Courtesy: David J. Fine
Kol Nidrei 5766 “God” The story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who once asked an illiterate tailor what he did on Yom Kippur, since he could not read the prescribed prayers. The tailor reluctantly and somewhat embarrassed, replied: “Well, I spoke to God and told Him that the sins for which I am expected to repent are really minor ones. I said to God: Lord of the Universe! My sins are small of little consequence. I may have occasionally kept for myself some leftover cloth, or perhaps forgotten to recite some prayer now and then. But You, Lord, You have committed really grave sins. You have removed mothers from their children and children from their mothers. So let’s reach an agreement. If You’ll forgive me, then I’ll forgive You.”
At this, the Berdichever rabbi became angry and rebuked the ignorant tailor: “Your are not only illiterate, but also foolish! You were too lenient with God. You should have first insisted that God bring redemption for everyone.” We conceive of Yom Kippur as a Day of Judgment on which we come before God as the Righteous Judge and seek forgiveness for our sins. Because of the power of repentance, we are hopeful that God will be lenient. But dare we conceive of God ask seeking forgiveness on Yom Kippur for His sins against us? Is it permissible to question the justice of the Judge? Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev felt it was, and felt it appropriate to ask God for true repentance, the redemption of the world. These are startling ideas and we might not be willing to go along with the Berdichever rabbi.
But we can pause now and instead of recalling the long list of our sins against God, we can think as well, for a moment, of some of the things that God has done, or allowed to be done, to us. “Does God ask for our forgiveness on Yom Kippur?” Somebody did ask me this question a few weeks ago. Looking back on the events of 5765, we can understand the question. We saw how Hurricane Katrina devastated a major metropolis, causing thousands of deaths, ruining so many lives, and bringing terrible destruction. We saw how Hurricane Rita followed on Katrina’s heals, extending the reach of disaster. This was the worst natural disaster in American history. And yet, it was but a shadow compared to the Tsunami that hit on the other side of the world months earlier. Do you remember last winter when we watched the fatality estimate increase by 10,000 a day? And even this past Saturday we learned about the terrible earthquake in Pakistan, the worst in its history, killing tens of thousands. How could such terrible things happen, we asked? We were not looking for scientific explanations about Caribbean storm patterns or the fault lines under the Indian Ocean.
We wanted to know how God could let such terrible things happen. These disasters were, of course, what insurance agents along with millions of others consider “acts of God.” Why would God create a world where such blind suffering occurs? We talked about the debate over intelligent design last week. There was a recent cartoon in Newsweek that showed a couple watching the news, and “Katrina” is big on the screen. The husband turns to his wife and says, “So, this is intelligent design?” The Tsunami, the hurricanes and earthquakes bring into relief the problem of suffering, and that is the difficult question that has troubled theologians throughout history. Let’s say we believe in “theistic evolution,” that the natural world follows its own natural laws and can all be explained scientifically, but that God put everything into motion.
We still have the problem of why God would have created a world that is so imperfect. That is, even if God was all-powerful enough to create the world, was God not all-knowing enough to see what would happen. Or was God not all-good enough to want to create a world without suffering? Let’s say we believe that God personally oversees the working of nature and is a continuing presence of power in the universe. Then is God not all-knowing enough to see the devastation brought by natural disasters? Is God not allpowerful enough to stop it? Or is God not all-good enough to care? Questions about God are difficult to answer. And sometimes they can be more difficult depending on who’s asking. Some of the best questions about God come from children. Children are natural theologians because they are always trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. Consider these actual letters from children: • “Dear God, How come you didn’t invent any new animals lately? We still have just all the old ones. Jenny.” • “Dear God, Do animals use You, or is there somebody else for them? Tom.” • “Dear God, I read the Bible. What does begat mean? Nobody will tell me. Love, Allison.” That one may be the hardest to answer, but these are also challenging: • “Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you got now? Jane.” • “Dear God, why do we die? Jason.” • “Dear God, why did You do all those great miracles in the old days but none now? Jennifer.” Of course I can’t tell you what is the one right way to answer these questions. But I will say what I think is the worst answer. Whatever the question is, no matter how difficult, whatever you say, I beg you, just please don’t say, “You should really ask the Rabbi.”
