Seeking and finding – congregant sermons from Erev Rosh Hashanah

This year’s Rosh Hashanah theme was “Seeking and finding.” Ron Turbin and Suzanne Graver offered the sermons on erev Rosh Hashanah. With their permission, we share those sermons with you now. G’mar chatimah tovah – may you be sealed for good in the year to come!

Where Do You Belong? (Suzanne Graver)

I feel honored to have been asked to speak tonight on the theme of “Seeking and Finding” and want to thank Rabbi Rachel for having asked me.  I accepted without hesitation, regarding this as an opportunity to thank CBI for enabling me to return to being a practicing Jew.  I’ve chosen as my starting point an incident that’s haunted and puzzled me for many years.  Preparing for this talk, I’ve come to discover why.

The year is 1964.  My family and I had just arrived in Williamstown, my husband having accepted on offer to teach at Williams College.   Before this, we’d both lived only in big cities.  We arrived with two baby girls, one a new-born, the other 20 months old.   The wife of my husband’s department chair invited me to attend a welcoming reception sponsored by the Faculty Wives Club.  Aspiring to be a faculty member, not a faculty wife, I didn’t want to go and had a good excuse.  My infant daughter had just come down with a high fever.   Given the source of the invitation, my husband begged me to attend, “You don’t have to stay,” he said.  “All you need to do is say ‘Hello,’ stay briefly and leave.”  Taking him at his word, I had already made a quick appearance and was back in my car getting ready to leave, while other people were still arriving, when a woman passing by placed her elbow on my open window, introduced herself, and said “Hi, Where do you belong?”

“What?” I replied.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your question.  What do you mean?”

She repeated her question; I repeated my response, until finally she said: “You know.  Some of us go to the Congo church, others to the Episcopalian or Methodist Church, I . . . “

“I don’t belong to any church,” I replied.  “I’m Jewish.”

“Oh, that’s ok,” she cheerfully responded. “I belong to the Unitarian Church and we accept everyone.”

To which I replied, “Where I belong right now is home, where I have a very sick new-born baby, so please let me leave,” and drove off.

Nonetheless, this question of “Where do you belong” haunted me for years to come and in ways that went beyond the customary issues of having to deal with anti-Semitism or Jews experiencing themselves as outsiders.   It troubled me because Knowledge is what I’ve spent most of my life actively seeking and this very search had at key moments in my life separated me from my Jewish inheritance and identity.

During my childhood years, my Jewish identity was as strong as could be.  I loved my family’s way of being Jewish, the joyful and delicious holiday meals, the stories from the Old Testament, the poetic invocations of nature in the prayer books, the calls for truth and justice, compassion and love, forgiveness and redemption.  Each year, I eagerly awaited Kol Nidre, a service my father and I typically attended together.  My family is Sephardic, both my parents having both been born and raised in Turkey, where my ancestors fled in 1492 to escape the Spanish Inquisition.  My family is proud of its Sephardic history, as am I.  Ladino was my first language.  When in 1921, my maternal ancestors left Turkey to “move back to Spain,” as my mother put it, my grandfather became the Shamash (custodian) of the first synagogue in Barcelona since the Inquisition; and for many years, until a Rabbi could be found, he conducted the services.  My mother and her family lived in the building that housed the synagogue.  She sewed the tallit (the prayer shawls) and embroidered the cloth that covered the Torah.  My two oldest brothers carved their initials into the backs of the benches.  After my mother moved to America, she and my father helped to found a synagogue in the Queens neighborhood where I grew up.

My ambivalence about Judaism began when I was about eleven and was not allowed to learn Hebrew or engage as fully as my four brothers in religious practices that they seemed to care about far less that I.   My alienation intensified when I found among the few books in my house a Siddur with English translations of Hebrew prayers and found: “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, for not having made me a woman,” a prayer recited by men at the morning service.   When I went to college, I became enraptured by the ideas I encountered in my Great Books of the Western World courses and asked my Rabbi for the names of equivalent great Jewish thinkers.  He told me there were none.  I didn’t discover until quite a bit later how very wrong he was.

