I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation, Ann Arbor, Michigan on the first day of Rosh Hashana:
This morning, I want to teach you or remind you of a simple Hebrew word. The word is spelled Mem, Alef, Hey: Meah.
Meah means 100.
Today, as we gather on this first day of our 100th year as a congregation, it is a word that we should all become familiar with.
This is such an important milestone and cause for saying the Shehecheyanu. We will say it often over this year so let’s start our year of “meah” by saying it together now.
Last night, I spoke about the importance of the members of the Congregation. This morning, I want to talk about Beth Israel as an institution and to address a question that I have been thinking about for several years now.
To begin: an apocryphal story.
A minister was teaching a Sunday School class of 7 year olds. He asked the children: “What is it that is grey, has a bushy tail and runs around the park collecting nuts for the winter?”
None of the children raised their hands so the minister asked the question again: “What is it that is grey, has a bushy tail and runs around the park collecting nuts for the winter?”
Finally, one of the children timidly spoke up: “Reverend, I know the answer must be God…but, it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
I’ve known that story for years and used it as the beginning of a d’var Torah I gave at a Rabbinical Assembly Convention some years ago. That day, I urged my colleagues to recognize the importance of teaching our young students to answer our questions honestly and to not simply say what they think we want to hear. I also stressed that we, as rabbis, had to answer questions concerning faith and the realities of life honestly rather than rest on simple platitudes as our students and congregants of all ages might expect to hear from us.
While I certainly still endorse those messages, that Sunday school story speaks differently to me today. Today, I hear that simple story in the context of the question that I referred to earlier.
The question is simple: What are we doing here? What is the role of a synagogue in an American Jewish community in the 21st century? To put it slightly differently: what is our niche among the growing number of Jewish organizations responding to and focusing on different aspects of what it means to be a Jew?
The question is a critical one for us to consider today. In recent years, we have seen great changes in the structure of Jewish communities, both globally and locally. Impressive and critical Jewish organizations such as Federations, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Family Services have grown, occasionally taking on roles which once were the province of the synagogue. This reality demands of us that we seriously consider our role as an institution.
And, this is a critical question for us to ask here and now. As we at Beth Israel celebrate our 100th birthday as a congregation, it is vital that we consider where we have come from, where we are now, and most importantly, where we are going.
To begin to answer this question, I want to share with you a selection from a book that I have mentioned previously from the bima. The book is entitled: The God Letters. Written by Paul Rifkin, it consists of responses the author received to questions he sent to famous people from all walks of life. The questions: “Do you believe in God? And, if so, how has God made his presence known to you?”
In order to assure that the answers were honest and uncomplicated, Rifkin identified himself as a 5th grade student doing research for a school project.
One of the answers he received came from Joseph Papp, then the theatrical director and producer of the New York Shakespeare festival. Papp wrote the following:
“When I was your age, God was to be found in the synagogue, a small storefront shul in Brooklyn. He was everywhere: in my father’s tallis, in the tefilin that appeared on my father’s arm and forehead every morning, in the cracked voice of the neighborhood cantor who was a glazier by trade, in the chanting of the small, poor devoted congregation…Today”, Papp concluded, “I still find God in shul…”
I have read that answer countless times over the years. I find it to be of the utmost importance to who I am as a rabbi and who I believe we must be as a congregation. And, as our community changes, as our world changes, the words are increasingly meaningful.
“I still find God in shul”.
The concept of God dwelling in the synagogue is childish and limiting. We know that. We have known that since the beginning. When God commanded the people to build the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the desert, God tells Moses, “v”asu lee mikdash v’schachanti bitocham” “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them” not within the sanctuary, but within the people. God cannot be limited to a physical structure. The structure is a symbol of God’s presence in the lives of a community. It is misleading to think of a synagogue as the “house of God”.
But, as our Jewish community changes, as more and more institutions dot our landscape all legitimately looking for support and involvement from members of our community, thinking of the synagogue as a house of God is not misleading but it is right on target.
When thinking about the role of the synagogue in a Jewish community, I have to begin with the words of that honest 7 year old, “I know the answer must be God.”
The purpose of a synagogue in the 21st century, amidst all of the critical, successful and impressive organizations that have developed in this Jewish community and in others, is that the synagogue is the place where God’s presence in sought and felt in every celebration, in every interaction, in every educational effort, in every social action project, in every gathering.
The role of the synagogue is to foster an approach to Judaism from a spiritual perspective, one in which God is present in all of our questions and hopefully in our answers as well. The synagogue must be the place that inspires us to question what it truly means to be a human being and inspires us to be a more caring, more loving human being in a world of justice and equality. We do this best by remembering always that we are creations of God: a God who created the human being with a purpose in mind; a God who created a world where through the random magic of biology, you and I have come into being and entered this world with a n’shama, a soul and a mind: possessing the tools to leave this world better than we found it; a God who, through the mystery of revelation which I can’t even begin to understand, initiated the process of imparting wisdom through sacred texts which have inspired us for centuries as we have sought to find our true way in the world; and a God who, again through a process that I can’t adequately explain inspired ethical standards and ritual traditions which are our hallmark as a people.