Now, I’m not saying this because I’m lazy. Of course I am more than happy to sit down and discuss “the big questions” with anyone who wishes. The reason why I suggest that that is the worst answer is because it communicates to your children that questions about God are not questions that regular grown-ups think about. When we say, “Go ask the Rabbi” or “Go ask your Hebrew school teacher” we are evading the question, and we are saying that religion is only for kids and professional religionists (that’s me), but that it doesn’t help grown-ups with real grown-up life. Better to try to answer the question, even if we don’t have a good answer. It’s okay to not always have an answer. It’s okay to show children that we’re working on it, that we don’t know. They will not respect us less. Rather, by being open like that we will show them that we value their questions. And besides, the Rabbi doesn’t have the magical answers either. I don’t believe that religion always has to have all the answers in black-and-white. I couldn’t believe in a religion like that.
A few months ago I substituted for an adult education class in the area on Jewish ethics. The textbook raised a particular question and provided a number of classical rabbinic texts on the topic, and there were some important contradictions in the various texts. My teaching goals were to clarify the contradictions, to explain how difficult the problem was, and show the various different avenues of resolution. Some of the students were frustrated, though, because they wanted me to tell them the answer. But sometimes there is no the answer, I explained. There are different answers. After the class someone said to me that she thought that I left a lot of unanswered questions. I smiled and said, “Then I succeeded as a teacher.” We will have questions about the world and about God. We will not be satisfied with the answers about why innocent people should suffer from natural disasters. We will be terribly bothered by the injustice of a hurricane or a tsunami effecting myriads of people, but we can also be struck by the injustice of a person dear to us succumbing to disease before his or her time.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People twenty-five years ago: “There is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually diverting.” This has been the single greatest question posed to professional religionists, if you will, since the beginning of time. Still perhaps the best answer is from the ancient book of Job, the Bible’s eloquent meditation on this age-old problem. Job concludes that sometimes we just can’t know God’s reasons. That sometimes the world just is the way it is. Faith in God is acceptance of the way the world works. We need a little humility to understand that some things we just won’t understand. Job’s answer is not an answer that has satisfied all.
There is a need, sometimes in some places, to answer all questions, to see all in black-and-white. Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel and one of the most respected rabbinic authorities in the world, declared that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment to the United States for supporting Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Several other prominent rabbis supported Rabbi Yosef’s pronouncement. Most Orthodox rabbis quietly disagreed, but there was little public disavowal of the statement because of the great esteem in which Rabbi Yosef is held. Rabbi Yosef is indeed a towering authority of Jewish law. But he is not a very good theologian. Other rabbis chose other explanations. Some were bothered by Rabbi Yosef’s suggestion that God would punish thousands of thousands of people in the United States over how the State Department viewed an action of the state of the Israel.
So a more equitable theological solution was offered. Suggested by Rabbi Avi Shafran, an ultra- Orthodox leader in the United States, and repeated in many synagogues around the country, was the idea that the destruction of New Orleans should be compared to the destruction of the biblical Sodom and Gemorrah. Both were dens of sinful pleasures and brought upon themselves God’s wrathful justice. My brother Joshua is an attorney in Denver. He was so bothered by these ideas that he heard talked about in his synagogue that he wrote an opposing piece that was published in the Intermountain Jewish News, and I want to quote one paragraph from him: “True, part of the Big Easy’s tourist draw included all-night bars on Bourbon Street, free-flowing cocktails and raucous festivals.
Nonetheless, just as most people who live in Las Vegas don’t gamble, those who lived in the impoverished low-lying neighborhoods were more likely to be cleaning up after the party than reveling in it.” I agree with my brother, this time. There is no logical way to argue that God chooses to let innocent people suffer. Those religious fundamentalists in the Jewish world who felt compelled to read the hurricane as a punishment from God, along with those who saw the Tsunami as a punishment upon the world of Islam, have their Christian and Muslim counterparts. Some American Evangelicals saw the hurricane as a punishment for the disengagement from Gaza as well. And most agreed with Rabbi Shafran that it was a punishment for the decadence of New Orleans. And then there was Louis Farakhan, the Black Muslim leader in Philadelphia, who said that the hurricane was God’s punishment upon the United States for the invasion of Iraq. Farakhan was joined in this interpretation by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the insurgent leader responsible for so many terrorist attacks against Iraqis and US forces. All of these preachers share the common theological perspective that God causes natural disasters as punishments, even if it appears that innocent people are suffering.
