2011 URJ Biennial – Presidential Shabbat Sermon
National Harbor, MD
December 17, 2011
We gather again on this Shabbat as a Reform family – experiencing together these precious hours of sacred time, praying as only we know how.
Shabbat, above all, is a time for celebration and praising God – and that is what we have done. As usual at these services, we do it mostly through music. We sing because we are commanded to sing; because music reaches deep down into the crevices of our souls and connects us to God; because music is God’s gift that summons our emotions and ties us to our tradition and our past.
And we remember Debbie Friedman at this moment. How can we not? There was a time when Reform Jews had forgotten how to sing, but she reminded us and returned exuberance and ecstasy to our prayers. We deeply mourn her absence.
We remember too who we are and where we came from. A little more than two hundred years ago, in Seesen, Germany, the first Reform Temple was dedicated. It had a bell tower and an organ and was built by Israel Jacobson. Jacobson did as we do today: he selected music of the period, infused it with Jewish character, and made it a part of the liturgy. And he made many other worship changes as well.
The result was a revolution that transformed Judaism. Jacobson knew that if Judaism was to survive, it would need a fierce willingness to open itself to outside cultures and to balance the new and the old.
Two centuries later, we are the grateful inheritors of Jacobson’s daring. Ours is a Judaism of reason, and the largest movement in Jewish religious life. Independent and free, proudly liberal in our religious views, we answer to no one but ourselves. And our members are accomplished citizens of this great Republic and its neighbor to the north.
With that in mind, I am honored to deliver the sermon to this assembly for the eighth and final time. But I am filled with more than a little trepidation. Our national economies are in upheaval. Many of our congregations suffer distress, and not from economics alone. Our synagogues are asking fundamental questions about who we are and how we operate, and our Union is doing the same. To be sure, we have faced harder times than these; still, we need to be clear-sighted about the great challenges that lie ahead.
Permit me, then, to offer some thoughts about our future.
The best way for me to do that is to see the world through the eyes of children—in this case, my children. They are here on this Shabbat, and they stood with me and my wife Amy a few moments ago during our Torah reading. Our daughter Adina chanted the Torah, beautifully as always, our son Adam recited the blessings with his mother, and our son-in-law Matthew, the tall one, joined in the blessings and lifted the Torah. I would like to reflect on the Jewish choices they have made and what they might mean for us and the Jewish world.
This is the Jewish way, of course. The first command in the Torah is to have children. And Abraham is chosen not because he is righteous but because he will instruct his children in the ways of God.
Not everyone can or will have children. And Judaism is not a child’s religion. It is a religion for adults who study Torah, celebrate community, and mark sacred time. But its impact on children is something that we put at the apex of our agenda. Judaism is a tradition that sees the world through the eyes of its children—and by doing so, never grows old.
Of course, my children are not typical. Not to me and my wife. In our eyes, they are uniquely gifted.
But then, upon reflection, perhaps they are typical after all. I think of the circles in which they have travelled, the experiences they have had, the friends they bring home. We older people always have difficulty recognizing the gifts of the young. But as I look around, I see that my children are very much like the children of others; the young men and women of their generation have the most remarkable gifts, and we have much to learn from them.
By the way, while I discussed this sermon with my children, they do not know precisely what I am going to say, and they may not be happy with every word of it. And so I will feel guilty about that. But there is nothing new there. To be a parent is to feel guilty, is it not? Like many of you, I have had much experience in that regard. In my years with the Union I have visited more than 500 congregations, regularly leaving the burdens of child-raising to my wife. Never once was I a candidate for father of the year.
Nonetheless, my children are adults now, confident, self-assured, and never hesitant to share their ideas on Judaism or anything else. And I in turn now share with you some of my thoughts on how my family has shaped my work and my religious thinking.
Let me begin with Adina.
She is the child who, from her very youngest days, has been engaged in a religious search.
She is the child who believes in God, struggles with God, asks about God; she is the child who always looked for religious bearings, for direction, for standards, for a sense of permanence in the midst of seething change; and she is the child who looks forward every week to tasting the sweetness of Shabbat.
She is a davener. At the day school she attended, she liked to pray; she took it seriously and tried to make it better. She would ask me why some Reform synagogues did not have regular Shabbat morning worship – a good question, I thought. She prayed in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox settings.
