Sign In Forgot Password

What I Have Learned, What I Want to Define

Rosh Hashanah I 5777

About a month ago I called Rabbi Steve Sager. Steve was, for many years, the rabbi at Beth El in Durham, NC, and is now the director of Sicha, which is a development program for Jewish leaders. I called because I wanted him to help me think through some ideas I was having for High Holiday sermons.

While I thought he would be like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, he would swoop in and be the instant fixer, he like any good mentor, reflected back to me what I had said. He took me on a tour of our website and asked why some words were translated while others were not. Yarhtzeit is, Kaddish is not. Na’aseh ve‑Nishma is, minyan is not. He challenged me to think about what is the relationship between the language we use and the experience they yearn for?

It is my 3rd year in and I wanted to do what Steve did for me- hold up a mirror and tell you what I see in all of you and in myself. So I have taken a handful of words and I am going to define what they mean from the vantage point of this rabbi. One phrase: Rodfei Zedek, and three words: Israel, Torah, and Community.

RODFEI ZEDEK Pursuers of Justice, why was this the name chosen by our communal ancestors. Why not Beth El or Brit Shalom or Adath Israel. I could not find the answer and the book Rodfei Zedek: The First One Hundred Years gives us no insight into why this name was chosen. So, then, what does this phrase from Isaiah mean? Is it a phrase we hold onto as a Jewish value; a value etched into our hearts through our historical memory? Or is it simply a moniker that stands at the entrance of our gates? And if that is true, should we change it?

I came to Congregation Rodfei Zedek at an unfortunate time in American history. A man selling cigarettes without a permit was placed in a stranglehold by a NYC police officer and died just hours before my second Shabbat. Several weeks later a teenage boy fresh from his High School graduation, who had just committed a petty theft, was walking down the street and after a confrontation with a police officer, was shot and killed in a St. Louis Suburb. And not too long after that, although it took almost a year to know about it, a Chicago teenager was shot and killed by a Chicago Police officer as he walked through a street with a knife in his hand.

In the late fall of 2014 some of us joined hands with a church in Bronzeville to protest the cheapening of Black lives in America. Many saw this and other social justice events as realizing the biblical command to care for the stranger- and that marching with an African-American church was on the path towards carrying out that command. An understanding of repairing what is broken in the world. But, I will qualify that by saying, that action was not the sum of our Judaism. Standing up for others is a mitzvah, an essential one, not one we can ignore. Period.

This is a synagogue, we engage our Jewish identity in many ways; we use our tradition to teach us and show us the myriad ways we can become better people. And this is vital to know because I want to engage the people who were not at that march- our tradition values you and your expressions of it too! It values your reasons for not coming and, WE who were there, also, need to learn from you! You need and deserve the space to articulate your understanding of that mitzvah.

Were we pursuing a justice our Judaism demands? Was I participating, or, leading us in a direction away from bettering our own community? I have made mistakes and I have learned from them and- I think we were right that day. I felt that we made our tradition proud. It galvanized some, who before that Sunday morning may have felt that they were, at best, members on periphery this community.

I received some push back after we marched in an official action of the Black Lives Matter Movement. And I want to thank each and every one of you who pushed. I am learning how to be a rabbi- not the learning I did for six years in New York but really learning about how to lead and when to and, when not to. Some people felt that this is a synagogue and it should be apolitical. For some they thought these were issues that needed to go before a wider group of people before they went before the street. For many participating with BLM Movement was different than celebrating Martin Luther King’s legacy by having our own program on social justice or acclimating ourselves to other South Side neighborhoods. By joining hands with a Movement where it was not difficult to find people among them with problematic views towards Jews, posed not only a communal issue, but a moral one. But we must not allow this to distract us from the true issue, the issue of inequality and the Jewish command to fix it.

