For far too many of us, the need to work-work-work has seeped deep into our souls. We have homes were too busy to enjoy, marriages were too busy to celebrate, and children and friends were too busy to listen to.
And then comes Shabbat, and we find a measure of stillness and peace. For a short while, we recover the lost harmonies of the Garden of Eden.
On this Biennial Shabbat, we are a bit more somber than at Biennials past. Our world has been shaken by economic cataclysm. Captains of industry and finance have failed us, and millions of people often the least among us have paid the price. Our congregations have struggled mightily to sustain themselves, as have the institutions of our Movement.
The good news, as I said on Wednesday night, is that our synagogues have moved aggressively to meet this challenge. In the 1930s, we were slow to act. This time, our congregations have responded quickly, making the hard decisions that these times require. Our Union and seminary have done the same, reducing budgets while working on a new vision for our Movements future.
Most important, though, is what our synagogues have done to strengthen the morale of our members and speak to the fears of their heart. They have sent the message that the value of things is not the same as their price. They have reminded us that as an ancient people, whatever we are going through, we have been there before. They have offered a spiritual home for all Jews rich and poor, employed or not who enter their gates. The result is that Reform congregations and the Reform Movement will emerge from these difficult times stronger than they have ever been. And this too: the major institutions of our Movement are working in unity as never before. Because we know this simple truth: If we are not only to survive but to thrive, we must join in partnership and sing together unto God.
It has been 30 years since our Biennial was held in Toronto, and we return to this beautiful city with delight. I am grateful to the Reform congregations here for the warmth of their hospitality. As for the Reform community of Canada, it continues to have extraordinary influence in the councils of our Movement and to grow in strength and dedication. It is known and admired for its commitment to Jewish education, to Zionism, and to a traditional view of Reform Jewish practice. Maurice Eisendrath, zichrono livracha, the builder of our modern Union, emerged from its ranks, as did Gunther Plaut, long our preeminent scholar of Torah; both men saw Toronto as their communal home and served as rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple.
We Americans, it needs to be said, do not know Canada as well as we should. Who would deny that all Americans, Reform Jews included, can be terribly parochial? We dont learn languages and know too little of the world, including our closest neighbors. I have a question for the Americans sitting in this congregation: How many of you can name the last three Prime Ministers of Canada?
Well, we Americans need to do better. The Canadian political system is far from perfect, but remember this: it has well-regulated banks; tough gun control laws; legalized marriage for gays; and an excellent, publicly-run health service all matters of importance to Reform Jews and worthy of emulation by the United States.
So we thank our Canadian synagogues again for their gracious welcome. Let us, Canadians and Americans, deepen our conversation and our mutual understanding, and this Movement that we have shaped together will only grow in strength.
As our Torah portion for this Shabbat begins, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent. Only three days before, at age 99, he had been circumcised. And what is his very first act as a Jew? He invites wayfarers to a meal.
Remember: Abraham was an old man, sick, in pain. But he does not give in to illness, the desert heat, or limitations of age. Instead, he offers his guests the finest foods, and presides himself over the serving.
All of this might be incidental to later events, but I dont think so. There is a message here. Jewish history begins with a Jew a new Jew, the first Jew saying to others: come, eat with me. And ever since this first Jewish meal, Jews have believed that eating matters.
We know, of course, that eating is a biological necessity; but, beginning with Abraham, Jews have seen eating as more than a mechanical act. We are heirs of a tradition that makes a distinction between food and nourishment, between refueling the body and replenishing body and soul. We understand the physicality of eating, but, at the same time, we work very hard to transcend and transform it.
Not all cultures believe that this is desirable or even possible. For the ancient Greeks, eating meant indulging in hedonistic pleasures. But we Jews sanctify and elevate. Rabbenu Bahya b. Asher reminded us that people who eat indiscriminately are no better than animals. My mother, when I was a child and later as well put it this way: dont eat like a pig. She was trying to civilize me, but more importantly to make me a Jew.
One might think that 3,500 years after Abraham, we would be making progress in this area. But the opposite seems to be true. The North American way of eating has become gobble, gulp, and go. We shovel our food in. We eat a fifth of our meals in cars. One-third of our children eat in a fast-food outlet every day, and the average McDonalds meal is 11 minutes long.
