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Something New Under the Sun Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, August 14, 2015

Interviewed several years ago as a young rabbinic student, the new associate rabbi at one of the Reform movements larger LA congregations, had said that she would never be a congregational rabbi, as “synagogues are where innovation goes to die.” She wasn’t an outlier. In some ways she represents her generation who are not affiliating with existing Jewish organizations. Is this something we should be panicked about- as is the tenor of many pronouncements about the Jewish future, or is there another way to understand what’s happening today?

Sunday, the day after tomorrow, is the first of Elul, the month that precedes the High Holy Days. Your tickets have hopefully arrived and the Temple office is on overload gearing up for what is the World Series, the Oscars, the World Cup, of the Jewish year. We joke about our equivalent of the Christmas-Easter attendees at church, but it remains true that more American Jews, more Jews worldwide, will step into a synagogue on Yom Kippur than on any other day of the year. Even Jews who identify themselves as secular will often observe Yom Kippur, such that in Israel totally non-observant Jews would still object to getting into the car and driving on this holiday.

But if you were an ancient Israelite farmer, say from the period of the First Temple, you would be surprised at all this fussing. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are mentioned in the Torah, but just barely. They are not at all what we experience today. The idea of a Day of Judgement for the entire world is absent in the Torah and personal reflection and repentance are missing as well. 

The Biblical holiday calendars presented in Exodus and Deuteronomy include only the three pilgrimage festivals and don’t mention the High Holy Days at all. The calendar found in Leviticus, the most expansive in the Torah, starts the year in the spring with Passover.

Rosh Hashanah gets a whopping three verses and one of those is, “The Eternal Spoke to Moses saying”.  The name of the festival, Rosh Hashanah, is not used, instead it is called Yom Teruah, a day of the sounding of the shofar.

Yom Kippur is hardly more. There is a mention of self-denial but no tie between that self-denial and personal repentance. The extended description of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16 is all about the purging of the sanctuary and the people’s expiation is achieved by symbolic action. The focus in the Torah is on getting ready for the holiday that really matters, Sukkot, when we will pray for the rain so vital for our sustenance.

Clearly something happened to the Jewish holidays over the centuries. Some attribute the change to the non-Jewish holidays that the Jews were exposed to during the Babylonian Exile, with their focus on the kingship of God and God’s judgement of all the earth. However it happened,  by the time we reach the end of the second Temple period, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are on their way to becoming the High Holy Days as we know them today. Still I wonder whether somewhere along the way there wasn’t a worried generation, concerned about the lack of commitment to the ways things had been, and wondering where all these changes will ultimately lead.

In the Jewish world today, there is tremendous concern about how patterns of affiliation are changing and worry about whether the institutions we have now will continue to do the job of ensuring Jewish continuity.

 In particular Jewish scholars and community leaders worry about the synagogue and the ideas we have had in the past about membership and dues. Past generations built buildings that became centers of community, and provided programs in which people would participate.

The younger generations seem to be looking for alternatives to these models and wanting to do things in different ways. There are numerous Jewish start-ups around food, gardening, social justice, the arts, but they are all built on models that have little to do with traditional membership. Will our synagogues adapt and be something different 50 years from now- or will they be replaced by other institutions? What will that mean for Jewish continuity and identity?

The idea of change is not just hitting progressive Jewish communities, recent months have also seen evidence of change among the Ultra- Orthodox as well. There is a growing community of chozrim be-she’elah, the Hebrew term for those leaving their ultra-orthodox communities and questioning their upbringing. These are the opposite of the chozrim betshuvah, those ”returning” as it were to Orthodoxy, who were so discussed a generation ago. Though they turned out to be a small group in terms of absolute numbers, these New Orthodox certainly made an impression on the Jewish world. The present generation of those asking questions, some of them the children of those who had gone in the other direction,  are looking for a different life. They are facing significant challenges as they are often very poorly prepared for managing in a modern society and the rejection of their family takes a heavy toll.

All of this fluidity can be very concerning.

Finally there is one other element that has changed on the World Jewish scene.  Since 1948 and certainly post 1967 Israel has been the glue that held the American Jewish community together, and Zionism had the same unifying effect in other worldwide communities as well. Once, not so long ago, it was true that Jews of all different stripes could be united just by the mention of Israel.  Jews of different denominations, who would not serve together on boards of rabbis, for example, still worked together raising funds for Israel and responding to emergencies there. “We are One” proclaimed the Federation and to some extent that was true.

Today it is just the opposite. Israel is not a source of unity but of polarization. Jews within denominations, even Jews within families, are divided over Israel. Right now there are Orthodox Jewish leaders on both sides of the Iran debate, as there are different segments within the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform communities. Different Federations in different communities have chosen different paths and that is just a recent manifestation of a division of longer standing that exists in positions taken on settlements, religion in the state of Israel, and peace negotiations.  

Often these divisions are so painful   that some people have decided not to talk about Israel at all, with neighbors, friends or even their own spouse.

Change has been the constant in Jewish history. Contrary to my young colleague, I do believe that innovation will come to the synagogue. I believe that we will also find better ways of integrating the formerly Ultra-Orthodox into the Jewish community, and hopefully prevent tragedies like the recent loss of activist, Faigy Meyer. And I pray that once a course is set in Iran and the potentially polarizing 2016 election is behind us, a new way of approaching Israel’s issues will also emerge allowing us once again to be, as we say in the Rosh Hodesh prayer, chaverim kol yisrael, friends the whole people of Israel.



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