That This Judaism May Flow

May. 24, 1999
Rabbi Richard N. Levy

According to the convention of the midrashic sermon, I want to open with a petichta---not from the traditional Biblical Ketuvim, but from our Reform Ketuvim, in this case, from Kaufmann Kohler's introduction to the Pittsburgh Conference, which despite the fact that it was delivered in November 1885 sounds in many ways like a description of our own time:

"Everyone who has watched the condition of affairs of Judaism in general and of our country in particular, must have been impressed with the urgent need of decisive action in view of the appalling indifference which has taken hold of the masses, and of the materialistic tendency of the age which…has done great havoc in our midst. Our younger generation grow daily more estranged from our sacred heritage. Nor is it the religious decline alone which we have to deplore, the pristine Jewish purity and household virtue is no less fading. We are visibly losing our prerogative as a holy nation….How can we stem the growing tide of evil? How can we stir our people up from their lethargical slumber?"

To reclaim our prerogative as a holy nation, to stir our people up from their lethargical slumber---these were among the motivations that led the radical Reformer Kohler to summon his colleagues here at the junction of three rivers, two of which flowed from the east, where the other radical Reformers lived, forming a third---the great Ohio river that would flow west, past the city of Cincinnati where Isaac Mayer Wise, leader of the traditionalists, resided.

And now here we are again, 114 years later, after two great wars, a Holocaust, a Jewish state reborn, and a Reform rabbinate grown from 15 or 17 to 1700, prepared to answer that call again. How can we regain our people's prerogative as a holy nation? How can we stir our people from the lethargical slumber induced by a nation ever more prosperous, and in many ways much more materialistic, than the America---and the other countries from which we hail---which our predecessors in this city experienced?

How to regain our prerogative as a holy nation? Our colleagues have just read one answer from the Torah portion of this week: ish o isha ki yaflee lindor neder nazir, l'hazir lAdonai: men and women could become Nazirites, abstaining from any liquor that would interfere with their reason, letting their hair grow in defiance of current styles, avoiding contact with the dead. Should they err, the Mishnah tells us, they would be sprinkled with water, and undergo other rites as well. For the radical Reformers the way to awaken our people to their holy calling was to separate from all that had encrusted reason, that seduced young American Jews away to the materialistic side of their new land, that kept them close to dead customs and dead beliefs. Should they err, Kohler believed, a sprinkling---indeed, an immersion---in the principles that emerged in this city by the Allegheny and the Monongahela would bring them back to the right path.

These two rivers are not foreign to us, though our tradition calls them by different names. In one, a small stream called the Yabbok, Jacob made his separation from the wicked land of his father-in-law Laban and wrestled with a divine being who both wounded him and give him a new name---our name. In the other, the Yarden---fed, the rabbis believed, from the Well of Miriam---the descendants of Jacob made their way across dry ground to separate themselves from a wilderness of hostile nations among whom they had been wandering for 40 years. Two rivers---the Yabbok, where a great individual wrestled with God, and the Yarden, out of which a great people was birthed, affirming as it crossed the river the fulfillment of God's covenant. Two rivers---a Yarden of a people's affirmation, a Yabbok of an individual's wrestling.

We have returned to the two rivers, my friends, with a new Statement of Principles on God, Torah and Israel in which the Reform Nazirites of our day may immerse themselves. Lo nidbar imahem ela b'makom tahor shel mayim, the Mechilta tells us---"God spoke to the Israelites only in a clean place of water." (Bo, Piska l) In the Yarden, these Principles remind us, we Reform Jews---who used to feel we could believe in God but not speak about our relationship---can immerse ourselves in the reality of God, speaking fully, openly, intimately about the way the Kadosh Baruch Hu has entered our lives, praising the God whose presence we feel beside the sea, in a breathtaking sunset, in a human being who reflects the image of God. But sometimes, when life seems more ambiguous, when beauty seems locked in combat with meanness, we will want to wade into the Yabbok, demanding justice from God, demanding answers from God, wrestling with the growing, nagging, gnawing feeling that there is no God, or that God does not respond, or that God does not care for that kid we know who is suffering such pain. At those times the Yabbok roils individually around us, demanding new answers, new words, new forms---and how comforting it is to know that the our people's Yarden is also there, with its old forms, old words, old rituals that can feel so cleansing, so purifying; and then we want to hear different voices, many different voices, the great Reform freedom to be overwhelmed as individuals by choice after choice, new idea crashing upon another new idea, taking nothing for granted, analyzing everything, critiquing everything---and just as often wanting harmony, a calm sea, unity and commonality. We can swim passionately back and forth between the river of affirmation and the river of wrestling---in the Statement of Principles both rivers nurture us, engulf us, cast us up upon a dry land ready to carry out our mission.

