Kon Nidre Sermon
2011 – 5772
- Gemar Hatima Tova – May we be sealed for a good year.
- In the Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a, there is recorded a dispute among the sages. Rabbi Eliezer was a lone vote against all of his other colleagues. On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument but they did not accept them. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” Immediately the carob tree was torn 100 cubits out of its place … “No proof can be brought from a carob tree” the sages replied. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “if the law agrees with me let this stream of water prove it.” Immediately the stream of water began to flow backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water.” the other Sages responded. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “If the law agrees with me let the walls of this study hall prove it.” Immediately the walls began to lean. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, “When the scholars are engaged in a dispute, what right do you walls have to interfere?” So they did not fall in deference to Rabbi Joshua but they did not stand straight in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. Said Rabbi Eliezer, “If the law agrees with me let there be a sign from heaven.” Immediately a divine voice was heard saying, “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer since in matters of the law he is always right?” Rabbi Joshua arose and quoted the Torah saying, “Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.” (meaning that the Torah had already been given at Mt. Sinai so we no longer pay any attention to a voice from heaven and we follow instead the Torah Law, to follow the majority.) … Rabbi Natan later asked Elijah the prophet what did God do when Rabbi Joshua rebuked him? Elijah replied, “God clapped the divine hands in joy and shouted, ‘My children have defeated me, My children have defeated me!’
- Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven. The law is not in heaven. It is here on earth. It is here where human beings can see it, read it, contemplate it, discuss it, argue it and confront it. It is not in heaven. We look at the scrolls of Torah and we see a holy book. We see a sacred text. We see words given to us by God that are eternal and unbreakable. On Yom Kippur we examine our lives against what the Torah demands of us and we pray that our violations of the law, our sins of the past year, be forgiven by a compassionate and understanding God. But the Law is not in heaven. It is here. The Torah, in Parshat Nitzavim that we read just last week, reminds us that it is not far away so that anyone would have to go and bring it back. It is not in heaven that someone has to go up and bring it down. It is right here, near at hand. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- The Torah is here for us to consider and to interpret. There is no law that is unchangeable over time. Life is full of transitions and variations. People find new ways to live, die, entertain and do business. The law must keep up with the changes. Traffic laws for the horse and buggy era cannot be used in the age of automobiles. Shabbat laws about fire may or may not apply to electricity and electric appliances. Jewish Law is not in heaven. It is right here with us and as Rabbi Eliezer discovered, that the Sages can make it mean what they want it to mean if there is a good reason for Torah to change.
- Who has the right to interpret Jewish law? Is it a duty only for pious Jews, learned Jews, observant Jews? Perhaps we can learn Jewish Law from any Jew who has something to teach us. Nathan Cardozo, in his blog reprinted in the Jerusalem Post wrote: “ For Jews to bring their fellow men back to Judaism there is a need to celebrate the mitzvot that the “secular” Jew has been observing all or part of his life, not condemn his failure to observe some others. … The foundation should be humility, not arrogance…There is little doubt that “secular” Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a large number of commandments. Many of them may not be in the field of rituals, but there is massive evidence that interpersonal mitzvot enjoy a major commitment by “secular” Jews. Beneath the divisiveness of traditional commitment lie underpinnings of religion such as compassion, humility, awe and even faith. Different are the pledges, but equal are the devotions. It may well be that the meeting of minds is lacking between the religious and non- religious Jews but their spirits touch. Who will deny that “secular” Jews have a sense of mystery, forgiveness, beauty and gentleness? … Each of these is the deepest of religious values.”
