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teachings from our rabbi

NEWS AND VIEWS FROM RABBI MICAH STREIFFER


 

Read below for sermons, writings, and messages from our rabbi. Feel free to email  Rabbi Streiffer with thoughts or comments!

 

 

Recent Posts:

 

Wherein I Reveal The Meaning of Life

Rabbi Steiffer

In Douglas Adams's cult novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, several characters build a giant computer to tell them the meaning of life. After millions of years of experimentation, the computer (with much fanfare) finally spits out an answer: the number 42.

But that makes no sense! How can “42” be the answer to life, the universe, and everything? The computer has some insight into this: “I think the problem is that you've never actually known what the question is.”

Judaism, perhaps like sci-fi, is also an attempt to find meaning in life. But the Jewish way isn’t to do it through complex computer equations, but rather through the way we live. When the Rabbis of the Talmud asked this question, they didn’t come up with a number, but a set of instructions:

The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of kindness. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

This is the Rabbis’ threefold “recipe” for a meaningful life:

Torah – Study is absolutely central to Jewish life. It is the route by which we learn about ourselves and about the world around us. Through study, we reach for meaning intellectually, by trying to understand it.

Worship – We might expand this to “spirituality.” It is the act of building a relationship with what is larger than us (however we conceive it – as a supernatural God or as the natural processes that make for meaning). This might look like prayer, mindfulness, meditation, or reciting blessings. Through worship, we reach for meaning by trying to touch it.

Acts of Kindness – As Jews we are called upon not only to think, not only to strive for meaning, but to do things that actively make our world better. Through Tikkun Olam, we reach for meaning by trying to actualize it.

Living a Jewish life is ultimately a search for meaning through the combination of these three acts. Looking over our calendar of events, I am proud of the ways that our community engages together. This month alone, we will come together for creative and musical worship services, for stimulating learning activities, and for acts of repair and renewal for our world. I hope to see you at Sushi & Study, or Ruach Shabbat, or Rock Shabbat in the Park, or the blood drive, or any of the other many times we will come together. These aren’t just activities – they are ingredients in our individual and congregational search for meaning.

I think Adams got it right: the meaning of life isn't an answer – it's a question. And we answer that question through the way we live. I’m glad that we, as a congregation, as on that journey together.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

For Our Teachers and Their Students

Rabbi Streiffer

An ancient Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter for yourself.”

This is not a Jewish saying, but it is a Jewish idea. Our tradition prizes learning and teaching perhaps above all else. We are taught in the Mishnah that a life of learning is of equal weight to all of the mitzvot put together. We even created a special honourific name for teachers – the word “Rabbi,” which literally means “The Great One” in Hebrew. (As if rabbis need any help singing their own praises…)

And like the Chinese proverb above, Judaism reminds us that learning is not the responsibility of the teacher but of the learner. Throughout our texts, we are exhorted to be lifelong learners of Torah. To be wrestlers with God and with tradition. To strive toward our best and most knowledgeable selves.

The Hebrew word for Scholar is Talmid Chacham which means, ironically, “Wise Student.” To be a teacher is to be a lifelong learner. To be a scholar is to know that there is much you do not know.

We Jews build our lives around this notion, and we have done so at Kol Ami as well. A few years ago, we revamped our Madrichim (Teacher Helper) program and combined it with our Confirmation (Post-B’nai Mitzvah learning) program. All of our student teachers - our teens who serve as helpers and role models for younger students – are learners in their own right. They spend time together on Shabbat mornings discussing Judaism from a teen perspective and delving into their own beliefs. By the same token, our Religious School teachers go through regular learning and enrichment sessions, led by Judy Silver who herself models the value of learning. This month, Judy will receive the Masters of Jewish Education toward which she has been working for 2 years. Mazal Tov Judy!!

This month we honour our teachers and our learners, particularly at two events: Teacher Appreciation Shabbat (May 12 at 6:30pm, as part of Rock Shabbat) is an opportunity to thank those who educate our young people. And our Confirmation service (May 30 at 7:30pm Shavuot services) is a chance to recognize the student learners who have committed themselves to Jewish learning all the way through Grade 10. I hope you will join us for both of these services.