And if we want not to wade or swim, but to drink, hoi, kol tzamey lchu l'mayim---"hey, everyone who is thirsty, go to the water" (Isaiah 55:1), to Torah, which, Shir Ha-shirim Rabba tells us, has the properties of water. In the Yarden the Principles help us to affirm that Torah is the foundation of Jewish life, that Torah manifests ahavat olam, God's eternal love for us. From the Yarden we can drink deeply of the Hebrew language, of the fruits of lifelong study for ourselves and our people, of the mitzvot that flow from that study, of the kedushah that surrounds us when we immerse ourselves in Torah. Mitzvot like Shabbat elevate the days between, the High Holydays elevate the months between, the Festivals elevate our experience of the seasons into a holy journey. But when our conscience cries out---What is Reform in this river? How does my immersion in Torah differ from any other Jew's?---we know that on the other side of the dry ground is the Yabbok, which catches us individually upon a mitzvah wave, and asks: "Are you still Reform? Are you working to repair the world? To restore the purity of this river? Are you struggling to find a way for peace?" And then another mitzvah wave calls out: "Are you listening? Does this mitzvah call to you? Does it address you, command you, reach inside your innards and say, "Follow me?" Or do your innards say, "This mitzvah does not address me," or, "It addresses me differently than the tradition says;" Do you hear the call of a specific mitzvah---cover your head beneath the hot sun of this God-drenched place, bare your head that you may face God unencumbered"---what does it say to you? Make Shabbat a completely different day, ---no, that does not call to me; Carry tzedaka money to give to beggars in the street, urging others to do the same---that calls to me, but is it really effective? Infuse your meals with the holiness of a step toward kashrut---I would like that to call to me, but…not yet, not yet…. Listen----listen, and ride the wave that has come in just for you!" The Yarden of our people's affirmation, the Yabbok of my individual wrestling---listening to the call of the best of our ancient Torah, the call of the noblest of modern wisdom. In the Statement of Principles both rivers nurture us, engulf us, cast us up upon a dry land ready to carry out our mission.

And the waters in the rivers---from whence do they come? Amar R. Shimon bar Yochai: K'she-Yisrael zochim, [ha-geshamim] yordim al ha-tzmachim v'al ha-ilanot v'al ha-zeraim, v'haolam mitbarach. Uk'she hem chot'im---yordim ba-yamim uva-neharot. When Israel merits it, the Tanhuma tells us, rain falls on all the earth, and the world is blessed; but when Israel sins, it falls on the seas and the rivers. (Tanhuma, Miketz) The rivers rise and fall by Israel's actions---and in the Yarden we affirm our destiny: a people aspiring to holiness, a movement which commits itself anew to ahavat Yisrael and klal Yisrael. But across the dry land, wrestling with the currents of the Yabbok, we strive to reach out to a people and a State divided into many streams, some of which threaten to swamp us, catch us in the undertow, take away our breath. What can adherence to the value of klal Yisrael mean when the Jewish world opposes us on patrilineality, looks suspiciously at our statements on inclusion of gays and lesbians, scorns our colleagues who out of the most earnest of motives, officiate at mixed marriages---while Reform college students plead with us to affirm the importance of dating Jews and marrying Jews---and yet we also want to respect those of our congregants whohave not married Jews, and we want to save as much of their families as we can for the Jewish people. This Statement of Principles, I believe, calls us into the Yabbok to wrestle our values with the values of the rest of the Jewish people, to help other Jews empathize with the agony of the non-Jewish mother who does not want to hold her patrilineal child hostage to her unreadiness to convert. The Principles call us to help the Jewish people raise their sights to the richness of a Judaism led by women rabbis as well as men, a Judaism where all roles in the synagogue may be filled equally by men and women, a Judaism which is enhanced when gays and lesbians occupy its pulpits. Affirming klal Yisrael is a call not only to be sensitive to the beliefs and commitments of the majority of the Jewish people, it is a call to the majority to consider seriously the positions we have taken, to see the benefits that have flowed from them---in the Diaspora and in Medinat Yisrael. In the Statement of Principles, the Yarden of our people's affirmation and the Yabbok of our individual wrestling both nurture us, engulf us, cast us up upon a dry land ready to perform our mission.

