The New Judaism

Jul 17, 2015 | Rabbi Scott Fox, Sermons

I remember Adele’s giddiness when we first moved to Brooklyn, now seven years ago.  I couldn’t see her face, but the excitement was palpable over the phone.  We described where we were living / President Street, a block and a half from the park.  “President Street!!  Your grandfather and I lived on President Street!!”  We shared more about our new neighborhood, her old.  It turned out that we were also only a couple blocks from the Central Brooklyn Public Library.  She got silent for a moment, and then proceeded to describe to us her first trip to that same library.  The very first time she rode a streetcar on her own, was to attend the grand opening of the building. She told us about how she hopped on the trolley, handed her ticket to the driver, and found a seat next to the long window.  As she gazed outside she wondered what lives were celebrated beyond the threshold of each window that patterned the tall buildings that lined Eastern Parkway.   What families held memories in those spaces on the other side of drawn curtains, who was pictured above the fireplace and why?

When she arrived at Grand Army Plaza, she stepped off the streetcar and onto the sidewalk, and looked up at the grand structure.  A triumph of learning, powerful wealth of resources and quick pride of the neighborhood and city.  She described the building and I knew I had to go see it.  I went over there the next day and walked up to the wide steps that tumble out in front of the building, like water rolling over stones finding its way down a shallow hill.  The building itself towers over the space.  While it’s not more than five stories tall the roof stretches out as if resting against the ceiling of the sky.  I’d have to stand on my own shoulders more than 10 times to reach the top, for a young Adele it must have been more.  Modernized round Greek columns fell to the ground from the top of the building and along the outside walls were images of people engaged in all kinds of scientific and intellectual pursuits.  Again a modernized Greek hieroglyphic.  The building has the same air as many of our vintage universities, and to the right of the entrance, etched into the rock and painted in gold letters low enough for you to set you hands on the indentations, and I suppose you mind on its meaning, lies the quote: “Here are enshrined the longing of great hearts and noble things that tower above the tide, the magic word that winged wonder starts, the garnered wisdom that never dies.”[1] The garnered wisdom that never dies.

Beyond the columns, and the large round swinging doors there is a grand receiving area.  The expanse of open space fills the heart with all of the grand things you might find in this illustrious library to occupy your passions and feed your mind.  To view this arena you catch a glimpse of the awe that one must feel when presented with all of the information that our society has to offer, all of the literature that we finally today can reach.  What we know can boggle the mind, it should.  In its time, I am sure that that space was filled with people traversing the tiled floor drifting toward their favorite books, their latest intellectual muse, holding scraps of paper littered with the latest babel of the Dewey decimal system.  Today however that space looks like a cornfield of tables, as if a drove of Starbucks stores split open and spilled out their peopled contents onto the public floor.  Dozens of people sitting intently entranced by the mix of colors displayed on their laptop screens that feed them information on the latest news, hobby skill set, or biography.  Countless books sit behind their backs, on the other side of the large room’s walls, resting lonely on their shelves.  Any one of those computers, thinner than a single volume of an encyclopedia, has access to more information than the entire contents of that famous library.  You could fit more information on a single hard drive, the size of a spinning drink coaster, than a thousand libraries of that size.  Every single book ever purchased in the library’s rich history, crammed into a single black box that you can and will throw into your shoulder bag and carry away, the words melted but not diffused into a hard dark matter.

To be sure, hundreds of books are checked out every day in that institution of information.  Loads of people still love the feel of paper and ink in their hands.  But the library has evolved.  Beyond the entryway, there is a room that reaches out into a wide rectangle with shelves of microfilm stuffed into dark and forgotten corners to make room for rows of computer stations.  Small cubicles with a chair and an Internet port.  To have free access to information today does not mean that you have printed materials readily available, but rather that you have a keyboard, mouse and screen.    Committed to offering access to information, the library abides.

