Prophetic Judaism Erev Rosh Hashanah 2012-5773
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman
Israeli Author, Doron Kornbluth tells this story:
I was in eighth grade and my classmate Kevin came over to me. He told me to sit down because he had a great joke to tell me. A few of the guys were smiling.
Two polar bears are sitting in a bathtub. The first one says, “Pass the soap.”
One of the onlookers started cracking up. As he left our little group, he kept laughing and repeating the words, “I can’t, I can’t…”
Kevin looked at me and finished the joke.
So again, two polar bears are sitting in a bathtub. The first one says, “Pass the soap.” And then … the second one says … [here Kevin had to hold himself in] … the second one says, “No soap, radio!”
At this point, the entire group gathered around started losing it. I don’t mean little chuckles. I mean loud, uproarious belly laughter.
I was the only person who didn’t get the joke. And they were starting to notice. So I started laughing too. This made everyone else laugh even more.
Only later did I realize why.
Kevin and the guys had set me up with a non-joke, a punch line lacking any humor at all. The whole point was to put me on the spot. They wanted to see if I would laugh along with the group just to fit in, despite having nothing funny to laugh at.
The joke was on me. And I fell for it.
Kornbluth’s story tells us something about conformity. Most of us will conform most of the time without much thought. We follow fads, fashion trends, crowds walking down paths. If we are not paying attention, we might even follow the car ahead of us going somewhere we had no intention of going. That is why there are those warnings on construction trucks that say, “Do not follow into construction area!” Without warning road signs or horns blaring at us, we will drive on believing without question that the way we are going, the road ahead, must be good because it has been well traveled.
Few of us, when faced with the choice of the road more traveled and the road less traveled will take the latter. Most of us follow our GPS navigation devices without question, sticking to the highways. Few of us realize that we act this way, not only when driving, but in most of the things we do in our lives: how we dress, how we act in social circumstances, but also what we believe about our world in general. We go through our lives too often barely paying attention, simply doing what we have always done in the same ways that most people do them.
Judaism and its prophetic tradition in particular teach us precisely not to do this. We are not supposed to assimilate, to lose our identity. We are supposed to stand out, to miss work and school for the holidays. We are supposed to be respectful of the religious traditions of others, but not to adopt them simply to fit in with those of other faiths. Historically, this has been one of the major criticisms leveled against Reform Jews by those adhering to tradition. In many places, Reform Jews held Sabbath services on Sunday mornings, dressed just as any other people who were going to worship on Sunday might dress, and prayed in the vernacular, English or German, rather than in Hebrew or Yiddish. For Reform Jews, it was the content of the services and the meaning of the prayers that were most important to maintain, not necessarily keeping age old customs for tradition’s sake.
Reformers believed that modernity required some changes as did necessity, but it also required that we remember timeless values, not forgetting those essential ideals that form the basis of our Judaism. We are supposed to stand up for what is right and good in the midst of wrong and evil for certain, but in the midst of acceptance and comfort as well.
The Rabbis [Pirkei Avot] teach us, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man,” which we take to mean that “In a place where people are acting inhumanely to one another, we should strive to act humanely.”
We are to be the voice that cries out “Hope!” from the midst of the wilderness of despair.
We are also the ones who cry “Never Again!” while all too many notice nothing going on.
We are the ones who in the face of daunting challenges recite the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither may you desist from it.”
Too often these days, we do not pay much attention to the world around us. We are so busy moving on the highway of life that the things going on around us are but a blur. Today, a day on which we read of a divinity who said “No! Do not lay a hand upon the child…,” in my opinion demonstrating that our God did not wish for Abraham to conform to the standard practices of his age by sacrificing his first born son, let us reconsider and perhaps reclaim the prophetic tradition.
How do we go about doing that? I have some ideas as does our tradition. I will begin by briefly addressing the nature of Biblical Prophecy. Then I will discuss the Prophetic Judaism that formed the basis of Reform Judaism for much of its history. Finally, I will address the need to rekindle the prophetic voice today. As I will note, challenging conformity is part of the very essence of Reform Judaism.