But we Jews have a response to this animal-like eating: while animals eat instinctively, Jews eat mindfully and thoughtfully. While animals greedily devour their food, our sources tell us to linger over our meals (Berachot 55a).
And this above all: Jews invite God in. The emergence of food and drink from the earth is a wonder and a mystery; therefore, we stand in awe before the work of Gods hands, and recite blessings to give expression to our gratitude. Also, we know that the Divine Presence lives in the texture of our everyday acts, and that even the most mundane task can be sanctified. And so, for us, eating can be a gateway to holiness.
For a Reform Jew and a Reform synagogue, what does it mean to eat Jewishly? What does it mean to hallow our eating by inviting God in? It means reciting blessings prior to a meal and after a meal. And beyond that, there are two things that strike me as essential.
First, we know as all Jews know that meals are profoundly important in creating and sustaining purposeful community. When we eat alone, we are sorely tempted to focus on ourselves; we distance ourselves from the world, from the needs of others, andmost oftenfrom the presence of God. And eating in loneliness, we drift away from the Jewish people.
But when we join together for a seudah a Jewish communal meal we open our minds and our hearts to the concerns of others, and we draw God in, as a partner, to our sacred community.
For most of us, the Seder, the Yom Kippur break fast, and the Shabbat meal each an experience of togetherness and solidarity are among our most significant Jewish memories. For 3,000 years, the message of the Jewish tradition has been: invite others to join you in your festive meals and celebrations.
The lessons for the synagogue are clear. In these difficult times, countless members are overwhelmed by work, economic distress, and ever-deepening isolation. Many would welcome the sharing of an Erev Shabbat meal and the beauty and peace of a Shabbat community, but they dont know how to get there without help.
So lets help them. Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, CA, serves as a model here. On the first Shabbat of every month, Rodef Sholom offers a Shabbat dinner for its entire congregation. This is not a nursery school dinner, or a religious school dinner, or a Mens Club dinner. It is a Shabbat dinner for all. The food is simple, but no one cares. RSVPs are encouraged, but if you forget you come anyway. And members do come: 300-500 every time, people of all ages, young families, grandparents, singles.
And this too: the dinner is free. The funds are raised separately. The congregation decided that it wanted no barriers to the community it hoped to create.
Not all congregations can afford this. But when I asked Rabbi Stacy Friedman how she could afford it in these difficult times, her response was: We cant afford not to do this. She and her leaders understand that for our synagogues, communal meals need to be a fundamental valuean occasion to unite our congregations, rise above our self-absorption, and turn our members in the direction of mitzvah-doing and God.
A wise person once wrote that if I had my life to live over I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded. Our congregations, no matter what their size or the state of their physical plant, need to do the same.
The second thing that we need to think about is how the food that we eat advances the values that we hold as Reform Jews.
This is hardly a new concern for us. Years ago, when it became clear that most of the grapes served at our tables were produced by exploited workers, many Reform Jews and synagogues stopped eating grapes. Our actions drew on the rabbinic teaching that one does not say a blessing over stolen food (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Berakhot 1:19). Surely it follows that we do not bless or consume food produced by acts of injustice, by mistreating animals, or by despoiling the environment.
One would think that it would be a simple matter to make such decisions, and thereby to increase holiness in our lives. Our society is more food-conscious than it has ever been. A whole food vocabulary has come into being: there is organic food and hormone-free food; there is free range food and grass-fed food; there is local food, imported food, and fair-trade food. These labels are all helpful and tell us something about the food that we eat and whether it meets our ethical and spiritual standards.
But here is the problem. This dizzying dietary diversity is also confusing. We dont always know what the labels mean, or whether they make any difference. Some experts promote organic food; others argue that the term has little meaning. And organic junk food is still junk food. We also know that eating exclusively local foods may be possible for some, but surely not for all. What then are we to do?
The key, as always, is to begin with small steps.
Above all, lets avoid the temptation to do nothing. Reform Jews are ethically aware, ecologically responsible, and sensitive to matters of physical and spiritual health. We know that our Jewish tradition speaks to these issues, and that our young people care about them. At such times, Reform Judaism does not remain silent.
Lets start by educating our members in a serious way about the meaning of Jewish eating for Reform Jews. Lets carefully study the sources and offer courses on Jewish eating for adults and children. Lets plant synagogue gardens and take our religious schools to visit local farms. And lets engage with local farmers. The Union has established a website with resources to help us in all of these areas.
