Temple Adat Elohim
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Judaism – An intentional way of life

By Rabbi Ted Riter, Yom Kippur 5771/2010
For the past 12 years, faculty of Beloit College in Wisconsin have published the “Mindset List”. This list, now focusing on the class of 2014, was originally created to remind faculty of the worldview of the incoming Freshman Class. Of note, this year’s Freshmen have experienced the following:
“ . . .five hundred cable channels, of which they will watch a handful, have always been the norm. . . .they've never written in cursive and with cell phones to tell them the time, there is no need for a wrist watch. Dirty Harry . . . is to them a great Hollywood director. . . . Russia has presumably never aimed nukes at the United States and China has always posed an economic threat. . . .Colorful lapel ribbons have always been worn to indicate support for a cause.”
If I conducted a study of our students from Temple Adat Elohim who are starting college, I would be able to add:
They never knew a time when women were not permitted to be rabbis. They never knew a time when interfaith families and gay and lesbian Jews were not welcomed into the synagogue.
If I included Baby Boomers in the survey, we could add:
They never were conscious of a time when Israel did not exist. They never knew a time when musical instruments were not allowed in a sanctuary.
And if surveying any Jew living today, we would add a huge list, perhaps culminating with:
They never knew a time when the service did not include readings, sermons, or stories in English. And. . .they certainly never knew a time when we conducted animal sacrifices on holy days like today.
Our world has changed enormously during the past 18 years while these Freshmen were readying for college. And Judaism, in the last 3500 years, has changed as well. We no longer make pilgrimages three times a year to Jerusalem. We no longer live at the whim of the caesar, caliph or king. We no longer struggle for daily existence in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.
We look different, we live differently, we are different. And yet, there is still something powerful that ties us together as a people all the way back to Mt. Sinai. It is more than the obvious: Torah, covenant, tradition. We have always adapted our religion to the times; we have creatively maintained a living covenant between God and the people.
And we have done so not haphazardly, but with real forethought, discussion, and conviction. In essence, Judaism has always been focused on intentional choices.
The first real changes in Judaism came with the creation and destruction of the First and Second Temples, respectively in the 6th century BCE and 1st century CE. At these times, we transitioned from oral texts to written texts and from a hereditary priesthood to rabbinic authority based on learning. We were reminded time and again by our prophets that ethics and human interaction, rather than law, should be at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. In place of sacrifice we instituted prayer. We learned to live in the Diaspora – outside of the Land of Israel. Each time we were faced with real challenges and even tragedies and each time we found a way to intentionally evolve.
In the Middle Ages, we continued on this trajectory. Maimonides, the great scholar, rabbi, and physician of the 12th century, penned the Mishneh Torah, which codified the 63 tractate Talmud into a more manageable 14 volumes. His intent was that more Jews should be able to have access to Jewish knowledge and that the laws should be carefully balanced with the needs of the modern world. In the 16th century, the Jews of S’fat broke the teachings of our tradition down to 4 volumes in the Shulchan Aruch – again to make it more accessible to the people who were living in a different age. They also introduced kavanah (the intent of prayers) to the dry recitation which had been the norm, thus infusing our rituals with new meaning.
Two hundred years ago, this past July, we marked a new turning point. Coming out of Europe’s Enlightenment, which influenced Judaism’s own enlightenment or Haskalah, a new synagogue was created in the Westphalian town of Seesen. Israel Jacobson, who had already founded a vocational school on the site, brought in a few major changes, which today we take for granted: He moved the bima to the front of the sanctuary, he allowed men and women to sit together, he gave sermons in the vernacular (which of course for that community was German), he introduced musical instruments – specifically the organ, and he established decorum. In the eyes of Jacobson, these reforms were not to create a break from normative Judaism, but rather to bring Judaism up to date.
Abraham Geiger, who also happens to have been born 200 years ago this year, lent intellectual grounding to the changes that were occurring in European Jewry. A noted scholar of his time, Geiger convincingly argued that Judaism’s evolution was not simply change for the sake of change or a denunciation of our covenant at Sinai, but rather, when implemented responsibly and intentionally, evolution represented the true history of Judaism. It was Judaism for a modern age.
Though Jews have now lived in the North America for over 350 years, the larger waves of Jewish immigrants in the mid-19th century brought the aesthetics of Jacobson and the philosophy of Geiger to the US. Isaac Mayer Wise, the main proponent of this Jewish worldview, worked tirelessly to establish what he understood to be a unique American Judaism, one not shackled by the oppression, hatred and suffering of Europe. He created the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He published a prayer book, a newspaper, and a number of articles and books.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis published five platforms over the next 100+ years. Each of these platforms spoke for that day’s Reform Judaism and the direction for our future. Some were quite radical for their time. In 1885 we set aside kashrut, kippot, and peoplehood. Others, were radical in their own way. For instance, by 1999 we had brought back kashrut, kippot, and peoplehood. This may at first seem absurd that over a span of 100 years the same movement can seemingly reverse its decisions. However, a closer look at the platforms reinforces that each of these decisions was made after careful consideration. The authors tried to take into account not only their own historical understanding of Judaism, but the modern environment in which they lived – the environment in which we live.