What I am asking is that we earn the name Pursuers of Justice and we be proud of it. But that requires that we individually and communally define what that means- where does it fit with our vision? Liberal or Conservative, radical or reactionary, wherever you see yourself and wherever feels right, our tradition and our history demand that we care because too many others will not. If you see me or anybody else from CRZ pushing a program, an activity or agenda you do not agree with push back. Pursuing justice knows no candidate, it is owned by no community, and it wears no uniform other than the Torah- how you read that depends on you. As our Rabbis said, it is not up to you finish the task but you are not free to desist from it.

ISRAEL One of the things I get asked about a lot is, how often I talk about Israel. If you are only here for the High Holidays, you know the answer to be zero, if you have been here every shabbat since I came, you know the answer is one!

I challenge the notion that Judaism and Israel are the same- I push back on the organizations who solicit me to use the pulpit and their recourses to speak about Israel, as if one size fits all- this approach is backwards and stale. And I assure you these organizations come from left and right.

Our community is not the same as any other, but each of you would not be and have not been wrong to push me. But the answer I have had was: I do not see it as my place. I am not an expert on Israel. Some of you are! If you wanted to hear about the Masorti Movement (Conservative Movement) in Israel, I know some of that, if you wanted to know about the best bakeries in Jerusalem- I am all over that. But that is not why I was hired. I was hired because my learning gives me an authoritative position to teach the wisdom of our tradition. But time has challenged my orthodoxy on this.

I am a Zionist. I cry every time I hear Hatikvah! I am filled with pleasure watching an Israeli movie and overwhelmed with melancholy the next day knowing it is so far away. My life forever changed after my parents had the bravery to send me to Israel for the summer during the height of Second Intifada. And I am deeply, to my core, saddened that so many in my generation do not feel this way- I uphold everyone’s right to express their Judaism in any and every way they want to. Yet, I am troubled by the lack of concern of our people’s historical plight- that for millennia Jewish Lives have not mattered and this is still true in some places. I do not understand this perspective but I want to! We all need to, just as we ask or demand that non-Zionists understand ours.

The reason Israel is not defined on our website is because we stay away from it. People who feel nothing for Israel keep quiet or to themselves, and while others continue to have the same conversation. What has stopped us from having programs on or around Israel? Why do we hide or feel compelled to hide our views? Do you feel too far to the right of the community? Do you feel too far to the left of the traditional and institutional norms on Israel?

I am deeply concerned with the over 50 years of occupation and I am personally hurt at Israel’s inability to see me as an authentic Jew- to uphold the sanctity of the conversations I have been a part of. Yes and yes to all of these things- full stop. I am not papering over them- I am not white-washing them, nor I am diverting our attention from them to talk about the marvels of Israeli cuisine, its tech culture or the progress Israel has made for its Queer community. But what we ALL must recognize, is that Israel is real. The dream Yehuda Halevi had, the dream Herzl had is no dream any more. It is real and it is fragile.

Perhaps the idea of being a Zionist or not is an outdated one. Israel is a fact and it is a fact of global-politics. So, how do we, as a community and as individuals, relate to the reality of Israel? How do we challenge the vision in our hearts, the love of our dreams, to mesh with the reality we see on the streets of Jerusalem? Can we get to a place of seeing Israel as… family?

We all stood at Sinai, now we must all be willing stand together again and listen. Sinai was not limited to those felt one way. Nothing can be heard or understood when we stand back to back. Love and family are hard- being Jewish and having a Jewish state is really hard but I fear that without it we will become rudderless.

TORAH, this is a short one. Learn it, study it. Torah is our ongoing dialogue. It is the stage by which we act out our history while writing the lines for the future. Without it we are lost in a forest of vapid and constructed “profiles.” Does Torah mean Genesis and Deuteronomy? Yes. Does it mean Maimonides? Yes it does. Does it mean the conversations you have here in the atrium? Indeed. Torah is a very long and wide bridge, yet it is all too common for it to go uncrossed.

