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Sermon - Yom Kippur 5775 - Judaism is not Crazy, It's Cool

10/05/2014 03:14:42 PM


              About a year ago, the Pew Research Center came out with their famous report about religion in America. Many of us in the Jewish world had are eyes opened to the reality that Jews were becoming less and less connected to their heritage and their beliefs. However, the report didn't just focus on the Jewish community. This report, like many reports, informed all of us that religion is on the decline. More and more people were following less and less of their religious traditions. More and more people were believing less and less in the spirituality espoused by their born beliefs. More and more people were feeling less and less connected to religion.

            I have been thinking a lot about this over the year. And I have come to the following conclusion: duh… of course. No one needs to read the research to tell them that more people are becoming less connected to their religions, especially when we look at what is being talked about every day. At any given moment, you could hear on the TV, read in a blog or see in the newspapers someone arguing about how Christianity tells us that sex is a sin. At any given moment, you could hear someone mention that Islam has followers that believe that if they blow themselves up as a suicide bomber, they will reap great rewards in the world to come. Even I have heard on a regular basis, Jews explaining to other Jews, that the reason why someone had a miscarriage was because that person did not observe Shabbat.

            We are surrounded by some of the worst pieces of rhetoric about religion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have fanatics preaching what they believe is what their religions are all about. We see the faith healers on Sunday mornings touch people and they are magically healed. We walk away thinking, "That is crazy." We hear Muslim fanatics talk about the sacredness of Jihad against the Jews, wanting to annihilate every last one of them. We walk away thinking, "That is crazy." I am sure somewhere, over the past 24 hours, there was footage of Jews swinging chickens around and around until their necks collapsed. This archaic ritual practiced by less than 1 % of our community exists to rid people of their sins. I am sure we all walk away thinking, "That's crazy."

            It is true that what we see and what everyone sees about our religion and other religions is absolutely crazy. While I can’t speak for my fellow Christian colleagues, I can declare that Judaism is not crazy. The religion that many of us see is not the religion that you have chosen. The Judaism that all of you have chosen is not one that ostracizes, or hates, or promotes violence. Judaism does have fanatics. Yes, there are those that do believe that miscarriages and other tragic happenings are because we do not practice certain mitzvot. But that is fanatical, not mainstream. The Judaism of Beth Am celebrates life, joy, and positive values.

            In the Haftarah for Yom Kippur, we read from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah assumes that the people of Israel are fasting, but he questions this practice. Isaiah steps up in front of the entire community, and declares "Is this a fast I seek?... Is it not this that I have chosen: to loosen the tight cords of wrongness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to exempt the oppressed, and to break off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out?” Isaiah, a leader of the Israelite people 2500 years ago, took the idea of fasting and told everyone, "Honestly people, fasting on this day is not the only thing that was intended by the Torah. We all should be focusing on fighting injustice, feeding the hungry, and giving to those in need." Those are not my words, those are Isaiah's words. What Isaiah was doing 2500 years ago was taking the Torah and modernizing it. That is Judaism. Judaism is not looking at the Torah literally. Judaism is not taking an archaic text that was meant for a particular time and saying that it is for all time. Judaism has always been about making our lives mesh with the traditions and customs of our past. And we should not apologize for that. We should not feel this is any less because we are not following all of the customs that were written down 3000 years ago. Rather, our job is to take these customs and bring them into our own, modernizing them, not leaving them behind as the Pew Research has described that many of us are beginning to do.

            It is quite conceivable for us to be less traditional while being amazingly powerfully Jewish. One can be extremely Jewish in the heart and soul without putting on tefillin or swinging a chicken around. Remember Isaiah. Is this the fast I seek? Is it all about ritual and nothing about the ethics and values? The Judaism that you have chosen is a Judaism that answers that question clearly. Judaism is neither fanatical nor archaic. Judaism is modern and has great depth. It is the tool by which we teach our children values and ethics. It is the lens we use to see the world. We read stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to teach ourselves and our children about the importance of kindness, love, and compassion. We read the stories about Kings David, Solomon, and Saul to teach us that we are not perfect, and that we must forgive ourselves and others. These are the ethics and morals that all good people's wish to teach their children. Why would anyone distance themselves from these metaphors? People do so because fanatics declare what is Jewish or Christian. And the average person says, that stuff is crazy. Judaism is not archaic or fanatical. It’s lessons are real.

            What about the rituals we practice. In this community, we do certain rituals not just because they are written in the Torah or Jewish Law. We do them because they lead us to grander wisdom and kinder actions. We perform the Seder, not because the Torah says on the 15th day of Nisan we do so. Rather, we do it because it reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt. With that reminder, we are encouraged to help those enslaved, because we were enslaved. We build the Sukkah for similar reasons. It is a fabulous teaching tool. It helps remind us that we wandered the land after leaving Egypt. Therefore, we must remember those that are poor and less fortunate, like we were.

           If we did things just because it was literally written in the Torah, then we’d all take our rebellious teens and throw stones at them. If we did things just because it was literally written, then we would not allow women or non-Jews to participate in our services. Judaism has existed for over 3000 years because of its respect for Torah and honor towards letting it breath to fit with modernity.

            Fanatical Jewish practice is not what you signed up for and neither did I. The Judaism that you have chosen is a Judaism that in the 1960s marched with Martin Luther King. The Judaism that you have chosen is a Judaism that in the 1970s fought for a women's right to choose. The Judaism that you have chosen is a Judaism that in the 1980s fought for Soviet Jews to be released. The Judaism that you have chosen is a Judaism that encourages all peoples to be welcomed and participate in the rituals and practices. Somewhere down the road we have forgotten our commitment and our passion for justice, righteousness, and acts of Gimilut Chasadim.

            And lest you think that this is just some liberal rabbi’s rant. As I said before, these values have always been embedded in Judaism. Many of you are familiar with the 2000-year-old text that states that “The world stands on three things on Torah, on prayer, and on acts of loving kindness.” What many of you may not know is that the original text stated that “The world stands on three things: on Torah, on sacrifice, and on acts of loving kindness.” After that text was written, the Temple was destroyed, which prevented the Israelites from offering sacrifices. The response from our great sages was to modernize the text. The response from our great sages was to apply the lessons from the text and not leave it. The outcome was the text that you all know today. The great rabbis replaced sacrifice with prayer. In doing that our sages helped us to understand that Judaism is something that must constantly apply to our lives and not be archaic or followed in a fanatical way.

            Fanatics that have superstitious and non-rational explanations for the happenings of this world, might have a vote in Judaism but they do not have a veto. Judaism is there for all of you to help teach THE important values and ethics. It is truly a lens to use to see the world.  Judaism has wonderful rituals and practices, like the Seder and putting up Sukkah, to guide us towards that knowledge. They are vehicles to help us teach greater lessons. Your Judaism is not one that preaches hatred or violence. The Judaism that represents this community is one of love and compassion. May our participation and practice in a less fanatical Judaism help others to see that Judaism is not crazy. It’s cool.

May it be God’s will.  Amein.

Fri, April 10 2020 16 Nisan 5780