The synagogue must be a place which guides Jews in reaching out to that force that created us and teaches us and sustains us in good times and bad, urging us to persevere, encouraging us to elevate life and to view our world and its temporal issues from a spiritual and ethical perspective. It is that force which demands that we commit ourselves and those who come after us to bringing the world to perfection. It is that force that reminds us always that that perfection, redemption, is attainable. This story we are writing can have a happy ending.
Now, let me be clear to offer two explanations before I continue.
As I have said many times, there are no theological litmus tests to join or participate at Beth Israel. Our synagogue would be significantly changed for the worse if those of you who consider yourselves atheists or agnostics felt you weren’t welcome and didn’t participate actively. Please don’t think that for a minute. And, don’t think for a minute that I’m closing any doors or endeavoring to convince people to believe in God. That is your choice. But, at Beth Israel, everyone is welcome because in the end, what matters is not whether we say we believe in God but whether we act like we do.
And, remember that Jews do not profess particularly dogmatic beliefs about God. Each of us is entitled to our own personal conception of the word: “God” and no one should feel forced to squeeze their beliefs into one box or another.
But, given those disclaimers, I stand by my statement. “I know the answer must be God”.
I am not at all suggesting that we limit our mission as a congregation. We must continue to reach out to our congregants in times of need through deep friendships, congregational efforts and through appropriate and critical rabbinic pastoral support. We must continue to address the global issues and social justice concerns that should concern us deeply, such as poverty, gun violence, racism and others through education and advocacy programs, volunteer opportunities and sermons and presentations from the bima. We will continue to stand with our people throughout the world and work for their safety and security. We must continue to create social opportunities for our members through our programming as well, but we must always remember that those are reflections of the ultimate purpose of our synagogue not the goals in and of themselves.
The synagogue must be the place in the community that not only talks about Jewish values but wrestles with what calling a value Jewish really means. The synagogue must be the place that urges people to look at their lives and their newspapers as well through the lens of hope and faith and mystery and awe and wonder. The synagogue must be a place where prayer matters, not just for the sake of tradition, but for the sake of elevating ourselves through a connection with our source. The synagogue must be the place where we can open a traditional Jewish text and temporarily suspend the rational, academic world in which we live, immersing ourselves in a world of mythic beliefs about our origin and our destiny as human beings.
But, as nice as all of that sounds, I know that it is not always a popular idea in our world.
Last May, when our son, Avi, graduated from Emory University, the commencement address was given by Sir Salman Rushdie. It was a brilliant commencement address. But one line caused many in attendance and certainly the graduates of the school of Theology, whom we were sitting close to, to audibly gasp. Rushdie was talking about changes the graduates could make in the world and he said about belief in God: “It’s shocking how many Americans swallow that old story. Maybe you’ll be the generation that moves past the ancient fictions.”
I was beside myself. To tell graduates that faith in God which can be the foundation for the spiritual, communal, and traditional aspects of their lives doesn’t matter was a terrible message and I say that fully acknowledging the events in Rushdie’s personal life that might have led him to that conclusion.
The synagogue must fight tooth and nail against calling belief in God outdated. While many religious people in the world, sadly some Jews included, express a belief in God that justifies unspeakably horrible violence, or profess a faith that is divisive or infantilizing, those with a more constructive, ennobling and elevating approach to faith, have the responsibility to keep belief in God alive and to do so, and please listen to me clearly: despite our frequent inability to put what we believe into words and despite the significant doubts we all have at times. And here, let me add an aside, I wish I could be among those who welcome Pope Francis to the United States this coming week. Despite our obvious theological and ideological differences on key issues, I believe that he represents the type of religious leader we need so deeply. I said that in a sermon a few months after he was named pope and he hasn’t disappointed me since. His work echoes the exhortation that Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed in the famous interview we showed and discussed a week ago before Selichot services: the idea that rather than being people who turn our personal needs into ends, religion’s goal is to turn visionary ends, goals, dreams into needs. That is what makes us human beings.
And those ends, those goals, of embracing what it truly means to be a human being and helping to bring redemption for the world are what it means to be a person of faith. And if we don’t keep a vision of faith alive, we will be denying an essential part of our lives as Jews and human beings. And, if we don’t keep a vision of faith alive, there will be no need for a synagogue in the not too distant future, let alone 100 years from now, because other institutions will offer all that a Jew needs.
Imagine for a moment a Jewish community without synagogues.
Earlier this summer, I read an essay written by Nathan Lopes Cardozo. It was called: “God is Relocating.”
Cardozo began his piece with an anthropomorphic description of God preparing to leave a synagogue. He talked about God standing in the doorway, dressed in a coat and ready to go.
When I read this far, I thought that the author was going to lament, as I have, the fact that too many synagogues push God off the agenda and worship other gods: the god of political influence, the god of “Jewish continuity” or even the god of the state of Israel. All of those are critically important elements of our lives as Jews but none of them are God.