This kind of change has also been happening in the Jewish world.  In fact, it’s been happening for centuries.  I love sitting down with students who crack open a translation of the Torah for the first time and just gape at its contents.  There are absolutely beautiful things in our Torah.  Stories that are nothing short of genius, poetry that rivals the best of any language, historical precedents and core values that inspire me daily, and there’s also some really weird stuff.  I mean really weird.  For example, if someone accuses his partner of infidelity the process of determining the legitimacy of that claim is not due process, or a conversation with the ruler of the realm, the practice is to take the accused to a priest, write some words on a piece of paper, dissolve those words into water, and have the accused drink it.  Pretty strange.  There’s also tons of material on the intricacies of the Temple sacrifice.  When was the last time you brought carrots or your best sheep to the Temple for sacrifice?  Bar-be-ques don’t count.  What is remarkable about these things is that, while we read them week after week, we simply don’t do them anymore.  We read a text over and over again that if nothing else shows us that we are an adapting people and that our way of life has gone through tremendous changes throughout our history.

One of my favorite examples of this change is the Hebrew veritas movement.  In the middle ages it became popular among Christian scholars to study the original “Old Testament” in its native language, namely Hebrew.  It just so happened that the scholars that were best equipped to teach it in the original Hebrew, were Jewish scholars and so Christian scholars started hanging out at Jewish schools.  There was a time when Rashi, one of the great Torah commentators was the new hot thing in the Christian schools in Europe.  He was quoted alongside the saints and scholars of the Christian tradition because, as one of my teachers once said, he’s just that good.  So these scholars began spending more and more time around these schools and learning with the great Jewish teachers of the day.  The more time they spent there however, in and among the Jewish community, and the more acquainted they became with the Jewish Bible, their Old Testament, the more they were puzzled.  Jews were tolerated in Christian monarchies because the Church believed that the Jews were following the Bible, just not the whole thing.  They were not considered total heathens because they followed half the Bible, the Old Testament, they just never got the memo for the new one.  Which is why these scholars were so puzzled by the Jews they started spending time with in these schools.  It didn’t seem like they were following the Bible at all!  What was more was that they kept referring to this other text, something called the Talmud.  Looking closer the Jews weren’t following the Bible at all, they were following the Talmud!  The Talmud is a huge body of work, a compendium of literature from around 200bce to 500ce, give or take a few hundred years…   The Talmud claims legitimacy as an extension of the Bible.  By its own accounting it is an elucidation, a hashing out of the many issues, stories and commandments in the Bible.  Simply put, the Talmud was supposed to be a clarification of the practices outlined in the Torah for Jews in their daily lives.  But it’s never as simple as that.

This turned out to be a problem for the Christian rulers, because if the Jews were following the Talmud and not the Bible, they might be heathens!  So they put the Talmud on trial.  Literally, they prosecuted the Talmud.  In the end, they ruled that the Talmud didn’t follow the Bible.  Not such a stretch for anyone who has waded through the thick waters of its over 60 volumes.  The Talmud, the most important document in Jewish life, one that was studied 10x more often and in more depth than the Torah itself, was deemed to be a full break from the Bible, a full break from the Judaism that bore that era of the Jewish community.

In the course of events, after over 1000 years of daily study of what was deemed the most important text in history for our Jewish ancestors, they had inadvertently developed into a different faith entirely.  And how could they not have, so much of what the Torah and the Bible calls for is Temple sacrifice and we didn’t live in Israel anymore, let alone have a Temple in Jerusalem to make those sacrifices.  But there was more that happened, the community grew, different life circumstances evolved, reality shifted and our very understanding of the world around us was fundamentally different, and so too was our faith.

Another thousand years have come and gone, and we are beginning to see the same shifts again.  Not so much that everything is changing right this minute, but that we have taken a step back, we have observed our community from the mountaintops and found our camp, like nomads, in a different location.

People simply do not express their Judaism in the same way that they did in the past.  Jews now come to Temple, our Temple, IHC, for all different reasons.  Prayer, learning and community are at the core but they are by no means all of it.  And what a blessing.  The synagogue has grown into a new mode of community center.  It is my joy to help each of us find our own reason to call this great place our spiritual home, and to find a way to practice that.  As we do teshuvah this year, as we each do our inner work and turn back toward the best person that we are, what are the things that each of us sees in this community to make it the best community it can be.  When we look closely, a community is simply a bunch of individuals, you and me.  This is one of the many reasons why I want to have a conversation with you.  I don’t just want to meet in the hall, I want to really talk, really hear about what you love and care about.  What are the things that keep you up at night, or draw your interest.  Where does your mind go when it wanders?  What do you Google when you have 30 seconds in line at the grocery store?  What day are you counting down to?  What are the things, who are the people, that you dearly love? If you want it to be, how is Judaism a part of your life and how do you want IHC to take a role in that?  How can we make that happen?

