Thursday, October 1, 2020

BEHAVING - Rosh Hashana 2

Yesterday night I shared with you some ideas about our community. I shared that today, we celebrate the day that 5 families got together here in Arlington to start this community. Today, we celebrate that 80 years ago, 66 Jews from Arlington attended a High Holiday service.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, one of my favorite authors of the last century and a strong believer in the power of community, talks about the changes from what he saw as traditional religion to a new model that he was describing. In his understanding, traditional religion starts from a place of BELIEVING and goes to a place of BEHAVING until one can actually BELONG to that community, to that people.

Kaplan talks about the three B’s: BELIEVING - BEHAVING - BELONGING.

In his idea of the traditional religion, we would start from believing in something. A divine call. A metaphysical event that will change someone’s understanding of how the world works. This person would feel compelled to share it with others, as this is a divine message.

This divine message requires a certain BEHAVIOR to be followed. Whether the behavior is social, ritual, or theological, one needs to do something about it. One person starts behaving according to this divine message. Sharing the message with others who begin to BEHAVE in the same way and keep sharing the message.

A BELIEF led into a specific BEHAVIOR of individual people. There was no meeting, protocols, committees, bylaws. Nothing. Just a divine message, a BELIEF, transformed into BEHAVIOR.

After you have a group of people who BELIEVE in the same thing and BEHAVES in the same way, they will form a community. A community is a group of people who feel that they BELONG together.

Kaplan’s innovation is to understand that, at least for modern Jews, this process actually works in the reverse order.

Following Kaplan’s 3 B’s, I want to share some ideas today about the second one – BEHAVIOR.

I consider myself an observant Jew.

I struggle every day with my religious duties, whether spiritual or practical. I aim to practice and inspire the integrated Judaism model, understanding the importance of rituals as educational tools that model are character as Jews, teaching us values and practices through ritualization and controlled behavior.

At the same time, if we are only focused on this side, we are missing the point of translating it into reality.

As I learned from my childhood Rabbi, Henry Sobel z’l, "The purpose of Judaism is not to make a human being more Jewish but to make a Jewish human being more human". When we were together at camp, I remember seeing him pointing to the wall made of windows on both side of the Aron haKodesh and teaching us about the importance of praying is as important as what happens outside.

The Talmud teaches it in a similar way: Rabbi Chiya bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: One may only pray in a house with windows. (Brachot 34b)

Windows are important to a house of prayer for the world is greater than that house. As much as I pray inwards, focusing on my behavior, I need a reminder that this is not the end. I like to imagine these spaces of prayer as a laboratory for the real world out there. Whether one prays regularly in a synagogue, a beit midrash, or, specially right now, in our own home, the window remains the link between the two words. Seeing the elements of creation that are outside waiting to be in relationship with my being is an opportunity to reflect on how this relationship will look like and what I have to do in order to be my best self out there.

These two worlds are actually just one. We cannot dissociate one from another but understand it as part of a larger system. It doesn’t mean that there is no merit in working towards a more just world outside a Jewish framework. My claim to you today is that in understanding these two elements of Judaism as part of a whole, we give meaning and purpose to it, elevating it to a level of holiness and divine BEHAVIOR.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs coined the term “integrated Judaism”. Her approach to engagement in justice work is to reclaim that this is a core element of our tradition, just as our spiritual development we practice inside our synagogues. The life inside and outside our communities should be integrated. It is our moral and religious obligation as Jews to incorporate justice work into our ritual practices. There cannot be a soul in this world without a body. While the ritualistic aspects of our tradition enrich our soul, the justice work we do is what constitutes our body as a people.

In the 70’s, a group of Jews called ‘Jews for Urban Justice’ wrote in their manifesto and declared: “The Jewish people is not political, or religious, or cultural, or economic, or familial. It is political-religious-cultural-economic-familial. What characterized its peoplehood best, at its best moments, was the principle of halakhah: the Way, the Path; a wholeness and fusion of body, mind, and spirit; of action and ideology; of person and community.”

Our sages never understood the political-religious-cultural-economic-familial aspect of Judaism to be outside of the Jewish way of behaving in the world. A significant amount of our halachic body is concerned with the numerous ways we relate to each other, from marriage and divorce to business transactions. We have a religious responsibility to return lost objects that we find.

One of the major challenges when talking about Jewish behavior is that we are all different.

The joke about two Jews having three opinions, or Jews always having two synagogues, one that they go to and another one that they would never go to, isn’t just folklore, but the classic Jewish humor making fun of our own reality.

In my opinion, diversity is good. It inspires creativity, and it helps serving more people with different needs and tastes. At the same time that our tradition welcomes diversity, we struggle in defining where we draw the line. It is like the line between the sea and the sand. They are clearly separate domains, one is water, one is sand, but it is impossible to determine precisely where the division is.

Our tradition is and has always been a living system that changes the boundaries of its own system. Halacha, the language we give to the standard of Jewish practices is tied to the verb “to walk”, creating a Jewish way of life that isn’t stuck in time or space.

It is important to keep a communal language of practices that dialogue with each other in their differences. Moving away from our ritual tradition impoverishes our communal relationships and it is our challenge to keep these ideals in a healthy balance.

More than ever, Jews today are not a homogeneous group who believes in the same ideals or share the same values. I don’t think that we were ever a homogenous group.

Constructive disagreement has always been a core part of our identity and it has helped us evolve as a people. I’m not claiming that we should all agree about everything. There is an inherit level of subjectivity in every claim we can make about our values, but I want to separate what we call values and the methods we might use to transform them into practice. Peace, Justice and Freedom are Jewish values. Whomever disagrees with that is deviant from our core identity as a people. We can constructively disagree for generations how to make them a reality in our society, but no one can claim that we stand for violence, injustice and oppression as Jews.

Regarding ritual practice, our differences become even more evident. I have lived in three different countries. I have visited many others. The way of being Jewish is different in each one of them. At the same time, I was able to situate myself as part of that chain of tradition as well, for the similarities we still have create a sense of community that I could feel at home while miles away from my own house.

Being engaged in this conversation is fundamental in order to add our voices to our communal understanding of the applicability of these values and practices in our society. Just as we need community, our community needs us.

Our communal actions are the sum of our individual actions.

Our tradition is a treasure that belongs to each and everyone of us, no one has a higher claim to it than others. However you find yourself part of this community, this is your home. You belong here. We will keep you safe. We will take care of you. We will learn together and amidst our differences, strive to find our common grounds to transform our values in action. We are neighbors, we are family, we are before anything else, Am Israel, the people of Israel.

May this new year remind us that diversity is good and that Peace, Justice and Freedom are central Jewish values.

May we successfully translate our values into BEHAVIOR, as we make choices in all aspects of our lives.

May we all continue to follow the integrated Jewish way of walking in the world. A way of spirituality and holiness that feeds the soul and a way of making this world more just and equal, taking care of our humanity, for we were all created in the divine image.

Shana Tova uMetuka.

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