Every Shabbat we recite the Learner’s Kaddish together: “For our teachers and their students, and the students of the students, we ask for peace and loving-kindness.” May we commit ourselves to be lifelong learners and teachers. And may our community always be one that puts this important Jewish value to action.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Free Your Mind

On Sunday, March 26, 2017

Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

When Hamlet says these words, he is trying to convince Horatio to believe in ghosts - specifically, the ghost that has just appeared right before his eyes. But in these words is a lesson for all of us: the universe is a big place, filled with many experiences, phenomena, philosophies, and beliefs. We can’t assume we know it all.

How often do we operate on the assumption that other people’s experience and knowledge bases are essentially the same as ours? How often do we project our own beliefs, understandings, and faults onto others...and then judge them for behaving differently than we might? I know I’m guilty of this, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

Judaism teaches us to strive to see beyond our own narrow worldview. Abraham became the first Jew by looking beyond his upbringing and adopting a brand new philosophy – the Oneness of God. The Rabbis of the Talmud spent pages upon pages debating every angle of the law, often without ever deciding which one was “right.” And in the Midrash, a voice comes from heaven to settle an argument between Hillel and Shammai by declaring “Both opinions are the words of the living God.”

We are commanded as Jews to open our minds, to try to understand the experiences and beliefs of others, and in so doing, to grow in our knowledge, wisdom, and compassion. This month we have three separate events that are opportunities to do so, each in its own way:

Sharing Values, Building Bridges: This important panel discussion on April 1 is an opportunity to learn more about the experience of Indigenous Canadians, and to build connections between our two communities.

The Passover Seder is, as always, a chance to invite new people into our homes and to incorporate new traditions into our rituals. If you have a spot at your Seder table, please let me know.

Our Carlebach Shabbat Service on April 28 is an attempt to do something new and different on a Friday night. This extremely musical, a cappella style of prayer was developed in the Orthodox world, but transfers really nicely to our setting.

Please see the monthly Voice or contact me for more information on these programs.

“To everything there is a season.” If you’re looking to broaden your Jewish experience through learning, prayer, volunteering, or community, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Live Long & Oy Vey!!

On Sunday, February 25, 2017

My favourite rabbi has always been Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise.

No, really! What is a rabbi if not someone who (boldly) leads a community, who cares about people (and androids), who says wise things (“Things are only impossible until they’re not”), and who seeks to understand human nature (“Mr. Worf, villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well-camouflaged”).

I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Others may argue for the supremacy of Rabbi James T. Kirk instead. Either way, it’s hard to deny that Starship captains have to be philosophers. And it’s hard to deny that Star Trek is deeply Jewish.

Here are a few Jewish strains in the Star Trek universe:
• The world of Star Trek is semi-utopian, almost Messianic. It’s a world where poverty, racism, and war have been vanquished from the Earth (even though the Romulans haven’t figured that out yet). You don’t have to read much further than the book of Isaiah to see the Jewish roots of this vision.
• Starfleet officers are required to have a “can-do” attitude. In space, things will always go wrong, and you have to believe that you have the wherewithal to solve those problems. In Hebrew, we call this “Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World.”
• Like Judaism, Star Trek believes that people are inherently good, but flawed. Captain Kirk said, “The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.” And, though Spock thought it was illogical, the crew always believed humanity’s ability to triumph over their inner demons.

Yes, from the moment Mr. Spock first lifted his hand in the sign of the cohanim, Star Trek has presented us with an optimistic, spiritual, philosophically rich approach of the world that sent the philosophies of Judaism racing toward the stars.

Now it’s time to take our relationship with Star Trek to a whole other level – the level of lampooning it mercilessly! This Purim, we’ll join Captain James T. Kirkowitz and Lt. Kainuhura as they boldly go where no Purim Spiel has gone before. Come join us on March 11 at 6pm for laughter, food, fun, and – as Commander Data would say – to “attempt to fill a silent moment with non-relevant conversation.” It’s the most fun you can have in the Alpha Quadrant!

