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Judaism, Torah and Meaning while Standing on One Foot

Rosh HaShanah Day 1, 5776, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Early in my career, a woman – in her mid 20s asked for a meeting.  This was highly typical – I encountered a lot of young Jewish people through my former synagogue that were seeking to find a way back into Judaism on their own terms.  I gladly set up a meeting for the following week, anticipating that we might talk about any number of topics, like revisiting her childhood Jewish identity, politics, or interfaith relationships. 

When we sat together, she turned to me and said something I will never forget.  She said: “Rabbi, I grew up Jewish but I don’t really have much of a connection.  I have some friends who are really active in their church, and I have gone a few times and I really like it.  Before I get further involved in Christianity, I figured I should think more about my Jewish identity.  Rabbi: why do you think I should stay Jewish? 

I felt like I was living a modern version of the famous Hillel –Shammai story which describes what happened when a man (in that case, someone not raised Jewish) came to Shammai and Hillel and asked one at a time: “Tell me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”  Upon hearing this request, Shammai, often the stricter and harsher of the two, sent him away, claiming the task was impossible.  How can I reduce the whole torah in just a few seconds or a minute?  On the other hand, when Hillel heard the question, he answered the seeker: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor: the rest is commentary- go and learn.” 

In my version, which makes sense given our modern context, the request was: “Tell me why Judaism is meaningful and should be part of my life before I abandon it altogether” while standing on one foot – or more precisely while drinking this one cup of coffee. 

I almost gave a Shammai answer, without even meaning to.  I was a bit stunned by her question and had just a hard time wrapping my mind around how to start and what to say, that I didn’t say much at all.  Not my best rabbinic moment!  In the end, I salvaged it a bit by sharing a few nice things about Judaism being more than just a religion but a people and a culture.  And though not as coherent as the sage Hillel, I did exhort her to “go and learn” – to explore Judaism herself before making a decision to lead the fold.

Years later, I reflect a lot on that exchange and play it over in my mind, contemplating this missed opportunity to share my passion in a thoughtful and direct way.  This early “test” of my rabbinate forced me to grow.  I learned that I needed to clarify my own thoughts and values so I could more meaningfully share them with others.   Through this process, I began to identify Jewish texts and traditions that inform and inspire my vision of Judaism and have been great jumping off points for conversations of meaning.   

This Rosh HaShanah, I am keenly aware that we – you, SAJ, and me – are starting a new relationship.  Welcoming a new rabbi is a tremendous change for a synagogue, and it brings feelings of loss and excitement, nervousness and anticipation.  Becoming the rabbi at a new congregation and one that has such established history and customs is a tremendous change for me as well.  It is so important to me to get to know you – SAJ in general and the people that make up SAJ in particular. 

And, it is important for you to get to know me, not simply to understand my background and accomplishments, but to know what drives me as a person and as a rabbi. Today, I want to give you a window into what has me wake up every day excited to serve the Jewish people and to build for the Jewish future. 

For this reason, today, I share with you some of those core texts and teachings that if I had to do over again, I hope I would have shared with that young woman in the coffee shop.  Thankfully, you don’t have to be standing on one foot while I do it.  Maybe not so thankfully, there is no coffee involved. 

Before I jump in with the teachings, I want to add two things.  The first, a disclaimer: there are numerous, varied texts that inspire and challenge me; today, I am choosing three.  God willing, over time, I will teach many others, on holidays or through classes, and you will see other aspects of my understanding of Judaism and my theology. 

The second, an invitation: I want to invite you to think about what might have been your answer to that young woman’s question and what texts or stories speak to your Jewish identity and aspirations.  I would love you to share them with me – over the holidays, over an upcoming Shabbat Kiddush, or really anytime over the course of the year.  And if you cannot think of one, I am interested in hearing that too. 

The first text comes from the Passover Hagaddah:  Bchol Dor Vador Hayav Adam Lirot et Atsmo K’ilu Hu Yatza Mimitzyrayim.  In every generation, a person should see himself or herself as if he or she personally went out of Egypt

The yearly Passover seder is an experiential ritual designed to teach the story of Exodus and the possibility of redemption to the subsequent generation.  Instead of simply talking about or praying about freedom, our ancestors designed the seder, which engages all of our senses in the learning. 

Dr. Devorah Steinmatz, a contemporary scholar, points out that the very design of the seder reveals the rabbis’ intention to bring us closer to identification with the Exodus narrative.  She points out that at the beginning of the seder we say “Avadim Hayinu,” “We WERE slaves in Egypt,” pointing to a historical set of circumstances that existed in the past, but at the end of our maggid, our telling, we have shifted and now can say: “Every person should see themselves as if he/she personally went out of Egypt.”  She writes, “As we culminate maggid, we make a bold statement: the story of enslavement and redemption is-has become-our story. It is no longer our nation’s history, something that we must remember; it is our own story, something that happened to us, something that continues to happen to us, an experience that we live and relive and that lives with us.

I feel deep in my core that this story of liberation is my story and it is a story that lives in me.  In many ways, it is the foundation stone of my Jewish identity and my commitment to social justice.