She is an experimenter. For a while she put on a kippah, and then she took it off. And for a while she prayed at Chabad – to make her mother crazy, her brother said.
And she has always loved to study Torah. She studied with me on Shabbat when she was a child, and she and Matthew study with me now when they visit on Shabbat. She labors to learn, little by little, letter by letter, struggling to make room, in the busyness of her days, for the sacred matters of the soul.
When I look at Adina, I see someone who has put God and Torah at the center of her life. In her high school days, she would often challenge me. Judaism is of transcendent importance or it is not, she would say. And if you don’t believe in your gut that Judaism matters to an existing God, why bother?
Her religious journey has not been simple or easy. Today, she teaches at a university in New York. She and her attorney husband, who also grew up in a Reform synagogue, live in Manhattan and belong to a modern Orthodox congregation, where they have found a community that fits their Jewish needs and beliefs. They are expecting, God willing, their first child and our first grandchild around Passover, and what I have to say about that is: It’s about time.
Do I regret her religious choices? Absolutely not. She has chosen a path that I would not choose, but it is a worthy path. We continue our discussions, which are both vigorous and loving. And every time we do so, I think about the need to respect religious approaches other than my own. This is a subject on which I need reminding, from time to time. I am a combative person; I see myself as a defender of Reform Judaism; I am quick to offer a fierce defense of my liberal principles. But sitting across from my daughter and knowing the thoughtfulness of her convictions, it is respect that I feel and express; and I remind myself to stress the authenticity of my beliefs rather than what I may see as the shortcomings of hers.
Sometimes we talk about choice. Growing up in our home, it seems to me that she felt crazy sometimes from too much choice. I, on the other hand, welcome choice; I need it, rejoice in it, and thrive on it.
Sometimes we talk about ritual. When it comes to ritual, she is committed to tradition, while I am committed to traditional values rather than tradition per se; her inclination is to embrace ritual capaciously, and mine is to welcome it but in a more limited way; her fear is that absent ritual, we will have anarchy; my fear is that absent a critical mindset, we will have shtetl Judaism.
Do I “win” these debates? Of course not. We never win debates with our children, and we don’t really want to. And Adina, a Ph.D. in intellectual history, more than holds her own.
But it is interesting that even now, Adina calls herself Reform. She is a Shabbat-observing, Kashrut-observing member of an Orthodox community, yet she says she is not really Orthodox. Like her parents, she insists on the right to make her own religious decisions. And as engaged as she is in her synagogue and as fastidious as she is in her practice, she is not comfortable with the idea that every Jew must do the same thing at the same time in exactly the same way. In this regard, she is her father’s daughter and a child of this Movement.
Will she ever make her way back to a Reform synagogue? I doubt it. At the same time, I know that most of our young people will not follow her example. The great majority of our kids will continue to feel at home in the liberal Jewish world.
Still – and this is the key – these young people will demand serious answers to their religious questions, just as Adina demanded serious answers to her questions.
This above all is what I have learned from my daughter: that if we hope to engage our children, we will need to provide those answers – answers that are religiously compelling and intellectually engaging, as well as authentically Reform.
And this means making it clear that as Reform Jews, there are things that God expects of us.
This means saying that ritual opens us to the sacred and gives structure to the holy.
This means affirming our belief that if ritual dies, Judaism dies; it is only a matter of time.
This means proclaiming that Shabbat is a God-given duty, even as we know that there are many, many ways for a Jew to fulfill that duty.
This means, in short, doing all that we have been doing, but doing it better and more creatively; because our children will not be satisfied with the superficial or the incidental. And while most will be Reform by practice and conviction, many are like Adina in this way: they yearn, with all their heart, for the holy and the transcendent and the fire of faith – even if they can’t define these terms precisely.
And what of our practical problems: finance, leadership development, Temple dues? Yes, we must deal with these matters; they are essential for our survival. But that is not where we start. We start with the study of Torah, the practice of mitzvoth, and faith in the God of Israel. These are not slogans or gimmicks; for Reform Jews – and in fact for all Jews – they are the essential building blocks of our Jewish identity.
When I became president of the Union in 1996, I shared with you my conviction that study, prayer, and the mitzvot of home and family life come before anything else. Sixteen years later, that remains my conviction, even as I see with much satisfaction the progress that we have made.
