The State of Israel, and indeed the entire Jewish world, lost one of its greatest and most prolific Torah scholars two weeks ago with the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, of blessed memory. Universally recognized, both within his own Sephardic world and the Ashkenazi world as well, as being among the greatest poskim, or adjudicators of Jewish law, of the modern era, Rabbi Yosef left behind a body of work that will be respected and studied for as long as Jews learn Torah. There is no way to overstate his significance as a scholar.
In advance of last week’s Biennial Convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Baltimore, I attended a pre-convention Shabbaton- a kind of optional add-on for those who were inclined. (My wife had intended to come, but sadly, Amtrakhad other plans). As President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I thought it was an important opportunity to “reach across the aisle,” if you will, and spend Shabbat with my friends and colleagues in the synagogue arm of the Conservative movement.
Since its release just a few short weeks ago, the Pew Research Center’s survey and report on the state of American Judaism has stimulated an almost frantic conversation on where we are as a Jewish community, and where we might be headed.
Woody Allen used to say that telling jokes to an audience that’s drunk or stoned guarantees you nothing more than cheap laughs. Anything will be funny to those people, because they’re “under the influence.” Their judgment is impaired.
Of the roughly one thousand rabbis of all denominations who were on a conference call with President Obama shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I would imagine that most- myself included- addressed in a High Holiday sermon the subject that had been a central focus of the call. It was, of course, Syria, and its recent, horrifying use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. It is what is front and center on everyone’s mind these days, obviously not only within the Jewish community. To ignore it would be to ignore the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the living room- or, more accurately, in our synagogues.
There was never a question in my mind that one of my sermons would have to be focused on the Syrian issue, but like many rabbis, I’m sure, I had two issues of concern.
The first was that I was reluctant to write it too far in advance. I still remember how many of us in the rabbinate had our High Holiday sermons completely subverted by the famous handshake of the late Prime Minister Rabin, of blessed memory, and Yassir Arafat, on the South Lawn of the White House announcing the Oslo Accord in September of 1995. No one had a clue that that was coming, and then, right before Rosh Hashanah, we were all thrown into “re-write mode.” Before President Obama decided to seek congressional approval for a military response to Syria, it appeared quite likely that an American attack against Syrian targets was imminent. Why write a sermon that was, as likely as not, destined to become old news? “We won’t be fooled again,” I thought to myself smugly, channeling The Who.
I’ve always loved the story in First Kings about Elijah and his triumph over the priests of Baal. Like so much of the literature of the Early Prophets, this episode reads like an action adventure novel. The Israelite prophets waged a long and taxing battle against the powerful allure of the indigenous Canaanite cultic life that the Israelites discovered when they conquered the land. Elijah’s victory was a great moment in that struggle.
Spiritually, the appearance of God to Elijah in a kol d’mammah dakkah– a still, small voice– is particularly rich. After all the sturm und drang of the story itself, the fact that God’s “voice,” as it were, became audible to Elijah is the quietest of ways, as opposed to via the loudness of the natural events that preceded the revelation, has always been meaningful to me. God is in the quiet as much as the noise… maybe more.
Since being posted to a United States Marine battalion in Okinawa almost two years ago, my son-in-law, Rabbi Yonatan Warren, a lieutenant in the United States Navy Chaplaincy Corp, has worked hard–- along with my daughter Leora -– to build a community of meaning for the Jewish personnel in Okinawa and its surroundings, as well as for all those men and women who might need his counseling and services.
That I spend a lot of time thinking about community should hardly come as a surprise, since being a congregational rabbi is all about fostering a sense of community. I want the members of my congregation to feel that their synagogue is a second home for them. And, of course, the synagogue itself needs to relate to the larger community as a whole.
When all is said and done, this is my work– my professional responsibility. Yes, of course I teach, and preach, officiate at weddings and funerals, and do all the other things that pulpit rabbis do. That, too, is my work. But it all flows from a larger sense of “belonging” that hopefully is what binds my members to our particular synagogue setting.
Although those who daven (pray) regularly rarely think of it in these terms because they take it so for granted, music plays an irreducibly crucial role in Jewish prayer
On the most basic level, if the proper nusach, or musical mode, is being used by a Hazzan or other prayer leader, a knowledgeable Jew will, immediately upon entering a synagogue prayer service, be able to tell whether it is a Shabbat, holiday, or weekday, or, for that matter, one of the High Holidays. The words that make up our prayer book are not “said,” per se, but chanted, according to traditional customs and melodies that often date back thousands of years.