Rosh Hashannah Day 5775/2014

Finding Spirituality in the Most “Unlikely” Places I used to wear my yarmulke on airplanes but I stopped a few years ago. Wearing my yarmulke would guarantee meeting some very interesting people. There was the Afro American minister who went on a Jewish Federation mission to Israel and returned with a greater understanding of what that “small, brave country is confronting”.  There was the Chinese doctoral student studying at the University of Wisconsin who was fascinated with Judaism. I spent the entire flight answering her questions and continued to do so via email exchanges which she initiated. Eventually I put her in touch with a Rabbi in Madison with whom she was able to study. Then there were the conversations that I grew to dread. These were conversations with fellow Jews who, when they found out that I was the rabbi of a congregation, reassured me that although they had not put foot inside a synagogue in years, they were in fact, very spiritual. Typically, they would stress that they did not need a Jewish community to find G-d. They find God on the top of a mountain, on a walk on the beach, in the setting of the sun, on a hike through the prairies.  As they are talking, I am wondering to myself, “Why are you telling ME this?” Of course, we all agree that these wonderful experiences might elicit spiritual feelings.  Yet, sincerely, I don’t know what to say to these folks.  I would listen and smile politely. To tell you the truth not wearing my yarmulke spares me from these sorts of conversations. Undoubtedly we all can relate to this. We are keenly aware that those Jews who are “spiritual” Jews but exempt themselves from “organized” religion are a growing proportion of the Jewish population in the United States. According to the recent Pew Survey of American Jewry, almost all Jewish the members of “The Greatest Generation”, those who were children during the Great Depression and went on to fight World War II, identified themselves as “Jews by religion.” On the other hand, in the same survey, a full one third of adults Jews born after 1965 describe themselves as “Jews without religion”.  Remarkably, half of those who describe themselves as “Jews without religion” say they believe in G-d or a “universal spirit”. This group is so large that researchers have given it their own name – the “Spiritual but not Religious”. Who are the “spiritual but not religious?” One writer notes that they worship whenever and wherever the spirit moves them. They have no need of a synagogue to practice their spirituality. They do not need formal religious services. They don’t need a rabbi to guide them. Their spiritual setting is a forest, a beach, or a mountaintop. Spiritual without religious Jews try to cultivate the qualities of optimism, empathy, gratitude, humility, happiness and contentment, according to various writers on the subject.  Of course, these are most worthy attributes to develop in oneself! I am reminded of the man who told the rabbi that he was opposed to organized religion. The rabbi responded, “Then you should come to my synagogue. It’s the most disorganized of all!”  I believe that those Jews who are spiritual but who have dropped out of organized religion have some daunting challenges to overcome. As we know, if one wants to become a highly skilled tennis player, one cannot practice whenever the spirit moves you. If one wants to become a great doctor, an accomplished scientist, a gifted actor, a skilled musician, an exceptional teacher, a master carpenter, one cannot accomplish this by studying or practicing “whenever the spirit moves you.” One cannot accomplish much at all without motivation, discipline, structure, teachers and hard work. One cannot accomplish much without dedication. As I said earlier, the qualities that the “spiritual without religious” Jew seeks to cultivate in themselves — optimism, empathy, gratitude, humility, happiness and contentment – are worthy in and of themselves. Where, however, is the discipline, the structure, the instruction, the dedication, the hard work?                        There is a wonderful story, perhaps apocryphal, about an astrophysicist and a rabbi who are seated next to one another on a flight to Los Angeles. The rabbi was looking forward to just relaxing on the flight and did not encourage any conversation but that is not how it worked out. When the flight attendant delivered the rabbi’s kosher meal, the scientist took the opportunity to pepper the rabbi with questions. After a few minutes of introduction, the man said, “Rabbi, I really know very little about religion or theology, but doesn’t it all boil down to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?’” Without missing a beat the rabbi responded. “You know, I’ve never studied astrophysics or astronomy, but doesn’t it all boil down to, ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star?’” How many times have we heard people say the following: “My religion is the Golden Rule; I believe in G-d, but that’s where it ends; Judaism basically teaches ethical living; All religions are basically the same….”  These statements may be true, but they tell only part of the story.[1] I believe that one of the greatest dangers facing Judaism in the United States today is the reluctance of many of us to do the hard work of maintaining a Jewish life, to settle for a “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” version of Judaism. Nothing of value comes without hard work, and Judaism is no exception. In discussing this very issue, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Yeshiva University turns our attention to the so called “wicked child” who we read about at our seders. “What is this Avodah to you?” the wicked son asks. Now, the word “Avodah” can mean “service” or “worship” and so perhaps the child is challenging his father about the ritual and prayers of the Passover Seder.  But the Talmud understands the question of the wicked son differently. The word “Avodah” can also mean “work”. It is the word used to describe the harsh labor that our ancestors endured under Pharaoh.  