And again, these things do not come in place of our fundraising, our cultural fairs, or our Holocaust commemorations, but they do come before them; they remain the foundation on which this great Movement will spread its message of liberal, enlightened Judaism.
And now let me say a few words about our son.
Adam is 28; he has just completed law school and is clerking for a judge in Philadelphia.
When it comes to Judaism, it is hard to see what he shares with his sister, other than DNA. The ritual of his sister’s home does not speak to him; neither does the ritual of our home. He finds synagogue to be boring. He informs us that he does not believe in God. He sees Judaism as often divisive and sometimes coercive. He occasionally attends a Shabbat dinner with some of his friends, but that doesn’t happen often.
Nonetheless, he has his own Jewish commitments.
He spent ten years at the Union’s Camp Harlam, stretching his Jewish muscles and growing in Jewish knowledge. Camp was the place where he learned to do Jewish and think Jewish, and even now, years later, his camp friends and his camp memories sustain his Jewish being.
Also, we took Adam, at age seven, to Israel, and we returned there for his bar mitzvah, more at his insistence than at ours. He went back yet again for a summer NFTY trip, and while in college at Duke, he served as campus rep for AIPAC and helped to found Duke Friends of Israel. Following graduation, he spent a year studying in Jerusalem, and while there, came to know and admire Israel’s Reform leaders; this time was, in his words, “the best year of my life, so far.” He complains to me, regularly, that Reform Jews are not nearly as supportive of Israel as they should be. For Adam, to be Jewish means to be involved in Israel’s fate and implicated in her destiny.
The other important thing for Adam is this: he has always believed that Judaism is about moral imperatives and about feeling compassion for our fellow citizens. He heard a lot of this at our dinner table, and from a very early age, he took it to heart. He went to South Africa to help get guns out of the hands of young people, and when he returned he worked for a year on Capitol Hill, doing what he could to advance the cause of justice.
I would be pleased if Adam believed in God and liked synagogue, at least more than he does now, but I don’t remember being very different when I was his age. Perhaps these things will come with time. Still, I do not worry overly much about his Jewish future. From him too I have learned a great deal.
His years at camp gave Jewish purpose to his life and gave him new ways to access his Jewish heritage. Camp was a loving community for him and his friends, built on passion, adolescent energy, Jewish ceremony, and much Jewish learning. God or not, it was a holy place for them. Adam has already resolved that his kids will go to a Jewish camp, and he wonders why every parent in our synagogues does not do the same. I wonder too, even as I know that we need many more scholarships than we now provide. And whatever the vehicle, whether camp or something else, we owe every Reform child the experience of intense Jewish community that my son had at camp. Making this happen is what our Campaign for Youth Engagement is all about.
Adam’s unwavering commitment to Israel is also reassuring to me. He is dismissive of those who are embarrassed by Israel or see it as marginal. For Adam, to be a Jew is to stand with your people and the Jewish State. It is to be summoned to exertion – and if need be to sacrifice – by the drama and nobility of the Zionist cause. And he expects Israelis to be proud and fierce in defending their State because he knows that for Israel, weakness invites aggression.
At the same time, the absence of religious freedom in Israel makes his blood boil. He also bristles at the group-think in political matters that, when it comes to Israel, so many in our community attempt to impose. While he despises the anti-Israel crowd, he cannot tolerate those who try to intimidate thoughtful critics of Israel. And as someone who has been in Hebron and had exposure to settlers, he knows extremism when he sees it. And he’s tired of being told by Jewish leaders that building settlements throughout the West Bank doesn’t really matter when it manifestly does. In fact, the great cause of Adam’s life has been gun control, and he sees in the settler movement the Israeli version of the NRA; both are dominated by fanatics who put their particular obsession above the common good, no matter how terrible the price.
Adam’s devotion to Israel is unshakeable, and I am proud of the way that he thinks. He wants an Israel that combines conciliation with toughness, and so do I. But he fears that if critical voices are discouraged and Jewish extremism is ignored, Israel’s cause will suffer grievous harm. And I fear that as well.
When it comes to social justice, Adam has heard from me the story of the letter I received from the rabbi of a Reform congregation. This rabbi is a friend. Reacting to a resolution passed at a Biennial convention, my friend told me that he agreed with the resolution, but a few of his wealthy congregants did not. Yes, my friend wrote, he admired the idealism and activism of Reform Judaism; he is an activist himself. But with the economy in decline and his members struggling financially, the synagogue simply could not afford to lose even one or two significant donors. Perhaps the time had come for the Reform Movement to be practical and to refrain from taking positions on political matters.