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Dessert Island Judaism?

On Sunday, January 22, 2017

An old joke:

A Jew was shipwrecked alone on a desert island for years and year. When he was finally rescued, the ship’s crew discovered that in his time on the island, he had built a life for himself – a shelter, access to food, and TWO synagogues.
“The puzzled rescuers asked him: “If you’re alone here, why do you need two synagogues?”
“Simple,” he answered. “This one is where I pray. And that one over there is the one I wouldn't set foot in."

On the one hand, this is a cynical joke about the ways that Jews don’t get along – it’s sad to think that even on a desert island there could be a synagogue we wouldn’t attend. But I prefer to read it differently. I’m amazed that the Jew on the desert island built synagogues to begin with! Alone on an island for years, and all the time he was creating communal prayer spaces. He must have been absolutely starved for community.

Judaism is built around community. Being together is our antidote to a sometimes-frightening world, and it’s our vehicle for bringing the most goodness and holiness into our lives. In the Talmud, it teaches that when we pray or study or even eat together, “the divine presence rests between us.” In other words, the things we do together bring God into the world.

We need each other. Today, more than ever. In the 21st century, society tells you to be an individual, to fend for yourself. And though we most often tag our neighbours to the south as the “rugged individualists,” we in Canada are also the children of the Enlightenment – we believe in building our OWN identities, our OWN careers, our OWN sense of self-worth. There is a great deal of goodness and empowerment in this worldview. But we don’t have to do it alone. We are not living on a desert island, and we are strongest as individuals when we build a supportive and holy community around ourselves.

A few years ago, when we began to subtly shift our language away from “Temple” and toward “Congregation,” it was with these thoughts in mind. A temple is a building – a place of prayer and study. But a community is a group of people who come together to bring holiness in the world. Kol Ami is both of these, but it is primarily and especially the latter.

Help us continue to build our Kehilah Kedoshah – our Holy Community. Each time you are present for a service or class or program, it makes us a little stronger both as individuals and as a community.

Here’s a new opportunity: come check out our “Challah Club” on February 15. It’s a chance to be together, to do some learning, and to produce homemade challah regularly. See the Voice for details!

Thank you the role you play in building this Holy Community. I feel continually honoured to be a part of it with each and every one of you.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Eat, Pray, Love

On Monday, December 16, 2017

About 10 years ago, everybody was talking about “Eat, Pray, Love.” That book taught that we find meaning in life through food, spirituality, and relationships. It may have felt innovative in 2006, but in fact, Judaism has been teaching something similar for 2000 years!

“The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of kindness.” (Pirke Avot 1:2)

This quote comes from Pirke Avot, one of the first books of ethics that Judaism ever produced. Written somewhere between 18 and 20 centuries ago, it recorded the favourite ethical sayings of the Rabbis. The saying above, attributed to Simon the Righteous (one of the very earliest of the early Rabbis), breaks down Jewish life into three categories: learning, praying, and making the world better.

I don’t know if there is any better definition of religious life than this. What do we do as Jews? We strive to be lifelong learners, to build a relationship with God (in whatever way we conceptualize God), and to leave the world around us a better place. And we form our communities based around these meaningful actions.

I am often asked what makes Kol Ami unique. I think it is the seriousness with which we form these meaningful communities. We are a small congregation – only 160 families or so – but there are literally dozens of ways to connect to Jewish life within these walls: Torah Study, services, Kol Ami Book Club, choir, Rock Shabbat, Adult B’nai Mitzvah, SFT, cooking classes, Israeli dance, Hebrew School, Out of the Cold, iEngage, Sushi & Study. Each one of these represents a group of people who care about each other and who care about being Jewish together. Each can be an opportunity to engage with others, with God, and to bring meaning into our own lives. It’s how we “Eat, Pray, and Love.”

