RH1 Morning Sermon – Torah
The US is one of the most religious countries in the world. It is also a nation of appalling religious illiteracy. A 2017 Gallup poll showed that 38% of Americans believe that Earth is no more than 10,000 years old, and that evolution played no part in the creation of humanity. That’s almost 4 out of every 10 Americans! 71% of Americans believe that the Bible is either written by G-d or divinely inspired and holds the answers to life’s most basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels in the New Testament. 12% of American adults believe that Joan of Ark was Noah’s wife! More than 50% of High School seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife!
In rabbinical school, I read a book entitled, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t.In it, Stephen Prothero, who happens to chair the Religion Department at Boston University, bemoans the lack of basic knowledge about religion among Americans. We may be a deeply religious nation, but one where “faith without understanding is the standard” and “religious ignorance is bliss,” he argues.
Prothero considers such religious illiteracy dangerous, “because religion is one of the most volatile components of culture and has been, in addition to one of the greatest forces for good in the world, [also] one of the greatest forces of evil.” He continues to say that “we have a major civic problem on our hands.” Prothero’s remedy is teaching religion in the public schools – religion as an academic discipline, without endorsement or preaching. Along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, religion would become the fourth “R” of American education.
As problematic as it would be to implement such a curriculum, I think that Prothero is right. We cannot graduate and send into our religiously diverse world Americans who are ignorant or misinformed about one of the most important forces shaping American and international relationships. Our country has sent diplomats to Arab countries who are hardly aware of the differences between Sunni and Shia forms of Islam.
Prothero dates the long decline in American religious literacy from the Second Great Awakening of the early 19thcentury, when a wave of evangelical revivalism swept the country. Revival was rooted in the experience of a personal relationship with G-d rather than in knowledge of religious doctrine or theology. Interestingly, a similar development took place within Judaism with the birth of Hasidism in Eastern Europe during the late 18thand early 19thcenturies. The Hasidic emphasis was on spiritual awakening and mystical experience rather than on learning and knowledge – it addressed the heart rather than the mind.
Along with such a spiritual awakening in America, there came a strong anti-intellectual trend that one can still find in certain expressions of Christianity, and is unabashedly professed by some of our most visible political leaders. I can assure you that in the Gospels, Jesus never preached about abstinence and regarding war, his attitude was to turn the other cheek and to love your enemies.
The 20thcentury decline in religious literacy is a result of changes in both religion and society. The blessings of American democracy and pluralism have required a tolerance of faiths for the purposes of getting along, an emphasis on religious similarities rather than distinctions. The very American notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition submerges the significant differences between Judaism and Christianity under the happy hyphen of equality and cooperation.
What worries me as a Jew is that we, too, have accepted this approach. In the name of universalism, we are happy to reduce religion to a minimum common denominator and buy into the notion that religion is all about “faith” and “spirituality,” terms that themselves have become less and less a part of our daily lives. For all too many Jews, Judaism is diluted either into a simple notion of monotheism (belief in one G-d), or emphasis on rituals and practices, whose origins and meanings are hardly understood. According to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, “the primary requisite for the continuity of Jewish consciousness is not blind acceptance of the traditional beliefs, but a vital interest in the objects upon which those beliefs were centered.”
Regrettably, very little of American Judaism is based on a thoughtful, informed, reflective approach. Judaism is too often just a “good feeling” we get from coming together for weddings, B’nai Mitzvah, Brisses and namings, or the nostalgia and comfort we garner from saying Kaddish at a graveside and at Yizkor on Yom Kippur. For many, American Judaism is life-cycle Judaism, episodic Judaism for the extraordinary moments. It is not life informing and transforming Judaism. It takes us from pinnacle to pinnacle, but it hardly sustains and nurtures us during the journey.
The word halachasignifies Jewish law, but the literal meaning of halachais “walking.” Through its 613 commandments, the Torah offers a uniquely Jewish way of “walking” in the world, or as Kaplan called it, “Poetry in action.” Guided by Jewish ethics, values, and culture, we can experience every moment of every day with a sense of connection, gratitude, and righteousness.
The Torah was written thousands of years ago, but its wisdom has been unfolding ever since and continues to this day. Over the centuries, thousands of Jews across the globe have added their voices and opinions to our ever-expanding Torah. As circumstances have evolved over the centuries, so too has the Torah, to meet the needs of each generation. Torah, in this sense, is not merely a book of history or law.
In his magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote, “In the first place, it is evident that when the ancients spoke of Torah they were very far from being book-minded about it as we are. We come nearest to experiencing how they felt about Torah when we realize that Torah was to them, in effect, the hypostasis (or essential nature) of the civilization of the Jewish people…The sense of supreme advantage Jews felt in possessing the Torah can best be understood if interpreted as equivalent to the belief that theirs was the only true civilization.” For Kaplan as well as for the ancients, the Torah represents our highest ideals for how to live the best life and how societies should be structured.
This attitude can also be seen in the Book of Deuteronomy where we read, “Observe therefore and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”
In Jewish tradition, intellectual and spiritual growth go hand in hand. Nobody here, myself included, could be called a “fully learned Jew,” because one lifetime is not enough to learn the worlds of knowledge that Judaism encompasses. We’re not fully learned Jews, but we can be learn-ing and engaged Jews. The ancient rabbis said, Lo am Ha’aretz hasid, “The ignorant cannot be pious.” The Book of Proverbs reminds us, “Zeal without knowledge is not good.” This is in contrast to the dominant ethos of revivalist faith where intellect is the enemy and blind certainty is preferred to questions and doubt.
For some, knowledge of Hebrew is a barrier to Jewish learning. We may not all be speakers of the language, but we do recognize and can use some of the basic values vocabulary – words like: tzedaka, mitzvah, teshuvah, shalom, bracha. Also, at this point, every American is well-versed in Yiddish words, from chutzpahand kvetch to meshuggah and shlep.
Today, we’re all Jews by choice whether we were born Jewish or not. Nobody forced you to be here this morning. Being Jewish is a choice, and so is doing Jewish, to make the effort and set aside the time. Jewish learning is too important and interesting, too intimately tied to our personal growth and communal future, to relegate only to kids under 13. If Jewish learning stops for all practical purposes at Bar/Bat Mitzvah age or Confirmation, then we will end up with a pediatric or adolescent Judaism, a level we would not tolerate in any other facet of learning and experience in our personal or communal lives.
As we make New Year resolutions, let us resolve to make Judaism not merely our inheritance, a museum piece that we uphold and respect out of a sense of noble obligation. The ancient rabbis warned, “Ein haTorah overet k’yerusha. Kol dor tzarikh lilmod otah mechadash– The Torah is not inherited as an heirloom. Every generation needs to learn it anew from scratch!” It is not enough to receive and conserve Judaism, to preserve Jewish nostalgia. Judaism requires that we own and transform and transmit it, that we create new experiences and provide fresh memories for a new generation that will in turn learn it, live it, and care for it, because they know that we learned it, lived it, and cared for it, too.
In this season of teshuva, of change, of new beginnings and renewal, I ask you to renew your commitment to Jewish learning, our history, our ideas, our faith, our heritage, our challenges, our successes. Let this not be a year when we simply pay our respects and nod to Judaism. Let it be a year of engagement, a year when we put Jewish celebration and learning into our calendar. Much is at stake. The entries you make may be an appointment with destiny. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, zil g’mor, go forth and learn.