I was ready to pat ourselves on the back as I began to read the article because while we work in all of those important areas as a congregation, I believe that we approach them from a more spiritual, values based perspective and, of course, we care about God as we are very serious about prayer and still fill this building every Shabbat morning.
But, then I read on and realized Cardozo was going in a different direction in talking about God relocating. Suddenly, I felt a bit less sure he wasn’t talking about us.
He was not addressing synagogues that were abandoning God. He was addressing synagogues that were paying lip service to a belief in God rather than looking for ways in which Judaism could matter on a spiritual level, appealing to the soul. He claimed this was more likely found in other places: secular yeshivot in Israel, college campuses where students talk through the night about serious questions, board rooms of corporations which struggle with ethical issues.
And, that is when I started to think again about where we stand in our role as a spiritual institution.
Let me be clear: I am so proud of this congregation for so many reasons. We study Torah seriously, we engage in critical social action efforts, we address significant issues from the bima- I spoke about Iran a few weeks ago and the sermon is on our website- we fill this room with song, our children are engaged in so many ways in our religious school, our high school madrichim do service projects in Ann Arbor, Detroit and far beyond, our Women’s League and Mens Club support our shul and inspire our members.
We are justifiably proud of what we do in so many areas.
But, this article about God relocating reminded me that we must go further in one key way. We must remind ourselves at every moment that we do these things with a greater foundation and a specific perspective: that of fulfilling the responsibilities that God expects from us.
So, this year keeping in mind the niche of the synagogue as an institution imbued with the spirit that nourishes the soul, we will be embarking on some new efforts to make sure that God doesn’t sneak out the back door despite our accomplishments and successes.
We will, as you have heard, be offering a new class from the Hartman Institute on the subject of the dilemmas of faith, what it can mean to us, what it gives us and how we address the dilemmas faith in God presents in today’s world. This will be an opportunity for participants to re-open the search for a meaningful faith in God in your lives. We hope that many of you will engage in this effort as we strive to understand what it means to be a person of faith in contemporary times. This is an extraordinary opportunity. Please consider joining us on Monday evenings at dinner time for this program.
We will continue to study Torah through a class in Midrash in Hebrew and our Shabbat Limmud early morning Torah study.. Our tradition holds that studying sacred texts are a form of worship, and an opportunity to tap into the deep questions that our rabbis wanted us to ask about our lives and our relationship with God. In both of these groups, we will, as we did this past Shabbat morning, begin each session with the b’racha for Torah study to emphasize the sacredness of learning.
We will again offer a course in mussar, which encourages participants to improve their lives by focusing on middot, soul traits, which can transform our lives into ones of greater and deeper meaning and help us to transform the world through our actions.
But, learning is only one way to address the question of faith. There have to be other as well. So, we will, as a response to suggestions made by members of our taskforce on spirituality this past year, be instituting a monthly opportunity for contemplative prayer called Sounds of the Soul outside of the regular structure of our services. Rabbi Blumenthal, working with congregants has developed this effort and the first of these music, chanting, and inspiration filled gathering will take place on October 13.
And finally, while we will honor our commitment to traditional prayer and not aim to fix what isn’t broken in our Shabbat services, we will continue to consider ways to invigorate them and give opportunities for people to find more spiritual depth that our tradition has always offered but that has, through the ages, sometimes become hidden behind our commitment to ritual.
While searching for a stronger connection with God, we can not and will not abandon intellectual honesty. We will never waver in our commitment to care for the welfare of our members. We will not stop engaging about and supporting Israel, or caring about Jews throughout the world or those in need in our Ann Arbor community. Those are also sacred responsibilities.
But, we must be sure that this remains God’s house where doing these things is reflected in our hearts and in our souls and in our dreams as well as in our minds and in our hands.
Several years ago, on the first Rosh Hashana after our sanctuary and social halls were renovated, I spoke about the Hebrew word: Mah. Mah means “what”. But, it also serves as a primal expression of wonder. Mah Nishtanah: How different this night is from all other nights! Heenay Mah Tov: How wonderful it is to sit as brothers and sisters together! And, Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov. How beautiful are your tents of Jacob!
We should all be full of wonder at what has been built over the last 100 years. We should all look and say: “Mah” with wonder and awe and appreciation at what goes on in this building and throughout our community under our auspices.
But, let me share with you a thought as we embark on our 100th year. The word Meah is spelled just like Mah but with an aleph in the middle. The alef is the silent letter, the letter of beginnings, the letter of mystery, the letter of the still small voice. It is, the first letter in anochee, “I” as in I am the Lord your God.
I believe that Beth Israel will flourish over the next 100 years if we remember that our existence as a congregation depends upon our keeping that aleph, right in the center of everything we do. And if we ever stop searching for the real meaning of that aleph, if we stop taking leaps of faith, if we stop nourishing our souls, we may find in fact that this aleph has left us and if that happens: Mah?, what will we be left with?
I pray that the next century will be even more beautiful for our shul than the years that have passed. They will be if we remember why we are here and if we continue to focus on our faith and our souls as we do what no other Jewish institution can do, base ourselves on the truth that little girl expressed so simply:
“I know the answer must be God”.