I have led services all over the place. Miami, FL; Cincinnati, OH; Fairbanks, AK; Moscow, Russia; even in Jerusalem. I have worshipped in sanctuaries, chapels, social halls, woods, mountaintops, beaches, and campfires. But this is something completely new to me. The last synagogue where I worked was nice, but this is really fancy. Wood chairs, marble floors, and a hot tub!
I have never before had to cover things up to make the worship space Judaism-friendly. This is a big change. And the space isn’t the only thing that is different this year. You are. All of you are a change from what I have gotten used to over the last seven years.
Oh, where are my manners? Please allow me to introduce myself.
My name is David. I am a husband, a father of three, a native Cincinnatian, a fan of theatre and film, a beer maker, a cook, and a rabbi. It was suggested to me by the board of trustees that I spend this entire time slot, this whole Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, introducing myself and telling the congregation all about who I am. Well, friends, it is fitting this time of year that we offer our apologies. So to the Board of Trustees, I am sorry. Perhaps a few people would like to know a little bit about the new rabbi. Maybe everyone. But not me. If you want to learn more about me, come in and say hi. Meet me for a cup of coffee or a beer. Come to my home for a meal. A High Holy Day sermon should not be about the person speaking, it should be about the High Holy Days!
So tonight we gather for Rosh Hashanah. It is the Jewish New Year, the beginning of the calendar year 5774. Some attribute Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of the world. There’s a story you may have heard. It starts, “Let there be light,” from the book called Genesis, where God’s utterances begin the process of creating the world. That happened today, according to legend. 5774 years ago today on the Hebrew Calendar, which corresponds roughly to October 6, 3761 BCE, if you believe that kind of thing.
Reform Jews believe strongly in the concept of personal autonomy, both in the sense of how to follow Jewish law and how to interpret Jewish teachings. Science is simply too compelling for most Reform Jews to believe that the world is 6000 years old instead of 42 million years old. We have changed the ancient thought process, developed new ways to study the world. We no longer need to rely on stories and legends to learn. There is carbon-dating, archaeological findings, and of course: logic.
Rosh Hashanah is the time of year when we, in partnership with God, get to rebuild our world anew. We take time for introspection, to consider the past year and how we have lived our lives. Have we been the people we really want to be? Have we fulfilled our promises to our friends? Or family? Ourselves? Have we worked as hard at being alive as we have at making a living? Have we adhered to the expectations we would set for others? Rosh Hashanah is a time to look at the way we were, think about how we want to be, and change.
Change is a difficult concept to embrace Jewishly. So often we laud tradition in Jewish practices. We hear that we are a religion that is thousands of years old. We read and reread texts that are easily 2000 years old. We perform many of the same rituals that our people have been performing for generations. We quote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof to show how important it is: “Tradition!” But listen closely to what he actually says:
Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat... how to work... how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, "How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell you!
[pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition... and because of our traditions... Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
He sings and dances about tradition. He quotes the Bible, extolling the virtue of our ancient traditions, usually incorrectly. This quote and others like it that keep Tevye praising tradition qua tradition, occur at the beginning of the movie. By the end of the movie, all three of his daughters have relationships that are increasingly against tradition. He picks up his family to move out of the town they have traditionally lived in for generations. He even dances at a wedding--with his wife! So the movie as a whole is not about how great tradition is after all. Even Tevye, the stalwart supporter of all things tradition, changes.
Tevye reminds me of the mother with the roast. Perhaps you know the story. A young girl is watching her mother cook a roast. The mother cuts off both ends of the roast before she puts it in the oven to cook. The little girl asks why she does that, and the mother doesn’t know, so she calls her mother. Her mother tells her that that is the way that grandma used to do it, so you should probably call her to find out why. So the woman calls her grandmother, and asks why we cut the ends off the roast before we cook it. The grandmother says, “Well, when your mother was young, our pan was smaller than a roast.”
If only Tevye really knew his Bible. Perhaps instead of misquoting Moses and making up passages, he would be very interested in Deuteronomy. I am thinking specifically of Deuteronomy 30:12, which we read just this weekend in Parashat Nitzavim. It says, lo bashamayim hi: “It is not in Heaven.” The “it” this verse refers to is the collection of laws and instructions that we call the Torah. The verse continues to say that it is not in heaven so that people will not be able to claim that Torah is too far away to access. It is not in heaven, nor across the sea. It is in your mouth and your heart. Close to you, close to all of us.