There’s an old joke that Sarah goes to synagogue to talk to God, and Sharon goes to synagogue to talk to Sarah.  One of the biggest changes that is happening in Jewish life is that we all have our own way of connecting to Judaism, while communal experiences are an important and incredibly powerful part of our Jewish practice, we simultaneously each have our own Jew app.

Another change is that communication has expanded in our Jewish universe and our American community at large.  We don’t just join together in our synagogue or our homes anymore.  We have a legitimate Jewish community that meets at all hours of the day and night through Facebook.  If you haven’t liked the IHC page on Facebook, I encourage you to do so.  Join the community and the conversation that’s taking place on it.  It’s really amazing.  And speaking of amazing, Maddy, our new communications coordinator is doing fantastic work helping with the conversation we are having in that space.

Another change that is taking place is that boundaries are also disappearing.  Jonathan Sarna wrote at the end of his book American Judaism that boundaries are one of the biggest shifts taking place among Jews in the United States today.  Whereas Jews once defined themselves strictly by their denomination and upbringing, Jews are now Reformaservastructadox…ish.  It’s not uncommon to find different needs in different Jewish spaces now, and to weave in and out of the various communities.

Dori and I experienced this in Brooklyn as well at a Simchat Torah celebration a handful of years ago.  I can still hear the ringing of the rimonim.  The bells on top of the Torah as we danced and danced in the middle of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, the same Grand Army Plaza that contains the Central Library, new celebrations in a historied place, of our ancient tradition.  All the different Jewish groups were there: Shir Ha’maalot, Kolot Chayeinu, Beth Elohim, Kane Street, Union Temple, the Park Slope Jewish Center, Brooklyn Jews, Altshul, and we had an absolute blast singing and dancing with the Torahs until late in the night.  The musicians from each synagogue sung at the top of their lungs, belted out klezmer music and smacked hand drums that sent vibrations through the crowd of hundreds and on into the night air.  Our experiment to see what singing and dancing together would look like is now a yearly tradition there.  A minyan of communities.

Geography is shifting as well.  The past two years I served as the Reform Campus Rabbi at Cornell University and I would say that 90% of my graduating seniors, the active young Jews of our college community, went straight from their college housing to apartments in the urban core of a large city.  I know that my grandfather couldn’t believe it when I told him that I was moving to Brooklyn for rabbinical school.  He worked every day of his young life to get out of there.  Stayed up late at night studying to become a math teacher and the day he graduated with his teaching credential he took off for southern California ready to make a new life.  But the city has changed.  While the grime still clings to the street, many urban centers are much safer now than in the past, and young people want to live in the heart of a city where the culture is vibrant.  Where they can walk or ride rapid transit, and where they feel close to their neighbors and peers, removing the comfortable divide that may later draw them back to the suburbs.

Young people are now moving back to the city and so we are bringing services to that part of our community.  On October 30th we are doing our first Shabbat in the City.  We will be downtown, hopefully outside, and lending guitar and our voices to the night air to welcome in Shabbat.  Look out for other locations in the future as well.

Each year we come to the same space and open our books to the pages of memory of what we have been in the past, and the person we know we can become.  Our seasons change on their own, there is no slowing down of the turning of the leaves, for us individually we watch the calendar tick away the days until the moment comes when we gather for reflection and introspection, the turning in our hearts, but as a community our reflection, our turning does not come regularly, we have no means of understanding who we are outside of watching the changes in our own lives reflected in the community at large.  This season, as we each turn, may we all move together.

It is a great and positive mark of our community that as time moves on bringing new seasons and new years, that so do we.  Our community is constantly changing, constantly growing anew.  Yom Kippur is our time to reflect and come back with new eyes.  Our Judaism reaches down the centuries and as each new season brings a new outlook, our practices our faith remains at the center, and ties each one of us together.  As we look back to our texts, the sacred writ of our people that we have carried throughout the generations, through all of its multitude of mediums, may we find that while our texts may look different, may come to us in new vessels and new ways, that we always find our same story among the pages, parchment, and pixels.

Tzom kal, wishing each of us an easy fast and sweet new year.

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