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Becoming a Judaism that Stands for All: Rosh HaShanah 2018/5779

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

“SAJ is a joyous community of New Yorkers, a Jewish home where everyone’s voice is valued and heard. Imagine a school kids run towards and a synagogue where all can come together for study, social justice, and Shabbat. Ever since SAJ introduced America’s first bat mitzvah in 1922, it has been reconstructing Judaism, questioning tradition and expanding its boundaries to ensure that Torah remains relevant, engaging, and welcoming to all.”

These are the words of SAJ’s new “elevator pitch,” words that explain SAJ to the outside world that are both descriptive and aspirational.

Rosh HaShanah is Hayom HaRat Olam – the day the world is birthed. Tradition teaches us that God spoke Creation into being through words:

“Vayomer Elohim” – And God spoke.

“Yehi Or” “Let there be light.”

“Vayehi Or” “And there was light[1].”

Our tradition instructs: Speech creates our reality[2].

But, if that was all that was necessary to create, the Book of Genesis would have been a lot shorter and less interesting. Creating through speech is just “the beginning.” Once we speak something new into existence, we have to learn how to live that new reality.

In that vein, SAJ has created a new brand identity through the words above and our new tagline: Judaism that Stands for All. We have spoken. We have created through words. Now we must learn to live this new reality. What’s next? What does it mean to be and become Judaism that Stands for All? How will we live this vision?

As Jewish tradition teaches, we look to the past, to our texts and tradition, to guide our present and our future. And when we do, we find that Judaism that Stands for All is not a “new concept” or a modern idea, certainly not just a flip marketing scheme, it is deeply rooted in our sources and tradition. We find that in centering this aspect of our congregational life, we can reclaim a radical, exciting and challenging inheritance, which can invigorate SAJ and Jewish life writ large.

Before going further, I want to point out that SAJ: Judaism that Stands for All can be understood in at least two ways: First, as radical invitation and inclusivity, an approach to Judaism that is “relevant, engaging, and welcoming to all.” Second, “Judaism that Stands for All” signals a commitment to stand for and with all who seek dignity and freedom. Today, I am going to speak about the former--welcoming and including— and on Yom Kippur, I will offer some (shorter) reflections on the aspect of “standing with and for.”

I am going to speak today about three themes that come from Jewish sources, along with contemporary commentaries and stories. First, I am going to speak about “Inviting and Including.” Second, “Thinking Beyond Hospitality & Breaking through Barriers.” Third, “Leaning In, Saying Yes/And.”

My hope is that these teachings enable us to begin a conversation as a community and inspire us as we live into the reality that we have created.

Inviting & Including

Our tradition teaches that everyone stood at Sinai. Yet, there are two distinct models of invitation for this seminal event. The first, which we are most familiar with, follows our Exodus story of redemption from Egypt, when the people receive the torah in the desert. The second ceremony, found in Deuteronomy (and read every Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah), is a re-enactment of the covenant, affirmed by the next generation as they approach the promised land.

In the first, Moses instructs the people to prepare, and when it is time, leads people to the foot of the mountain[3]. The second time, Moses gathers the people by inviting and explicitly naming the entire community, saying: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God–your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which is being established this day…I make this covenant, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day and those who are not with us here this day.”[4]

This covenant is radical for both who is invited and how they are invited.

In terms of the former: We expect the men, the tribal heads, the elders and officials to be at Sinai. The women and children are a welcome surprise! But wait- the stranger. At that time, strangers were non-Israelites who lived among the people. They were not obligated to the mitzvot that God was about to give!   

And why does Moses calls out the woodchopper and water carrier? My understanding is that these are jobs that were assigned to the lowest social classes. Inviting them, he was ensuring that even the most marginalized in society have a place.

And just in case this wasn’t inclusive enough, this covenant stands for all future generations and that includes every single on of us. Everyone in this room and everyone praying across the world today on Rosh HaShanah.

This is Judaism that Stands for All. Everyone is invited. From the most centralized to those who are the most marginalized, you are welcome. Moses knows he has something beautiful and special to offer–laws that will help build a world of justice and righteousness, ways that make living sacred. Knowing he has this gift, he doesn’t limit who can receive it. The people, individually and together, can decide what to do with this revelation- but everyone is invited. It is my hope that we can harness the joyful and open spirit of invitation that Moses models.

Moses’ invitation is powerful not only because of who is invited — also because of how they are invited. Let’s Imagine how it felt to be gathered to the covenant that first time. And then let’s imagine how it would have felt to be gathered that second time. It’s a tremendous difference! In fact, the first covenant is at the center of the feminist critique of Judaism, as women felt excluded based on the text and one their lived experience in Jewish spaces[5]. But that concern is not present in the second covenant. We know that everyone is invited because they have been explicitly named. This harkens back to the idea of creation through speech. When we speak and name an invitation, we create the conditions of belonging.