This was not necessarily obviously true given my upbringing.  I grew up in a strongly identified but primarily cultural Jewish household.  Judaism was mostly manifested through food and movies: bagels and lox in particular, with some gefilte fish and matzah ball soup thrown in for special times; and Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.  I am thankful for my parents’ cultural Judaism and credit it with appreciation for humor and sense of Jewish pride.  But that background didn’t give me any spiritual grounding or connection to the Jewish generations that came before me. 

We did celebrate Passover, with a very abbreviated seder and big family meal.   From a young age, I loved this holiday and anticipated its arrival with enthusiasm.  Even though my parents did not keep kosher for Passover in any way, shape, and form, I would try to box up our cereals and cookies and crackers before the holiday.  My parents would swiftly unpack them.

By the time I was 10 years old, I was co-leading the family seder with my father, still using our old fashioned hagaddah with the “thous” and the capital “Hes.” Though I attempted to bring contemporary conversation and application into the ritual, I was overrun by my cousins, aunts, uncles who groaned, “Since when is seder so long?”  “When do we eat?!”

Despite the apathy and at times blatant aggression of my immediate and extended family, my love of this ritual and this story could not be diminished.  Even though I was a suburban middle-class child whose life centered around school and extra curricular activities who had never experienced a day’s worth of hard physical labor, I felt in my kishkes that I was a part of this story. 

This foundational Jewish myth provided (and provides) me with a strong sense of belonging to a people whose history extended generations before me and would continue for generations after me.  I feel that my life matters, not only because of who I am but because of this amazing project and people that I am part of.

Most significantly, thinking of my people as redeemed slaves sensitized me to oppression in the world and implanted in me a commitment to fight for freedom and justice.  Later, when I learned about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, this story became even more real – being a part of a group that had been historically oppressed fueled my desire to work towards a day when no one will know the chains of slavery or the confines of exploitation again. 

As I grew older, I learned how to make this passion manifest in the fight for equality and dignity for those who lack it.  This is the narrative that inspired me to join with a diverse group of clergy and work toward racial and economic justice and equal access to education in Philadelphia; this is the story that inspires me to stand up for marriage equality and LGBTQ rights; this is the story that inspired me to travel to Florida to learn from the tomato farmers who are transforming an industry and improving their working conditions.  This story has me excited to get involved with issues of importance to my newly adopted city of New York. 

As Devorah Steinmatz said about the function of the seder, this story has–become my story.  It lives in me as a sense of who I am and it lives in me as a way I see my place in this world and my role in working toward a more free, just society.

The second text I want to share comes from the Talmud.  In the tractate (or book) focused on the laws of marriage, the rabbis teach: if a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet, the people at the funeral make way so the wedding procession can proceed first.    

In many ways, this excerpt from the Talmud was not necessarily intended as a “teaching,” rather it was a simple halakhic – or legal– ruling.  The ancient rabbis anticipated theoretical and hypothetical situations so if the situation were to arise, they would know the proper course of action.  Yet, I find this side-comment in the torah to be one of the most profound statements about Judaism.

Let’s consider first the very fact that there is a debate in the first place.  In some cultures or traditions, it would be obvious that either the funeral procession OR the wedding procession would proceed.  But in Judaism, it’s not as clear.  That is because in Jewish tradition, we honor both grief and joy so deeply and so wholly.  Judaism, through prescribed rituals and traditions, helps us carve out space for grief and loss in a compassionate and authentic way. 

I once worked with a young woman for conversion who when asked why she wanted to become Jewish answered with one simple word: Yizkor.  She had lost her sister in a tragic circumstance just a few years earlier and never felt she was given permission to grieve.  Her religious leaders spoke of this tragic death as a “homecoming” and while her mother found comfort in the idea that the family would be reunited in the afterlife, she did not.  She wanted to grieve. She wanted to be able to cry and scream about how unfair it was that her sister barely twenty years old was no longer and would no longer be.  And she wanted a way to be able to do this beyond just the first few days or weeks after her loss. 

She needed anchors – and she discovered them in Judaism.  The tradition of yartzeit, the yearly remembrance, and the four times a year opportunity for yizkor – these were moments when she could honestly, completely and without question feel and experience her grief. 

Even as Judaism honors grief and loss, the Talmudic passage about the potential collision of the funeral and wedding, the rabbis choose the wedding processional.  It strikes me as very emblematic of Judaism’s approach to life: yes, we recognize both sadness and joy, but ultimately we “tip our hat” towards joy. 

In my childhood, I didn’t get the “Judaism is joyful” memo.   I am guessing that many of you didn’t get that memo either!  The synagogue of my youth was austere; the teachers mostly frowned and made an example of bad behavior.  I went three days a week and apart from Hebrew and some basics about the patriarchs, the primary focus was on the collective losses of the Jewish people. 