- All Jews have something to teach us and we have things to teach them. We can learn from every human being on how to bring values and ethics into our study of Torah. We have to find the teachers and we have to identify the lessons. It does not matter if the person is Jew or non-Jew, learned or unschooled, smart or clever; we all have something we need to teach each other about Torah. It is neither for God to teach us or for us to follow what is in the past. Lo Bashamiyim Hi – The Torah is not in heaven
- We think of the Torah as the great unifier of Jews, that all Jews follow the Torah. It is the common denominator that unites us. But how we interpret Torah is very different across the denominations. Why do we have different kinds of Jews? What possible use could there be for the different communities of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, Sephardic, and the Jews who opt out of our religion? Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary recently wrote in his blog, “Why do we need denominations? Because substantial differences among Jews, for all the hurt and damage they engender, are not only inevitable but, on balance, essential to the survival of our tradition. The Torah opens opportunities to Jews and makes demands upon Jews that shape the ways we think, eat, celebrate, mourn, raise our kids, treat our spouses, do business, stand before God and work to repair the world. It matters greatly how these gifts and responsibilities are pursued. Will women be fully a part of Jewish learning, practice and leadership? Will Hebrew, Shabbat and kashrut be central pillars? Will Jews stand simultaneously apart from and as an integral part of the larger society and culture? Will we take on the discipline of ritual practice – and insist that it remains inseparable from an ethical practice of individual virtue and social justice? These and other dividing lines among our movements are not trivial; compromise concerning them is not always possible. One cannot be all things to all people if one wants to be a Jew.”
- It is precisely our commitment to Torah that makes denominations possible and healthy. It opens conversations and debate; it gives us many different interpretations so we can contemplate for ourselves how we will interpret the law. Many people find this strange. Why should we struggle to make moral and ethical sense of the law? If we don’t engage in this struggle with Torah, others who see themselves as “most pious” will come and wrest control of Jewish law claiming to speak in God’s name so that no change will ever be possible. It is not for God to tell us anymore what is right and what is wrong in Jewish law, Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- In a recent commercial for spaghetti sauce, a woman, taking a blind taste test, picks out a different sauce than her usual choice. It makes her wonder about all her other choices. When the world changes, when life calls, we too are called to make difficult choices between what is familiar and traditional and what is clearly the right thing to do. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner served for many years in Sudbury, Massachusetts until his recent retirement. In his new book, “I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego” he writes about how he came to decide an important point of Jewish Law. He writes, “A decade before my decision, I had got myself into an argument with an Orthodox friend. To tell the truth, I have forgotten most of the details. It had something to do with how to treat someone. I explained my position; he explained his. His position struck both of us as, at best, ethically tenuous. “How can you say such a thing?” I asked. “I have no choice,” he replied, “It’s the halacha – Jewish Law.” Not wishing to be disrespectful, I allowed him to have the last word. But later, alone in the car, I found myself continuing the argument: “Oh, and because you claim you have no choice, that’s the end of it? You are off the hook? I’m supposed to cave in, back away in shame before the tradition? No (I wished I would have said), you choose to believe what you want and you choose to do what you do. First comes life, then comes law. You are still responsible. … the test of my resolve came a few years later when two members of my congregation asked me if I would help them consecrate their – what shall I call it? Union? Commitment? – gimme a break, it was a marriage. What could I say? “I’m not permitted?” “I’m sorry the tradition doesn’t allow it?” “My hands are tied?” “Excuse me while I hide in a book?” Of course the tradition is sacred; of course it has more to do with God than any of us can imagine; but it can never be an excuse for not looking another human being in the eyes or oneself in the mirror. … I guess I believe, in retrospect, that it was commanded of me.”