A story: An interfaith lesbian couple went out to a synagogue on Kol Nidre evening. They arrived- and no one greeted them or even made eye contact with them. They immediately left for a second place on their list. When they arrived at the second synagogue, they quickly realized that people seemed more interested in showing off their clothes than in worship. So, they left, got in a cab and went to a third synagogue. At the third congregation, they were immediately greeted. When the rabbi offered a welcome, she welcomed all, explicitly including those present who were members, those who were not, those who were Jewish from birth, those who were not; those who were straight and those who were gay. In that moment, they felt seen. They had found their spiritual home. Spoiler alert for this Jewish goldilocks story: I was the rabbi and that was my former synagogue, Kol Tzedek.

It’s not enough to say Judaism that Stands for All. We need to get specific and say Judaism that stands for people who are gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, atheists, believers, Jews, fellow travelers, single, married, with children or without children, Jews with all abilities and with different abilities, etc. It’s saying it — and showing it, ensuring that the images that show SAJ bring attention to the fullness and diversity of the Jewish people.

Being explicit in our welcoming is a first step that enables us to engage and affirm the multitude of Jewish identities. Another story: This time from SAJ, and I share with his permission. Recently, I worked with a bar mitzvah student whose mother is Jewish and whose father is Japanese.  I learned, first from his mom and then from him, that he felt conflicted about being Jewish and being Jewish/Japanese. He said to me, “Everywhere I go people tell me that I do not look Jewish.” He didn’t know if he had a place at the table. So, we had several honest conversations about what it means to be a Jew of color. We prepared quick-witted responses he could say to disarm the inevitable “You don’t look Jewish.” We talked about the Reconstructionist approach of an evolving Judaism and mostly we wrestled together.

His bar mitzvah came and was a fabulous event. But I still didn’t know how it all landed. A few months later, this mother reported to me that her child was completely transformed by the experience. At one point, in a conversation about identity, he turned to her and said: “At SAJ, everyone accepts me for who I am. They know that I am Jewish and I am also Japanese and I don’t have to pick between those two. They see me for who I am.”

Speaking aloud our invitation, naming who is in the room opens the doors to belonging.

Beyond “Hospitality,” Breaking through Barriers

When congregations or individuals think about being or becoming welcoming institutions, they often call upon the model of our ancestor Abraham, who was the first to perform the highly praised mitzvah of hachnasat Orchim: welcoming guests[6]. Abraham invites three strangers into his home (later revealed as angels), washes their feet, gives them shade, and with the help of his wife Sarah, generously feeds them a large meal.

The importance of Abraham’s model as gracious host cannot be understated. Welcoming people into the door, inviting folks to our homes are acts that enhance the feeling of community and help guests and new members to feel integrated.

Yet, if we look at the Genesis passage, we see that Abraham’s model transcends traditional “hospitality,” welcoming guests. Abraham’s behavior is exemplary, not just because of his kindness, rather because of his orientation towards those outside his tent. Two times in three lines, the torah mentions that Abraham is standing “petach ha-ohel” — at the opening of the tent. By sitting on that edge, Abraham blurs the traditional boundaries of “inside” and “outside,” of “us” and “them.”

Further, the text tells us that Abraham sat “k-chom hayom” – in the heat of the day (in the middle of the day). Let’s let that image register in our mind’s eye. We can recall how we felt in this summer’s NYC heatwave, which I imagine still doesn’t compare to the desert, when the sun is beating down so intensely. We likely took shelter in air conditioned offices or apartments, understandably, only going out if necessary. Meanwhile, Abraham was on the edge, in the heat. It’s an incredible image!

What might it mean for us to sit “petach ha-ohel,” to sit on the edge, to consider who might be on the outside and to consider how we invite them in? How will we sit “in the heat,” allowing ourselves to be a little uncomfortable as we change some aspects of our congregational culture in order to be more welcoming of those on the outside?

There is a wonderful, evocative story in the Talmud that warns of the consequences when we do not sit on that edge, when we close the doors or erect barriers that prevent people from entering into our holy spaces. It is the origin story of Hillel the optimistic and forward-thinking scholar (and proto-rabbi).[7]

The story goes: When Hillel was younger, he was a day-laborer. He would earn one dinar, half of which he used for his family’s needs and half he used to pay admission to the beit midrash, the house of study. One day, Hillel was not able to find employment and the “bouncer” would not let him enter to study. Hillel was so devoted to learning that he scaled the walls of the building to the roof, sat by the roof window to hear what he could from his teachers, Shmaya and Avtalion

It happened to be that this day was in the middle of the winter-and on a Friday and snow began to fall on him until he was fully covered and within a few hours, completely frozen. At dawn the next day, Shmaya and Avtalion enter into the beit midrash. Realizing the room is still dark when it should be light, they look up to the sky-window and saw that a man is lodged, frozen, on the window of the beit midrash. The two scholars go up to see what is going on bring Hillel down, bath him, lather him in oil, reviving him from his nearly-dead state.

