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What Are We Building? – Yom Kippur

September 28, 2020

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The Talmud tells us that, in the middle of writing the Torah, Moses asks God to take a break and show him the future. God obliges, taking Moses forward a thousand years and placing him in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. They are talking about the laws of the Torah. And Moses doesn’t understand a word. He starts to feel faint. But then a student asks Rabbi Akiva, “Where does this teaching come from?” And he answers, “It is the law from Moses on Mount Sinai.” And Moses was comforted (Menachot 29b).

What might Moses think if he were standing in the back of this room today? What are all these strange devices? Why are all of the people trapped in those tiny little boxes when we have this big empty room? And why is a woman preaching?

Moses might also have been surprised to sit in the back of Rabbi Benay Lappe’s classroom at S’VARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, where Jewish texts are studied through the lens of queer experiences. Several years ago, Rabbi Lappe gave a talk called, “An Unrecognizable Jewish Future.” She recounts a conversation between a prominent sociologist and the head of her seminary, in response to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study: “The good news is that there will be a Judaism in 100 years. The bad news is that it will be unrecognizable to us.”

I imagine that hearing these words might give Moses some comfort, knowing that he isn’t the only one experiencing the whiplash of cultural change.

Look how much has changed—in culture, technology, and Jewish life—even in the 30 (!) years since that survey. Think of all that our congregation once stuck its neck out for that is now mainstream, and all that we took for granted that is now tenuous.

In these last six months alone, we have had to relearn how to gather, pray, and study, how to pursue justice and care for one another when we can’t be together in person. We have had to recalibrate our routines for the present, and our plans the future.

And not to brag, but we’ve been great at it! Nothing has been without its hiccups, and of course we’ve felt the grief that comes with change. But we’ve watched people of all ages and abilities master new technology, as colleagues from around the world figure out creative ways of connecting in these strange times. I’ve found that we are at least as busy at the synagogue as we were before. But most of all, we’ve found that the essence of what a faith community provides, which many were starting to think was irrelevant, has endured these rapid changes, and proved itself to be more essential than ever.

No matter how much the world changes, we still rely on our Jewish community for spiritual sustenance and moral direction. We still look to our institutions as a space to nurture our minds and feed our souls, through study and reflection, creativity and play, being together and helping others. We still look to our synagogue for the stability of routine, the comfort of connection, and the possibility of joy.

How do we continue to provide this for our people, when everything is changing on what seems like an hourly basis? There has been a great deal of trial and error, a great need for creativity, vision, patience, and compassion. It turns out, we are well-equipped for this. It’s ingrained in our DNA. It’s part of our master story.

Nearly 2000 years ago, our people stood in the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem. Until that moment, this had been our primary place of worship and gathering, the only way we could achieve atonement for our sins.

Rabbi Lappe calls the Temple’s destruction a “crash” in the master story. The central idea of the ancient Israelite religion could no longer be implemented. Between our lamentations, we must have said to one another, “So, what do we do now?”

According to Rabbi Lappe, we had three choices. We could deny the crash, cling to the master story, and build a wall to keep out further change. We could completely reject the master story, and seek out an entirely new path. These options are two sides of the same coin, rooted in the idea that the master story is fixed and immutable, that it’s all or, most probably, nothing. When the Temple was destroyed, there were groups that took each of these roads, and were lost to history.

But there is also a third option, taken by our earliest rabbis: to accept and embrace the crash and move forward, by determining what still works, and what needs to be changed, in response to the crash.

The rabbis saw the writing on the wall, well before the Temple’s destruction. They began to explore new ways of connecting to God, to each other, and to the master story. So when the crash came, they were prepared to create something new. In doing so, they showed us how the shaking of one paradigm can lead to a stronger, more durable way of living in the world.

According to our tradition, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had a group of students smuggle him out of the besieged Jerusalem in a coffin. There he met with the general and future emperor Vespasian, who was so impressed with Rabbi Yochanan’s wisdom that he granted him a single request.

Perhaps the logical response would have been to ask Vespasian to spare the city of Jerusalem, and let our people continue to live in peace. But Rabbi Yochanan knew that that master story had already crashed. So he asked for protection for the city of Yavneh and its scholars, so that they could teach us how to live in this new paradigm.

This is not the end of the story, nor is it the end of the destruction and oppression that the Jewish people would encounter in our long history. But Rabbi Yochanan’s request planted the seeds for Judaism as we know it today.

When speaking of the Temple’s destruction, the book of Lamentations frequently uses the verb la’hafoch, to reverse, or turn upside down: My heart turned over within me, our dancing has turned to mourning, our inheritance has been turned over to strangers. But it was from this position of reversal that we were able to imagine a different way of living in the world.

Temple Judaism was hierarchical. Worshippers drew close to God through the sacrifice of animals and grain, relying on the priest as an intermediary.

Yavneh Judaism was democratic, permitting us to encounter God directly, through prayer, study, and a commitment to ethical conduct, all grounded in, and connected to, the original master story.

Temple Judaism was centralized and vulnerable to foreign conquerors; Yavneh Judaism was portable and intangible, such that no conqueror has ever been able to completely destroy it.

