Why All These New Things at a Historic Reform Temple?

Sermon given September 15, 1995 by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Temple Beth-El is often called a “Historic Reform Congregation.” I wonder, though, whether the phrase, “Historic Reform,” isn’t an oxymoron, like “serious comedy” or “kosher bacon.” If a congregation is primarily “historic,” it would likely resist true “reform.” The word “reform” means “change,” and constant processes of change can get in the way of historic preservation. Being historic and Reform at the same time is not easy.

As a Reform congregation, though, our Temple has undergone significant changes over the years. For example, Bar Mitzvah, though never prohibited here, was once very rare. Now, both Bar and Bat Mitzvah are extremely popular. The attire of the rabbis on the bimah for many years did not include any ritual garb. Then, the atarah was introduced just a decade ago. At one time, there were no restrictions on the foods that were allowed in the Temple. Only with the new building, some fifteen years ago, were pork and shellfish barred. Perhaps the best example is Selichot, which we shall observe tomorrow night. Selichot was unheard of in our Temple until SAFTY introduced it in the 1970s.

For many, Selichot is now a traditional observance of Temple Beth-El. And yet, there probably were some who objected when it was introduced. After all, in the scheme of things, in a congregation that has been around for more than 120 years, Selichot is relatively new. It is not at all historic in the minds of many long-time members. It had not previously been part of Reform Judaism at all. And yet, our beautiful candlelight Selichot service, along with the atarah and even the prohibition of pork and shellfish, are now woven into the fabric of our Historic Reform Temple.

At this season, three more innovations are being introduced into our Temple’s religious observance. Perhaps, in time, these practices, too, will no longer feel like changes. They will be part of our congregation’s historic willingness to grow and develop, in the finest tradition of Reform Judaism.

The first of these changes was evident earlier in tonight’s service. Frequently, but not always, we will be using a new version of the Avot prayer, the one pasted inside the back cover of your prayerbook. This new text, in Hebrew and in English, praises God as the God of our mothers, as well as the God of our fathers.

Frankly, Rabbi Stahl and I have wanted to introduce this prayer for some time. We know that it is in use throughout much of our Reform movement. Personally, we have long been uncomfortable with the traditional Avot prayer. It omits any mention of our sainted matriarchs, thereby suggesting that our God is the God of our fathers, but perhaps not of our mothers.

Despite our convictions, Rabbi Stahl and I were hesitant to make the change. Perhaps we would appear too “politically correct,” whatever that means. Some might object to changing a Hebrew prayer. Of course, many of the prayers in our prayerbook, including the Aleinu-Adoration, the G’vurot, and even the V’ahavta, already deviate from their traditional versions. And yet, since the Avot is one prayer that so many people are able to recite in its unaltered version, we were reluctant to alter something so familiar.

Then, one day, more than a year ago, a young man asked us if he could read the new, gender-inclusive version at his Bar Mitzvah. Soon, other young people heard about it, and they, too, chose to praise God as the God of both our mothers and our fathers. The change has become common at Saturday morning services with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Therefore, we decided the time had come to make the new text readily available in our prayerbooks, and even to introduce it on Friday nights. Isaiah prophesied that “a child will lead them.” He was correct. The forebears of this change are our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. May we adults have the fortitude to keep up with them.

A second change has generated quite a bit of discussion. I am speaking of the new schedule for Yom Kippur day. The day will now include a Symposium, during which four distinguished congregants will share their Jewish life stories with us. We will hear from Barry Brickman, Bernard Harris, Janet Holliday, and Louise Michelson. Between each talk, we will have the opportunity to meditate, as we are inspired by the music of a string quartet. The Symposium will be a deeply meaningful addition to our day. Another change, moving the Children’s Service to the early morning hour, has met with widespread approval from parents.

The most interesting, but perhaps most difficult, change in the Yom Kippur schedule involves our Morning Services. No longer will we have two identical consecutive services, early and late. Instead, one service will be held here in the Sanctuary, and another at the same time in the Barshop Auditorium.

Here in the Sanctuary, things will be as they have historically been. Rabbi Stahl will lead the services and deliver the sermon. Rabbi Jacobson will offer a meditation. The music will be rendered by our visiting cantor, accompanied by Jean White and the professional choir. The service will be as beautiful and inspiring as ever. The only thing missing from the bimah will be me.

I will be a few yards away, in the Barshop Auditorium.

There, we will have an Alternate Morning Service, for which we shall have a special worship booklet. This will not be a Children’s Service, but a complete Yom Kippur morning service, including a Torah reading and even a sermon. The style, though, will be innovative. Almost all of the music will be participatory, and the congregation will be actively encouraged to sing. Deena Bloomstone will be the principal soloist, accompanied by her guitar and by a volunteer choir conducted by Linda Kaufman.

To be sure, this change is not without its logistical hazards. We can’t predict with certainly how many people will wish to attend which service. More people will be coming to the Temple at one time than ever before, since we’ll have two major holiday services at once, so special parking provisions were needed. Warren Lieberman has taken care of that.

I firmly believe that there will be enough seats in the Sanctuary for all who wish to worship there, and I hope we’re planning for enough seats in the Auditorium. If I’m right, the reason for the change will be proven correct. We are blessed with a diverse congregation with a variety of tastes in many areas, including worship. Many of our members would be very uncomfortable at the Alternate Morning Service. After all, it’s not being heldur historic sanctuary. The music will not be as majestic. Neither Rabbi Stahl nor Rabbi Jacobson will be present. And yet, other congregants yearn for a less formal, more participatory service. We hope to be able to meet the spiritual needs of both groups on the holiest day of the year, this year and for many years to come.

The third and final change I want to discuss is the addition of Tashlich. Tashlich is a traditional Jewish ritual, held on the banks of a river. With special prayers and the sound of the shofar, bread crumbs or pebbles are tossed into the river. These crumbs represent our sins. Our hope at this season is that our sins will be taken far away from us as we repent, just as the river takes the bread crumbs out to sea.

Some have described this ritual as positively medieval. It was never historically part of Temple Beth-El’s observances, or that of any Reform congregation, though it is making a comeback in many Reform temples today. Some object that it seems like magic, not faith, to expect such a physical act to have an effect.

And yet, for many of us, perhaps most of all for children, physical rituals help make our spiritual transformation on the High Holy Days so much more real. So, on October 1, the Sunday between the High Holy Days, right after Religious School, we will gather at the Riverwalk Inn on the Banks of the San Antonio River. We’ll have a picnic, and then the brief ritual, which should be exquisite in the beautiful setting provided by the Innkeepers, who are our Temple members Jan and Tracy Hammer.

Change comes slowly in a historic congregation, and that is good. When too much change comes too quickly, those with historic ties to the congregation can genuinely feel disconnected from their own personal history. And yet, a failure to change at all would be a violation of the most basic principle of Reform Judaism.

Our brand of historic Judaism is Reform, not “reformed.” We have not finished, nor will we ever conclude, the process of growth that makes our Judaism vibrant. We certainly hope that this season’s changes will prove to be positive ones in the life of this historic congregation. But whatever the fate of these particular innovations, let us continue to be a congregation that values its members’ historic ties to one another and to their temple. And let us remain also a Reform congregation, with innovative ritual practices, a diverse membership, and new ideas enriching our religious life with each passing season.

In the Book of Psalms, surely a historic text, we are urged:

Sing a new song to the Lord. We will sing new songs this year, in word and in deed. May the members of Temple Beth-El delight in each new song, and may each new ritual be pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Amen.