Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2018

Erev RH Sermon 5779

Simply put, Judaism is the way of life of the Jewish people. That statement might surprise you, but let me explain. In the English-speaking Western world, Judaism is considered a religion, but actually, there are no equivalent words for “Judaism” or “religion” in the entire Torah; there are words for “faith,” “law,” or “custom,” but not for “religion.” “Religion” in the sense of beliefs and practices associated with a relationship with G-d or a vision of transcendence, is only one aspect of Jewish life. The Jewish tradition is much broader than a relationship with a higher power. As a way of life, the Jewish traditions include the social, cultural, and religious history of widespread and diverse communities, including people who do and people who do not think of themselves as “religious.”

Judaism embraces the intricate religious and cultural development of the Jewish people through more than thirty centuries of history, stretching from Biblical times to medieval Spain to the modern Emancipation, and then to the Holocaust and the founding of the modern state of Israel. The result is an experience that reflects the accumulated developments of both religious practice and peoplehood.

Jewish peoplehood, simply put, is the group memory of the myriad communities and cultures formed by Jewish people through the ages. It consists not only of Torah (divine revelation) and mitzvot (divine commandments), but also the diverse cultures of the Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) communities. It includes not only the visible markers of religious observance, such as the kippah, or payis, ortzitzis, but also the communal structures of the kehillahand the shtetl, and what some would call “politics”—whether in Poland, America, or Israel. And it includes the whole range of Jewish education and family life, food and festival, music and dance, and custom and humor.

Each part of the Jewish tradition is integrally related to the whole. Jewish religion and Jewish culture are more than complementary, they are symbiotic; one is inconceivable without the other. When the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, proclaimed the Jewish religion to be a “civilization” in 1934, he was simply articulating the common experience of Jews throughout history, around the world.  In Judaism as a Civilization, the main thrust of Kaplan’s argument is that Judaism is and always has been, “the evolvingreligious civilization of the Jewish people.” He wasn’t trying to change Judaism, rather he sought to frame the reality of Jewish experience in such a way that could maintain the vitality, joy, and meaning of Jewish living for the 20thcentury.

Kaplan understood the core of Judaism to be like three spokes on a wheel: G-d, Torah, and the people Israel (that is, the Jewish people). None is central; all are interdependent, with varying degrees of emphasis at various times. G-d is the G-d of Israel, the G-d of all creation, the G-d who is One. Torah embodies Judaism’s intellectual culture, focusing on the study, understanding, and interpretation of sacred texts. Israel focuses on Judaism as a historical culture and the civilization of a particular people; the “peoplehood” of the Jews includes customs and foods, arts and music, dance and folkways that are part of a way of life.

These three connotations of Judaism as a monotheistic system (G-d), as a literary tradition (Torah), and as a historical culture (the people Israel), are sometimes viewed separately. For example, there are Jews who tend to see themselves as culturally Jewish, but who are also non-religious or atheist, often identifying more strongly with Jewish “peoplehood” than with traditional understandings of G-d and Torah. Even so, all Jews can recognize that these three points of reference have shaped and guided Jewish experience through the ages. They are interrelated, each intimately connected with the others.

From the religious perspective, G-d is the source of all things. G-d composed the Torah as the blueprint for creation, and G-d entered into a covenant with the Jewish people. From this perspective, Torah is G-d’s Revelation; Israel G-d’s “Chosen People.” From the perspective of Jewish intellectual and literary culture, however, Torah is the central symbol. The task of Israel is the study and interpretation of Torah. G-d is the wellspring of Torah, the creative source, the “divine inspiration.” It is through Torah that G-d is known.

And from the more secular perspective of Jewish peoplehood, one may not experience G-d as a living reality, but still understand the “G-d-idea,” the concept of monotheism, as a great Jewish contribution to the world’s religious heritage. One may not understand Torah to be divinely revealed, but recognize it as the great Jewish literary achievement, which—together with Talmud—forms the basis of Jewish life. The Torah is Israel’s great historical and legal text, its constitution.

Throughout these Days of Awe, we’ll be delving more deeply into the core concepts of G-d, Torah, and Israel, as understood by Kaplan, as well as some 21stcentury framing.  Tomorrow’s Torah reading is about the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac. Though the events occurred thousands of years ago, we return to this family drama every year, hoping to gain new insights and wisdom from the same Torah text.  As the rabbis decreed some 2,000 years ago regarding the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.” So tomorrow, I’ll be talking about Torah and why it’s so important to keep it alive.

On Rosh Hashanah Day 2, we’ll read Akeidat Yitzhak, the story of how Isaac was almost offered as a human sacrifice.  At face value, it’s a troubling story.  Through the ages, the Jewish people have wrestled with our understanding of G-d and how G-d works in the world.  In fact, the word “Israel” means G-d-wrestler, stemming from the story when Jacob wrestled with a divine messenger all night long, and his name was changed permanently thereafter to Israel, as it says in Genesis, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have wrestled with G-d and with men, and have prevailed.” So on Wednesday, I’ll be discussing G-d and how we can still find divinity in contemporary life.

Finally, Yom Kippur is the day that the entire people Israel are granted atonement for our sins from the previous year.  As we’re all united in our beseeching G-d for atonement that day, I’ll explain how the people Israel remain connected and responsible to one another even in the year 2018, or 5779.

The core concepts of G-d, Torah, and Israel are like three spokes on a wheel that is continuously spinning. As we move together through the Days of Awe, we will be guided by these interconnected themes, coming out with a greater understanding of what it means to be Jewish in 2018, and why that’s such a blessing for ourselves and the world.