Struggling to ease my quarrel with Judaism, I took two courses in Jewish history at Queens College and found that neither did they include profound writings by Jewish thinkers.  My switch from history to literary studies in graduate school opened a wider door for me when I chose to write my Ph.D. dissertation on George Eliot, a world-class female Victorian novelist who used a masculine penname so that her books would be taken seriously.  Though not Jewish, she championed Jews and Zionism.  Her early work included translating Spinoza’s Ethics into English, leading me to read the work of a brilliant Jewish philosopher whose writings should have been included in my Great Books courses and were not.  George Eliot’s later work included Daniel Deronda, a novel in which she created at considerable risk a hero who discovers his Jewish identity and ultimately abandons the life of a British gentleman to go to Palestine and work towards the establishment of a Jewish State.  George Eliot published this novel in 1876, several years prior to the first Zionist settlement in Israel and two decades before Theodor Herzl launched political Zionism.  The concluding chapter of my book, George Eliot and Community, is devoted to this novel.

This work began in me the process of uniting my quest for knowledge with my search for a Jewish identity that didn’t separate me from myself.   Believe it or not, my quarrel with Judaism lessened considerably when, shortly after I started to teach at Williams in 1978, I added Women’s And Gender Studies to my scholarly research and teaching.  Doing so enabled me to see what I truly had not known before:  that most of the great Western thinkers I’d been so seduced by during my undergraduate years regarded woman as innately inferior to man on the grounds that her ability to reason is vastly inferior, a view that for centuries justified woman’s exclusion from both the Republic of Letters and equal rights.  My undergraduate reading assignments and class work left this out, making me feel retrospectively somewhat brainwashed.  Orthodox Judaism’s exclusions of women from certain types of mitzvoth seemed benign, in comparison, grounded as they are in woman’s responsibility to care for her children.

Still, not until I joined CBI did I truly begin to unite what had often felt like separate selves.  The services I’ve attended here, the Hebrew chanting and melodies that return me to my past, the book group meetings, the spiritual study sessions, the delightful parties have all contributed to this.

Beyond this, CBI connects me to my childhood love of Judaism by speaking to my adult spiritual needs, which include but also transcend my lifelong search for knowledge.  “Jewish renewal through spirituality” constitutes not only CBI’s guiding principle but also its practices.  In countless ways and at innumerable moments, transcendence gets embodied here. Torah explications connect the sacred with the everyday, often in breathtaking ways.

Rachel’s music makes me think I’m hearing David’s lyre, invoking Paradise, as does Randall Miller’s magnificent cantorial voice.  It’s not that paradise and spirituality had been entirely missing from my adult life before I joined CBI.  I have often found their intimations in classical music, literature, and art; in nature and in my garden; but most of all in the love that my husband, my children, grandchildren, and I have truly been blessed to have shared.

The new liturgy that CBI is using for the Days of Awe identifies “the broken heart” as “the master key . . . that opens the secret meanings behind all the shofar blasts. ”  I joined CBI 5 ½ years ago, immediately after my husband died.  I’m more grateful to CBI than I can possibly say for helping my broken heart to heal by enriching my spiritual life and giving me the gift of a communal place where I belong.

Erev Rosh Hashanah:   Life as a Journey (Ron Turbin)

I’d like to thank Rabbi Rachel  for inviting me to speak this evening.   It’s a great honor. I’m very grateful to be here this evening and be a part of this wonderful congregation.   Thank you.

I think that the topic that we were asked to speak on is terrific.   “Life as a journey; what am I looking for.”   It’s perfect for me.   Having reached a very significant decade this year on my birthday, December 25th, it is something that I think about.  So, I’ll talk about my spiritual journey and hope that I don’t bore you.

My parents jointed a synagogue a few years before my bar mitzvah, and, indeed my twin brother and I attended Hebrew and Sunday school and had our bar mitzvah.   But then my parents dropped out of the synagogue and that was it. I didn’t think about synagogue or religion for the next twenty years.

