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Yom Kippur - 2008 / 5769

09/21/2008 09:12:56 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

Have you been following the stock market this week?

We are going though some pretty turbulent waters right now. Of course, Jews know something about going through water. That will probably come in handy right about now. A miracle would be nice, but even without one, we just need to get to the other side safely.

People often go to the movies for escape, and though I have not seen any statistics, I would not be surprised to learn that movie attendance was up this past week. While I do go to the movies myself from time to time for escape and of course, entertainment, I typically would not do so this particular week, as I am rather focused on these holy days. I did go to the movies the other day, though, not for escape, but for research for this sermon. Really. I wanted to see Bill Maher’s new movie, Religulous. I am not enough of a fan of his to have been prepared for what I saw. In short, it was a popular film version of the same kind of attacks found in several best-selling books of recent years, though decidedly funnier than any of them. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, among others, have all authored eloquent statements that, in the end, all reach the same conclusion: that religion and religious people are foolish and dangerous, and that the world be better off without religion.

There are three fundamental flaws that run through all of these works. One: they are guilty of being as dogmatic in their assertion that there is no God as those who they condemn and criticize for their dogmatic assertion that there is a God; two, they confuse and conflate faith with belief, and use these words interchangeably. They are not the same; and three, they conflate fundamentalism with all religious belief. They seem unaware of the Enlightenment, and the resulting development of liberal religious ideology, and ignore the hundreds of millions of us who embrace that kind of religious identity, including just about every one of us here today.

There is no point in arguing about the existence of God. There are three choices: certainty that God exists, certainty that God does not exist, or uncertainty. Most liberal religious people I know would fall into the third category, and probably best be described as agnostic. That is certainly the case for most liberal Jews that I know. I know very few people who are consistently certain and have no doubt that God exists, and most of those I do know are devout Christians. Belief is an intellectual construct. It asserts what we accept as fact, what we are prepared to state is so and what is not so. Faith is something different.


What is faith? Many people seem to follow the definition offered by that great theologian, Mark Twain, who once said that faith is "believing in something when you know it ain't so."

I respectfully disagree.

Faith is far more sophisticated than that. The dictionary offers several different definitions, including this one: Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing. I would expand upon that: I submit that faith is the willingness to act according to one's values, according to what one believes is right, regardless of the potential outcome. Faith is about the commitment to doing what is right outweighing concern for the result.  Faith is the ability to withstand the challenges of the present because of one's devotion to a greater good. The opposite of belief is disbelief. The opposite of faith is fear.

It is hard to identify as a person of faith these days, especially for us religious liberals. We have good reason to imagine that if we do, we will be grouped with others very much unlike us. The images of religion and faith that we encounter, especially in the media, are overwhelmingly of the fundamentalist type. We are wary, for good reason, of being associated with those who are certain that they know and own truth with a capital "T".

We tune out fundamentalists, and as a result, tend to tune out all religious voices.  I am reminded of the story of the local priest and pastor who were fishing on the side of the road. They thoughtfully made a sign saying, "The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it's too late!" and showed it to each passing car. One driver who drove by didn't appreciate the sign and shouted at them, "Leave us alone, you religious nuts!"    All of a sudden they heard a big splash, looked at each other, and the priest said to the pastor, "You think maybe we should have just said 'Bridge Out' instead?"

Yes, we tune out religious voices, and especially fundamentalists. And when fundamentalists are presented as the representatives of religious people, it is no wonder that we do not want to be identified with them. The result, unfortunately, is that religion and religious people are reduced to caricatures, bearing little resemblance to any of us or to what we are doing here today. I've never taken a scientific poll, but I'm willing to bet most of my worldly possessions that if I were to ask right now, the majority of you would say that you are not religious. I would need to ask you, then: why are you here today?

 I suspect that the answer would be that you are here because the experience of being here is meaningful for you  -- which is exactly the point! Religion is about meaning, not about belief. It is about ideas that speak to our existence and our understanding of our place in the world, not about the existence of a supreme being. This common misconception arises from what philosophers call a "category mistake." It is like asking “how long is red?" Or, as one of my rabbinical school professors once put it, "when playing chess, do you collect $200 when you pass Go?"  We do not want to be called religious because we think it means something other than it does. 

I am also willing to bet that you would not call yourself religious because it would mean that you live your life according to what the Talmud teaches or what the Torah says. It would mean that your personal practice includes a certain amount of ritual. No, thanks, not me - I belong to a synagogue, sure, but I'm not religious!