That is a theology that I simply cannot accept. I don’t know how many of you have read or remember the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. I was assigned it once in high school, and have never forgotten the impression that it made on me. A friar sees a bridge collapse, killing the five people crossing it. The friar, convinced that God would not allow those five to have died unless they were so deserving, devoted himself to researching their backgrounds to find the fatal sins that they committed. His faith is so rigid that he comes to see a pattern of sin in their lives that would merit the sudden death, even though the pattern is not at all clear to the reader. Wilder suggests, between the lines, that there is no logical way to defend why bad things happen to good people. Bringing us back to Rabbi Kushner. Bringing us back to Job. I do not believe that God causes natural disasters. I do not believe that God causes suffering. And neither do I believe that God will be there at our beck-and-call to rescue us when we need rescuing, if we would only pray hard enough, fast well enough, and do enough righteous deeds.
I know of too many good people who have suffered to believe that God would be so random in His mercifulness. I try to hear the message of Job in the Bible, that sometimes things happen just because that’s the way the world is, and sometimes the world just doesn’t seem fair. As Rabbi Kushner argues in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, I don’t pray to God to protect me from dangers. I do pray to God to strengthen me so that I can live life and weather its storms. God does not inflict pain. God cries with us when we cry, and God helps us out of despair and gives us hope and meaning. But there is no one right way to think about God. I’d like to encourage everyone to come to our annual scholar-in-residence weekend this year. In the first weekend in March we will be hosting Rabbi Neil Gillman, the pre-eminent liberal theologian of the Conservative movement. Rabbi Gillman will challenge each of us in how we think about God. He will suggest that the way we talk about God is not literal, but uses poetry, metaphor, symbol, picture language, much the way that I suggested last week that we read accounts like the creation story in the Torah.
It’s always easy to decide what we don’t believe in. It’s much harder to figure out what we do believe in. And it’s okay if we don’t all believe the same way. God is different to every person. But we can still all pray together. Three more actual letters from children: • “Dear God, It’s great the way you always get the stars in the right places. Jeff.” • “Dear God, I didn’t think orange went well with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool. Eugene.” • “Dear God, I do not think anybody could be a better God. Well, I just want you to know, but I’m not saying that just because you’re God. Sarah.” Part of coming together in prayer on Yom Kippur is writing our own letters, in a way, to God. God may not specifically ask us for our forgiveness. But we should find a way to make our own peace with God. Shaarei Tikvah, 2005 David J. Fine Yom Kippur Day 5766 “Community Commitment”
I’m a bit of a TV addict. I don’t sit and flip channels aimlessly, but there are too many good shows that I watch, well, religiously. I had jury duty a few months ago and was amazed at how people only mentioned one show when the judge asked what they watched on TV. Some shows are silly diversions. But some can make us think. It’s not my favorite show, but Lost is definitely interesting. A dramatic cross between Gilligan’s Island, Survivor, and The X-Files, the show is about the survivors of a plane crash on a lost and mysterious island. While the show has its mysteries about what it’s all about, the aspect that I wanted to talk about today was how the people joined together to make a community. At first one fears that the people will revert to savagery like the planewrecked castaways in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But that would, of course, be too dark for prime-time network television. What’s makes Lost optimistic about humanity is that strangers come together and build community. They come from various backgrounds. They don’t even all speak the same language. But they find that living together is much preferable to living alone. Judaism insists on community. The Torah insisted that the ancient Jews make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year.
