The Heart of Judaism

Sermon delivered on Rosh Hashanah Eve – September 29, 2008

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Tonight, at the dawn of 5769, we reaffirm our covenant – with God, with Torah, with the Land and people of Israel. So has our people gathered on this holy night for more years and in more lands than we can count. We are part of something larger than ourselves, stretching across space and time. We connect with ancestors who have welcomed the new year, here at Temple Beth-El and elsewhere, long before we were born. We unite with those we will never know, because their generations are yet unborn. We are links in the chain of a great religious heritage.

But what happens when we move beyond these inspiring thoughts? What answer do we give, when we are asked, “What is the meaning of this tradition?” “What is this generation’s role in keeping Judaism alive?” “Why should we bother?” Why bother?

Are we here for God? Do we gather in support of our fellow Jews, for the State of Israel, our family history – tradition? Or does Torah define our faith? What is at the heart of Judaism: God, Torah, or Israel?

Many among us are single-mindedly focused on Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. Who would not be inspired, and who would not be concerned, when thoughts turn to our Jewish State? The Zionist dream continues to be fulfilled in real life, every day, as the Land is built, develops and grows. At the same time, devastating threats to Israel endure, particularly from the evil President of Iran.

Some suggest that allegiance to the State of Israel ought to be the sole basis, or at least the primary measuring stick, of our choice for President this November. But can a patriotic American put the welfare of another land, however beloved, above our own national interests? Moreover, from Tom Friedman to AIPAC’s chief spokesperson, Josh Block, we have been told that this year’s candidates are reliably pro-Israel. Therefore, even with the deepest devotion to Israel, concerns for the Jewish State do not guide our votes as Americans this year.

Those who believe we are defined by Israel would find solace in the views of early Zionists, maybe even David Ben-Gurion. They imagined that Judaism as we know it would die with the birth of modern Israel. In the early, heady days of the State, most Israelis were stridently atheist. Perpetuating Judaism was not their goal. Their mission, instead, was the welfare of the Jewish people, in Zion. They thought that the rest of us would stop being Jewish, or we would make aliyah, joining the Zionist dream in person.

The response of the Diaspora, and particularly of North American Jewry, was stark. Not only did we refuse to die; we have grown Judaism creatively in free lands. Though few among us immigrated, we dedicated ourselves to political, financial, and spiritual support of Israel.

Israeli thinkers and leaders today are often heard to praise the success of North American Jewry, even as they issue a challenge. They urge us to dedicate ourselves to our own meaningful development. Paradoxically, too many Jewish leaders on this side of the Atlantic emphasize Israel to the exclusion of all local and spiritual needs.

History, though, has taught us a valuable lesson. Ancient Israel was surely not the greatest civilization of its day. In the immortal words of Nat King Cole, “see the pyramids along the Nile,” but Ra is worshiped no more. Meanwhile, our God is revered by billions. The Kings of Judea did not possess armies to match those of Babylon or of Rome. For most of our history, we have not enjoyed sovereignty in our own land. The great horror of the 20th Century taught us that a Jewish homeland is essential in our own day. And yet, we must acknowledge: Torah tells us that our people flourished, even in Egyptian slavery. Though we do not wish to go back there, we not only survived, but thrived, through our millennia of exile.

Make no mistake: Israel is crucial to us as Jews. We rejoice in the vitality of the Jewish State, as a strong nation, and as the cultural and geographic center of the Jewish people. We delight in the spiritual growth of our Israeli brothers and sisters over the last decade. Atheism is being challenged among supposedly secular Israelis, who embrace new-found value in Jewish tradition.

Israelis of today understand, and so may we: No parcel of land, however holy, however critical to the welfare of our people, is ultimately indispensable to a tradition as strong as ours. Israel is not the heart of Judaism.

Perhaps, then, God is the answer. Many wish God to be our central religious focus as Jews. We gather, after all, at Beth-El, the House of God. Our worship is directed toward God. We have gathered here at God’s command, to cleanse our souls in the New Year.

Today, though, many are unsure about the very existence of a Supreme Being. The teachings of science make many of us skeptical. Some cannot reconcile the reality of tragedy with the notion of a living God. Others deeply believe in God. Perfectly good Jews embrace diverse beliefs. For some, God is literally as described in Torah. For others, God is an idea, not a Being. Perhaps God is like “the Force,” in Star Wars, the sum of all positive power in the universe. Maybe George Lucas actually got that idea from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan!

