A Sermon to Temple Solel

By Sue Zakar

When I learned that the Torah portion for this week dealt with dietary laws, I told the Rabbi that it was a great chance to give my schpiel why the kitchen in our new building should be kosher. But, in the end, another subject seemed to be far more important, and I found insights into it in the Holocaust, this week's Torah portion, the writings of several contemporary Jewish scholars and even last week's Washington Post.

The horrors of the Holocaust savagely tore out the threads of many lives from the tapestry of Jewish existence, leaving a hole which can never be fully repaired. We Jews, however, remain--each a thread within the weave of that cloth of Israel. In the words of Abraham Heschel, "In this moment, we, the living, are Israel. The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets, and carried out by countless Jews of the past, are now entrusted to us. No other group has superseded them. We are the only channel of Jewish tradition, those who must save Judaism from oblivion, those who must hand over the entire past to the generations to come. We are either the last, the dying, Jews or else we are those who will give new life to our tradition... Unless being a Jew is of absolute significance how can we justify the ultimate price which our people was so often forced to pay throughout its history?"

Now, scarcely a half century after the Holocaust, I worry that our people now are confronted with a new enemy, faceless and subtle: the lack of a spiritual connection to our Jewishness. I wonder if our children will choose to remain committed to Judaism devoid of spirituality, where the importance of God and observance of even basic Jewish traditions as Shabbat take a back seat to soccer games, dances and other secular activities. Are we offering them a living, vital faith--or just a history learned in Hebrew school? As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York states: One generation of baby boomers has come of age; either we will develop a Judaism with a sense of spirituality that provides authenticity for their lives and a connection to God or they will opt out."

An article in last Sunday's Washington Post, entitled "Twist of Faith" began like this:

Several years ago at my synagogue, the rabbi raised this question: "Why don't Jews come to services?" After listening to "Services are boring," "We're usually very tired at the end of the week" and the like, I hesitantly raised my hand, "I'm having a very strange experience here," I said, "I'm wondering if it's somehow inappropriate to mention God." Later, the author of this article expressed the fear that she would be regarded as the "weird one...who was always bringing God into the discussion."

Perhaps I will be regarded as the weird one at Temple Solel, and I wish I could say that I didn't identify with that woman, but in fact, I had made a very similar statement to Rabbi Kramer several months ago. I remember telling him how I felt uncomfortable discussing God, even with other Jews, even within the synagogue. How could I feel that way and at the same time be reciting "v'dibartah bam, b'shivtcha b'veitecha?...speak of them in your house on on your way, and when you lie down and when you rise up?" And I wonder: What does our temple have to offer to those who seek a deeper Jewish spirituality? While sock-hops, card games, sports, square dances and dinner dances allow us to socialize, what can we do that will emphasize our growth as Jews? Outside of Friday Night and Holiday services, what opportunities are there for our adult members to learn more about Torah, issues of faith and spirituality? As we look towards building a new edifice in which to worship, have we forgotten what it truly means to worship?

I also remember asking our Rabbi what I could tell my kids if they asked me what the difference was between being a good person and being a good Jew? I have since come to believe that a "good Jew" does what he or she does, for the sake of God, the same way as we do what we do for those we love. What does our temple offer to help us as we seek to fulfill the commandment "v'ahavtah et Adonai Eloheicha...."? And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might. Even when there are opportunities at Temple Solel to strengthen our religious commitment, how many of us are present? Are we committed to our Jewishness only when it is convenient, we have nothing else to do, and we aren't too tired? Last fall only four people (including the Rabbi and his wife) showed up for Sukkot services, a MAJOR Jewish holiday. The good news and bad news is that I'm told that turnout was double last year's attendance! How many of us have come to a Shabbat morning discussion group? And I wonder if our children don't sometimes question why they learn the Shabbat morning service for bar/bat mitzvahs when Temple Solel is regularly empty and silent on the day of Shabbat. Who are we kidding?

In a 1992 article Dennis Prager wrote:

Non-Orthodox Jews must take Judaism as seriously as Orthodox Jews do. Most do not. For example when it comes to Jewish practices, the motto of many Reform Jews is, "I don't have to, I'm Reform" -- an attitude that renders Reform Judaism an excuse rather than an affirmation."...and ... "Non-Orthodox Jews must acknowledge the need for God and ritual in their lives. All Jews must affirm the centrality of ethics in Judaism--but it is one thing to acknowledge that Judaism emphasizes ethics and quite another to disregard all else. Judaism without the holy--without prayer, ritual, holy days--is no more than secular humanism with a rabbi."

It goes without saying that Temple Solel should always be a center for Tikun Olam, repairing and transforming the world. Yet, our temple must address both our religious needs and our actions as Jews, and our actions as religious needs. It should remind us that, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, says, "We are agents, instruments of God's presence. We are not at odds with the Self of the Universe; we are part of it. And to be aware of this is to give our lives ultimate meaning and purpose. To realize that we are servants, through everything we do, with or without our consent, is to be able to do anything.; it is our empowerment and fulfillment. Spirituality is a dimension of living where we are aware of God's presence. It is being concerned with how what we do affects God and how what God does affects us. " And here at Temple Solel, we should also learn to be unafraid of asking the kinds of questions Abraham Heschel posed:

Is our religious attitude one of conviction or mere assertion? Is the existence of God a probability to us or a certainty? Is God a mere word to us, a name, a possibility, a hypothesis, or is He a living presence? Is the claim of the prophets a figure of speech to us or a compelling belief?

In this week's Torah portion, we read of the sacrificial offerings made by the Aaron and his sons, and by the congregation, the whole of Israel. The whole congregation brought what was required to the Tent of Meeting and stood before the Lord. But it is not until later, in the fulfillment of rituals that the "kavod Adonai" came upon them. Could this be a biblical reference to spirituality? Could it be that rituals provided a path to spirituality for our ancestors? And are rituals and spirituality still meaningful to us in modern times? Rabbi Lawence Kushner offers this insight: "Religious rituals are a funny sequence of things we do to help us remember that we have forgotten why we have been created and gently provide us with the instruments of return. They are ancient techniques for sending us back to everyday life with a childlike sense of wonder. " Elsewhere he writes: "Spiritual renewal for Jews includes unlocking the spiritual energy in the rituals and ethical traditions we have. It is doing what we do with a renewed sense of God's presence. You can start anywhere: Light Shabbat candles and imagine the preposterous possibility that God wants you to do this."

Ritual, spirituality, God...

If questions about these things belong anywhere, they belong in our synagogue. If our search for spirituality should begin anywhere it is here. If there is anyplace at all where ultimate questions and discussions of God and belief belong, it is here. Together, you and I, as Temple members and as family, need to help create and support new opportunities to increase Jewish learning and "ruchaniyut"--spirituality within our lives: Because if our members and our children and teens cannot find meaningful connections with our religion and our God here, where will they go to find them?