And once the education is underway, lets create our own standards for what may or may not appear on synagogue menus and in synagogue kitchens. I expect no consensus here. Some may focus on healthy ingredients, some on sustainable agriculture, and some on economic fairness for farm workers. And individual Reform Jews, of course, may be influenced by these standards or not. But lets provide the leadership that we have provided before when it came to grapes, lettuce, and recyclable products. As synagogue leaders, let us formulate carefully, thoughtfully, Jewishly what we will or will not eat in our shared communal space.
And when the time comes for those decisions, I have a recommendation to make. It stems from my concern that when it comes to rethinking our diets and caring for the earth we will not be daring enough. I worry that sometimes what we do is more to make us feel good than to make a real difference.
By all means, lets make use of eco-friendly cleaning supplies and avoid plastic and paper plates. And lets go to the supermarket with cloth bags. But lets admit: such actions have limited impact and require of us virtually no sacrifice. Lets worry less about the bags we bring to the store and more about what goes in those bags.
My proposal is this: lets make a Jewish decision to reduce significantly the amount of red meat that we eat. There are urgent and compelling reasons to do so.
This is not a call for vegetarianism, or for asceticism. Judaism is not an ascetic tradition. You shall rejoice in your Festival, the Torah says (Deut. 16:14), and this means that we celebrate our sacred occasions and take delight in our eating. If we become obsessed with calorie-counting and reducing cholesterol, our holidays will become grim and joyless.
But meat consumption in North America has doubled in the last fifty years, and we can easily make do with far less red meat than we currently eat. And contrary to what many think, Jews are not obligated to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays. The Talmud suggests that fish and garlic are the foods that we should serve to honor Shabbat (Shabbat 118b); it also instructs us to eat meat in modest quantities (Hullin 84a). Remember too that in biblical Israel, the common diet consisted of barley bread, vegetables, and fruit, along with milk products and honey. My point is this: for the first 2,500 years of our 3,000 year history, Jews consumed meat sparingly, and we can surely do the same.
And we must. The meat industry today generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change throughout the world. According to a U.N. report, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all transportation sources combined. And the preparation of beef meals requires about fifteen times the amount of fossil fuel energy than meat-free meals.
And this is an area where we can make a difference. Our carbon footprint is largely determined by the energy that we use to heat our houses, get us to work, and produce the food that we eat. There is only so much that we can do to reduce our heating bills and shorten our commutes, but we can eat in a different way. Professor Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center has suggested that the effect of reducing our collective meat consumption by twenty percent would be comparable to every American driving a Prius instead of a standard sedan. And this twenty percent reduction is something that every one of us every Jew, every family, every synagogue can do.
And finally this: we have obligations to our own health and well-being. Created in Gods image, we are obligated to maintain our physical vigor so that we may bring honor to the Divine Presence. And this means reducing the red meat and the processed meat that will kill 1.5 million men and women in the next decade, most from cancer and heart disease. How many of us go to doctors who recommend that we eat more red meat?
Lets study these issues and put them before our temple members and our boards. Lets talk about what it means to eat Jewishly and ethically as proud Reform Jews. Lets consider doing more to eat together in communal celebration. Lets talk about what we choose to eat and not eat within our synagogue walls. Lets ask ourselves if we are prepared to replace red meat with pasta or fish in our temple home because to do so is healthy, economical, and good for Gods earth. As always, each congregation will decide what course of action, if any, it chooses to take.
Perhaps we can begin by offering some Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders that will delight with their variety, creativity, and taste, and that will be a model for our members of healthy, festive, meat-free meals.
And lets make a special effort to engage our young people. A delegation of NFTY leaders recently met with me to ask what the Union might do in this area. I asked them in turn: if they really wanted to eat Jewishly and ethically, what sacrifices were they prepared to make? One possibility would be to advocate that all of NFTY give up their hamburgers one day a week. Another would be to make themselves responsible, weekly or monthly, to prepare a healthy family meal consistent with the highest Jewish and ethical values. Our kids are smart and enthusiastic and Jewishly committed; lets challenge them. If we do, they will rise to the challenge.
What about kashrut? This is not about kashrut. There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part, and we deeply respect their choice. But it is not a choice that the great majority of us want to make.