And what is that mission? We still want to create Nazirites---Jews who hold the materialistic aspects of society at a distance, Jews who seek to reclaim their status as a holy nation. But in Pittsburgh 1999 I think we see the Nazirite calling differently from our forebears in Pittsburgh1885. While we want our people to act on the basis of the dictates of clear reason, to ask and question and analyze and wrestle, we also want them to affirm ideas to which reason alone cannot always lead them. As the Principles say, "[We invite] all Reform Jews to engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition, responding out of our knowledge, our experience and our faith." The Pittsburghers were horrified by mysticism; we in this generation have come to see how many insights it can, at its best, offer us---it too is part of our tradition. As for materialism, while we too decry its seductions, one of the values of the mystic doctrine of tikkun is that it lets us look at materialism in a new way---not only as an obstacle to holiness, but as a path to it. It encourages us to see objects not as valuable in themselves, but as vessels for a hidden kedushah, that berachot and the doing of mitzvot help us liberate. If you live in an expensive house, we may tell our people, don't make it an idol---but don't move out into a garret, either---use your home as a locus of hachnasat orchim, put up mezuzot not only with the paragraphs of the Shema in it, but with texts dedicating each room to a holy purpose---to uplifting speech in the living room, profound study in the den, intimate lovemaking in the bedroom, sanctified meals in the dining room. Share corners of your house with the poor---by helping build new housing, by giving a significant percentage of your income to worthy tzedakah. And finally, by all means let our Reform Nazirites stay far away from dead customs and dead beliefs---but let us also look at an idea that Reform rejected 150 years ago---techiyat ha-metim---and ask ourselves as God asked Ezekiel: ha-tichyena ha-atzamot ha-eyleh? Can these bones still live? Where is the vitality, the insight, the transformational power these ideas once held centuries ago? Is it, like buried DNA, still present? A Reform Judaism open to studying the whole range of mitzvot, the whole range of Jewish ideas, is bold enough to say: I want to study techiyat ha-metim, I want to look at olam ha-ba, I want to look at kashrut, I even want to look at the waters of mikvah---not necessarily because I want to affirm them, but because I don't know what other Jews saw and see in them, and I want to be enlightened. If Reform Jews have freedom, we also have freedom to look fearlessly at old ideas, old customs, and try to understand where the life in them might be hiding out---and if none appears to us, we shall at least know that we took them seriously, as other Jews take them seriously. And while we are separating ourselves from dead ideas and dead practices---we need also to look at ideas and practices that once were living for Reform Jews and ask: Is there still life in these bones? As Gunther Plaut asked some years ago, is there still life in the late Friday evening service, which competes---for us as rabbis and for our people---with the hadrat kodesh of celebrating Shabbat at home? Is there still life in our commitment to social justice? Is there still kedusha in the hymns some of us grew up with, in the original versions of Union Prayer Book liturgy? Is there still life in fixed pews, responsive readings, rabbinic sermons? Yes! Some of us will cry insistently. And No! others of us will cry. And No---but there should be! others of us will insist. Now we are mingling the Yarden with the Yabbok, now we are studying not only the whole array of ancient mitzvot, but of our modern customs as well. Maybe we should alternate late and early Shabbat evening services; maybe we need to take serious counsel about how to revitalize our commitments to social justice---to build them into Shabbat, into our home rituals, our schools, our definitions of active Reform Jews. Maybe we should re-introduce some of the best of Union Hymnal music, some of the more inspiring UPB prayers, in gender-sensitive language. Maybe we should experiment with different kinds of seating, different forms of English---and Hebrew---readings---indeed, to stop looking on these passages as readings at all, but as offerings, and ask how we can offer them with our mouths and our voices and our bodies so they may find favor with the Ribbono shel Olam. And maybe we should halt the trend toward eliminating sermons, but rather work hard at revitalizing this once great art form of Reform rabbis. With Kaufmann Kohler we still cry out to regain our role as a holy people, to stir our people from their lethargical slumber---but our vision of the Reform Nazirite can be much broader than it was 100 and more years ago.