The Biblical Prophets
Among the favorite topics of the prophets was the relationship between God and the people Israel. When the people were thriving but forgetting to worship God properly or were worshipping the gods of other peoples, conforming to local customs, the prophets warned the people to correct their behavior or there would be consequences. However, the prophets also preached hope at times when conformity meant living in hopelessness. When the people were suffering and saw no light in the future, the prophets reassured the people that God would return them to a position of blessing. These messages of faith offered by the prophets were not as important to Reform Judaism as a third message, that of social consciousness, which is also found throughout the prophetic works.
If you look up the origins of Reform Judaism, you would find that while Reform Judaism does consider itself based upon modern interpretation of the meaning and values of the Torah, it has historically been more focused on the Prophetic Tradition. Reform Judaism is not Halakhic, based in Talmudic interpretations of the law like Orthodox Judaism or in modern interpretations of it such as Conservative Judaism, but primarily is a religious tradition based upon the ethical and moral imperatives of the Jewish tradition. Many of those imperatives are found the Torah, such as the one etched in stone on the side of this building, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Many more of these imperatives are found in the prophetic works.
The rabbis who led the development of Reform Judaism through the 19th Century expressed belief in what was called “The Mission of Israel.” These rabbis believed that unlike every other religious people, those who had chosen to call themselves Jews took up the prophetic mantle to challenge conformity and to bring light into a world filled with darkness.
The Mission of Israel was based on the words of the prophet Isaiah .
I, Adonai, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant people and a light unto the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
While we, today, have largely, if not completely rejected, the idea that God chose us as a people for a special purpose in life, Classical Reform Judaism believed that Jews were chosen to carry out the Mission of Israel. Our mission required that we be dispersed among the nations, no longer in the land, and no longer had anything to do with a sacrificial Temple cult. To make that very point, many congregations came to call their places of worship, “Temples.” Our offerings are our prayers and our good deeds.
Moreover, Reform Judaism came to embrace working in partnership with those of other faiths and welcoming Jews-by-choice into our midst in large numbers. The Mission of Israel became not a mission for Israel as a nation, but for those who chose to associate themselves with the Jewish people. Chosen-ness came to be applied not in its traditional sense of God choosing us, but of us choosing to do this work, to follow these imperatives. We, Reform Jews, are all Jews by choice.
As Reform Jews, we took on the voice of the prophets and sought to act out their ideals.
With the industrial age and gross disparities of wealth and power in Europe and America, the prophetic vision took on greater import. Events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire focused attention upon the flaws of a society where conformity meant workers accepting abuses, a society in which half of the population, women, were unable to vote, and wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rothschilds lived in luxury beyond imagination while workers suffered and too often died to make a pittance in unsafe factories.
George Vanderbilt’s estate in western North Carolina, completed in 1895, required that a three mile long spur rail line be created so that the massive amount of stone and other materials needed to could arrive at the site. Constructed on 125,000 acres near Ashville, the home sat on four acres of floor space and had 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. The basement alone would house a swimming pool, gymnasium and changing rooms, a bowling alley, servants' quarters, kitchens, and more. It was one of the very first homes, if not the first, to have electricity. In New York City, multiple families lived in the same small squalid apartment.
As immigrants came to America by the millions before and after World War I and as the entire world faced the Great Depression, the message of the prophets became more and more relevant.
At convention in Columbus in 1937, the Reform rabbis put forth a platform containing a powerful vision of the Mission of Israel. These words still ring true for those of us who see Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, as of vital importance:
We regard it as our historic task to cooperate with all men in the establishment of the kingdom of God, of universal brotherhood, justice, truth, and peace on earth. This is our Messianic goal.
In Judaism religion and morality blend into an indissoluble unity. Seeking God means to strive after holiness, righteousness and goodness. The love of God is incomplete without the love of one's fellowmen. Judaism emphasizes the kinship of the human race, the sanctity and worth of human life and personality and the right of the individual to freedom and to the pursuit of his chosen vocation. Justice to all, irrespective of race, sect or class, is the inalienable right and the inescapable obligation of all. The state and organized government exist in order to further these ends.