Adam knows that I worry about the financial condition of our congregations and that a number of synagogue leaders have opinions similar to those of my friend. His own political views are moderate ones, and in many ways he is more conservative than I am. But he doesn’t accept my friend’s argument – not for a minute.
To Adam, the prophets are political. The God – in which he does not believe – is political. Judaism is political.
Political is not the same as partisan, of course. He knows that it doesn’t mean supporting parties or endorsing candidates. And it certainly doesn’t mean mindless, knee-jerk liberalism. But it does mean expecting Judaism to offer direction on poverty, war, and the great issues of the day.
Adam knows from his time in South Africa that the only rabbis who fought apartheid were Reform rabbis. He knows the role that Reform rabbis played here in the struggle for civil rights and gay and lesbian rights. He knows that the campaign for Israel in which he has long been engaged is preeminently a political battle.
And he remembers going to non-Jews on campus and asking for their support on Israel. How, he wonders, do we ask others to support our battles for justice if we will not support theirs? And if our moral indignation is reserved only for our own issues, how can we claim to be moral at all?
Adam is not naïve. He is aware that political discussions polarize and that avoiding conflict is what organizations do. But he has been to his share of Jewish 20-something events and finds them deadly dull. His take is that we need to generate some excitement and take some risks. And he wonders why those who are so anxious to get him involved seem to care so little about what he thinks.
But organizational matters are not really his concern. He has heard me go on endlessly about the immense moral energy of Torah. All right then, he says, urging me to remember my words. Calling for an engaged Judaism might ruffle some feathers. But what good are words of Torah that don’t get under anyone’s skin? What good are words of Torah that don’t touch the real problems of society? What good are pious phrases that don’t bother anyone?
What he is saying is what Reform Judaism has always said: that we Reform Jews must never lower our ethical sights; that if our liberal understanding of Torah does not help us to create a better society, we have lost our way; and that if we Reform Jews are not a moral movement, then we have no reason to be.
Despite the fact that they come from very, very different places on the Jewish spectrum, I find it interesting that my kids agree on a number of things.
They agree on what they don’t want.
They don’t want their synagogue to be the synagogue of their youth. They have great affection for that synagogue and they love their rabbi. But they have figured out that each generation gets the synagogue that their parents wanted—and they want something else.
They don’t want us trying to make Judaism hip. When we older folks try to do that, they think that we look ridiculous. And they don’t really expect Judaism to be cool or avant-garde. It is one of the few things in their lives that anchors them to their past and provides a bridge to their future.
And they really, really do not want to hear about how the Jewish world is going to reach them with marketing tools and growth strategies. I tell them sometimes about the consultants we are talking to, and they barely listen; they are content to leave the power points, the flip charts, and the corporate mumbo-jumbo to others. And if I push them on how we can best market Judaism to young adults, they inform me that they are going to be sick; they ask me if I have ever met a single person who has been drawn to Judaism by a marketing campaign.
And they also agree on what they do want.
They want Jewish experience rather than Jewish dogma or doctrine.
They want wonder more than information, and ideas and passions more than practicalities.
They want the support of a community.
And they want, in the act of heartfelt prayer or the work of helping others, to find transcendence from the burdens of everyday life.
And one more thing: they want an inclusive Judaism. My kids hate – yes, they hate – that in many synagogues outside of the Reform Movement, gay Jews, non-Jewish spouses, and Jews with disabilities are not fully welcome. The narrowness and exclusivism of so much of the Jewish world infuriate them. And they see the fearless openness of Reform Judaism as our greatest asset; our open doors are what they love about us most. In fact, as welcoming as Reform Judaism is, they would like us to open our doors even wider: to those who are not members but who might yet find a home in our midst.
So, how are we going to do this: engage my kids and yours? How are we going to keep them part of Jewish life and draw them into our synagogues?
Well, this is no time for triumphalism. The demographic problems are real; the financial problems are great; and the religious challenges are daunting. And it is personally frustrating beyond measure. Even when we as parents have tried to do everything right, these ungrateful kids are still not where we hoped them to be. There will be no quick fixes here, no one-off solutions.
