Can We Talk RH 5770

A rabbi is brought to speak before a congregation that is seeking a new spiritual leader. “What will you be talking about?” the president asks the rabbi as they walk to the synagogue. “Sabbath observance — the need for Jews to make this day truly holy, without shopping, without spending money.” “I wouldn’t do that,” the president warns. “The people here have very little free time; they must go shopping when they have the chance.  Isn’t there something else you can talk about?” “I can talk about Kashrut”, says the rabbi. “I wouldn’t get into that, Rabbi.  Don’t you realize how difficult it is to keep kosher out here?  Kosher meat is so much more expensive.  Then the family has to keep two sets of dishes and silverware, constantly worrying that they don’t get mixed up. Can’t you speak about something else?” “Ok, how about Jewish education, and the need for children and parents to take religious school education as seriously as they take their secular education.” “Are you crazy Rabbi?  Our kids have so much homework from their schools, and along with their commitments to music lessons, dance classes, karate and basketball, it’s unreasonable to expect that of them.” “I can’t understand,” said the rabbi. “If I can’t speak about the Sabbath, about kashrut, or about Jewish education, what can I speak about?” “Well, speak about Judaism, of course!” This joke speaks to the frustration that many rabbis feel about talking to their congregants about Judaism’s most fundamental values.  The challenge really isn’t our values, which most of us can agree upon.  The challenge is how to put those values into action in our daily lives.  After all, Judaism is not a philosophical system where we sit around and contemplate what constitutes “the good”. Judaism is not a religion that focuses primarily on how an individual can reach nirvana – that “perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states” as taught by Buddhism.  The quest to become a Tsadik is a part of Judaism, but I would say it is not the most essential element.  I mean, we are all about feelings and desire and conflict and ambition — we don’t really try to do away with them, we recognize them as part of the human condition.  We come on these High Holidays to ask forgiveness for them. We sincerely try to curb them and do better.  We are aware that most of us will never reach the level of the true Tsadik. No, Judaism is not primarily concerned with the achievement of perfection of the individual.  Judaism is primarily concerned with establishing a just society here on earth.  We read in the prophetic portion on Yom Kippur, the Holiest day of the year that G-d doesn’t care about our fasting all day if we do not also: “let the oppressed go free … break every yoke….  share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home…. when you see the naked, clothe him, and not to ignore your kin.” We at Congregation Beth Shalom cannot ignore what goes on outside the walls of our synagogue.  We cannot be satisfied with our bar mitzvahs and dinners, and dances, and baby-namings and weddings as if the synagogue is hermetically sealed from all the issues of the outside world.  The environment, health care, political corruption, war, racism, the economy, Israel – to name a few of the pressing issues of our day – cry out for a “Jewish response”.   But just like the rabbi in my opening joke, rabbis are often warned to stay away from these issues.              But, what are we to do?  We come from a tradition that values debate — that welcomes examining, analyzing and challenging of ideas.  The most important book of rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud, is filled with rabbis disagreeing and clashing with one another!  Our tradition understands that the way to achieve truth is through controversy – putting one idea up against another in the pursuit of leading a better life.  Seeking the truth through comparing and contrasting our ideas is, in fact, a holy endeavor.  G-d created each of us with a different perspective – we are each unique, and we do not look at every object, thought, or idea in the exact same way.  That is how G-d wanted it when G-d created human beings.             In antiquity, the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai often had vigorous debates about Jewish practice.  In fact, the Talmud records over three hundred differences of opinion between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai. Of all of those debates, the sages sided with the school of Shammai only eighteen times.  Yet Pirke Avot, describes these debates as “controversies for the sake of heaven” which had a “lasting value”.  They had lasting value because they were controversies that were for the sake of finding the truth. They were for the sake of discovering how G-d wanted us to lead our lives.  They were for the sake of discovering what constituted fairness, and justice in a society.  The sages recognized that there are other kinds of controversies that do not have lasting value.  An example they gave was the argument of Korah and his followers, who rebelled against Moses.  In arguing with Moses, Korah wasn’t seeking truth or trying to improve the community. His argument had only a selfish motive, to gain more honor and power for himself and to diminish Moses’ authority.              Earlier on I said that the great issues of the day – the environment, health care, racism, war, the economy, Israel, to name a few – cry out for “a Jewish response.”  By now it might be obvious that there is no one “Jewish response”.  Hillel and Shammai, two great rabbis, could hold opposite views on many of the important issues of the day. But both of them were authentic “Jewish responses”.  And because they are both authentic Jewish responses, both of them are preserved in our literature, and we read and study and revere their words to this day.              Yes, it is a daunting challenge to tolerate the tensions that some controversies elicit in us and still remain open to listening to one another.  But avoiding tension is not a good reason for fulfilling our Jewish mission. The 19th century moralist Rabbi Israel Salanter, taught that on sending Abraham into the world, G-d said, “Lech-L’cha — Go forth — from your land and from your place of birth to the land which I will show thee … and you shall be a blessing.”  Abraham and Sarah were not sent off to a new Garden of Eden, to start a new kind of human being who would then live their lives in accordance with G-d’s will.  They were sent out into the world as it was, to be a blessing to those around them, and ultimately to the world.  We, the children of Abraham and Sarah, must carry on their mission.  We can only do so if we can talk openly with one another – and even disagree with one another – about how to accomplish that mission in our day. Shana Tova