Temple Judaism was fixed and immutable; the rabbis of Yavneh knew that, if we were going to survive as a people, Judaism had to be able to revise its master story, time and again, to make sense of a new situation, and adapt accordingly. For the rabbis, this was not a bug in the Jewish tradition but a feature, a part of our design. It is what has enabled us to keep our traditions alive, and create new ones, for thousands of years.

What they ultimately created was unrecognizable to Moses. And what we are doing today would be unrecognizable to them. But nearly two thousand years later, we are still living our lives in response to the same master story.

On Rosh Hashana, we spoke about what has been broken. Today, on the holiest day of the year, it is time to talk about what remains, and what comes next.

Two weeks into the pandemic, my professional organization held its annual conference online. This transformed the gathering, from a privilege of the well-funded few, to a centering space for all of us as the world turned upside down. Rabbi Ron Segal welcomed us with the words: “This is our Yavneh moment.”

As rabbis, we all knew what this meant: a crash was coming, and the world as we knew it would never be the same. We had three choices: cling to the master story, walk away from the master story, or figure out a creative way to carry the master story into an uncertain future.

Back in March, we had only an inkling of what it meant to be in a Yavneh moment. But after six months of life being unrecognizable to our 2019 selves, we know: we are not just going back to normal. This moment is going to change us, and we are going to have to change to meet this moment.

On a global level, we are going to have to address the corruption and incompetence that led to this crisis, which well predates our current administration. Not only will we need to root it out in its current form: we will need to examine, dismantle, redesign, and rebuild the systems that made this possible. We will have to address the inequities in our nation that left so many vulnerable during this time, if we want to continue living our master story of the American Dream.

Closer to home, our own Yavneh moment has been looming for some time.

On Rosh Hashana, we talked about how our own master story, that includes a permanent home on High School Road, has crashed. Today, we consider: What might we create in its place?

Like the rabbis at Yavneh, want this next phase of Kol Ami to be accessible, portable, innovative, and adaptable. And we want it to retain the essence of what we have always been: a warm and loving community committed to joyful worship, inclusion, lifelong learning, and pursuing justice.

This crash made us realize that for many, our offerings had not been accessible or inclusive. When we went online, suddenly our participation doubled, when no one had to drive at night, or wrangle children into the car, or sacrifice an otherwise quiet evening or morning at home at the end of a long week. Our goal is still, of course, to someday soon gather in person, in a place with walls and chairs and restrooms and parking spaces. But we now know that our new normal will also require a variety of modalities, and multiple points of entry for our community, and that technology will need to be a part of that.

The crash also taught us that we have an abundance of resources at our fingertips, and that we don’t have to do things alone. My colleagues, locally and in small congregations across the continent, have banded together to create joint programming with major scholars and performers. We never would have thought of doing programming like this before. We couldn’t afford it on our own, and we lived too far apart to do it together. But it has enriched the lives of our communities, and provided much-need relief to many of our clergy, who have been struggling under the weight of serving our communities alone.

The previous generation of American Jews had a master story of upward mobility and thriving Jewish suburbs, and a strong faith in the value of a real estate investment and the permanence of a building. Scholar Jonathan Sarna calls this our “edifice complex.” It has saddled our generation with structures we can’t maintain, and bills we cannot pay.

We’re fortunate that movement and change has always been a part of Kol Ami’s master story. We have prayed and learned and celebrated in schools and concert venues and people’s homes and now online. We existed for more than a decade before we even made our home here. And we have many good years ahead of us, wherever we go next.

There are a lot of questions swirling around as we prepare for this change. Some of them are scary: Where will we go? What kind of space will make it possible to fulfill our purpose as a community? How will we make our new space feel like it’s our home? How might we share resources with our neighbors while maintaining our unique identity? Where can we create partnerships and where must we carve our own path?

And some of the questions are exciting: How might we best use our resources when we no longer have to mow the lawn and pave the driveway? How can we leverage our new assets to better educate and empower the next generation to live their best Jewish lives? How will this change help us discover new ways of engaging with Judaism? How will we reach out beyond our walls, and place ourselves in more public spaces, both in person and online?

We will need all of you to be a part of answering these questions. We need everyone’s creativity, flexibility, passion, and expertise to create this vision and transform it into a reality. And we need to recognize that, like Moses, we might still have moments of bewilderment and grief when faced with change.

These changes are scary for me too. The Jewish future I have been called to serve is unrecognizable to the twelve-year-old girl who wanted to be a rabbi, or even to the rabbi I was when I arrived here two years ago.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned in that time, it is what a strong, committed, creative, and resilient community we are. We are option 3 people. We are Yavneh people. We are ready for this.

At our 25th anniversary celebration, I spoke of the beginning of our story with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “The day you were born was the day God decided that the world could not exist without you.” But as we prepare to face this moment in our master story, let us consider the words that Mordechai spoke to Esther: “Perhaps it is just for this moment that you have arrived here” (Esther 4:14).

Hemingway wrote that: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” As we prepare to face our unrecognizable Jewish future, may we learn to be strong at our broken places, so that we might be ready to meet this moment, and write the next chapter of our story.

 

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz