Category Archives: sermons

The gates are closing – short words for Ne’ilah

Neilah-art-wohlThe gates of this awesome day are closing.

For twenty-four hours we have gathered together in song, in prayer, in contemplation. We have knocked on our hearts, imploring them to open. We have admitted to ourselves and to God where we habitually fall short. We have tried with all our might to forgive ourselves our mis-steps, our missed marks.

And now the gates are closing.

If there is something for which you still don’t feel forgiven; if there is a hurt, whether one you inflicted or one you received, still heavy on your heart; the penance I prescribe is this: work it off with the labors of your heart and hands.

 

As Yom Kippur ends, the first thing we do is light a candle.

Then we feed each other at the break-the-fast.

And then we put the first nail in the sukkah, connecting Yom Kippur with Sukkot which will begin in four short days.

Light. Sustenance. Shelter. These are our calling in the year to come.

 

Bring more light to the world: combat ignorance, homophobia and transphobia, fear and mistrust of Muslims and of immigrants, small-mindedness of every kind.

Bring more sustenance to the world: feed the hungry in our community and everywhere.

Bring shelter to those in need: welcome Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Berkshire county. CBI’s tikkun olam committee will be working with me in the new year to discern how we can best extend ourselves to support refugees. I hope that everyone in our community will take part.

The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in more recent memory than the Exodus, many of us have parents or grandparents who fled war or persecution. It’s incumbent on us to act to care for those in need.

This morning we heard the searing words of Isaiah:

“Do you think that this is this the kind of fast that I want? A day for people to starve their bodies? Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds, to mortify your bodies with coarse cloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day when Adonai will look upon you with favor?”

“No! This is the fast I want: unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken. Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home.”

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us.

 

The gates are closing. This is the moment when we make the turn — teshuvah, turning our lives around, re/turning to our highest selves and to our Source — to build a world redeemed.

More light. More sustenance. More shelter.

For those in need. For refugees. For everyone.

 

[Image source.] Also posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

18609711e28ea2e68700d6fde8c79c46I don’t know how many of you are MASS MoCA fans, but many of you have probably seen the building of LeWitt wall paintings — yes? It will be on view until 2033, so if you haven’t seen it, you still have time.

My favorite floor is the middle floor. The ground floor features works in pencil and chalk; the top floor features works in psychedelic colors so vivid they almost hurt my eyes; but the middle floor features geometric works in colors that are bright but not painful. That’s the floor where I spend the most time.

I’ve said for years that someday I should paint a LeWitt on a wall in my house. How difficult would it be? All one needs are dimensions and instructions. This summer it occurred to me: I could actually do it. I could make a LeWitt, and have something big, bold, vivid, and colorful to brighten my home through the winter.

Maybe it’s because of timing: I began work on my faux LeWitt during Elul, as we began the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. But as I worked on the canvases, I couldn’t help thinking about teshuvah, that word so often translated as “repentance” though it actually means “return.” The work to which we dedicate ourselves today. Continue reading

Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre

Let-goWe’re not here in this life to be small. Our souls yearn to expand, to live into the fullness of all of who we can become. Yom Kippur is here to help set us free.

Tonight we let go of broken promises. “כָּל נִדְרֵי  / Kol nidrei…” All the promises, and the vows, and the oaths. The promises we made that we failed to live up to. The promises we made that it turns out we couldn’t keep.

Unkept promises, both those we make and those made to us, become a weight holding us down. What would it feel like to let that weight go?

My teacher Reb Zalman — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory — wrote a script for releasing ourselves from our promises. The petitioner says:

“In the last year I have from time to time made vows, sometimes speaking them out loud, or had an intention, a resolution to change something in my actions, behavior and attitude in my mind. Some of these are in relation to myself, my body, my mind, and my soul. Some of these deal with the way in which I conduct myself in relation to other people. And most of all, there are those that deal with my relation to God…”

You might imagine that he wrote these words for Yom Kippur. Actually, he wrote them to recite before Rosh Hashanah. There’s a custom called התרת נדרים / hatarat nedarim, “untangling of vows.” Here’s how you do it. You assemble a beit din, a rabbinic court of three. And then each person takes a turn being the person requesting release, while the others serve as judges empowered to grant release.

The ritual acknowledges that resolutions are a kind of vow, and that when we fail to live up to our intentions, we need a mechanism for forgiveness. What moves me is the response from the court of friends: “hearing your regret, we release you.”