- What does it mean to be commanded? Are the commandments a path from which we must not stray or do they teach us lessons in right and wrong that we can translate into modern life? When life changes, the law too has to change. And while Moses did bring the tablets down from Mt. Sinai, the law is not written in stone. It is written in our words and deeds and how we translate the Torah into our personal lives. In the end, we once again see, when it comes to Torah, Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- The list of elements of Jewish Law definable as morally questionable grows longer all the time. What should be the role of women in Jewish ritual? Should Jewish marriage expand to include gay couples? Can a modern Kohen marry a convert? Should women be permitted as a witness on Jewish documents? Is it enough to say that a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or does Judaism today require a greater commitment of learning and piety? Should women be rabbis and cantors and torah readers and Shalichot Tzibor, prayer leaders for the congregation? What happens when ancient venerated Jewish law demands of us to act in ways that violate our basic feelings of humanity? Rabbi David Hartman, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi at Yeshiva University, struggles with these two poles in Jewish life as he tries to find the right and ethical way to live. In his book “The God Who Hates Lies; Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition” Rabbi Hartman writes, “I felt while in yeshiva that I was always on the right path, a true authentic historical path that nurtured the Jewish people and gave meaning to their everyday life. I never confronted with any depth, the idea of God or how one comes to accept a life devoted to the service of God. … For example, we never asked second-order questions: [such as]… What part of the tradition should be ascribed to revelation, what part to human creativity and what might be the implications of how this question is answered for the development of communal religious practice? … In response, I developed a theology, based on the concept of covenant, that understands the relationship between God and the Jewish People as one of intimacy and partnership. This covenantal model … describes a religious anthropology characterized not by slavishness and a howling sense of inadequacy in the face of an infinite commanding God. Instead it resurrects the vital and precocious religious spirit of the Talmudic Rabbis, who understood that the implementation of God’s will amid the complex considerations of human society and the psyche requires, at times, the full and fearless assertion of our intellectual independence. … The new stage of covenant would bring forms of personal and collective religious dignity yet unknown in Jewish history. Not only was the Torah no longer in heaven, as the Talmudic Rabbis declared, having been given over to human hands at Sinai; so too , the covenantal understanding of [the State of] Israel’s rebirth taught us that the direction of history was now included within the scope of human responsibility.”
- Why should we be called to give up our critical faculties just because we want to be good Jews? Past generations of rabbis not only studied ancient texts but also brought to bear on Judaism the modern issues that they confronted. If our Judaism forces us to live one life when we are in synagogue and to have another life when we are at home or on the job, that will not be a meaningful version of our faith. We need to practice our religion with an open mind and not with a closed book. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- Judaism is not just an intellectual faith. It is a faith that demands us to worship with every part of our body. The sages ask the deeper questions about what is a human being and for what purpose were we created. Jewish mystics see our lives as an important part of repairing our world and making it a better place. Rabbi Arthur Green, in his book “Ehyeh; A Kabbalah For Tomorrow” writes on the importance of humanity to the mystical structure of the world. He says, “Neshama is … breath. It is the place of connection between God and person, or between the small self of individual identity and the great Self of being. It is the aspect of us that never separated from our Source, that did not let go of its divine root in the course of that long process of individuation and alienation that we call human life. … The “journey” to God is nothing other than a return to our deepest self. The task is to seek out that innermost reality, to find it and to reshape the rest of our lives around that return. … How do we learn to forgive ourselves? And how do we use religion as a tool for greater self-acceptance rather than self-torment and guilt? Out of the mystical tradition, I believe, the Ba’al Shem Tov learned and taught that you should always keep your eyes on the big picture. We should not let ourselves get too caught up in the details nor let the means become ends in themselves. Despite what is often taught (and misunderstood), Judaism is not all about the details. It’s about loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, making the universe one and doing it through joy and celebration of life. That’s a pretty tall order. So we had better get to it and not let ourselves get distracted on the way. When religion gets in the way of those essential values, instead of being a vehicle to share and express them, it is time to reexamine where we stand.”