And in fact we may ask: is our people in a lethargical slumber? I am not at all sure they are. The discussions you all unleashed this year in response to the drafts of the Statement of Principles has shown a people thirsting to talk about belief and practice, yearning to give voice to their affirmations and their doubts, their commitments to do---and their commitments not to do. While there are surely many laypeople who fear that any statement we make might hint of coercion, what I have heard around the country in recent months is a Reform movement hoping we will pass this version of the Statement of Principles, Reform Jews who are eager to make affirmations and wrestle intelligently, passionately, with the things we say and the things we have omitted. To pass this Statement will breathe new life into this discussion, will help to focus it, will offer the opportunities to extend its meaning through a series of commentaries by the classical Reformers and the traditionalists among us, among our people, among our professional colleagues in the synagogue, even commentaries by entire congregations---or, as the NATE leadership suggested, asking congregations to form task forces to examine how the Principles can permeate every part of the congregation's life. If the Statement passes tomorrow, we shall begin talking with the Union about how it may provide a basis for a new curriculum of Reform Jewish living for schoolchildren and adults; we shall begin talking with the College-Institute about how it might help inform the vision of future educators, cantors, rabbis and communal workers. I believe we have awakened our people from their lethargical slumber, if ever they were in it---and we need to keep them awake, and help them rise to greater heights of affirmation and engaged creativity.

The Yabbok runs into the Yarden; the Allegheny and the Monongahela run into the Ohio. For us Reform Jews, both affirming the beliefs of the Jewish people and wrestling as individuals with the meaning of those beliefs in our own age are not separate, they are the dialogue which is the stuff of our lives as Reform Jews. The Principles we shall vote on tomorrow commit us to swim in both streams, to swim in that broad channel where the Yabbok and Yarden of Pittsburgh mingle, the Ohio River which in the darkest period of American slavery was the river that meant freedom, the river to which Huck Finn was steering Jim that he might gain his freedom, the river along which Isaac Mayer Wise built the College that, in all its tributaries, has nurtured our understanding that religious freedom means the ability to mingle our people's faith and history with our individual responses to the currents of our times. It was along the Ohio in 1885 that Wise the traditionalist traveled to meet his radical colleagues in this historic city. By passing these Principles, we can reclaim Reform for both Wise and Kohler, for the radicals and the traditionalists, as a movement within which both streams flow seamlessly.

To vote for this document does not commit you to love it---and certainly not to love every part of it; all of us shall never love or not love all the same parts. To vote for it is merely a statement that you want to keep the conversations you have all ignited this year going---and going stronger, that you want to move to the next stage of generating commentaries that will realize the potential of each of these Principles. If we do not accept it tomorrow, we shall be saying that we want this wonderful process to end----because without a statement to focus us, I believe this year's Movement-wide self-examination cannot be sustained. This self-examination has proclaimed all the things that Reform Judaism can stand for---if we do not pass this document, I fear we shall go back to the days when too many of our members---and certainly, large numbers of other Jews---defined Reform Judaism only by what we did not believe and did not practice.

On Wednesday night we shall celebrate another kind of passing---the close of the terms of one set of officers and the opening of another. There have been few colleagues so well prepared for the presidency as Chuck Kroloff---by all the service he has rendered this Conference and this Movement over the years, by his wisdom, thoughtfulness and determination, by his calm, unflappable demeanor. As we pass into the unknown years of a new world century and a new Jewish decade, we can all feel confident because in Chuck and Paul we have such sure, steady, impassioned rabbis at our helm. Two tasks we have this week, my friends, as we dedicate ourselves to our mission as leaders of a holy nation: to pass the Principles and pass the torch. Let us immerse ourselves in the seriousness of our tasks, that we may bring nearer the day of which Isaiah dreamed: Hineni noteh-eyleha k'nahar shalom, Behold I am extending peace to [Jerusalem] like a river; (Isaiah 66:12) u-re-item ve-sass li-be-chem ve-atzmoteychem ka-desheh tifrachna, And when you see this your heart will rejoice, and your bones shall blossom forth like grass well-watered (Isaiah 66:14).

 

Baruch she-amar ve-haya ha-olam.
Praised be the One through whose words all things came to be.
May our words find expression in holy actions.
May they raise us up to a life of meaning devoted to God's service
and to the redemption of the world.

Blessings upon you all.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy
9 Sivan 5759
May 24, 1999