- Posted by Matt Soffer
- On November 15, 2016
- 1 Comments
As many of you know, the history of our congregation has been written beautifully by Susan Porter, Lisa Davis, and Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan, in their work entitled Becoming American Jews. It’s a book you can judge by its title. It tells our story; it reminds us that when we say “our story,” we are not talking about a singular moment; we’re talking about our narrative across time.
Our Torah self-consciously speaks to many generations, it yearns to be told and transmitted. Our Rabbis made this explicit, in their interpretation of what happened at Mt. Sinai—when we became a “we.” They said that all generations, past, present, future were present for the establishment of the Covenant at Sinai, a covenant that we still affirm.
Usually, we interpret this notion that we were all standing at Sinai to mean that no matter where you come from, you were there back then as much as anyone. That can be very validating, especially for Jews-by-choice. But sometimes telling our students that they were actually at Mt. Sinai back then is a tough sell. And I think we can understand why.
It would be like when I first arrived at Temple Israel in 2009, you all calling me up to the bima and telling me that I now get full “fan credit” for the 2004 World Series victory. That’s very nice of you, I’m proud to be a part of the story of this city, but… in 2004, I was in New York City….
But there’s another way of looking at it entirely. It doesn’t have to credit us for being in the past. It also can mean that the past is in the present. That we are, now or at some point in our lives, standing at Sinai. For some, this might be easier to grasp – easier to see that yesterday belongs to today, rather than the other way around; easier to comprehend the idea of ourselves holding the past here with us than it is it is to digest the idea that we belong to the past. Perhaps this is really about the difference between Prophecy (projecting the future into the present) and Memory (embracing the past as a part of the present). And perhaps this is why the Rabbis declared the age of Prophecy over, and instead focused all of their attention on creating a way of life devoted to Memory. Memory is how we carry our story in our hearts, internalizing it so we may live a life that blesses the future.
We are a storied congregation. The book Becoming American Jews wasn’t the first book on the history of Temple Israel. I was recently reading one written by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, Rabbi Zecher’s predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor. Gittelsohn tells our story with a focus on rabbis. He defines the community largely based on their reactions to rabbinic viewpoints, often expressed in the form of sermons. While this telling of our history is not void of merit, what has become abundantly clear about this moment in our history, is that today the pulpit is lower.
For instance, on Friday nights we pray in the Levi Auditorium. Consider our majestic sanctuary; focus on our beautiful ark, a heartfelt gift from generations passed to us. The ark conveys the majesty of ascent, the glory or Mount Sinai. Light emanates from its zenith, and the rabbi plays “Moses,” climbing up or down— perhaps on some occasions having tablets in hand. Meanwhile, you dwell at the foot of Sinai.
It sure is one way to convey to a community that they stand at Sinai today. But that artistic representation does not invoke the widespread awe it once did— or if it does, it’s not what you, collectively, want to hear, to see, to experience as you enter Shabbat. This “aesthetic preference” is affirmed by all major recent studies on religious life in America. Robert Putnam’s American Grace lays it out quite clearly. Putnam summarized his view when speaking to hundreds of Reform Rabbis, pleading with us, for the sake of our own success to care less about the sermon and more about the supper.
The sermon is not what it was, and it has to change. This is why I initiated our podcast, Pulpit on the Common, which we hope to find the funding to revitalize in the coming months. This is why we blog and tweet and text, why we organize and converse. And this is why, perhaps, I’ve spoken this long without telling you my thoughts on this election. But, to be sure, the Jewish perspective on this week’s outcome has everything to do with our story, with Memory, with Becoming American Jews.
In this age, which demands a lower pulpit, it is easier to identify what a highly educated and informed community does not need to hear than what our community does need to hear. I actually made a list of the 5 messages, which, I suspect, this community, this week, does not need to hear…. Okay, fine, I’ll share it to you.
- Our Torah portion this week is called, “Lech L’cha,” meaning “go forth.” God tells Abraham to gather his stuff and have faith that the future will hold Promise. We don’t need that sermon this Shabbat, even if there’s truth in it.
- A slicing and dicing of the election, including a close analysis of demographic voting data. We could “go there,” and as citizens we should go there. But Shabbat has to mean something for us—a separation, a different set of ideas on which to meditate.
- Everything is going to be okay. First of all, I don’t know what that means. Second, Temple Israel has never been a community that in dark times chooses a calming illusion over the sober reality.
- Our country is so deeply divided, prime conditions for hatred to spread. We know this. I heard it loud and clear when I posted a blog on my post-election conversation with my son, and the comment stream was spewing with hatred (thankfully the Times of Israel blogging editor censored the hatred). We all have our own experiences, we don’t need that sermon this Shabbat.
- The language of this campaign season—the hatred and xenophobia, the threats of expulsion— inflames the wounds of our historical oppression. We have spoken that sermon, and, I think we all know, you will hear it plenty more in the days ahead. Not this week.
Instead of spending the week behind closed doors in a room, crafting some kind of message from Sinai, I (along with my clergy colleagues) have spent this week in conversation, listening, singing, and praying. The pulpit and the pews have been together.
So here is another list—5 messages I heard this week, from you, our community, sometimes through tears. 5 messages this community has been sending, receiving, and feeling from one another, regardless of which candidate you supported (and I mean that – I’m not just paying non-partisan lip-service).
- Whatever it is we feel— pain, grief, numbness, alienation— we have to allow ourselves the time and space to feel it. We have to give each other that space, being, as the Rabbis said, “as gentle as a reed.”
- We would be guilty of negligence were we not to draw from the Memory of our people. We need to know our story, including perhaps chapters we haven’t paid much attention to in recent years or decades.
- The most vulnerable among us— racial and ethnic minorities, immigrant communities, the LGBTQ community, and those with sexual trauma histories— are now in greater need of love, compassion, and shelter than any time in recent memory. If we are only for ourselves, what are we? If not now, when?
- The story of Temple Israel, as our elders in this room know and have lived through, has exemplified how anger infused with love— not rage, and not vilification of the other, but anger infused with love– is our most fuel-efficient vehicle for justice, equity, and lovingkindness.
- This message I heard as vocally as any other: We are here for a reason. We, Temple Israel of Boston, have a purpose, a mission. We are here to live Judaism together through discovery, dynamic spirituality, and righteous impact.
The story of Becoming American Jews is published but not complete, it’s written but not sealed. We are still becoming American Jews. We are still standing at Sinai. And together, hand in hand, step by step, deed by deed, we are going to do our job.
I wrote these words, inspired by a conversation with my beloved colleague Rabbi Suzie Schwartz Jacobson:
“Living with I Don’t Know”
Inhaling dense, stuffy air, with molecules of I-don’t-know-what,
Still I tell myself to fill my lungs with it.
Healers swear that the oxygen will ease whatever parts of the body hurt
— bones or bowels, hands or heart.
Waiting impatiently for the next message of I-don’t-know-what,
Still I shove screens close to my sore eyes,
App after app, flipping through feeds
— as if scouring through a frantic crowd for a lost friend.
Moving—no, being pushed— into a day of I-don’t-know-what,
Still I reach out my hand, a tired gesture of mere muscle memory.
And suddenly I feel your hand
— your fingers firmly intertwining mine.
And on a day of I-don’t-know-what,
I don’t know why, but I am soothed by two simple truths:
I know who you are.
I know who I am.
For now, my friend, that will have to be enough.