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Congregation Brothers of Israel

L'dor Vador—From Generation to Generation since 1883
לדור ודור

 

Every year, rabbis in Philadelphia and across the world work to strike a certain balance in their High Holiday sermons.

How much do you talk about politics, if at all? How much do you focus on the affairs of the day, and how much do you speak to what is perennially relevant, unbound by the events of a particular year? Can such a thing even be done? Is that a desirable path?

The pandemic, then, presents an interesting problem, according to congregational rabbis. Even if you wanted to keep direct discussion of the coronavirus to a minimum, the simple fact that most sermons will be delivered via pixelated pulpits serves as an unavoidable reminder

In many cases, rabbis have adjusted more than just their presentation styles for these upcoming High Holiday sermons; the content of their speeches has been affected as well. But for others, the volatility of the moment was a reason to hew just as close to universal themes as always. And for just a few, there was no contradiction there.

When it comes to writing a sermon, every year is a new trial. This one was no exception.

“It was challenging in a different way,” said Rabbi Kami Knapp Schechter of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn. “I really had to channel my thinking to what might my congregants want to hear, but also, what is most authentic to me in this moment. What I didn’t want to do is give a sermon that I didn’t believe in myself, and so I really struggled with trying to balance those two.”

In the end, Knapp Shechter said, she decided to deliver her sermon on a fairly portable theme — resilience — but the pandemic has left its mark on the speech. It will be given via Zoom and, echoing the intuition of many a rabbi, the sermon will be on the shorter side. In Knapp Shechter’s case, it will be about half its typical length. That is a frequent refrain among local rabbis.

Rabbi Aaron Gaber Photo by Rabbi Aaron Gaber

Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown is feeling the same squeeze, as he will shorten his normal 20-25 minute speech into a 10-12 minute edition. Gaber, in deciding how he would prepare this year’s speech, thought back to his writing process for the High Holidays that followed 9/11; then, as now, the enormity of what had happened was such that all roads seemed to lead back to universal themes. In that case, it was shiva; this year, it will be healing.

“It’s always the eternal teachings,” Gaber said. “It’s always the Jewish values first.”

Put even more specifically, by Rabbi Dovid Max of the Community Torah Center of Bucks County: His focus will be on the bolded and underlined meaning of Unetaneh Tokef.

At Congregation Dibrot Eliyahu, a small Sephardi synagogue in Rhawnhurst, Rabbi Elchanan Abergel will deliver his sermon in person to a socially distanced, masked congregation. Abergel was straightforward: Besides the necessary health considerations, he will do his best to keep the High Holidays as close to normal as possible, sermon included. The fundamentals of the holiday, and what it means for the Jewish people.

“The basic idea probably will stay the same,” he said.

This is more or less in line with what Rabbi Yossi Kaplan is planning to do at Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County, though he was a bit more pointed in his reasoning. He will speak directly to the suffering that his congregants have felt in these last few months, but the synagogue, Kaplan believes, is the place to think about the eternal.
It’s not an escape — “God forbid, to say synagogue is an escape” — but is an “escape from the mundane,” as he put it.

“Every rabbi should be talking about those things that are eternal,” he said. “Our relationship to God, how we’re speaking to God this year.” Some may talk politics from the bimah, but he will not, Kaplan said.

To Rabbi Julie Greenberg of Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir, it’s a different calculation. The spiritual leader of the Center City-based congregation is inclined to see spirituality as “essentially political.”

“It’s not about telling people who to vote for,” she said. “It’s about values, wisdom, consciousness.” In general, Greenberg said, she and the members of Leyv Ha-ir are taking this time to reassess.

“We’re really reconceptualizing,” she said. “What’s meaningful about this? What’s essential about this? What’s engaging? What’s the real purpose? That’s been an amazing activity and, in Reconstructing Judaism, we do that in a very democratic, participatory way.”

Glenn Ettman, senior rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, is similarly inclined. Part of what he’ll speak about this year, he said, is “our obligation to hear the voices of the prophets, and to speak truth to power, and to embrace the moment of need to stand up against systematic racial injustice, and ageism, and sexism, and gun violence, and what we can do to stand with others.”

To Rabbi Linda Potemken of Congregation Beth Israel in Media, applying the teachings of the High Holidays to the present moment hardly represents a contradiction.

“The messages are always relevant, but I think that they’re even more relevant,” she said. “They’re shouting right now.”

