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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780: The Jewish Conversation

I want to begin by telling you about two different residents, so to speak, of the Jewish cemetery, in Warsaw.

The first is a man named Ludwik Zamenof.

One hundred and thirty-two years ago, Zamenof invented a new language, called Esperanto.

He was a doctor, he was a Pole, and perhaps most challenging for him, he was a Jew.

In a letter written in 1895, he reflected:

The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town [one] feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division…. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on.[1]

Across from Zamenof’s grave, another grave: belonging to Y.L Peretz, a giant of modern Yiddish literature.

Peretz saw the same world with different eyes, writing:

I am not proposing that we lock ourselves in a spiritual ghetto. We must leave it — but with our own soul, our own spiritual wealth. We must make exchanges. Give and take. Not beg.

Ghetto means impotence. Interchange of culture is the only hope for human growth . . .To take yet continue to be oneself — that is the important thing. Leave the ghetto, see the world — yes, but with Jewish eyes.[2]

Two graves. Two men, both Jewish by birth. Two stories, amongst the millions that have been lived and told by our people.

Ultimately, these stories are timeless. There’s a saying often attributed to the novelist John Gardner that there are really only two stories: A Person Goes on a Journey or A Stranger Comes to Town.

The stories of Ludwik Zamenof and Y.L Peretz are variations on a theme: a Jewish person goes on a journey. Both men envision a world of greater peace and unity, for themselves and their neighbors. Zamenof’s journey leads him to conclude that a universalist apporach is the only way to bring about peace in the world. Peretz’ approach leads him to conclude that his particular Jewish lens— his language, his worldview refracted through a Jewish lens, will also lead to greater peace and unity in the world.

Throughout Jewish history, the meta-narrative of the Jewish journey has been shaped by the questions like the ones that Zamenof and Peretz asked of themselves, of their people:

Why be Jewish? Why be religious at all?

Religion in America, after all, is counter cultural. As a nation, we are the most “unchurched” that we have ever been in recorded history.

Zooming in on our own story, how did we all get here, to this Reform Jewish congregation, in the middle of the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts?

How did we get from Greece and Poland and Iran and Germany, to the Upper West Side, or the Lower East Side, or Galveston and Cincinnati, to this particular Jewish community? How did we go from praying three times a day, or from an organ and no signs of a Tallis or yarmulke (chas v’chalila) to our own practices, or lack of practices today?

I want to suggest that in order for these questions to be meaningful, we have to look at the context in which they exist.

To say that we are a Reform Jewish congregation in North America, comprised of Reform Jews organized around a single mission is faulty at best, and dangerous at worst- because it fails to recognize and honor the realities which exist within and around us.

To say that all of us here tonight are Jews because we can prove some kind of ancestral descent, or have a conversion certificate, is simply untrue.

To say that all of us here tonight share the same set of beliefs, whether in God or what the best food to break your Yom Kippur fast with, is simply untrue.

To say that that we are all here tonight because belonging to a faith community is the most common and ordinary thing you could choose to do, because all of your neighbors and friends do it too— well, that might be the biggest falsehood of them all.

And yet- here we are.

So what can we say about who we are, and how we got here?

How can we answer the question, why be religious? And more than that, why be Jewish?

These questions don’t often get a lot of oxygen, largely because we are aware that more and more, the old answers don’t work, and we haven’t come up with new ones.

We know that over the course of history, Judaism has been understood as everything from religion and culture, race, nation and ethnicity.

Each understanding worked in its own time.

In that not so distant Jewish past, we imagine, we knew exactly how to answer the question “why be Jewish”:

Reasons like the covenant— after all, God made that covenant with us at Mt. Sinai and it’s on us to keep the laws of Torah.

Reasons like chosenness—appealing to a hidden but undeniable sense of ego, telling us that God set us apart and made us special.

Reasons like loyalty and historical memory, because, well— the Holocaust. Why be Jewish? Because 6 million died.

The world has changed, and so have we: more and more, speaking in the theological language of covenant, or of chosen-ness, does not compel new people to come in the door.

Back to our friend, Zamenof who railed against division— seeking unity above ethnic and religious identities. In order to accomplish that mission, Zamenhof envisioned Esperanto as a universal second languagethat would foster peace and international understanding, and build a community of speakers.

Zamenof’s vision of unity came down to that most basic and essential piece of what it means to be human: words. The ability to communicate.

And then there’s Peretz— Peretz was a champion of the Yiddish language, for precisely the same reason that Zamenof created Esperanto: to unify the Jewish people; to create a common ground for communication between men and women, to build a community of both readers and speakers.

For Peretz, it was also about words— specifically, Jewish ones.

It’s hard not be reminded of that primary act of Creation— Vayomer Elohim yehi or, vayehi or. God spoke. With words, God creates the world.

Words are crucial; we know their power to create or to destroy.

Underlying the question of “Why be Jewish” is a predisposition to caring about words: to believing that it matters what we say.

My friend and teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman suggests an answer that I want to hold onto tightly as we enter into this new year, holding it up as a litmus test for all that I say about who we are as a Jewish community.

He teaches:

Religion is the practice of speaking in a register that does justice to the human condition.

Rabbi Hoffman writes:

When people say they follow football “religiously”; when they re-experience Beethoven’s violin concerto or Barber’s Adagio for Strings and call it “practically a religious experience”; when they get irrationally angry at organized religion because it is negative, exclusive, hierarchical, and judgmental – in all these ways, and more, they bear testimony to what religion really is, or ought to be. Needing another term, they choose “spiritual” – we all seek spirituality.

