Yom Kippur 5767: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Staking Our Claim for The Soul of Judaism

Yankel, a traditional Jew, kisses his family in the shtetl good-bye as he sets out to make his fortune in the new world of America. A year later, his mother comes to be with him in New York. She takes one look at him in disbelief, “Yankele, what happened to your beard and pay’as?” “Mama,” her devoted son replied, “this is America. I have to fit in to be successful!! And, by the way, call me Jack.” “Oy, but Kosher, you still eat kosher, don’t you?” “Mama, I mix with all kinds of people these days, my clients and associates, I can’t keep kosher in my circles.” The mother sighs, “But at least the holy Sabbath, you still observe Shabbas?” “Mama, Saturday is the biggest shopping day of the week. I would lose my business in a minute if I didn’t work on Saturday.” “Yankele, tell me, are you still circumcised?!”

This joke speaks to a profound issue we continue to tackle as American Jews: How is who we are connected to what we do, how we behave? One used to be able to say: Jews do this and don’t do that. Such clear cut delineations no longer exist. But, as a rabbi, I still frequently encounter such questions of authenticity about what Jews do– from Jews who are searching, and from people who are searching for Judaism. Many individuals are concerned about the integrity of their Jewish actions. To be called a Jew, people want to know what is expected of them, how to behave, how to observe in order to be ‘truly’ Jewish. Can I do this? Should I do that? What is the right way?

I have taken these struggles about authenticity seriously to heart. What I have discovered, though, is that while what we do and how we act have been THE touchstone for ‘authentic’ Judaism, this emphasis on behavior reflects only half of the Jewish equation. Behaviors are important, but we cannot ignore the other side: the internal, questing nature of our souls that yearn to discern meaning in what we do.

In his book, Dancing with God, Rabbi Wayne Dosick notes that “there has been a dramatic awakening to the knowledge that the universe is so much more than we can see, feel, hear, or experience at this moment in time….The once comfortable world of Rabbinic Judaism is no longer enough for most of us….Its insistence on the primacy of the law no longer speaks to our spiritually questing hearts and souls.” (Dancing with God, Dosick p. 11-12)

Mitzvot (our specifically legislated Jewish behaviors), which guide our Jewish lives, might be considered the heart of Judaism, epitomized by our external actions as they are lived in the day to day. On the other hand, we discover something very different when we encounter the soul of Judaism. The soul of Judaism bespeaks the Jewish spirit, captures its essence, and reflects that which is eternal in Judaism, that which does not change over time. What is eternal in Judaism are the values. What is temporal are the physical manifestations of these valuesHalacha, Jewish law and practice, developed as a way to help us direct our heart towards our soul.

There are tensions, however, between the heart and soul of Judaism, which are constantly bubbling under (and above) the surface. Each succeeding generation inherits a complex balancing act between: tradition (the heart) and innovation (the soul), status quo and change, stability and evolution. Even what begins as a chidush, something new and inspiring, is soon believed by the next generation to be keva, something fixed, from the hands of Moses at Mt. Sinai, that can’t be changed. Both of these–the static and dynamic–are legitimate Jewish expressions. The reality of authentic Judaism lies not at one pole or the other, but in the interplay between these two parts of the whole: the heart and the soul.

But what happens if we live at only one end of the spectrum? My friend, a rabbi in New York, once told me this story: He was working with his Confirmation class preparing for their Shavuot service. Each student was supposed to write a brief essay on “What Judaism Means to Me.” One of the students turned in his paper with a glaring error! He had spelled “Judaism”: j-u-d-Y-i-s-m. When the young man was alerted to his aberrant spelling, he retorted: “It’s my religion! I can spell it the way I want.” Indeed, his was a uniquely personal expression, which stood in stark contrast to the more traditional rendering of “Judaism.”

Clearly there are dangers in over- personalizing Judaism. Yet we must acknowledge the challenge to maintain the vibrant spirit and teachings of our tradition in our world today so that it continues to speak to us as individuals. In contrast to the example of the creative speller, who has lots of innovation, stands the “Apple Pie Argument” that expresses a fixed point of view. According to this interpretation, Judaism is an exact recipe like that of an apple pie, which may suffer no artistic, culinary experimentation or change. If you alter the recipe, fine! But don’t call it Judaism.

Where is the proper balance for those of us seeking a genuine expression of a meaningful Judaism in our life? Is our only choice strict adherence to an ancient recipe or throwing the recipe away altogether as illustrated by Yankele’s story? Mustn’t there be more than either-or? I believe that grappling with this question points the way toward a deeply spiritual search for the very soul of Judaism: A journey that offers opportunities for meaningful discovery, chances to engage in thoughtful study, and the serious contemplation of choices.

“Ma Tovu Ohaleicha Ya’acov,” are familiar words from our liturgy, taken from the Torah: “How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, Your dwelling places O Israel.” The heart of Judaism, with its emphasis on behavior, is a place of structures and boundaries. To embrace the soul of Judaism, I believe we must cast wide our Jewish tent to include a broad mix of individuals who identify with the Jewish people. The most fundamental and productive question, however, is not who is in or who is out of the tent? but rather, what is actually anchoring this ancient Jewish tent of ours? What are these metaphoric tent pegs to which we can all agree, which keep Judaism rooted in tradition and without which the entire tent will collapse or blow away? It is to our advantage, as a community and as individuals, to search out those Jewish tent pegs that unify us, that hold us together. But first, let us consider the tent itself…which encompasses all of us.

The Divine Source of Life, or however we choose to imagine God, is the very fabric of our enterprise. Nothing else makes sense without this tent. In Judaism, we affirm the existence of God with the Shema, without requiring a specific belief in God. To be a Jew, one need not interact with or acknowledge the tent, but the tent’s existence, which forms the context of our lives, is not even a question.