What that means is that we have allowed others to define what it means to be religious. There are few people sitting here today who are certain of the existence of God. And let me tell you something that may surprise some of you. I, too am doubtful and unsure. I wish I could say with conviction and sincerity that I have unshakable belief. I do not. My beliefs have changed and evolved throughout my adult life. They have waxed and waned, especially in the years since I first became a rabbi. I suspect that this is true for you, as well.  But I am here today, as I suspect that you are, because it is meaning, and not certain belief that is the foundation of my religious identity.

The important question for today is not what you believe. The important questions for today - there are two of them - are: one - do you have faith? Are you able to withstand the challenges of the present because of your devotion to a greater good? Are you prepared to act according to your values, according to what you believe is right, regardless of the potential outcome?; and two - what is the source of those values? If it is, at least in part, the wisdom of Jewish tradition, the ethics and ideals of the Jewish people, if you find meaning in the sources and practices of Judaism and Jewish tradition, you are a religious Jew.

A few years ago, I shared with you the story of my visit with the Fox-Rabinowitz family in Moscow in January 1987. The father, Misha, was an astrophysicist, one of the foremost figures in the Soviet space program, or least he had been previous to my visit. At the time we met, he had lost his job, and his publications had been removed from all libraries, in response to his application for an exit visa. On that January day, I visited with him, his wife Marina, and their son, Mishka, a few hours before he was to return to his current work as a boilerman's assistant, shoveling coal into a large boiler, in periods of 24 hours on and 72 hours off. It was also day 33 of a 35 day hunger strike that he had undertaken, scheduled to conclude on the day that Mishka was to turn 13, and would have been celebrating his Bar Mitzvah a few miles from here at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, which had extended a formal invitation to him. While Misha's fast did, we later learned, come to the attention of the Soviet authorities, it did not make an immediate difference, as Mishka's 13th birthday came and went. Leaving them that day and returning to my hotel was one of the most emotionally and spiritually challenging experiences of my life - and did not even register in comparison to the spiritual and emotional challenges they were living through every day.

It would have been much easier for their family to abandon their quest for Jewish learning and Jewish religious ideas. They could easily have gone along as before, with Misha continuing to make his contributions to science, and living a much easier life than the one they were living at the time we met. Their spirits, however, called out for more. They were prepared to endure pain, hardship, and relative poverty in the name of something more important to them than their material comfort and physical security. I do not know that they would have described themselves as religious, but they were clearly people of deep faith, for whom Jewish identity and Jewish wisdom was a primary category.

I think about their family often, especially in times like these, when our future is so uncertain and unsettling. It gives me perspective. I think about the potential challenges we face, compared to what they experienced each and every day, subjecting ourselves to pain and punishment for simply wanting to learn Hebrew and study Torah. And of course, there are more dramatic examples which some sitting here today have experienced in their own lives, including surviving the Shoah.  It would be a mistake, however, to minimize the very real challenges that we face, and we should not attempt to rationalize away our concerns. But the experience of those who have faced these kinds of challenges challenges can teach us how to face the one before us today.

The story of the Fox Rabinowitz family happens to have a happy ending. Five months after my visit in Moscow, I received a call from Rabbi Ronnie Weiss of Temple Beth Elohim, telling me that the family had, miraculously, received exit visas, and that in a week’s time, Mishka's bar mitzvah ceremony would take place at Temple Beth Elohim About a year after the bar mitzvah ceremony, I visited the family in suburban Washington, D.C., at a home far more luxurious than they could have imagined owning a short time earlier. Misha had been hired by NASA, and continues to be one of the foremost figures in our space program.

Yes, this story has a happy ending, but it could have turned out very differently. If the family had not received exit visas, their life would have become more and more difficult in Moscow. Friends over there is, other dissidents, experienced harassment, loss of income, social ostracization and even imprisonment. Their family acted as they did not because they were certain that all would turn out well, but because they had a choice to make, between acting on their values and suffering whatever consequences that might result, or going along with the world as it was, giving in to fear, and living out their lives in despair and desperation.

One does not have to believe in a transcendent God, a benevolent God, or an omnipotent God to have that kind of faith. Faced with certain specific challenges, we need only be willing to take a leap of faith, and accept that we may not land where we hope, but that the leap was worth attempting.