To release ourselves from the promises we couldn’t keep, the first step is to name them, with genuine regret. We speak our mis-steps to someone we trust, and that someone whom we trust says “it’s okay, you can let it go.” Then? We have to believe them. That last step may be the hardest part.

That ritual is a kind of practice run for the work we’re here to do over the next 24 hours, together.

Continue reading

The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

changeRosh Hashanah is often translated as “head of the year.” That translation isn’t incorrect. Of course rosh means head, and shanah means year. The headwaters of a river are where the river begins, and the head of the year is where the year begins. But Hebrew is a deep language. Words that share roots are variations on a theme. And because of that, “Rosh Hashanah” also has a deeper meaning.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program, wrote a book called The Path of Blessing. (That book is in our congregational library.) In The Path of Blessing, she dedicates a whole chapter to each of six Hebrew words: ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam.

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here’s a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a whole cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here’s a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

Maybe you’re thinking “blessed.” As in, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God…” But baruch also relates to berech, knee. That means baruch can suggest a posture of willingness to be humble before the person to whom I am speaking. Baruch also relates to breicha, a flowing fountain. So baruch can suggest both the cosmic flow of abundance, and the flow of spiritual life. This is why Reb Marcia often translates “Baruch atah” as “A Fountain of Blessings are You…”

Just as baruch holds hints of berech and breicha, hints of bending the knee in grateful humility and drinking from the fountain of divine abundance, shanah holds hints of another word in its word-root family tree: shinui, which means change.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of change.

I’ve known this linguistic teaching for years. But it speaks to me in a new way this year, my first Rosh Hashanah as someone whose marriage has ended. That’s a pretty profound change.

Here are some things I have learned about change since the last time I stood before y’all to offer a high holiday sermon.

Continue reading

Do, Hear, and Be Changed – a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776

I’m doing something new with our b’nei mitzvah kids this year. (Credit where it’s due: this is an idea I adapted from my friend and teacher Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the Bay Area.) It’s called Mitzvah Experimentation.

I brought this to our seventh graders in our first Hebrew school class of the year. The first thing we talked about was, what’s a mitzvah. Some of them said “good deed,” which is a fine answer, though not a direct translation. Others said “a commandment,” which is what the word mitzvah means. A mitzvah is something which we are commanded to do, or to not do.

Commanded by whom? The most traditional answer is God. That word raises some eyebrows. Not all of my students are certain that they believe in God. What if you don’t believe in God — does that scotch the mitzvot?

There’s a story about Reb Zalman z”l, the teacher of my teachers, faced with someone who didn’t believe in God. He asked that person to tell him about the God they didn’t believe in. Because “maybe the God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either!” Over the millennia we’ve thought about God, talked about God, and described God in all kinds of different ways. Some of those ways work for me. Some don’t. Some might work for you; some might not. The name “God” can mean a lot of different things. And if my students want to talk about that, I’m happy to do so.

But when I go deeper into the question, what I hear is: if I don’t believe in God, do the mitzvot matter? I think they do. And I’m not alone in that. There’s a longstanding tradition of Jewish atheists and agnostics practicing mitzvot alongside Jews who have faith in or experience of God. It turns out you can be Jewish — and maybe more importantly you can do Jewish — whether or not you “believe” in “God.”

The Hebrew word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic tzavta, connection. A mitzvah is something which connects us. Doing mitzvot is what our ancestors did — maybe our genetic ancestors, and maybe our spiritual ancestors who lived Jewish lives in eras before our own. Doing mitzvot can be be a way of investing one’s life with meaning. And I believe that doing mitzvot can connect us with God — though each of my students is going to have to figure out what that means to them.

Are these reasons important enough to merit taking on the mitzvot? Our b’nei mitzvah students won’t know until they try them on. That’s what mitzvah experimentation is about. I gave my students a list of twenty mitzvot. Ten are mitzvot bein adam l’makom, between a person and God, and ten are mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, between a person and another person.

Praying in community, fasting for Yom Kippur, lighting Shabbat candles, studying Torah, building a sukkah next week and then rejoicing in it — these are mitzvot bein adam l’makom, mitzvot which take place in the space between us and God, us and our Source.

Feeding the hungry, as we do each month when our Take and Eat volunteers cook meals for 200 homebound seniors who would otherwise go hungry; giving tzedakah; making a conscious effort to respect one’s parents, both inwardly and outwardly — these are mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, between one person and another.

Each kid will choose two mitzvot from each list, and will dedicate one month of the school year to practicing each mitzvah. After spending a month immersed in each of their four chosen mitzvot, each student will give a report to the class about which mitzvah he chose, how he practiced it, what the experience was like for him, and how the month-long experiment with that mitzvah changed him.