We, in the Reform Movement, also have an ever-growing corpus of responsa literature. This traditional mode of questions and answers helps guide us through our modern dilemmas: Is stem-cell research appropriate? Should we welcome Jewish children through the concept of patrilineal descent? Can Jews have piercings and tattoos?
Both the platforms and the responsa reinforce that Judaism is a religion of intentional living. Our Jewish ancestors were trailblazers in this regard and we as Reform Jews are the direct inheritors of this proud tradition. We do not change our practices to make things easier. We do not adapt our rituals so that they will be more convenient. And we do not ignore thousands of years of legal literature on a whim. We are not “Judaism Lite” as some have labeled us. And we are not “really reform” as we sometimes label ourselves.
We are Reform Jews – with no –ed ending. We are constantly reforming. We are constantly re-engaging with and even challenging our Judaism, so that it continues to be meaningful for every generation. It is this willingness to face our past and our present that has allowed us to open our doors to those still shut out of some communities because of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, abilities, or life decisions. It is this willingness to ask the difficult and sometimes sacrosanct questions that result in new and creative solutions. Our answers for the modern day are derided by some, even within our own movement. And yet, it is this engagement with our Judaism that truly defines us, liberates us, and connects us back with Sinai.
And, I am proud to say that Temple Adat Elohim is firmly within this tradition of living an intentional Jewish life. Over the past five years we have, with great consideration and intention, restructured everything in our synagogue from how we conduct religious services to how we meet the needs of those seeking financial assistance. We have engaged in deep self-evaluation through Kadima, our temple-wide strategic planning initiative, and ReImagine, our re-envisioning of our religious school. We now host a winter homeless shelter, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, and actively participate in Jewish World Watch. We have created important new programs for our learners of all ages through the Jewish Learning Board. We have formalized policies for food brought into the synagogue, how we welcome non-Jewish spouses and partners, and how we approach times of death for our congregants. We have introduced new spiritual and social opportunities within the synagogue. And the list goes on and on. All of these advances; all of these changes; all of these reforms – have been made with utmost consideration and respect for our tradition and our community, for our past and our present. They have been made in keeping with not only Reform Judaism, but truly within the requirements of our entire 3500 year old history.
I have often heard over the past 5 years that we, at TAE, are becoming more “Conservative” or more “religious”. In fact, we are doing neither. With all due respect to other denominations and other synagogues, we are simply becoming more engaged in our Judaism. We are seriously looking at our tradition and the lives we are called to live. We are rising to the heights that we were inspired to reach by our Prophets and sages thousands of years ago.
Here in this synagogue, we have begun teaching our children and adults how to live intentional lives. As you arrived today, you may have seen red signs with the words “Slicha/forgiveness”. These flags are part of our initiative entitled “Jewish Values for Everyday Living.” Each month, for the next 8 months, you will see a new word and accompanying articles and activities in our various publications, that will hopefully inspire all of us to exercise our Jewish values so that they are more than easy aphorisms. These values are being incorporated into our Early Childhood Center, Religious School, Adult Education, committee meetings, and activities of our auxiliaries. The goal, through these activities and reminders, is that we will take the next step in living intentional Jewish lives. And it is through teachings such as these that we will remain a vibrant community, even as we change over the next years.
Today, we are making one more change. Something I have not done in the 18 years that I have been leading High Holy Day services. I’m going to make an appeal to you. A few months ago the Board of Directors of this synagogue asked that I make a special appeal to you during these High Holy Days. In the past, I know that my predecessor, Rabbi Alan Greenbaum, asked for donations for a new classroom, and for ambulances, and I believe even for this sanctuary. Today, I am asking for something else. I am asking you to help me, to help us, continue to create this community of intention. As much as we need the space, we are not going to build a new extension to our building. As difficult as parking may be, we are not able to expand our parking situation.
Rather, if you believe in this synagogue; if you believe in the future of our people; if you believe in a Judaism that has the power to connect our 3500 year old tradition with our people where they are in their lives today, in the year 2010, in the Conejo Valley, then I am asking for your help.
have not missed our mark since I have been here. We are in no danger of closing our doors. However, with your help, we can do so much more. We need more professional staffing hours for youth programming and adult programming. We need more hours for our office support and maintenance team. We need to be able to retain our best teachers. We have an ongoing need for things as mundane as facility repairs and as morally significant as health care benefits. And we are still not paying our full membership dues to the Union for Reform Judaism – the congregational movement for Reform Judaism.
I know that many of you gave a pledge last week when our president, Jan Iscovich, spoke to you. And, I know that for some of you, making a pledge is a real financial challenge. And yet, I am asking you to make an additional pledge today. I am asking that those who helped build this synagogue over the past 42 years and already made significant contributions to make an additional pledge today. I am asking those who are visiting to make a pledge. I am asking all of those who are here today, who buy tickets to the High Holy Day services but are no longer members of TAE, not only to make a pledge, but to rejoin our community.
I have no idea what my daughter’s world will be like in 17 years when she goes off to college as a Freshman. I don’t even know what Judaism will look like. But I do know that with your help we can provide her, and all of our congregants, with the tools to live an intentional Jewish life -- one filled with tradition, modernity, purpose, and meaning.
G’mar Hatima Tovah – may we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a new year.
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