to guide us in how we can live our lives with meaning and purpose.
- I invite everyone to join us for lunch on Tuesday mornings, beginning in just two weeks. We will not be discussing the importance of Mitzvot; rather we will be identifying those practices that are already a part of our lives, identifying them as mitzvot. We will explore how these religious commandments that are already a part of our lives can help us travel from where we are today to the goal of feeling closer to God and more in tune with the music of the universe. Make your reservation for class and for lunch (there is a nominal charge for the lunch) and let us begin together to find the right path to grow spiritually and to make our lives better every day. I look forward to having you all join me.
May God be with us as we set out on the journey of discovery and faith as we say… Amen and Shabbat Shalom