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A Taste of Redemptive Babka

Rosh Hashanah I, 5779

The Jewish Theological Seminary is often disparagingly referred to as the Ivory Tower by students staring down ordination and the reality of entering the real world life of the pulpit.  It was a phrase used out of bitterness for the perceived lack of practical training we received and the fear that it aroused in us.  But mostly it was one borne out of frustration and melancholy since a pulpit rabbi, generally, no longer lives in the pages or the margins of Talmud or its 11th‑century commentators discussing the minutiae of how to erect an eruv or whether one may cook on a holiday that is followed by Shabbat.

And now, looking back on that time, the thing I miss the most are not those texts but the discussions those texts allowed for and, ultimately, their yield:  the belief in a mahloket.  It’s the idea that disagreements are not only worth engaging with but that they are the building blocks of sustainability.  They have been for us here at CRZ:  we are sitting in a traditional, egalitarian synagogue, with a female cantor, a service with a choir, and a service with instruments.  We can see that mahlokets have been constructive and not destructive; without them, we would not be who we are today 

In rabbinical school there are charged conversations.  I was in many classrooms where tempers flared, over issues large and small, yet we shared the fundamental awareness that we loved each other.  We were a community of learners; and if a disagreement was over whether an eruv needs to be 5 arm-lengths and not 6 or if it was over determining Jewish identity, ultimately we would all all head to the cafeteria together.  We placed each other over a given issue, and that awareness was always present transforming our disagreements into mahlokets into something that is a part of something bigger.

Sadly, I feel the absence of that ivory tower regularly:  when watching the news, online and in the various communities that we all find ourselves in, the sanctity of a reasoned disagreement seems not to be a shared value.  We as synagogue need to represent what is beautiful about our tradition; we must recognize what we need to bring from our tradition to others—both Jew and Gentile, other synagogues, and to our country.  We need to be able to see past our particular loyalties, whether they are to an idea or a value, while being able to have greater empathy for those who hold that opposing view.  Let me begin with a joke by comedian Emo Philips that I heard Rabbi David Wolpe tell.

I used to frequent the same bar after work and once I saw man drinking alone, looking disheveled and clearly down on his luck and himself.  I sat next to him and asked, “Mind if I join you?”  “I don’t know why you would want to.  No one will ever love me.”  Despite my confusion by his response, I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Uh, well, Yes I do.”  I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”  He said, “A Christian.”  I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”  He said, “Protestant.”  I said, “Me, too! What denomination?”  He said, “Baptist.”  I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”  He said, “Northern Baptist.”  I said, “Me, too!  Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”  I said, “Me, too!  Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”  He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”  I said, “Me, too!”  Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”  He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”  I splashed my drink in his face and said, “Drink alone, heretic!”

We all know this joke; we tell its Jewish form all the time about the Jew on the desert island.  When the rescue mission finds him, the sailors who saved him ask, “What are the three buildings you’ve built?” After all, he is only one man on an entire Island.  “That right there,” he says, “is my house, that is my shul and that, phew, is the shul I don’t go to.”  

As Jews we are so concerned, religiously dedicated to drawing lines, and we guard those lines with the devotion of Hasidim.  We do so with such fervent piety that we neglect all the beauty and the meaning that is happening within those walls.  And thus we are unable to see all that will better our lives as individuals and members of the Jewish community that exists just beyond their perimeter.

What the Emo Philips joke is getting at is what Freud called the narcissism of small differences.  All minorities do this, it is hardwired into our DNA; the fears of minorities often require building a wall within the ghetto that has been constructed for us.  But for us, this is not a joke.  We need to recognize that we are here to be in a home—a house that provides the opportunity to nourish us spiritually and, God willing, communally—and it is community that concerns me today, that should concern all of us.

The first thing we need to do is reject, in the strongest language possible, the fear that opposing views, whether it is from the community down the street or a movement way out there, will hurt us.  Questions and questioning is part and parcel of what it means to be a Jew, of what it means to embody the rabbinic tradition, which began over 2000 years ago with the question of when to say the Shema.  Judaism began not with the who but how, and from there a tenacious, loud and chuzpadik religion of questioning began.  What does it mean to be Jewish?  I am not really sure.  Yet what I do know is that living as a Jew means we need to be comfortable with questions, living within the tension of searching for the answer that may not come or, worse, we may not like.

To sustain a Jewish community and to serve as a model for all other communities, which is what we are called to do as A light onto the Nations, it starts and stops with empathy.  We need to begin by respecting the person sitting next to us and respecting the person across the room from us.  Our movement’s founding father, Solomon Schechter said, “Souls can only be kissed through the medium of empathy.”  And while I do not have a source for this, I think he learned this from the Shema.

We need to look at the first paragraph, the Ve’ahavta—the paragraph that deals with Love.  The text says we need to love God with all our levev’cha/heart, nefesh/soul and moedecha/might.  Heart, what does that mean?  I think that’s empathy.  Before we can do anything, before we can love anyone or anything, we need to use our hearts.  Traditionally, the heart was seen as the true source of our vision, and we need to begin by using that vision to see the full humanity of those in front of us.  Nefesh: usually we understand this word as soul, but Talmudically it was understood as another word for person.  In order to love God or Judaism or perhaps, simply to be Jewish, we need to recognize that the divine image has been engraved into the soul of the person next us.  And final word, moedecha:  traditionally it is rendered as with all your might—understood as our wealth or the resources we give to God.  But what if we choose to see it as the resources of our spirit and character?  Maybe it is what differentiates us; the innumerable ways of expressing our uniqueness, the potential of the spirit we bestow on each other, and maybe that is why it was God given.  What if the Shema was not simply a statement of faith but the foundational creed of community?  And, if we are brave enough to stand and recite this creed together, where might it take us?  I think it takes us to Kiddush.