- When it comes to sorting out the mitzvot and trying to put some kind of order into how they should fit in our lives, Rabbi Green is telling us that loving God is paramount, the rest is only details. There are many Jews who seek to find God in the religious minutia of Jewish Law. That somehow if one seeks perfection in practice, it will bring us closer to heaven. Rabbi Green teaches, however, that religion must not get in the way of true, essential values. When it does, then it is the religion which must give way. Life is not a text; Life is the way we choose to live the values we cherish. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- The essential commandment of the Torah is “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God am holy.” We are not God, we don’t create our own reality. We have to live in the reality of this world, a place of confusion, chaos and complexity. How can we be holy? How can our faith call us to action when the actions themselves sometimes seem so divorced of holiness? How are we to know what we are supposed to do? Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president of CLAL, the Center for Leadership and Learning, in his book “Yearnings; Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” has written, “The sages taught that holiness is available to us in every moment, in every place. We often miss these moments because they can be subtle and get lost in the routine of life, or we may repress them because holy encounters sometimes can be unsettling, at times terrifying. Majestic and awesome one day, ordinary and sweet on another, only to be messy complex even chaotic on yet another. Holiness isn’t a state to be reached: it’s an ongoing act of creativity like the origins of the universe. … And the messes are the point. Joy and sorrow, good and evil, greatness and triviality, hope and anxiety, the ideal and the actual: the ability to live with these seeming contradictions and the ambivalence and tension they create is what gives rise to wisdom. Our most chaotic periods can be catalysts for understanding. Even our daily frustrations and desire, when we bring them to the surface and wrestle with them, can imbue our lives with meaning. And our moments of wonder and awe, of sheer delight can be so much greater when we’ve celebrated the multiplicity of life.”
- Holiness finds its source in Torah. Torah is based on life. Life is messy. Holiness too, then is messy and the easy answers are not found in the text, but in how we struggle with all that life throws our way. When we have to choose between two difficult choices what will be the determining factor of which is right and which is wrong? Sometimes we have to choose between two rights and sometimes we have to choose between two wrongs. We choose, we evaluate the decision and we try to choose better tomorrow. That is the path we travel to bring ourselves closer to holiness and to God. The true path of holiness is not found only in the pages of the Torah, it is also found in how we handle the messiness of life. Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
- Judaism is not a prison. Almost everywhere we turn, we are told by rabbis and sages that the fundamentals of our faith are not to be found in legal tomes and commentaries. These ancient texts are the guides left for us by our ancestors as they struggled to find meaning in every day and age. But their work is not designed to be the final word on how Jews worship God. We are commanded to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.” That command cannot be reduced to measuring the volume of wine we have to drink at Kiddush and the true text of a service in a prayer book. Just because we have a set of instructions does not mean that it will fit every moment in life. Life changes and so must Jewish Law lest it become fossilized and useless.
- When we talk about change in Judaism, we can see the dynamic of what is happening. It is not that the fundamentals of Torah have changed. We need to keep Torah in balance with our values. When we see women who are accomplished in their professional lives reduced to second class citizens in the synagogue, we know that something must change. When we come to understand that sexual orientation has no bearing on a persons ability in the workplace, in the marketplace, in the synagogue and in family life, then we know that something must change. When we work to create a Jewish State in Israel, based on the values of pluralism, democracy and capitalism and we only have rules for an agricultural monarchy, we know that something must change. In a world where Jews live Jewish lives based on different understandings of Jewish law, why must we insist that there be only one kind of a Jew who is a “real” Jew? When we are the ones written out of our faith as apostates, we know that something must change. If Torah does not change, how will we answer the most difficult questions of values that modern life throws at us?
- What is Torah? If it is not in heaven, what is the essence of this central, sacred text of our people? Our Torah is Democratic, Pluralistic, Open, Diverse, Meaningful, Flexible, Loving and Messy. It is just like our lives are supposed to be. Should we really find this surprising? The Midrash teaches us that Moses took the Torah from heaven because it was directed to human beings and not the angels. Angels don’t eat so they don’t need to keep kosher. Angels don’t work so they don’t need rules of business and interest. Angels don’t get married and they don’t have children. The Torah is not meant to be in heaven, it is meant to be right here, guiding us on a path that will lead us to holiness. The Torah is all that we are and all that we aspire to be. It is not fixed, static, unchangeable or unchallengeable – it is Lo Bashamyim Hi -It is not in heaven.
May we challenge Torah this year and may we be challenged by Torah this year and may we be stronger and wiser from our struggles as we say … Amen and Gemar Tov.