If you are seeking community (and who among us isn’t??), consider getting more involved at Kol Ami. Whether you are looking for learning, or spirituality, or volunteer opportunities, or schmooze time with friends, we’ll help you find it or create it. Give me a call!

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Whose Kotel Is It Anyway?

On Monday, November 21, 2016

(HAVE YOU JOINED ARZA CANADA YET?)

The last few months have brought some remarkable developments for the Reform Jewish relationship with Israel. Earlier this year, the Israeli government and the liberal movements agreed in principle to the creation of an egalitarian section of the Western Wall. But since the government backed away from that plan shortly thereafter, the rest of the year has seen such dramatic events as: mixed-gender services at the Kotel Plaza, disrupted by whistling from Ultra-Orthodox bystanders; the continuation of Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer services, amidst escalating protests; Reform and Conservative rabbis openly and defiantly carrying Torah scrolls, singing Hineh Mah Tov surrounded by jeering crowds.

The irony is that the Western Wall, which has become such a flashpoint and such an important symbol, is in reality just a wall. If you go back 2000 years, it was simply the outer retaining wall of the huge platform that held the Temple in Jerusalem. Certainly it was part of the Temple complex, and in that sense imbued with some kind of holiness, but it was not in itself a place of prayer or ritual.

So what’s changed? What has made that wall – that pile of bricks - holy and special, worth fighting over (even with fellow Jews)? I believe it’s because the Kotel – and the Temple that it was part of – are meant to belong to all Jews.

Our ancient ancestors believed that the Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of the world. mapLiterally. The medieval map to the side shows the continents of the known world laid out like a flower, with Jerusalem at its middle. And, for Jews, the Temple served as a uniting force – in times of war they defended against conquerors, and in times of peace they brought their first fruits, to the geographical middle of the country.

That notion of the Temple as a uniting force, as a heritage of ALL Jews, is part of what motivates the Reform and Conservative campaign to “liberate” the Kotel today. And it informs our views of Israel as a whole –the Jewish state should be a place in which all Jews are free to worship and live their Jewish lives. This is the work being done by our Reform movement (which has quietly grown into more than 40 congregations and dozens of preschools around Israel). It is the work being done in our partnership with Congregation Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer, and it is the work being supported by our membership in ARZA Canada.

ARZA Canada, the Reform Zionist voice in Canada, represents our unique Reform Jewish perspective - one that is loving and supportive of Israel, but also working to create an Israel that is a home for all Jews and a shining example of our Jewish values. We are lucky this year to have an ARZA Scholar in Residence – Rabbi Benjie Gruber – with us in the GTA for the year! Our support for ARZA Canada (annual membership is $36) supports that work of programming, advocacy, and building Reform Jewish life in the Jewish state. If you are interested in joining the nearly 1/3 of our congregation who are ARZA members, let me know or call the office.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Who Wants to Be A Minyanaire?

on Sunday, 30 October 2016.

Maybe 15 years ago, I wandered my way into a Shabbat dinner hosted by Chabad in Venice, Italy. It was a strange mix of people – North American students on vacation, Israeli backpackers decompressing from the army, and Yiddish speaking Chabadnicks who were the hosts of the evening.

Of all of the memorable events that evening (and there were many: food, singing, blessings), what sticks in my mind most is the diminutive ultra-Orthodox man who stood outside the door inviting pedestrians into the home: “Are you Jewish?” he would ask each passerby? “Wanna make a minyan?”

“Making a minyan” is a uniquely Jewish concept: It blends the responsibility to pray, our obligations to one another, and a little bit of Jewish guilt. As Jews, we can pray in any place and at any time, in a group or alone. But when we stand together – a group of ten – we transform private into public, and we transform a group into a community.

There are certain prayers that are traditionally only recited in a group of 10. All of them are call-and-response prayers:

  • Barchu - the call to worship
  • Kedushah – a conversation between angels about God’s holiness
  • Kaddish – the opportunity for mourners to praise God and remember their departed loved ones, and for the community to speak words of comfort back.