For me, that’s a big piece of what mitzvah experimentation is about, and a big piece of what Jewish life writ large is about: openness to being changed. There’s a famous moment in Torah when Moshe has communicated to the children of Israel not only the Ten Commandments but also a list of other mitzvot which came along with them, and the children of Israel say נעשה ונשמע/ na’aseh v’nishma, “We will do and we will hear.”

The sages of our tradition seized on that phrase. What does it mean to say “we will do and we will hear” — wouldn’t you think it would be the other way around? If I tell my child to get dressed for school, he has to hear my words before he can do what I’ve asked. It’s not fair to expect him to do the thing before he hears me, is it?

Even if we expand the definition of “hearing” — maybe it’s not about literally hearing the instruction, but about understanding it — the verse is still tricky. Surely it’s better to understand something before one tries to do it? Jewish tradition says otherwise. Jewish tradition says, sometimes we have to do in order to understand.

This is a dance which has been going on for thousands of years. It’s as old as Judaism, and so is this question: when we dance with the mitzvot, when we dance with God, who “leads”? How much of it is dictated by our Partner, and how much depends on us? And what matters more: doing the steps without mistakes, or doing the steps with heart?

In the early centuries of the Common Era our sages argued: is it better to recite the words of the Shema perfectly without feeling their meaning, or is it better to focus on feeling the meaning even if one errs in saying the words? And relatedly: should one wait to say the words until the feeling is there?

The same questions might be asked of what we’re doing today. Is it better to recite the prayers of Yom Kippur without feeling their meaning, or to focus on feeling the meaning even if we don’t say all of the words? Should we wait to say these words, or wait to fast, until we “feel like it”? What if we never “feel like it”?

The tension between doing and feeling does matter. We don’t want our religious lives to be dry structures with no heart in them. But we also don’t want our religious lives to unfold only when the feeling is already there. Sometimes we need to do in order to feel. We hear the music in a different way when we give ourselves over to the dance.

I don’t know what our bar mitzvah boys (and yes, this year they’re all boys) will feel, or understand, or experience, as they try on different mitzvot. I’m looking forward to learning from them.

I invite y’all to experience a taste of what our bar mitzvah boys are doing. I’m asking them to choose four mitzvot and spend one month practicing each. My invitation to you is to choose one mitzvah this year, and dive into it as deeply as you are willing and able to go. (Here is a copy of the list of mitzvot I gave to the bar mitzvah class: Twenty Mitzvot [pdf].)

Try a new mitzvah this year in solidarity with our bar mitzvah boys, and model for them what it’s like to be an adult who’s still learning and growing. Or try a mitzvah you’ve done before, but do it now in a more sustained way. And then make an appointment with me, and tell me how practicing that mitzvah has changed you.

If you are like me — and I suspect that you are — you may be feeling some discomfort around the idea that a practice will change you. It sounds like giving up agency. It sounds like admitting that you need to be changed. Maybe, like me, you’re thinking: but I don’t want to change. I like myself how I already am. I don’t need to be changed. Actually I’ll bet it’s not even going to change me.

We all feel that resistance. Even the rabbi. Change is hard, and accepting that we might need to change is even harder. We can all come up with a million reasons why we are the way we are, why our existing habits suit us, why we can’t possibly do things differently.

We make excuses. I’ve been yearning to make havdalah every week, but then I think: I can’t possibly impose that on my family. My prayer life is perfunctory sometimes, but then I think: that’s normal for a working parent, it’s not anything I need to fix. I don’t always speak my mind and heart in all of my relationships, but then I think: better not to rock the boat. I know I should be more engaged in the struggle for social justice, but then I think: I can’t add anything else to my already-full plate…

Yom Kippur comes every year to remind us that change is not optional. Without change, there is stasis, and stasis is death. Yom Kippur comes to remind us that our habits of body, heart, mind, and soul become calcified and constricting. That each year we miss the mark in our habitual ways, and each year we have the opportunity to break free from those habits and become someone new.

Our sages see Yom Kippur as a rehearsal for our death. Some of us wear white, like the burial shrouds in which we will all someday be buried. Many of us fast from food and drink, as those who have died no longer savor the tastes of this world. We recite a vidui, a confessional prayer, as we will recite a vidui on our deathbeds.

The sages say, make teshuvah — repent; return; align yourself with God again — on the day before your death. We never know when the day before our death might be, which means we should be making teshuvah all the time. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what in your life would you wish were different? What would you wish you had changed while you still had the chance?