It is highly unlikely that the “frozen Hillel” is historically accurate- but that’s not the point. It’s there to teach us. It’s there to evoke and provoke. Consider the image of the doors that close, of guards that determine who can go in and out. The image of a study hall where the light of the torah cannot penetrate through because someone has been relegated to the outside. The spiritual and physical death that results when we turn someone away from torah.

The story, to me, comes as a warning: be careful of how we close the doors. Be mindful of how we erect boundaries. Consider who we might be leaving outside—it could be someone as holy and inspiring as a Hillel, whose teachings reverberate for generations.

We find out in another place in the Talmud that when Hillel rises to leadership, he eliminates the entrance fee. Having been shut out, he does not want anyone to have this same experience.

I want to note that SAJ opens many doors that are traditionally shut: Adult learning is free or low cost. Our children’s program welcomes children with varied needs. Financial aid is made readily available, and I believe we are one of the few congregations in Manhattan that includes as equals those who like Hillel cannot afford to pay the entrance fee and those who can. We should continue to explore being accessible in these ways.

And there are other areas to explore: i.e. accessibility for people with disabilities. This is an opportunity for me/us to do some teshuvah: our wheelchair lift is not fixed in time for Rosh HaShanah. It is being addressed — but it is a great opportunity for us to consider how sometimes we miss the mark even with the right intentions? Is our language welcoming for our transgender and non-conforming members, youth and adults?

There are both external and internal barriers to be addressed for us to ensure we do not close those doors. By which, I mean our assumptions about what a Jewish person looks like or what a Jewish family looks like.

A friend of mine, who is Jewish and African-American, shared about her shul shopping experience with me. As she went from place to place, the amount of welcoming varied as per the synagogue culture. But even in the most welcoming environments, she noticed that she was not treated in the same way as other guests who arrived. When she walked into synagogues, she noticed the usher never offered her a tallit — whereas the person ahead of her or behind her, who were white, were offered one. When there was a bar or bat mitzvah, she was often assumed to be a guest of the b’nei mitzvah family instead of a shul-shopper.

And at not a small number of places, she was asked questions one should never be asked in shul (no matter how long they have been there): Are you Jewish? Did you convert? This happened in synagogues of all denominations (and with congregations who claimed to be oriented towards social justice.)

It reminds us that we all have blind spots, which are a natural human phenomenon and a product of living in a world that privileges certain identities over others. And as we seek to move beyond hospitality and to break down the barriers, we need to sit on the edge and in the heat, by challenging unconscious assumptions. This work, as stated in the Reform Movement’s Radical Hospitality Toolkit, will help us “embrace the fullness of our diversity which would help us to foster a deep and enduring sense of belonging for all Jews.”

Lean in and Say Yes

Many of us are familiar with the story of Hillel[8] and the convert, when a proselyte approaches Shammai and then Hillel, asking them to teach him all of torah while standing on one foot. What many do not know is that the story of this convert is one of three consecutive stories about potential converts who come to Shammai first, only to find rejection and then come to Hillel, to find acceptance. Each circumstance is more outlandish than the next.

The first potential convert is a man who accepts the written torah and not the oral law, the interpretations of the text that guide Jewish practice and belief. The man makes the audacious ask to be converted to Judaism while only learning the written five books of Moses. This is an absurd and impossible ask- as all our practices of prayer, Shabbat, and the like are contingent on the interpretations of our rabbis! Shammai berates him and the man storms out. Without conditions, Hillel converts him. The story continues, saying that after the conversion, Hillel teaches him the importance of rabbinic interpretation of the text and began to instruct him in the oral torah.

The second story is the one many of us are familiar with. A different seeker comes to Shammai and says, “I will convert IF you teach me the the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai pushed the man with a ruler that was in his hand. The same person came before Hillel with the same outrageous, entitled demand. Hillel says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor–that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

The third story brings the ridiculousness to another level. This potential convert has just overheard a scribe describing the beautiful garments of the high priest, as described in the torah. He says to himself, “I want to convert so that I can become to the High Priest.”

This man comes before Shammai and says: “Convert me on the condition that you will make me the High Priest.” Shammai got out that ruler again — and you know what comes next! Hillel — without hesitation, converted him. After the conversion, Hillel teaches him the laws of kingship. In studying those laws, this new Jew realizes he is not eligible — and that entering into the holy of holies is in fact something that might hasten his death. After realizing this, he thanks Hillel for saving his life! He is no longer aspiring to be in the holy of holies as the high priest but he is now fully inside the Jewish tent.