So important is the obligation to recite Kaddish in the wake of a loss, that we have relocated that act to the mourner’s home. When we gather in a Shiva home, it is for the purpose of surrounding the mourners with comfort and support, AND also for the purpose of forming a congregation in which they can say Kaddish. Like those Jews walking the streets of Venice, we enter the building as individuals, but are transformed into a community.

This is, in fact, one of the most generous acts that we can perform. I can think of so many members of our congregation whose lives were transformed when they felt supported by the community in time of loss. When a loved one dies, we often feel as if we are in a haze – we may not remember what food was sent; we likely don’t remember who said what. But we remember that people showed up. We remember people were there. We remember that our friends and family made a minyan for us.

Our new initiative is called Minyanaires. It is a group of Kol Ami members who will attend Shiva for fellow congregants. Our goal is to ensure that all of our members feel supported in times of loss. There is no obligation to lead a service or read Hebrew, and you do not have to be available for every Shiva service. It is simply commitment to be there for one another whenever we can.

Minyanaires “training” will be held on Monday, November 21 at 7pm. See the Voice for more details, or feel free to email me. I look forward to participating in this mitzvah with you.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

"Not Very Religious" - Rabbi Streiffer's Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777

on Thursday, 13 October 2016.

It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.

The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man”

But the Rebbe insisted.

So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.”

But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”

So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”

And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.”

And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.[1]

It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.

We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.

The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.[2]

I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”

That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.

And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:

  • Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
  • I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
  • I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
  • I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.

I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!

And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.

Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.

I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:

  • “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
  • “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
  • “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”

We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.

We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”[3]

And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!

This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can't we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?

It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:

It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.

Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.

And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.

And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”

But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”

At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai - My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)

My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.

And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.

Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.

Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”[4]

In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.

It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.

I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.

To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.

To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.

To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.

These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives.

Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.

That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.

The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it's not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.

And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days - questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values - these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.”[5] In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.

When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.

So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?

Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”[6]

We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.

In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.

May we celebrate our choices and our values.

And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.

Amen.

[1] Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.

[2] Ibid 123.

[3] B. Shabbat 112b.

[4] “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)

[5] Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.

[6] Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.

"Think For Yourself" - Rabbi Streiffer's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

on Wednesday, 05 October 2016.

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what every teacher and every professor ever said to us.

 “Think for yourself.”

It’s what we hope for our children as they go out into the world.

“Think for yourself.”

Socrates said that, “to find yourself, you must think for yourself” And, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “[If you} take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you...”

There may be no greater virtue in our individualist, post-enlightenment world, than the ability to think for yourself.

But I wonder if we really do.

I want to show you a cartoon that I’ve always loved. It’s from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” And it's about what you might call an "individualist penguin":

I think in some way, we are all that penguin. We strive to be ourselves – to live authentic lives based on our own choices and our own values. But at the same time, we are social creatures. The ways that we think and the ways behave are influenced by the thinking and the behaviour of those around us.

It turns out thinking for yourself isn’t so simple after all.

Maybe the starkest example of this comes from the darkest period of our history.

In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executionists¸ the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about the cultural influences in early 20th century Germany that led to the Holocaust.

He writes that for a whole variety of social, historical, economic, and other reasons “the German people [of that period] were more dangerously oriented toward Jews than they had been during any other time ….”[1]

In other words, even the Holocaust was, in some sense, a cultural phenomenon. People’s thinking, people’s willingness to act, was influenced by social and cultural factors around them. And to drive home the point, we need only look across Germany’s northern border to Denmark, a country which – wholesale – refused to deport its Jews. In fact, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1943 – exactly 73 years ago yesterday – the Danish people smuggled nearly the entire Jewish population of their country across the sea to safety in Sweden.