The only way to observe Passover was to bring a lamb to the Temple for sacrifice. Today we are somewhat more scattered, but we still gather together with our families on Passover. We gather together in synagogues on days like today. It’s not only that we like coming together. We don’t know how to be Jewish alone. The technical definition of a synagogue is a place where the Torah is read. And the Torah can only be read when there is a minyan of ten. The Hebrew word for synagogue is Bet Knesset, literally, house of assembly. There are no private chapels in Judaism. There is no value in seclusion. There is one way to practice Judaism, and that’s by coming together. As many of you know, I was a college chaplain before coming to Shaarei Tikvah. One of the things that I always thought was special about Shabbat at Wesleyan (also my alma mater) was that we would often have more people for dinner after services than for services. It wasn’t just the food that attracted people. No Wesleyan student ever went hungry before graduation. It was that these students figured out that prayer was not the only way that Shabbat was observed. Yes, prayer welcomed in the Shabbat, but the true observance of Shabbat was around the table, in friendship. [I’m sorry, no food today ’til after 7:00.]
Plenty of students came for services. But what impressed me was the realization that by coming together on Friday nights, to eat together, was the root of a college Judaism. It’s not so different for us. There are many ways to observe Judaism, but what they all have in common is coming together. Community is the common denominator of Jewish observance. What mitzvah should we focus on this year? Let’s focus on community. Beginning right here with Shaarei Tikvah. Let’s do something this year that we didn’t do last year. We can go to a program that we might not have bothered with. We can join a committee, we can volunteer to join other members of the synagogue in the important work that we do. Mostly, we can simply be here and join ourselves to the community. If I’m not someone who usually attends Shabbat services, let me decide to try it this year.
If I’ve never been to weekday minyan, let me show up once this year. The weekday minyan struggles to find our tenth (and sometimes our ninth and eighth) every Sunday, Monday and Thursday morning. Everyone in the group lights up when a new face walks through the door. If I come now and then maybe I can commit to come once a month. It can be for prayer or it can be for morning routine, but most important is that it brings us together with other people. There’s no better way to start the day than with people saying “good morning.” A few “amens” thrown in is just embellishment. The synagogue is the local Jewish community. It is there for us when we celebrate our children becoming bar or bat mitzvah. It wishes us mazel tov when we get married and when our children are born. And it is there to console us when we lose loved ones.
The only way that the Jewish community can be there for us when we need it is if we make ourselves a part of it. Here we are today, gathered together on the most sacred day of the year. We are a presence in this room. I can feel it. We don’t have to wait once a year for this special feeling. Let’s let Shaarei Tikvah be our home, let’s let the Shaarei Tikvah family be our family. There is this, our local Jewish community. But what gives the community its form, its identity, is the tree from which it sprouts. We are a part of a larger Jewish community. Working together in partnerships with our neighbors, being a part of the larger Conservative movement, and as a part of the Jewish world looking to Israel, we are all connected.
I spoke last year about the importance of Israel in tying us together as Jews. I announced that we were going to have a Shaaarei Tikvah group to Israel in the summer. We did, and it was wonderful. If you have not been to Israel, you must go. Only being in Israel can bring full dimension to our own Jewish identities, to our own Jewish souls. I don’t know when our next synagogue group will be, but if you would like to go to Israel sometime soon, and you’re not sure how, feel free to ask me to help in finding a suitable group. I sent an email out a few days ago about Birthright Israel. That’s a program that sends college-age American Jews who have not been to Israel on a peer group to Israel for ten days at virtually no cost. The Conservative movement staffs a Birthright group.
If you or your children fall into this category, you cannot afford not to consider it. Going under our Conservative movement auspices will be a wonderful opportunity to experience Israel, to experience Conservative Judaism and to meet other individuals of similar backgrounds from across the country. The only catch is that the deadline for registration is 9:00 A.M. tomorrow morning. Yes, I wish I were joking. The deadline had been later, but was inexplicably moved up at the last minute this week by the central Birthright organization. Therefore, if you might be considering this important option, or are simply curious about what it is, go to http://www.koach.org/ tonight when you finish breaking the fast. Koach, K-O-A-C-H, is the Conservative movement’s college outreach program. You can also find it through the United Synagogue website.