Why? What stops us? For me it is fear. Fear of getting it wrong, fear of being exposed as an imposter. For some it is because of a lack of trust; a lack of trust in this tradition to teach you want you need and what is missing. We need to wrest courage from the place that fear usually resides. We need to tackle apathy and negate wariness- if it was not meaningful and relevant it would not have survived. As the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer said we must not, “allow Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David to be our greatest cultural icons. We must not be actors who no longer know their lines.” Join one of the myriad of classes we have here- we have advanced Judaism for beginners and we have Jewish History of 18th Century Russia. We have the language of Falafel stands in Tel‑Aviv and the language of the Siddur. Come for a This American Shabbat and learn the Torah of the person sitting next to you. Do not be an actor using someone else’s lines- write them! Live them!

COMMUNITY These have been the words I felt I needed to define, at least for myself, but with this last word, I am looking to define it for you. Community is about being blessed, it is the manifestation of life and the realization that it can and should be bigger than yourself. It is tradition, joy and loss. It is a rock, not a boulder. This rock, CRZ, is moving with the subtle yet transformative waves of time. And let me tell each of you, but especially those of you I see all the time, you do not know how rich you are. You do not know how amazing this community is. Before July of 2014 I had not seen true community, had not been welcomed into one, but then I was met with profundity. I found warmth of spirit and expression. I have found kindness and genuine interest in the person who walks in the door. I am biased and, generally, the rabbi is going to be the recipient of communal warmth, but I talk and meet, at least I try to, with every new person who walks through those doors and this sentiment is commonplace but there is nothing common about the sincerity of this community’s ability to be welcoming. I would like to reflect back to you a few anecdotes that serve perhaps as nothing more than vignettes, but I hope in them they demonstrate a rare understanding of our Patriarch Abraham’s example of hospitality and community.

Last year a member finished saying Kaddish for her mother. She told the minyan on that day, after reciting it for the last time, that she had been saying Kaddish nearly her whole life (her father passed when she was young) but not until the past year had she felt the wholeness the prayer had intended to offer. The many years she had been saying it, a form of meaning had been elusive, beyond her heart or halachic mind to feel until she felt the embrace- the community- of not fellow travelers but fellow citizens; the citizens of the morning minyan who had welcomed her on their journey and asked her to do the same.

Last summer my family and I spent a Sunday with some other young families. One family who came, was in the process of moving from their apartment father north they had outgrown yet could not decide on where to move. They loved Hyde Park and their children loved participating in the Jewish Enrichment Center and JCC, their friends were here, but they could not figure out if their life could be here. Choosing a school is very difficult and the suburbs are just easier and made easier when you have family there and none here. They chose… Hyde Park. They reflected back to me “the pull of this community is incredible.”

We are a diverse community. We have Jews of all backgrounds. We are a community with many people who were born Jewish but who have made a sincere choice to live as Jews. We are a community where the term “religious” can be used and expressed in so many ways- not simply donned on those who come on Shabbat morning.

This is a community of people who came but stayed. People who came from Israel and Pennsylvania, from Kansas and the UK, from Long Island and South Africa and even Wilmette. Those who left parents, were in need of friends yet found family. Some of you may remember when this was the number of people you would see every shabbat yet now we find services and potlucks where the connections and warmth, and even love, extend beyond capacity. This is not hyperbole, we are a synagogue on the cutting edge of shaping a future that the Conservative Movement and the whole Jewish life would be wise to follow but all of that pales in the face of the generosity of spirit you possess. I hope you trust me that I am telling you the truth but if you do not, it is incumbent upon you to prove me wrong.

In Rabbinical School you need to pass the test,and hit all the measures; I am not there yet and unsure if I ever will be. But what I am searching for is the creativity to discover more and think differently- that is where expression and creativity come from and that is the weakness of language.

Justice and Rodfei Zedek, Israel and Torah are mere words if we cannot exist and coexist with the radical notions of community and the expressions that come with them. The yearning for a life worth living and the reflective process that enables us to return to that place is within us. We must search our souls to find the means to live-it, live life with the wisdom of our community and stand to decipher the complexities of life and tradition together.

I pray that this year brings blessings of health and happiness to each of you and may we enjoy those blessings as a community.

Shanah tovah and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Rabbi David Minkus

→ The Pulpit Shelf

Fri, August 12 2022 15 Av 5782