Two countries, two sides of a border, and their collective responses were like night and day. Of course, there were exceptions. There were Danes who turned in Jews. And there were Germans – many thousands of them - who risked their own lives to save Jews. But on the whole, the social and cultural climates of the two countries moved their citizens to think and behave in wildly different ways

SO what happened? Was one country made of good people and one made of bad people? Or was this an example of how our collective values and circumstances work together to construct a culture, and how that culture in turn shapes each of us.

In 2016, we are fortunate not to be living through such terrible times. But our world is also not simple. And many of the issues that we deal with also relate to group identity and affiliation: On a personal level, how do we build community? How do we establish a safe and supportive environment for ourselves and our families? And on a much larger level, how do we welcome refugees from other countries? How do we build bridges of understanding between communities that look and talk and pray differently?

Do our own religious and national and cultural affiliations impact on the assumptions we make about other people?

Of course they do. That’s part of being human.

Aristotle already said 23 centuries ago that “Man is by nature a social animal.” And much more recently, Atul Gawande, a physician and writer, added more recently that “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

We are wired to seek out being part of a group. And we are wired to take on certain assumptions and tendencies of the group. That’s what Hillel means in Pirke Avot when he says “Al tifrosh min hatzibbur – You can’t separate yourself from the community.” Our sense of self is, in some way, tied up with the communities and groups that we are part of. And that means that when we think we are thinking for ourselves, what we’re often actually doing is applying the norms and assumptions taught to us by those groups.

By the way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing - it is a feature of the human experience. And this shaping of our psyche starts very, very early.

Research out of Stanford University[2] has shown that a person’s native language – the language we start learning at birth - can be a powerful shaper of worldview. For example, speakers of Russian are often better able to differentiate different shades of blue, because their language has more words for different shades of blue. And speakers of Japanese and Spanish are less likely on the whole to be concerned with fault or blame, because their languages describe things reflexively: “The vase broke itself/was broken” rather than “Such and such broke the vase.”

And interestingly enough, people who are bilingual have been found to think or feel or react differently depending on which language they are speaking at the time. (So the next time my kids ask me why I’m driving so aggressively in Israel, I’ll just blame the Hebrew language.)

Our cultural influences are constantly shaping our thinking and our worldview. As much as we are individuals with free will, we are also products of the societies we grow up in, the families we come from, and the groups we choose to affiliate with.

It has to be that way. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as what we call “Jewish values” or what we call “Canadian values.”

These things are real, even if we can’t always agree on what they are. Because we are Jewish, we tend value education, and community, and social action. Because we are Canadian we tend to value diversity, and consensus, and winter sports. It’s not that 100% of us share these things. And it’s not that they necessarily make us different from anybody else - non-Jews also like books; non-Canadians also like hockey. But our values are formed in part because of the groups we are part of.

And when we look at the world around us right now – the weary, fearful world around us – we see a great deal of concern about what happens when our values come into contact or come into conflict with someone else’s. Whether we’re talking about exiting the European Union, or working to curb interfaith marriage, or screening immigrants, or building a great wall, these things are born out of a fear - a very real and palpable fear – that someone else’s values might be dangerous to ours.

Judaism places values at the centre of our lives. And it places community affiliation at the centre of our lives as well. And it teaches us that we don’t need to live in fear, because we have the ability – we have the power - to be carriers of values. We get to build culture. We get to lead those around us.

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the Jewish people about our mission on earth. He says:

נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד.... וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

"It is not enough that you should serve Me (says God). I will also make you Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.”[3]

In other words, God gives us a mission to transmit certain values and ideas beyond ourselves to the world around us.

This has sometimes been interpreted as being about proselytization– that we should actively work to teach our values and our religion to the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s what the prophet is saying at all. I believe that this passage represents a call to each of us to share our values with those around us by living them authentically.

“Think for yourself,” says the prophet. It’s true that you are part of a group. And it’s true that you are the product of a culture. But you also get to create culture through the way you live your life.

The Bible tells that the in ancient times, there was one leader who truly captured the hearts and allegiance of the Jewish people: and that’s King David. David wasn’t the first King of Israel, and he wasn’t the most powerful. He wasn’t the founder of Judaism or the father of the Jewish people. And yet, he was beloved perhaps more than any other leader in Israelite history.