The rabbis of the Talmud use this verse in a wonderful story about a group of rabbis doing what groups of rabbis did best back then: arguing. They are arguing over a particular oven and whether it can be considered a kosher oven or not. Rabbi Eliezer, a wise and venerated scholar, believes it is kosher, while everyone else does not. Rabbi Eliezer to perform miracles to prove his point. A tree uproots itself out of the ground and moves, but the other rabbis say, “You cannot prove the law with a tree!” A river flows backwards, but the other rabbis say, “You cannot prove the law with a river!” and so on. Finally, a voice comes down from heaven to declare that Rabbi Eliezer is correct in this and all matters. Then Rabbi Yonatan, another venerated scholar, stands up and shouts, “Lo bashamayim hi!” It is not in heaven. It is not up to a Divine voice to determine the way Torah applies to us today! You gave it to us! You told us it is ours to interpret, in our mouths and hearts!
And so the Divine presence….leaves. And when Elijah the prophet later asks what God’s reaction was to this humbling moment, Elijah says that God was laughing, saying “My children have bested me, my children have bested me.”
This is what our tradition teaches us. That real tradition is to change tradition. Just as tradition for the sake of tradition does not serve our Judaism, neither does change for the sake of change. The point of the Talmudic story is that the rabbis were in a heated debate. Their discussion probably lasted hours about this one oven. They were learned men, serious scholars of kashrut and all Jewish law. And they were locked in debate because when we take the time to seriously engage the text, we can come to understand what it meant when it was written, and thereby we can understand what it means to us today. They didn’t need another voice, even the voice of God, to tell them what to do because it had been done before.
In the words of the great 20th Century American Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, “the past gets a vote, not a veto.”
When a traditional colleague scoffs at Reform Judaism, I often ask why he (it is usually a he) is so against Reform Judaism. An Orthodox rabbi once answered me, “Because your movement is named for change, and you don’t change what has worked for thousands of years.” I asked who he viewed as the first Reform Jew, and he suggested Rabbi Isaac M. Wise. While perhaps Rabbi Wise is one of the greatest reformers of the movement, he was not the first Reform Jew. The first Reform Jew, I suggested, was Yehuda Hanasi.
Yehuda Hanasi, or Judah the Prince, was a 2nd Century rabbi. He was known in the Talmud simply as “Rav,” because his teachings were so well known. He is today considered to be the person who single-handedly compiled the Mishnah. My Orthodox friend smiled and clapped me on the shoulder, thinking I was joking, which is too bad. Yehuda Hanasi did something extraordinary for his time. He took a dying religion, one that had just suffered one of its greatest losses in the destruction of the Temple, and revived it with his ingenuity. He created a system of studying the laws of Torah that held it in such high esteem that, when combined with daily prayer services, replaced the sacrificial worship from the defunct Temple. The Holy Temple no longer existed, and Judaism needed a reboot. It needed to be changed. So he raised a myriad of disciples and taught them Torah. He taught them a different way of looking at Torah laws. His way was to debate, to discuss the laws and answer questions about them, so that the words of the ancient scroll would be relevant to modern life at the time. He was the first Reform Jew.
The very word Reform means change. We are involved in a movement called Reform Judaism, which holds educated change as one of its core concepts. Not just change, my friends: educated change. Change meted for a purpose, and with intention. Change made to improve the world, bring us closer to one another, and enhance our relationship with God.
A quick look-up of the word “change” at dictionary.com lists 38 different meanings. To make different; to convert; to substitute. Most of them have subtle differences from one to another. For example, definition #8, “remove and replace” like changing a baby is different from definition #15 “switch outfits,” as in changing clothes. Perhaps the difference here is whether we do it to ourself or to someone else. Some definitions are completely different. Definition #24 is “a harmonic progression from one tone to another,” while definition #30 is “coins of low denomination.” We can change our mind, change our name, or change the course of history. It is precisely this flexibility that makes it fitting to use “Change” as our study theme for the 5774 programming year.
You might want to ask me, “Rabbi Young, what is a study theme?”
I’m so glad you asked.
A study theme is a theme that we will use throughout the year to inform our various programs, lessons, divrei Torah, and more. It is helpful to us as a congregation because, in the midst of all this change--new rabbi, new office, new sanctuary set-up--there is a thematic constant. Yes, I am thoroughly aware of the irony of change serving as a constant, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun.
So as we move through 5774 together, expect to see changes, but also expect to learn about change in Judaism. When did some of our changes happen? What is the impetus for certain changes? Why do some things never change?
I hope you will join me on this journey as we explore change. A community that studies together grows together. As we work to change ourselves into the very best version of us that we can be, may we also work toward the positive changes that will keep us strong as a holy community. Let us not be like Tevye, ignorant of the law and clinging to the past. Let us be like Rabbi Yonatan, shouting, “Lo bashamayim hi!” to the Heavens as together we discover what positive changes are available to us. Let us be like Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, engaging in serious conversation with like-minded, passionate friends who know that innovation is in our heart and in our mind. It is up to us to learn it, and do it.