 

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QUestions energize our pursuit of truth

by Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank

Way back when you were sitting in some Hebrew School classroom, one of your teachers may have told you that God wrote the Torah. Or alternatively, the teacher may have claimed that God dictated the Torah to Moses, who then wrote it down himself. You may or may not have questioned that tidbit of knowledge, but with maturity and a growing sense of independence, you may have entertained some doubts. Does God write books? Could Moses have been God’s secretary? And if the Torah was written the way other books get written, via human imagination, in what way could it be sacred? These are the kinds of questions that place our faith at odds with what we perceive to be the truth. And for us contemporary Jews who want to believe, but who want to believe without a suspension or worse yet, an offense of our rational selves, it’s problematic.

What about the afterlife? Is it real? For anyone who has sat down with the oft-quoted work, Pirkei Avot, you know that this sacred text begins with the words, “All of Israel has a share in the World to Come…” What does that “World to Come” look like? How can we be sure that it really exists? Do we simply accept its existence as a principle of faith? And if we believe that at death, we have come to an end, which is very much an end and no more, have we damaged our faith such that we are no longer good Jews—whatever that means?

I recently published a book entitled, “A Full-Figured Faith,” which is an examination of the interplay between faith and truth. For so many years, I have listened to the stories of Jewish people who have struggled to reconcile a principle of faith with their own understanding of truth. The dissonance between faith and truth leaves probing Jews in an uncomfortable space, not knowing whether their doubt and skepticism are kosher, and ultimately, whether they have betrayed the very faith they seek to embrace.

In speaking with Jews of unquestioning faith, I am struck with how they have been able to block the very questions that bother so many other believing Jews. By suppressing questions of science and reason, “the faithful” need not consider the challenge of evolution to the Biblical creation story, or how a growing body of knowledge about human sexuality might cast a different light on homosexuality, or the way the social advancement of women in our own time necessarily impacts women’s involvement in Jewish communal life. It’s a deep irony that the very people who isolate their faith from the impact of such questions are known as people with emunah sheleimah, full or perfect faith. It seems more the zealous defense of a thin or tenuous faith, one that could not withstand the penetrating questions of modernity. But that still does not answer the dilemma of Conservative or generally liberal Jews who may feel their skepticism has indeed compromised their faith.

There are three principles that may be of help to all Jews who feel caught between their faith and truth.

Seeking truth and embracing faith are complementary. Traditional Judaism has forever linked truth to God, acknowledging that connection in daily prayers. We pray both day and night: Adonai Eloheikhem Emet—the Lord, your God, is Truth. We may not think of Isaac Newton as a prophet of God, but when he determined that force equals mass times acceleration, he lifted the veil on one of God’s blueprints of the universe. Many such scientific discoveries are the same. When we ascertain how the world works, we peer into the mind of God. Far from being a heretical act, it is yet another way to connect with God.
There is no such thing as perfect faith. Some scholars have noted that there is not even a word in ancient Hebrew for perfection. Perfection is most likely a figment of the Greek imagination, and even they located it in the heavens above rather than on earth below. If we feel our faith to be in some way imperfect, that happily may be a mere confession of honesty, but not infidelity.
A questionable article of faith need not be abandoned as much as redefined. Taking as an example the authorship of the Torah, and the possibility of humans having written it, how are we to regard it as sacred, having placed its provenance in the hands of flesh and blood? We can do so by thinking of God less as a Being and more like a Becoming, a sort of energy or dynamism that generates good within the world. Humans of talent and sensitivity can then access that energy to produce appealing works of enduring significance. When we hear a piece of music that moves us, or see a play that inspires us, or read a novel that energizes us, we have encountered a creation that has captured a smidgen of that divine energy. And when that creation is sanctified by an entire people, we then have a sacred work. People do create holiness. Our ancestors, who wrote the Torah, did just that.
Here’s the good news. Jews have a long and cherished tradition of questioning. The Passover seder hinges on four questions. Were we to remove the questions from the Talmud, we would substantially reduce its 2,711 double-pages to a fraction of its former self, and one not half as interesting. Our faith is a sacred part of our character and our questions no less. It is our questions that energize our pursuit of truth. Anyone who strives for a deeper understanding of the world is engaged in a sacred pursuit, one compatible with faith, and of that, I am certain, there is no doubt.

Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank is Senior Rabbi at Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, New York. He is also a past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly and co-editor of the widely used Moreh Derekh, a rabbi’s guide for ritual ceremonies.

Excerpt from February 2020 USCJ's Journeys Magazine

Tue, October 27 2020 9 Cheshvan 5781