What was it about David? He marched at the vanguard of the troops. He danced with incredible public joy in front of God’s ark. He worshipped with sincerity, and he owned up to his failings. David publicly embodied the values he wished to convey. And he was beloved for it, and he was emulated for it.

Anyone who has ever been a parent or a boss or really a person knows that modeling is the most powerful way to convey values. We see this in our own lives all the time, both in little ways and in very big ways.

For example…

  • If I, as a parent, model for my kids (the little cellphone addicts) what it looks like to put down the device during meals, then we get to open a conversation about the values inherent in that action.
  • If we, as a congregation, model what it looks like to truly welcome the stranger and build a culture of warmth and openness, then we get to participate in a conversation about why that matters.
  • And if we as a nation model what it is to be a society built on tolerance and diversity, then we get to lead that conversation amongst the nations of the world.
    To be a carrier of values means most of all to live authentically. It means to focus not on what frightens us about others or the world around us, but rather to focus on what we want to be in the world.

     

    And that’s why we’re here on the High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we think about what we want to be in the world. We do so as a group, and we do so most of all as individuals.

    Interestingly, the High Holy Day prayerbook actually acknowledges just how central our group affiliations are – how our communities help shape our selves. It does so by making teshuvah - repentance – in part a communal activity. When we say “Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – WE are guilty, We have sinned, We have done wrong,” we confess each other’s sins. Because in some sense, the collective “we,” the culture we build, the assumptions we promulgate, contribute to the actions we perform.

    But Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook. On these Days of Awe, each of us stands alone before God. Each of us stands alone in judgment before ourselves.

    The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: "Rebbe, what's the matter? 
    And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, "I have learned the question – the terrible question - that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
    The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. "But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?"
    Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you Moses?' And they will not ask me, 'Why weren't you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: 'Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"

    The project of the Days of Awe – the task that is before us during these next 10 days – is to ask ourselves what we we wish to be, and to challenge ourselves to live it even more authentically than we did last year.

    And our tradition believes that when we do so, we have the power to to reshape worlds, to shift cultures, to start the right conversations, to be Or Lagoyim – to be a source of light to those around us.

    Mahatma Ghandi is said to have once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Actually, he never said that. It’s just a bumper sticker. But what Ghandi really said is far more powerful:

    “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.”
    This is the power we have – no less than the power to change the entire world by beginning with ourselves.

    If we want to be part of families who prioritize and make time for each other, then we can start by making the time ourselves.

    If we want to live in neighourhoods where people smile at each other and know one another, then we can start by learning the names of the people who live on either side of us.

    If we want to be part of a congregation that truly takes care of one another and truly makes everyone feel welcome, then we can start by greeting the next unfamiliar face who walks through the door, or by attending the shiva service of someone we didn’t know, just to support their family.

    If we want to live in a country that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor, then we can start by making sure that we are really giving what we can afford to give.

    And if we want to live in a world that treats everyone with respect and dignity, where people no longer fear each other based on race or religion or accent, then we have to start by examining our own preconceptions, our own biases, our own prejudice.

    A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears. He said, “Rabbi, I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and the world is still as broken as ever.” The rabbi embraced the man and told him to have hope. He said, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And when you change yourself, you change your community. And when you change your community you change your nation. And that is how you begin the task of repairing the world.”

    When we strive to live as our most authentic selves, our influence extends far beyond ourselves.

    May these next ten days be for us a time of honest reflection, in which we work to accept our own faults, and challenge ourselves to be our best.

    May we learn to view ourselves as carriers of values, as architects of culture.

    And may we know that within us lies the power to bring healing and light and goodness not only to ourselves, but to others around us, to our communities, and to our world.

    Amen.

    -------

    [1] Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executionists. Knopf; New York: 1996. P. 79.

    [2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868

    [3] Isaiah 49:6.

Sunday, May 28 2017 3 Sivan 5777