The Talmud understands the child to be asking, “What is all this work that you do in putting together this Passover Seder? What is all this bother that you go through in order to maintain your traditions? You once were a slave to Pharaoh, and now you are slaving away to be Jewish!” In this reading, the wicked child challenges his family for how much trouble they have to go through in maintaining a Jewish life.  He wants not “Freedom of Religion” but “Freedom FROM Religion”! The wicked son is pointing out all of the effort and all of the planning, that our religion demands.  Praying three times a day, putting on tallis and tefillin, keeping kosher, Sabbath observance, holiday attendance, lighting candles, preparing a Seder, fasting on Yom Kippur, building a Succah, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface!  Not to mention the financial responsibilities of Jewish life — synagogue dues, building fund contributions, JCC membership, religious school tuition, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, summer camp payments, trips to and support of Israel.  There have been articles written in Jewish journals about the high cost of being Jewish, a cost that has begun to stress the abilities of many people of moderate incomes. Then there is synagogue membership itself.  Many people don’t feel particularly connected to fellow congregants in the synagogue, even after years of belonging. Some people never find “their group” or their niche.  Then there is the gossip, the disagreements, the people we can’t stand, the services we can’t relate to, the rabbis who are not always responsive to our needs, the cantors who don’t always sing the melodies of our childhood, the politics, the crying babies, the unruly children – In other words, the aggravation of community life!  Isn’t it more peaceful, less expensive, less a headache, to find G-d on a mountaintop, on a beach at sunset, in a cool woodlands forest, than to belong to a complex community—filled with – PEOPLE!   As I said earlier, nothing of value comes without hard work. There is a flip side to that. When we don’t work hard for something, we tend not to value it. To prove the point, I ask you – What rituals bring us the greatest rewards, which holidays invite the highest participation? They are those rituals and holidays that ask the most of us, that we work hardest for. Shavuot is probably the major holiday in the Jewish cycle that requires the least of us. It is also probably the least celebrated and observed Jewish holiday among American Jewry. Do you know what the most observed holidays are among American Jews? They are the holidays that demand the most of us – Passover and Yom Kippur.  Another example:  As you recall, this past year our synagogue has been participating in a survey program called “Measuring Success”. It rates our synagogue in a number of areas and compares it to synagogues of similar size and religious observance. Do you know where our synagogue rates the highest compared to other synagogues? Do you know what program our members were most satisfied with, rated the highest, among us? It is our Bar and Bat Mitzvah program. Our Bar and Bat Mitzvah program is more demanding than most. It is this program — the one we work hardest at, the one that parents and students are most invested in — that brings the most satisfaction to our members, that we get the most out of! This is true of Judaism as a whole. Judaism is a gift, passed down to us through the generations. If we do not use that gift, we are unlikely to realize its true value. The path to greater spirituality, I believe, is found not primarily on mountaintops but in the hard work of being a part of a community. Spirituality comes through our engagement with one another in synagogue life through study, through prayer, through observance, and through helping one another. Spirituality comes from the sacrifices we make in time and effort and money to live a Jewish life and maintain a Jewish community.  I believe the path to spirituality lies not only in the verdant forest but in the ordinary challenges and daily rituals of everyday life.  Spirituality grows when we confront human weakness and try to overcome it. It flourishes when we confront the torments of ordinary living and try to transcend them. Spirituality is found in our struggle to love and be loved, to make a living and provide for our families. Spirituality is found, yes, in the occasionally frustrating experience of trying to get along with one another! The synagogue is the place we come together to wrestle with the big questions of human existence: Where do I come from? Why am I here? What meaning does my life have? How should I live? Why do I suffer? How do I deal with my guilt? What happens when I die? Who are our prophets today? What if I cannot forgive? How can I be a Zionist when some of Israel’s policies perturb me?  When one is a member of a synagogue, one isn’t alone in struggling with these questions. To some of these questions there may be satisfying answers. To many of them, we can only come up with a best answer, not the definitive one. Others may have no answers at all. Yet we have our traditions, our collective wisdom accumulated throughout the generations, and each other, to help support us as we find ways to live with our questions, our doubts, our uncertainties – not to resolve them, but to bear them, to struggle with them, perhaps never with a final resolution. I conclude with the thoughts of Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, of Blessed Memory. It goes to the heart of finding spirituality in community. He writes “The act of giving is simultaneously the act of receiving. The benefactor is also the beneficiary. To give is to become enriched. “As we feed, we are fed. As we give, we receive. As we lift, we are raised. As we go out of ourselves into something bigger than ourselves, we become bigger in the process. We provide the most nourishing sustenance our hearts can crave. “Help your fellow’s boat across the river and lo, your own has reached the shore.” Shana Tovah    

[1] I am grateful to Rabbi Morris Halpern for this formulation