From my formal Jewish education, I would never have described Judaism as fun or joyful or life-affirming.  This would change a few years later when I became involved in Jewish youth group as a sophomore in high school.  Early in high school, my mom wisely persuaded me to try a Jewish youth group and sent me to a shabbaton through NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth movement.  Though twenty-five years have passed, I vividly remember walking in to my first weekend.  There were groups of teens huddled in one corner, passionately debate a current events topic; others in another corner playing guitars and singing folk songs.  Everyone seemed so happy and genuinely excited about being Jewish.  By the first evening prayer service, I was hooked. 

In youth group, I learned to pray with my full, loud, and off-key voice and to channel my inner longing into the words of the prayerbook.  I learned that Judaism encouraged me to ask questions and that my thoughts mattered.  I learned to dance traditional Israeli dances until my feet hurt.   

What I took away from my years in Jewish youth group was that being Jewish was exciting and joyful. And this is as even more true for me today as it was when I was sixteen.   

The joy I feel in being Jewish and doing Jewish relates back to the original text about the wedding and the funeral.  A wedding represents the potential of new life; the funeral is about a life that was.  While we honor the dead, in Judaism, life is sacred.  This is manifest in the very fact that the prayer for those who died, the mourner’s kaddish, is actually an affirmation of life itself.  This is seen through Jewish tradition’s focus on olam hazeh, this world, over olam habah- the world to come.  Life, Judaism tells us, is something to be honored, cherished, appreciated and celebrated.   

The third and last teaching is from Rav Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine in the early 20th century, who taught: “The old shall be new and the new shall be holy”

Rav Kook was a great thinker of Judaism- strictly orthodox yet someone who embraced the whole Jewish people, even those who did not subscribe to his understanding of Jewish law.  As a rabbi in a newly modern world, he knew that it was upon us to both make the ancient rituals and traditions sing and to be innovative in our approach.  His teaching reflects for me the importance of living Jewishly and seeking holiness along a spiritual path.   

When I was in college, I became involved with Hillel.  I quickly found myself forming friendships with a diverse group of Jews including self-identified secular, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews.  I began going to services more often and (pause) even on Saturdays!   I became exposed to things like cholent (a food made specially for Shabbat in some Jewish communities), the long birkat hamazon –blessing after meals–, and shabbos table songs.  Being around more observant Jews inspired me to question my own practice- or, more accurately, lack thereof.  Why hadn’t I ever considered keeping kosher or practicing Shabbat in a more formal way? 

After not finding any good excuses, I decided to “try on” keeping kosher after a lifetime of eating shellfish and combining milk and meat.  I had no idea that my life would be changed forever.  Everything about keeping kosher worked for me – I loved having a spiritual discipline; I appreciated the constant reminder that I was Jewish; I loved being able to bring spiritual awareness to a mundane event, several times a day.

Soon, I began to take on increased Shabbat observance, trying on different aspects and negotiating, over time, a practice. This process was incredibly transformative.  I felt more restful, more spiritually filled, more connected to community and to the Divine. 

While the exact contours of my practice have varied at different times and stages in my life, the idea of taking a day apart to mark different and holy, as a time for rest and renewal, has stayed constant.  Shabbat has been, for me, a lifeline in a busy and over-programmed life.   

Becoming a parent has gifted me with greater appreciation of ritual and practice.  Shabbat is the anchor that binds our family together; it forces us to spend time with each other instead of being distracted by other things.  Keeping kosher was no longer an individual act, rather a values decision that I made for my family.  Saying traditional Jewish prayers for bedtime has given structure and comfort to my children.  I know because if we forget or skip a prayer, they will not let us go to sleep until we have recited it. 

Rav Kook also said, “make the new holy.”  There are also new interpretations and rituals being created everyday, a flowering of great creativity in the contemporary Jewish community.  Holiness is not something that was defined exclusively for us 3000 years ago; it’s not a static category.  We have the potential to lift up the new and make it holy.         

I understand that not every ritual or practice will resonate for every person.  That is certainly true for me as well.  And I appreciate that we all may make different choices in terms of observance.  But in my opinion, we do not need to go very far to find beautiful treasures in our tradition that can help us be better people and make our lives more whole. I know this continues to be true for me. 

At SAJ, on most Shabbats, we have the “open microphone.”  I, as rabbis before me have, share thoughts on the torah portion or holiday.  And then I would open up the “floor” to those who want to speak.  The particular circumstances of Rosh HaShanah do not enable us to do this lovely tradition. 

Nevertheless, I would like you to consider the microphone open — for the rest of the year and beyond.  I have shared some of the torah that is most precious and dear to my heart; some of what defines me as a human being and as a Jew. I would love nothing more than to hear from you. What Jewish teachings particularly speak to you?  What keeps you here, keeps you coming back year after year when there are plenty of other places you could be?  What would your answer be to the young 20 something year old who asked me on one foot to keep her in the fold? 

As I mentioned earlier, if you have no answers or you are not at all sure- or maybe you feel to some degree like that 20 something year old, I would love to hear that too.  Perhaps we can sip a latte together and talk about the meaning of life and if and how Judaism plays a role in it or about your struggles and questions.

I am so excited to share torah with you – and to learn from you –in this journey that we are embarking on together. 

Shana Tova! 

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