Let me share a story about a literal leap of faith, as told by Dr. Yaffa Eliach, who published a series of Chassidic stories of the Holocaust:

At one of the death camps, the prisoners were suddenly ordered to evacuate their barracks at point of a gun. Pandemonium broke loose. Prisoners stampeded out into big open field. There were two huge pits in the middle of this field.  A cruel voice came over the loudspeaker. "Each of you dogs who values his miserable life and wants to cling to it must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side. Those who miss will get what they rightfully deserve -- rat-a-tat-tat."   It was clear to the inmates they would end up in the pits. Even at the best of times, it would have been nearly impossible to jump over the pits, much less on this cold, dark night in the Ukraine. The prisoners standing at the edge of the pits were skeletons, feverish from disease and starvation, exhausted from slave labor and sleepless nights. It was life or death for them, but for the guards it was just a game. Among them was Rabbi Israel Spira,  the Rebbe of Bluzov, and a friend, a philosopher from a large Polish town. They had met in the camps and a deep friendship had developed between them. The philosopher said "Spira, all your efforts to jump over the pits are in vain. We only entertain the Germans. Let’s just sit down in the pits and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence."   "My friend," said the Rabbi, as they were walking towards the pits, "we must obey the will of God. If it was decreed from heaven that pits be dug, and we are commanded to jump, pits will be dug and jump we must. And if, God forbid, we fail and fall into the pits, we will reach the World of Trust a second later, after our attempt. So my friend, we must jump."  As they neared the pits they could see them rapidly filling up with bodies. When they reached them, the rabbi closed his eyes and commanded in a powerful whisper, "We are jumping!" They jumped, and when they both opened their eyes, they found themselves standing on the other side of the pit.  "Spira, we are here, we are here, we are alive!" the friend repeated over and over again, while warm tears streamed from his eyes. "Tell me, how did you do it?"

"I was holding on to the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory," said the Rabbi. His eyes also filled with tears. "Tell me, my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?"

The Rabbi's friend replied, "I was holding on to you."

In retelling the story, Rabbi Janet Marder adds:"We are all holding onto our ancestors, and holding on to each other today as well -- in fact, that's precisely why we're here. We are here, because we understand in the deepest part of our being, that we need to hold onto something larger than ourselves -- -- that we are incomplete and imperfect and can not survive without the things this synagogue gives us. This synagogue has something you need to survive. This synagogue has your ancestors' coattails. And this synagogue is a spiritual community which can make you whole -- which can give you what you need -- what you don't have. In fact, we will continue to evolve -- as a synagogue and as a people-- precisely out of what you need and how the rest of us provide it for you."

 My friends, at their best, religious institutions, including this synagogue, allow us, with all of our doubts, to hold on to one another, to derive more courage then we could otherwise muster, and make our way through this unpredictable and exquisitely beautiful world.

Not every challenge requires a leap, but these days, we need to make our way through some very difficult waters.

The most famous water crossing story in our tradition, of course, is the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. Many critics of Western religion in particular point to it as an example of the absurdity of religious teaching. If, however, we apply modern scientific understanding, we might actually come away with a more profound message.

In fact, the more accurate translation of the Hebrew words "yam soof" is Sea of Reeds, not Red Sea. Somewhere along the way one of the "e's" was lost. The story as it is recorded in the book of Exodus does not indicate a specific timeline of how long it was between the time that the Israelites left and the time that Pharaoh sent the Egyptian armies after them. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that the Israelites arrived at low tide, and walked across the marshy waters, the likes of which they had never before experienced, “as if it was dry land.” It is easy to imagine the Egyptians arriving at high tide, rapidly entering the waters, the horses' hooves and the wheels of the chariots becoming entangled in the reeds, and the chariot drivers landing in the water, as the Israelites looked on safety and for the first time in more than 400 years, in liberty and freedom, from the opposite shore Reading the Exodus passage, we understand what they saw: "God hurled horse and rider into the sea". They experienced it as a miracle. And the truth is, it is no less of a miracle than the way the story is often told and understood. In my book, it is much more of an example of what a miracle is in our lives. Religious people, all people of faith, hope for miracles. They may or may not happen, and we keep doing everything in our power to get to the other side, but we never give up on that kind of miracle.

The waters that surround us right now do not necessarily have to be crossed quite the same way, but they do have to be crossed. A miracle would be nice, but in the meantime, we know that there are other ways to get across. One way is to walk across a bridge. In fact, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught that the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing, the essential thing, is not to be afraid. Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar m’od, v’haikkar, lo l’fached klal. The world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing, the essential thing, is not to be afraid.

May we continue to walk across the bridge that is our world with the faith that quiets our fears.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782