However, what we do within the tent of Judaism can most fully emerge out of our sacred, covenantal relationship with the divine spirit hovering over us. Larry Kushner tells the story of the Bar Mitzvah boy who confides to his rabbi that he is worried that he won’t be able to go through with his Bar Mitzvah because he doesn’t believe in God. The rabbi smiles at the young man, places his hand on his shoulder, and quietly responds: what makes you think that matters to God? Drawing an analogy between God and our subconscious, Kushner asserts that just because we don’t believe in our unconscious mind doesn’t mean that it ceases exerting its influence on us. Indeed, the more we engage in understanding our subconscious the more we can harness its power. The same is true of God.

The foundation upon which our Jewish communal canopy is built is just as critical as the tent itself. The basis for Jewish life, upon which we build everything, is a commanding sense of community. If we don’t have a fundamental commitment to create community then we have no place to pitch our tent.

Let me suggest now my candidates for the core tent pegs of our Jewish Tent, which reflect Judaism’s eternal soul. Each Jewish tent dweller, I would argue, agrees to embrace the concept represented by the various tent pegs. But, how each of these core tenets of Judaism is expressed, experienced and defined might vary for each Jew or groups of Jews. The Judaism of the soul seeks to infuse personal meaning and personal responsibility into our Jewish expression. For example, all Jews, I assert, will acknowledge that Shabbat is a core value of Judaism; yet, Shabbat may be celebrated in all of its joyousness in a variety of ways. Each of us has a responsibility to carefully consider and make our own choices. There is still plenty of wrestling to be done here, but let these seven tent stakes serve as a starting place in our conversation toward achieving consensus about what captures the essence of Judaism.

Here are the Seven Pegs (in no particular order of importance):

  1. Jewish Celebrations: Shabbat and Seasonal Observances serve as important anchors in our lives and offer us a way of structuring our time in a uniquely Jewish manner. These holidays punctuate our days and weeks with meaning and sanctity.
  2. Ethical Mitzvot: Tzedakah/Justice/Compassion/Helping Poor, disadvantaged and Stranger, Tikkun Olam/Repairing the World. Being God’s partner in the ongoing creation of the world is central to the Jewish understanding of our role in life. Remembering our own experiences as strangers and in slavery, we recognize our power to transform our world by working for the messianic redemption–the establishment of a society based on truth and justice, compassion and integrity; a world at peace. Jews are in the forefront of the work to save the people of Darfur; organizing recent campaigns against torture by our military; and supporting hotel workers rights.
  3. Jewish Time: How we celebrate the seasons of our personal lives is significant, too. As we mark our milestones within a Jewish context, we discover new avenues to filling our days with the joy of living.
  4. Torah: Judaism understands the revelation of Torah to be an ongoing process that we can encounter regularly through our study of all the important texts of our tradition. By engaging our sacred texts as individuals, families, and community, we come to understand the tremendous power of our people’s accumulated wisdom.
  5. Pikuach Nefesh/the value of life: Saving one life is tantamount to saving the entire world according to the Mishnah. Everything we do as Jews should advance the quality of life and never diminish it–our own and others.
  6. Kedushah/Holiness: We can release the spark of Kedushah (holiness) in ourselves and everything we do by creating a mindfulness around us. When we eat, as we go about our daily lives, blessings, prayers, and meditations aid us in living with focused attention.
  7. Land of Israel: After 2,000 years, the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel has transformed Judaism. While Israeli and Diaspora Jewry are independent and vital centers of Jewish creativity, we recognize our interdependence with one another. Especially now.

Within these tenets of Judaism, much serious work is yet to be done…each individual tent peg calls to us to stake our claim within the rich tradition of Judaism. Let us also feel Judaism stake its claim upon us. It is not sufficient to simply agree that Torah study or performing acts of Tikkun Olam are important. As Jews, we are called upon to respond and to wrestle with the meaning of these core Jewish values in our lives. If they are truly eternal values we, then, must determine how they will manifest themselves in a meaningful way in our lives today. Examples: peah–leaving the corners of our field might be expressed today by buying extra food while shopping for the poor or donating 3% of our celebratory costs to mazon; pikuach nefesh today might mean: no smoking, an exercise regime, and healthy eating habits; kedusha-kosher asks us to think today about the ethical treatment of the animals which we eat, e.g., raising veal, or sustainable agriculture.

We stake our claim for the soul of Judaism when we study, choose, and commit on a personal level. We need to educate ourselves about the purpose of the Jewish laws and not simply take them at face value. The laws were given to teach important lessons and values; however, today, it is not always so apparent to us what that message is. Each Jew must actively articulate his/her understanding of these fundamental “tent pegs.” Rabbi Rami Shapiro once wrote: “Serious Jews come in all stripes and flavors. Those that aren’t serious come in only one flavor: Bland!”

The winds of time may shake the tent, but serious engagement with these fundamental tent pegs of Judaism grounds us, offering a lifetime of fulfillment and meaning. When we affirm the underpinnings of community, when we wrestle together, instead of against one another, we strengthen our tent and inspire God’s blessings. Generations from now, we don’t know who will be dwelling in our tent. So let us work together by strengthening the tent pegs now to insure that there will be a sheltering, indeed, vibrant tent for our children and grandchildren. Let those who shall come after us continue to repeat these ancient words: Ma tovu ohaleicha Ya’acov, mishkenoteicha Yisrael; How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

Ken y’hi ratzon, O God, please let it be so.

Rabbi Greg Wolfe