What are the truths you’ve been afraid to speak — to yourself; in your relationships; to God? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you feel free to speak them at last, so you could leave this life with a clean slate and light heart? Yom Kippur comes to urge us: speak those truths now. Don’t wait.

Every day is an opportunity to wake up and to shake off old fears and old habits which no longer serve us. Every day is an opportunity to live more fully into the mitzvot, and to let the practice of mitzvot change us. And because it’s human nature to resist change, our tradition gives us Yom Kippur as a day dedicated to this uncomfortable life-changing work.

Yom Kippur calls us to face ourselves, in all of our imperfections and with all of our resistance. Today invites us to ask: what are we so afraid of?

Are we afraid that we’ll have to admit to ourselves that we could have been better people, we could have been truer to ourselves, we could have lived with more mindfulness and more integrity and more connection with God every moment of our lives until now?

Are we afraid that we’ll have to admit to ourselves that we’ve sold ourselves short, that we’ve been settling for less, that we’ve taken the path of least resistance instead of seeking continued change and growth in our lives?

What’s worse: having to admit that I could have been better before now, but committing myself now to embracing my changes and the fullness of who I can be — or refusing to admit that, and therefore never growing, never changing, never deepening my spiritual practice or my relationships or how I am in the world?

Yom Kippur comes to remind us: there’s no time like the present. In fact, there’s no time but the present. And Yom Kippur comes to remind us: this isn’t actually so hard. As we read this morning:

 כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹא־רְחֹקָ֖ה הִוא: לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֨יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: וְלֹא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: כִּי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשׂתוֹ:

Surely, this mitzvah that I enjoin upon you today is not so wondrous for you, and it is not so far. It is not in the heavens that one should say, “Who shall go up into the heavens for us and get it for us that we will hear it and do it?” It is not over the sea that one should say, “Who will cross over to the other side of the sea for us to get it for us that we will hear it and do it?” The word is very close to you, in your own mouth and in your heart to do it.

The mitzvot are right here within our grasp. They will change us, if we let them. Just as life will change us, if we let it. Everything we experience offers us an opportunity to become more conscious, more compassionate, more mindful. Every mitzvah invites us to let go a little bit, and to let something greater than ourselves in.

Our people’s dance with the mitzvot has been going on for thousands of years. The dance is what changes us: not necessarily any given set of steps, but the fact that we’re willing to take the risk of entering into the dance, and to keep dancing.

Na’aseh v’nishmah. “We will do, and we will hear.” Yom Kippur calls us to do. Do, and then listen for the still small voice of your own soul. Do, and then hear. Dance, and let yourself be changed.

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

The Dream of a Better Past – a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

תשובה / Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.

That’s a riff off of a famous phrase. Originally the teaching was that forgiveness is letting go of the dream of a better past. Depending on who you ask, it either comes from the actor Lily Tomlin, or from noted Jewish-Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld.

Either way, I think it’s equally true of teshuvah. An essential part of teshuvah, of re/turning ourselves in the right direction again, is letting go of wishing that the past had been different.

If only I’d taken that job…
If only I hadn’t hurt her feelings…
If only I’d married someone different…
If only I’d known then what I know now…

We all fall into the habit of wishing that things had been different. We tell ourselves stories about how much better life might be if we had made different choices, or if we hadn’t been dealt a particular hand of cards.

The human mind loves to tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about the past; we tell ourselves stories about the future. I do this all the time! Sometimes it’s as though I am listening, in my mind, to the voiceover narration of the book of my life. “She stood at the Torah reading table in her beloved small synagogue, reading aloud the words of the sermon she had written and rewritten all August long…”

There’s nothing wrong with the mind telling stories. That’s what it was designed to do. We are meaning-making machines. We take in life experience and our minds strive to make meaning from them. But it’s easy to get so caught-up in the stories that we lose sight of the present moment. And it’s easy to get so attached to our stories that we get stuck in them.

Who am I, really? If I set aside all of my “if onlies,” what am I left with? If I set aside my stories about who I used to be, and my stories about who I might become, who am I right now?

Yom Kippur asks us to look inside and answer that question. Who am I right now? Who do I want to be, and where have I fallen short? And am I willing to let go of my fantasies about how if only something had gone differently, I would be in a better place than I am today?

It’s not an easy question to ask. Not if we ask it with our whole hearts, with no sacred cows, with everything on the table for examination. Continue reading

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.