Even if God exists in the most traditional sense, we still can’t know exactly what God wants of us. By aligning ourselves with Reform Judaism, we have agreed that no one person or entity holds a monopoly on interpreting the word of God.

However we conceive of God, we must not be atheists. Our teacher, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, contends that faith in God is required of each of us. Atheism is much easier than grappling with the variety of Jewish theological possibilities available to us as Reform Jews in the 21st Century. If we reject God, though, we assert that each of us is the ultimate arbiter of our own existence. Instead of practicing the idolatry of self, we are required to affirm God’s existence, however differently perceived, as we do each and every time we recite the Shema. We Jews are called Israel, a word meaning, “one who struggles with God.” Determining how God wants us to live our lives, dear friends, this and this alone is the ultimate question of human life.

So how do we know what God wants of us? For over 2000 years, since the earliest Rabbis began striving to make sense of an already-ancient document, Torah has been our path.

The Rabbis made Torah live. They began a process of interpreting Torah, which all Jews continue today. Yes, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and other Jews view Torah differently, but we all base our religious actions on Torah and no other. Most importantly, those first Rabbis taught us that Judaism is so much more than a set of beliefs. Judaism is action, a system of mitzvot, a way of life.

As we recommit ourselves to our God tonight, we do solemnly affirm: Torah is the heart of Judaism. More importantly: let each of us pledge to live as Jews in the year ahead.

Torah teaches us how to be Jews. We are Jews when we behave as Jews.

Let me tell you how some folks have found ways to live as Jews at Temple Beth-El and beyond it.

Every Saturday morning, a dedicated group gathers for Shabbat Torah Study. We began in October of 1992 – that’s right, sixteen years ago – at the beginning of Genesis. We have now reached the middle of the Book of Numbers. Participants are always welcome to join; most joined the journey in progress. They are dedicated, and serious, about learning what Torah means at every level, and how those sacred words can guide our lives.

One remarkable attribute of this group is its diversity, with an astronaut, a professor, and individuals with no college education. A few are friends, but most don’t seek out one another socially beyond that one hour each Shabbat morning. Nevertheless, when a member of the group is ill, others will visit. When somebody dies, many from the group will be at the funeral. These Torah partners do not ask themselves, “Is that person my friend?” They know the answer: The word haver, “friend,” is not merely a social designation. From the point of view of Torah, we are connected to the members of our community, and we must love them as ourselves, not merely in our hearts, but in our actions. Being Jewish is doing Jewish.

Tomorrow morning, Temple member Dan Klein will have the honor of sounding the shofar in the Barshop Auditorium. Dan attends services just about every Friday night, usually accompanied by his son, Jasper; and he often enhances our worship with his skill on the trombone. He lives Torah when he performs the mitzvah of congregational worship, when he teaches Judaism diligently to his son, and when he enhances the spirituality of others.

On the Shabbat of Hurricane Ike, Dan went to the shelter for special needs evacuees, housed in the mission center that Trinity Baptist church operates in the old Albertson’s building at the corner of Mulberry and 281. Dan is a massage therapist, so he spent the day providing massages to exhausted, stressed, and overloaded relief workers. All of us would acknowledge that Dan did a good deed. Dan, though, understood that he was living Torah. He took what he does best, providing massages, and put that talent to work in service. When he told me about what he had done, he quoted our prayerbook: He had “used his strength for good.” Providing those much-needed massages, Dan was living Torah just as surely as he will tomorrow when he sounds the shofar.

In ten days, on Yom Kippur, we shall gather for our ultimate annual day of reckoning these lives we’ve been given. Let us, then, utilize these Ten Days of Repentance to ponder and to analyze how we have fallen short, by our failure to let Torah lead the way. Let each of us learn from Torah these ten days, and choose each day a new mitzvah to take up in the year ahead. This year, some will need to go back to rejoicing in the Sukkah, while others will no longer eat bread during Passover. Some will need to give more tzedakah, while others will realize that they should devote more time to good works. Most of us will find ourselves wanting, both in our observance of Jewish rituals and in our failures to do all we can for those in need. We have ten days, so let’s each find ten new ways to live Torah in the year ahead.

Whatever the changes each of us requires, may we be more faithful to Torah. Then, may we come closer to our people and more devoted to our Holy Land. Then, may we truly honor God.

Then, we shall know: We have found the heart of Judaism.