Then, I married my wife, Judy, a wonderful person and a practicing, church going Christian.   Being curious about this important part of her life, I began occasionally attending the Methodist church with her and my two older (step) children.  It was a lovely and welcoming Congregation.  Consequently, despite my ambivalence about being in a Christian church, I received spiritual nourishment from the experience. This led me to the obvious.   Well, if I am receiving spiritual sustenance from a church, why not return to the synagogue.   Which is what I did.

I found a very friendly, warm congregation in my community in Long Island and enjoyed attending regular Friday night, and occasionally Saturday services. In many ways I found my wife’s congregation and my new Jewish congregation, with respect to friendliness, community involvement and simplicity of worship, similar.

However, these basically positive experiences were not without disillusionment.   Regarding my wife’s church.   One day friends whom we made in the Church told me that they were very disappointed that I would not be joining them in heaven because I was not a Christian.  Of course, I did not take their remarks, although stated sincerely by them, seriously or personally.   However, I was shocked that intelligent people attending a fairly liberal church should have such a parochial view of salvation.

I then suffered a much more personal disillusionment with the synagogue.   After the birth of our youngest son, Jonathan, I decided that I wanted to raise him Jewish.   When he was four years old, I approached my Rabbi, and asked how I could transition him to the synagogue and Religious and Hebrew school.   The Rabbi asked whether he was circumcised, which he was.   Then, he asked whether the doctor who circumcised Jonathan was Jewish.  He was not, although his partner was.   However, that didn’t make a difference.  The Rabbi said that he would have to be re-circumcised in order to join the synagogue.

Of course, that was out of the question for my wife and I to recircumcise our four year old son.   Again, I didn’t take this personally.   But I was again struck by the arbitrariness of the judgment of the validity of my son’s circumcision.   To the say the least, this was an example of ritual taking precedence over my desire to bring a member of my family into the Jewish faith.

Just an addendum.   There is a happy ending to this story.  After my disappointment, I sought out counseling from another local Rabbi.  He advised me, very sagaciously, not to separate Jonathan from his mother and siblings with respect to religious observance, and that he should attend church with his mother and siblings.   However, he strongly recommended that I maintain a Jewish presence in the home, i.e,, light candles on Friday evening and observe the holidays.   He predicted that, in the end, if I maintained a Jewish presence in the home, Jonathan may ultimately identify himself as a Jew, and this is exactly what happened.

All of these experiences, many of which have been positive, but some disillusioning, have not dampened my belief in God and the importance of fostering a strong religious and spiritual component to our lives.   However, now that I am closer to the end of my spiritual journey, I believe more than ever in the importance of the universal aspect of spirituality.   We are all in this world and in this life together.  Everything we do impacts everyone else.   Likewise, the actions of others impact us.   Yes, we take this journey alone, but there are millions of others who are fellow travelers.

With this in mind, specific practices and rituals of diverse cultures and religions, while perhaps having some significance for individuals, pale in significance to our interconnectivity with each other and the earth that we inhabit and the realization that our actions, individually and collectivity, have a profound  impact on humanity and the world that we inhabit.

We must keep in mind that everyone is the world is blessed with a unique and beautiful individuality.  It is, therefore, obvious that each person has his or her individual image of God and the divine, and I believe that we can include in that, the atheistic or agnostic view.

At some recent point in my spiritual journey, I decided that my favorite book of the bible is Job.  (Very interestingly one of the candidates running in the presidential primaries also referred to Job as his or her favorite book.)  In the book of Job, God clearly reprimands Job’s friends for insisting that they know the ways of God (this is a good lesson for the fundamentalists in all faiths who while speaking knowingly of what is God’s will, often wreck havoc on the world).  The moral that I discern from Job is that one simply cannot know the why and what of God, except that we all have a responsibility to serve each other and do what we can to create a better world and a better life for the other.

One comment

  1. Ron …. it’s late at night but I just read your missive and wanted to reach out to tell you how profoundly beautiful it was written and what it said resonated with me major league big time, as I’m sure it did when you delivered it. It also brought a smile to my face as I conjured up the image of you at the bima in OUR forever CBI which I now feel we attended spiritually. Best wishes to you on your continued journey that I am so happy our little temple has helped you with and so many others . Warmest regards to you
    and Judy. Stay well! DMR/JMR

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