But I don’t believe that our kids are a lost generation. And we cannot afford to wait and see what happens. Therefore, our synagogues and our Movement are already doing what they do in times of distress – they are rethinking, readjusting, reconfiguring.
And this is what is going to happen.
We are going to invite our young people in.
We are going to empower them.
And we are going to dream with them.
In this week’s parasha, we read about Joseph. Joseph’s brothers, who were much older, could only see the future as a continuation of the past. But Joseph, young and vigorous, dreams of sheaves, and wheat, and celestial bodies. Looking ahead to Egypt, Joseph saw what they could not: a new world, a new technology, a new social order. The Talmud instructs us that no person should go seven days without a dream (Ber 14a and 55b); our children, despite the frantic quality of their lives, can dream about Judaism in ways that we cannot.
And the key for Reform Judaism is to dream with them; the key is to act like Joseph, the young and vigorous and upstart brother.
After all, we are only 200 years old, a mere child in Jewish terms; and it is by being young and acting young that our Movement has achieved so much.
We have been brash and forward-looking.
We have brushed aside counsels of timidity.
We have taught Torah with a revolutionary fire and an adventuring spirit.
And we have said with ruthless honesty: if you want a restless, optimistic, risk-taking Judaism, come to us; if you want a touch of chaos, come to us; but if you want a rebbe-dominated Judaism, a rigid and hierarchical Judaism, it can best be found elsewhere.
And this too: we are young enough to have the courage of our doubts in a world of dangerous certainties.
And what we have done before we will do again: we will touch and awaken that Reform gusto that, for most of our short history, spoke to the hearts of young and old alike, and blew like a fresh wind around the Jewish world.
Indeed, this work has already begun. Remember: our synagogues at their best are better than they have ever been. We may have a deficit of dollars in this Movement, but we do not have a deficit of vigor or of spirit.
To do all of this, we need a united Movement. We must end the institutional narcissism that has too often plagued us. We must work together as never before.
We will also need the leadership and inspiration of the visionaries in our midst. David Ellenson is such a visionary. And Rick Jacobs is such a visionary.
Many of you are just getting to know Rabbi Jacobs. He is a great leader who takes Torah seriously and speaks from our tradition with authority. He has taken Westchester Reform Temple from strength to strength; every one of its members has been impacted by his intellect and his charisma.
Most important, Rabbi Jacobs is a leader for our time, and for this moment in the history of Reform Judaism.
Our Jewish world is suffering the labor pains of a new order. This is a moment when categories are crossed and taboos trampled, and when Reform synagogues crave the innovative and the idiosyncratic. This is a moment of potentially drastic transition when organizational tinkering is not enough. What we need at this moment is one thing: the imaginative power to sense the quick drift of history. And this is what Rick possesses.
Looking back, leading this Movement has been a joyous journey for me. There have been moments good and bad, and I have made my share of errors; but on balance, it has been a wonderful ride. And now, it is someone else’s turn. And nothing reassures me more than to know that that someone is Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who will be a great leader and a great teacher and who will rally this Movement to unheard of achievements.
I have spoken to you today about my children. They are thoughtful, serious adults, who bring Amy and me great joy – and occasional aggravation; but of course I worry about them as you worry about your children. I worry about what the future holds for them, just as I worry about the future of the Jewish people.
And in the final analysis, what my wife and I will do is what we all do: live our Jewish lives with conviction and purpose, set the best example for our children that we can, and then love them unconditionally – accepting, respecting, embracing and rejoicing in the choices they make, Jewish and otherwise.
And in saying this, I repeat that my message on this Shabbat is one of great optimism.
Because we are bearers of Reform Judaism, a gift from God that will fortify our faith, revive our memory, and deepen our way of life.
Because, in troubled times, Judaism’s future depends on change and hope. And for Reform Jews, change is our home field. Change is what we do. And for our synagogues, hope is our oxygen – the force that gives us life.
And so I promise you: armed with the tenets of Reform, caught up in a Jewish destiny both great and inexplicable,
We will affirm and embrace our covenant with God;
We will secure our Jewish future;
We will fulfill our collective dream of reaching toward redemption, travelling yet again from the shores of the Jordan across to the Promised Land.
And as we reach out our hand to God, we do so trusting that God’s hand reaches out to us, giving us strength for the journey ahead.