Religion, is primarily a conversational practice (“of speaking in a register that does justice to the human condition”).

Judaism is its own particular conversational practice.

The world around us simply does not operate in a manner befitting the human condition: in place of dignity, there is degradation. This human condition is what differentiates us from all other living creatures. We have consciousness. We have the luxury of wondering what the world is all about; why bad things happen to good people; whether to raise children, how to pursue meaningful careers and vocations. We have the capacity for admiration: to enjoy the miracle of love and friendship, joy and wonder, artistry, ideas, and humor. This is our human condition. [1]

Speaking in a register befitting of the human condition is the work of religious communities— and the Jewish conversation offers its own aesthetic: it’s own particular metaphors, imagery and texts that shape the dialogue.

Aesthetics matter, and the Jewish aesthetic is what gives us a vocabulary for this conversation. I want to suggest that Judaism gives us the tools for one of the most spectacular conversations about the human condition in the history of humankind. The conversation is as old as the recorded conversations and disputations of the rabbis of the Talmud, and as contemporary as our pre-confirmation students trying to understand the difference between justice and charity.

Prayer, of course, is one of our vocabularies: prayer gives us the words to say the things that often, our hearts feel, but we can’t quite articulate for ourselves. Prayer gives us mere humans a language for communicating within ourselves, and with something much bigger than ourselves.

But prayer often can sometimes feel like insider baseball. And the Jewish conversation is bigger than that. The Jewish conversation is our particular way of participating in the larger, universal human conversation about what matters most.

Going forward, the Jewish conversation will be strengthened by a stance of inclusivity: I believe we are living in an age where our Jewish communities will need to ask a different question:

Rather than “Are you Jewish?”;

“Do you want to be a part of the Jewish conversation?”

Do you want to participate meaningfully in an ancient and ongoing conversation about justice? About beauty and vulnerability, about purpose?

If the answer is yes, then I believe you are in the right place.

If Judaism is indeed a conversation, there has never been a better time to make yourself a cup of tea, pull up a seat, and sit down to chat.

The conversation will flow easily, that I can promise.

There are so many questions that this Jewish conversation requires us to discuss, like:

-Where are you at home?

-To, and for whom are you responsible?

-Who is a part of your community?

-For what purpose were you born into the world?

We shouldn’t underestimate the gravity of these questions. I want to suggest that in addition to being counter-cultural, being religious also means that canhave these conversations: that we can create the spaces to talk about it. There are fewer and fewer spaces in the world where people can talk about the things that matter most. Being religious means we can talk about things like immigration, which we will do here at Hevreh as part of a conversation that Rabbi Hirsch and I will moderate over Sukkot. Being religious means we can talk about things like mental health, which we will do this November during a special program aimed at teens and parents.

Having these conversations in Jewish spaces reminds us that the answers to these questions rely on us knowing and believing in the dignity of each human being, in the rights of anyone with a beating heart to safety, security, food and shelter.

The Jewish conversation answers with dignity, and then elevates the conversation. Once those most basic needs are met, the Jewish conversation reminds us that it is sacred to rest. That beauty and truth and delight are not frivolous “extras”, but essential for the human spirit. That we can differentiate between the ordinary and the extraordinary—that there’s something we call holiness, and we know it when we feel it.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite YL Peretz stories, “If Not Higher”. The story, is about a rabbi, who goes missing each Friday during the month of Elul, in the time leading up to Rosh Hashanah. The townspeople look in all the obvious places—searching for him in the Beit Midrash, at the Shul, but he’s nowhere to be found. A Litvak comes along, intent on finding out what the rabbi is up to, and so he follows him home. The next morning, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, he watches as the rabbi, dressed in the clothing of a peasant, heads off to the woods, takes a small axe from his pocket, and begins to chop wood. He follows the rabbi to the home of an elderly and sick Jewish woman, where the rabbi knocks on the door, and says that he is there to sell her wood for her stove at a very cheap price. The woman doesn’t recognize him, and he tells her that his name is Vassil- a common name for a non-Jewish person in Nemirov.

The woman ruefully declines, saying she has no money and so the rabbi insists that he’ll loan it to her, saying that he knows she’ll pay him back when she can. This poor sick woman has no one to light the fire for her, and so the Litvak, still standing outside, watches as the rabbi goes inside, and lights the fire for her.

The story ends with this beautiful line:

“And ever after, when a disciple would say that the Rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven during the time of the penitential prayers, the Litvak does not laugh. He quietly adds: “If not higher.”[3]

To be a part of the Jewish conversation is to speak words of kindness and mercy and justice, and then— to act on them, to elevate them in a manner befitting the human condition, if not higher.

In this year ahead, I hope you’ll pull your seat up closer to the table, and join in on this conversation. For some of you, that may mean listening: soaking in the ideas around you. For others, you might be the one to help push the conversation forward. To take the Jewish aesthetic of justice, and community, and beauty, and love, and to elevate them: to push us all to act on in them in deeper, more meaningful ways.


[1]With thanks to Rabbi Larry Hoffman for these examples and ideas.


[2]Cited by Adam Chalom. “Why Be Jewish? Why Be Anything?” from the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

[3]Peretz, YL. “If Not Higher”

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