Kiddush is the meal we share after our liturgical prayer is over; the meal that literally sanctifies those services.  We need to pause there and recognize what this word, whose root means holiness or sanctity, is saying:  that without this meal, without blessing the wine and the challah and joining together, that those services were merely a collection of words.  Kiddush lunch on Shabbat is where we see the extension of our community and its full potential.

Shabbat is where I place my programmatic emphasis.  I want you to come and I want more of you coming on Shabbat.  And while I would love to see you at the Masorti minyan or Minyan Katan, Na'aseh veNishma, or Minyan Gadol, where you need to be is at Kiddush, and that can very well mean JFK (just for kiddush).  And what is Kiddush?  You may only see lox and babka—but I see Mount Sinai.

Our tradition tells us that all the Israelites, as well as those who left Egypt with them, stood at Sinai along with all Jews across time—you and I along with Moses and Miriam.  There was a mixed multitude, and they all stood together in reverence and awe.  Yet, I have come to think that Sinai, that tremendous moment in the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were waiting for Moses to return down the mountain and God was seen and heard through thunder and lighting, that this moment was, actually, the first Midrash.  I do not think it happened but was, in truth, a vision of what could happen if difference and pride were cross-pollinated with diversity, flowering a redemptive communal experience.  The moments that preceded and followed it make it hard for me to believe that our ancestors merited this moment; I think the Torah was teaching us what must be accomplished rather than informing us of what happened.

What is Kiddush?  It is in a large room, the doors are always opened and there are no reserved seats.  Kiddush is the container that allows for us to achieve and look out onto a Sinai-like experience, in part because our differences are exposed, and that is the point.  Sinai happened because everyone was different, each tribe and tribesman/woman represented, and there were no walls, just open space.

What is achieved when we are sitting together and eating?  Well, that is it, we are sitting together, the walls and fences we construct for ourselves are now gone and we can fully see where each of us came from and where we are going.  Even if you think that you came only for the babka, I know that you will be taken to another place.  Surely some Israelites were not concerned with being redeemed but simply wanted out of Egypt and that was the bait and switch—just as a nosh is ours.

I am asking that after services today, instead of smiling and saying, "Nice sermon, Rabbi," and rather than seeing my metaphor as silly or a rabbinic ploy to raise attendance, we all saw real sanctity in eating together; saw it as booking a seat at the table of overwhelming our shortcomings.  What if we left a seat open at Kiddush every week for Elijah, the way we do at a bris or baby-naming because our tradition holds the hope that that moment and that child will bring the Messiah.  Wouldn’t Kiddush be a better bet since we are relying on the true village rather than the village as seen through one child  What if we said shehiyanu every week, not only because we have lived another week but to mark the momentous God-moment we are engrossed in?  Kiddush is where we stare at the truth of our past but also our destiny:  we need each other.

At this point, if you are not a regular, you may be having an issue of trust:  at many other shuls kiddush lunch does not, often, yield a glimpse of anything beyond the stratified social hierarchy of that synagogue.  Let me tell you, that is not the case here.  I spent many years going to shuls like that; I would stay for the sermon and leave for kiddush.  I was not greeted with a smile or invitation to a seat at kiddush—if I was to stay, I would meekly find an empty table.  It was not warm nor was it welcoming, and that was in large part why I went a very long time before my Judaism was impacted beyond Tradition.  Obviously, I could have been more vulnerable, more willing to step outside of my comfort zone into that given community, but we all know how hard that is.  When I came here, I was embraced, and if you do not trust that my experience would be the same for you, ask any number of people here.  I was welcomed, “Shabbat shalom,” and warmly invited into this home, not with a “who are you” or “where do you come from,” but “We are so glad you are here,” and you will be too.  Let me remind you that lingering after our Neilah service is over and breaking the fast with nosh in the atrium is not normal, and we must not diminish its significance.  What is normal is rushing out to be with immediate family and their kugel.  We stay, lingering in the realm of each other’s lives, making what appears to be small talk, yet it is not small at all but is in fact living Torah 

All of us here are in a liminal space, at a fraught and scary moment and I think we have been since Sinai.  The Israelites were too afraid to see God or, more likely, too afraid of God seeing them, so they hid and built idols; we cannot be afraid of being seen.  We have heard the thunder and seen the lightning because… we created it.  But here, as members of the Jewish community in 5779, God has become obscured because we are too concerned with the mixed multitude, too concerned with the conversations that have taken place in the back seat as we drive further away from our destiny.  Being afraid of Sinai was not only a problem for the Israelites, but it is our problem; we are more comfortable wandering the desert where false prophets proliferate than standing at Sinai with our vulnerabilities exposed. 

I promise you this, God is out there: the God of community, the God of Tradition, and even the God of babka.  Differences are real and they make us uncomfortable, but so what.  Leaning into our mahlokets, dwelling in the valley of our disagreements is where we will be able to learn, get beyond those differences and, ultimately, truly be seen.

Coming together as a community, honoring our differences, those small and those seemingly not, is how we will make our mark on the Torah.  If we can begin with our empathic, soulful and seeing heart, it is our differences that will illuminate the path back to Sinai.

May it be a year of health, learning and sitting together. Shanah tovah.

Rabbi David Minkus

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