Louis Reiser in his book on Hillel[9] argues that each of these three men approaching Hillel and Shammai propose a particular threat to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism (a disbelief in the oral law; a lack of interest in learning; a concern for status). Shammai feels the fear and is threatened; he sends them away. Hillel, on the other hand, refuses to be threatened. In each, Shammai says no. Hillel says “Yes/And.”

In this way, Hillel teaches us that we don’t need to be afraid of challenging new paradigms or ideas. Instead we should trust in the power of tradition and community, welcome first, and figure out the details later. This is not to say we should advocate for no standards and no boundaries. But we must ask: can we say “Yes /And” more often?

Twenty years ago, most Jewish communities were afraid to welcome interfaith families into the Jewish fold. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements took a Hillel stance instead of a Shammai one — opting to welcome in families who wanted to throw their lots in with the Jewish people. Years later, children of interfaith families are enrolled in rabbinical school and serve as presidents of their congregations. Partners of another faith/no faith serving on school committees and boards and contributing positively to the future of the jewish people.

At SAJ, partners of other faiths/no faiths lead tishes for their children’s b’nai mitzvah; are chairs or members of of committees, attend services and synagogue retreats. The Hillel model of embracing new paradigms has enriched innumerable Jewish communities around the country, including our own.

There are other situations in which a “Yes/And” can make all the difference. Pam Schuller, a professional Jewish educator and also a stand-up comedian, shares her story on an ELI Talk (a Jewish “TED” talk). Pam speaks of her experience as a person with Turrets syndrome, a neurological condition that causes a person to blurt out words without the control or awareness of what the person is saying. Her case was very intense, and when she was in 8th grade, her synagogue—feeling the discomfort– kicked her and her family out. She was rejected by her Jewish community at the time when she most needed a safe and secure spiritual home.

She articulates that she would not have continued to identify as a Jew were in not for a Jewish summer camp that took a risk and hired her as a counselor. At that time, her turrets still caused her to blurt out inappropriate words at inappropriate times — including “the f word.”

The camp was aware of this when they hired her; they worked with her towards solutions. The very first day of camp, Pam sat with all her campers and co-counselors and explained her turrets as what made her “her” and what made her unique– and asked the campers to share what made each of them different/special. And, when the turrets took over, the camp got creative. Whenever she would blurt out the “f word” — the counselors would say out in unison “is a bad word.”

They transformed what could be a liability into a teaching tool and spiritual lesson. As Pam describes, the camp’s ability to “yes/and” saved her soul and brought her back into Judaism.

As we learn how to live into our new reality as Judaism that Stands for All, let’s remember Hillel’s courage and Pam’s story and find more and more ways to say “Yes/And.” Yes, join us. We will figure out the details later. Yes, let’s find a way to turn a challenge into a blessing.

****

Return to the words that i spoke and that we spoke into existence: “SAJ is a joyous community of New Yorkers, a Jewish home where everyone’s voice is valued and heard. Imagine a school kids run towards and a synagogue where all can come together for study, social justice, and Shabbat. Ever since SAJ introduced America’s first bat mitzvah in 1922, it has been reconstructing Judaism, questioning tradition and expanding its boundaries to ensure that Torah remains relevant, engaging, and welcoming to all.”

SAJ: Judaism that Stands for All is not a marketing gimmick, it’s not a 21st century approach to address modern concerns. It is a deeply rooted way of manifesting our highest values and beliefs.  It is a vision that has the power to invigorate us and the broader Jewish community and future. Through it, we reclaim a strain in Jewish tradition that at times has been too quiet or has been silenced that instructs: we have something wonderful to share, let’s invite anyone who would like to join inside. Let’s sit on the edges and pay attention to those who find themselves on the outside. Let’s challenge our preconceived notions. Let’s lean in and say YES/AND.

We have created through speech. Now is the work. We learn to live it. Not just today or tomorrow but as an ongoing, spiritual practice of reflection and renewal, of invitation and growth.

Shana Tova Umetukah.


[1] Genesis 1:3

[2] This is well documented in many sources. See for example the Baruch She-amar Prayer, “Blessed is the One who Spoke and the world came to be.”

[3] See Exodus 19

[4] See Deuteronomy 29

[5] See Standing Again at Sinai, by Judith Plaskow

[6] Genesis 18:1-8

[7] B.T. Yoma 35a-b

[8] B.T. Shabbat 31a

[9] The Hillel Narratives: What the Tales of the First Rabbi Can Teach Us about Our Judaism

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