Spending time in Israel is one of the best ways to find Jewish community. We found it in Israel, and we also came back this summer charged up to make Shaarei Tikvah the best Jewish community that it can be. We came together as our own mini-Shaarei Tikvah on the group this summer, but what also happened was that we visited the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel. We spent a Shabbat morning at services at a Conservative/Masorti congregation in Tel Aviv. We had breakfast one morning with a Conservative/Masorti rabbi from Jerusalem. We enjoyed the fellowship and connection that we had with Jews of our particular persuasion in Israel. And we learned about some of the many challenges that Conservative/Masorti Judaism faces in Israel. Some of them we are quite familiar with, like increasing membership and raising funds for a new building. But others are specific to Israel. While Conservative and Reform Judaism is the mainstream in the United States, in Israel 15 to 10 percent identify as “religious” meaning Orthodox, and the remainder are secular. We as Conservative Jews feel strongly that the Jewish people are defined by their religious heritage, but that that heritage is more open and flexible than the Orthodoxy known to most Israelis.
It is essential that we do all we can to support Conservative/Masorti Judaism in Israel. We have seen this summer during the Gaza pullout just how divided Israeli society is. We believe that a more open form of traditional Judaism will help heal those rifts and help secure the Jewish nature of Israeli society. Conservative Judaism in Israel holds a lot of promise, but it is small and in dire need of help, both physical and monetary. The best way to help Israel in general as well as Conservative Judaism in Israel in specific is to make aliyah, of course. There is no better way to contribute to a community than to join it in body.
That is true of Shaarei Tikvah, as it is true of all communities. Our friends in Israel need us. But if we are to make our lives here, we can still contribute to the larger community. We can still help our friends in Israel. Gifts to my discretionary fund here at Shaarei Tikvah support, in part, our annual contribution to the Masorti Foundation. You can also give directly at http://www.masorti.org/ or through the Masorti Foundation. But it is not my purpose today to solicit your generosity. There is a very simple, easy, and important way that we can all join the larger Jewish community this year and support Israel. Every four years a Zionist Congress is held to give direction to the World Zionist Organization (the WZO). While the affairs of the State of Israel are handled by the Knesset, the World Zionist Congress determines the priorities of the Zionist movement and allocates the hundreds of millions of dollars in funds raised throughout the world for important institutions and programs in Israel.
A certain portion of our UJA/Federation dollars go to the Jewish Agency for Israel, which allocates the money as determined every four years by the Zionist Congress. Funds are distributed in proportion with the number of votes each group gets. The more votes an organization receives, the greater the amount of communal funding it can secure for its programs and institutions. For the Conservative Movement, it becomes imperative to secure a large vote in order to direct more money to our movement in Israel. While the cost to register and vote is only $7, or $5 if you are a student, the benefits to our movement and to Israel can be many, many times that. The first step is to register to vote. Then all who are registered will receive a ballot showing all the parties with the lists of delegates behind them. MERCAZ USA is the Zionist arm of our Movement in the United that represents us at the Congress. MERCAZ means “center” in Hebrew, since we see ourselves as centrists.
But it is also an acronym for The Movement to Reaffirm Conservative Zionism. A vote for MERCAZ will help strengthen the Conservative/Masorti Movement and the cause of religious pluralism in Israel. I’m asking everyone to register to vote for the Zionist Congress. Stand up for being Jewish and being a part of the worldwide Jewish people. I ask you to vote for MERCAZ, but I would prefer that you vote for another party than none at all. You can register for these elections at the MERCAZ website at http://www.merccazusa.org/ or call the United Synagogue for assistance. The Conservative movement is counting on us to register and vote in this important international Jewish election. But registering and voting has an importance for us that transcends the specific election and fiscal needs of the Masorti movement and other institutions and programs in Israel. By becoming a part of this process we are personally joining the international Jewish community, organized in this very institutional way by Theodor Herzl in 1897. The first Zionist Congress met then in Basle. Herzl’s number one rule was that all the delegates wear top-hats, to show the world that the Jews take themselves seriously. Today the congress meets in Jerusalem, and many of the delegates don’t even wear ties. But the flag that Herzl chose, the anthem, the nation, these are the things that bind us together as a community.
Let’s not miss this opportunity to show up. What can we do this year to come together as a community? Come to a Shabbat service. Come to a minyan. Come to one of our programs and social events. Make Shaarei Tikvah our family. Visit Israel. Support the work of the Conservative/Masorti movement. And easiest of all, go online and register for the World Zionist Congress, and then read the ballot carefully when it comes in the mail. We are not lost castaways on a deserted mysterious island. But we understand full well that the only to way to live is by living together. Shaarei Tikvah.