Judaism seeks the attainment of a just society by the application of its teachings to the economic order, to industry and commerce, and to national and international affairs. It aims at the elimination of man-made misery and suffering, of poverty and degradation, of tyranny and slavery, of social inequality and prejudice, of ill-will and strife. It advocates the promotion of harmonious relations between warring classes on the basis of equity and justice, and the creation of conditions under which human personality may flourish. It pleads for the safeguarding of childhood against exploitation. It champions the cause of all who work and of their right to an adequate standard of living, as prior to the rights of property. Judaism emphasizes the duty of charity, and strives for a social order which will protect men against the material disabilities of old age, sickness and unemployment.
This lofty inspiring language is all but gone in the similar document produced in Pittsburgh in 1999, where much more generic language has replaced it, but the meaning is still clear: Reform Judaism should be significantly about challenging social norms, rebelling against conformity to standard practices that may be unhealthy for us or for society, and acting upon the prophetic imperative to repair the world. Yet, for too many of us, it is not so today.
Meeting the Challenge
So how do we get there? How do we meet the challenge of bringing Prophetic Judaism back to the forefront of Reform Judaism and, more so, into the lives of Reform Jews? How do we find that prophetic voice again?
Mahatma Ghandi is reported to have said something that is often repeated these days in a political context, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” Waylon Lewis, the Buddhist founder of the Elephant Journal, which is not connected to the Republican party, but rather to the spirituality of India, notes that Ghandi did not actually say those words, though they look good on a bumper sticker. What Ghandi actually said was:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.
We, each of us, can impact our world. Individually, we can make a difference. The rabbinic literature teaches us [Pirkei Avot], “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah,” “a good deed will bring about another good deed, a curse will bring about another curse.” If all of us were to change our behavior to enact good deeds on a regular basis, our world will change. This philosophical point of view is not by any means new. The Torah portion that we will read on Yom Kippur tells us that the choice is ours:
What I am commanding you this day is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.
Every year, I am struck by a profound contrast between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, we read of Abraham’s test and that an angel of God had to call down to Abraham twice to stay his hand, “Avraham! Avraham! Lay not a hand upon the child.” While on Yom Kippur, we are told that the power to choose life “so that we and our children may live” is ours. What brings about this change?
The ram’s horn. We wake up. The choice was always there. The choice is always there. Sometimes we simply go through life conforming without thinking, obeying without questioning. The shofar wakes us from our stupor and demands that we pay attention. In a sense, our Mission as Reform Jews is to be that shofar for humanity.
The reality is that most of us go through life not looking for problems, not veering from the road more travelled, not looking for what is missing in our lives or in our society, but should be present. We do not wish our own comfortable lives to be afflicted, nor to afflict the comfortable.
We often do not like what the prophets have to say. But we should care what they have to say. We should listen to that challenging voice. It makes all of us try harder. It reminds us that while we know that feeding the hungry is something that we should do, perhaps we do not do it regularly or enough. It reminds us that while we may be concerned about whether or not to buy the giant screen high definition television or settle for just the large screen one, that some people do not even have books to read and have never had the opportunity to watch television. It reminds us that as we sleep soundly, our bellies full, in our mosquito free beds, there are those who sleep in caves or even in the open air, having had little or nothing to eat for days, and do not even own mosquito nets to keep them safe from deadly diseases.
Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, offered us this challenge during the High Holidays:
Wake up you sleepers from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return in penitence.
Return. Make teshuva, a turning. Find the right direction, not just the well traveled one. Stand up for what you believe to be right and good in the face of pressure to conform. Then we may reclaim the Prophetic voice and we can renew the Mission of Israel to bring light unto the nations.
“No soap! Radio!” really isn’t funny.
To quote the poet Robert Frost, when he spoke about making a choice between following a road already worn flat by the feet of many or forging his own path:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu! May you be inscribed for a good and happy year.