In fact, the rejection of kashrut was long a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism. Kauffman Kohler, an early leader of the Movement, proclaimed that Judaism is a matter of conscience, not cuisine. Ours is an ethically-based tradition, and Reform leaders saw no connection between the intricate rules of kashrut and ethical behavior. Sadly, for too much of the kashrut industry, this disconnect still exists; in recent years, kashrut authorities have failed in their duty to treat workers, immigrants, and animals with compassion and justice. For that reason, we applaud the Conservative movement for creating a new system of kosher certification that takes ethical factors into account.
Nonetheless, we as a Movement have put kashrut aside, and kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.
But we do now realize that we need an approach of our ownour own definition of what is proper and fit to eat. Because our ethical commitments remain firm, and we understand as we did not a century ago that Jewish eating has a profoundly ethical dimension. We now know that God cares what we eat, and that eating can be an entrance to holiness. We now see that when we eat with mindfulness, even the humblest meal can become a sacred act.
So lets begin the discussion. Lets find a way to eat that is right for the farm workers, right for the planet, right for our bodies and right for our souls. Lets find a way, as Reform Jews, to elevate every bite that we place in our mouths and make it a taste of the divine.
Forming communities for congregational meals is the kind of thing that synagogues do. After all, the heart of synagogue community is face-to-face interaction. We go to temple especially now to touch, taste, and feel community. We go there for solace, humor, and support among a reassuring crowd of friends and fellow Jews.
That being so, what about the Internet? Will it undermine the synagogue? Some fear yesthat it will lure Jews away from the old ways of connecting that require us to be in the same physical place. They fear that it will become a substitute for in-the-flesh contact, and that if people start getting their needs met in the virtual world, they will have no need for the real world.
But this is not my view. True, you cant have a minyan or pay a shiva call online; online experience is not the same as being there. Still, it can be a powerful adjunct. And studies show that heavy Internet use actually encourages users to meet more with other people.
Remember: from the time of Ezra, who rewrote the Bible in a new script, we Jews have always adapted to our environment and taken advantage of the latest technologies. To encode our conversations and sacred texts, we moved with ease from stone tablets to parchment to paper, and we will move with equal ease to the electronic word.
In fact, we should see the Web as one of the most wondrous developments of all time.
In the first place, our members do not have the time they once had. We are working more and sleeping less, and we cant get to the synagogue as much as we once did. Carving out an hour or two for a class or committee meeting is harder than ever. In this world, we need the benefits that online community brings. In any case, lets not kid ourselves; our members are spending more and more of their time online, and we need to be there with them.
In the second place, the web does what Judaism has always aspired to do: it opens up the vast treasury of Jewish knowledge to everyone. Judaism is not a religion of elites; we are all expected to learn and to know. The web provides access to Jewish learning on a scale that was unthinkable a decade ago.
And in the third place, the web potentially at least empowers our members and democratizes our synagogues. The synagogue is the grassroots address of the Jewish world, and the web gives us an instrument to involve and include Jews as never before. This is enormously exciting, and more than a little scary.
Are our synagogues doing great things in this area? Absolutely. Are we making the most of this potential? Not even close. Almost all our synagogues have email lists and websites; but these are usually a way to present information rather than a means to engage their members. Even those congregations that have a blog rarely use it to generate conversation and foster connection.
But I believe that we are missing a critical opportunity. The Internet and cyberspace are changing all the rules of Jewish interaction, and we need to be at the forefront of these changes. We need to create an online, Oral Torah of ongoing Jewish discourse, and invite in the opinions of our members. We need to ask our members to share their personal stories and Jewish memories which they love to do when given the chance. We need to encourage hotly debated, multi-voiced, civil discussions on synagogue and local issues, and on Israel and national issues.
The idea is not just to serve our members but to engage them. The idea is not only to inform but also to inspire and create community. The idea is to see the Web not as a bulletin board for announcements but as an act of communal collaboration.
Please note: None of this makes temple leaders less important. Information is not knowledge. Our members will still want their rabbis and cantors, their educators and administrators to listen and to lead.
Nonetheless, we need to be aware of what is happening in our world. We have talked endlessly about how to attract young adults into our congregations. No one is certain how to do it. But if we are ever to succeed with these young Jews, we need to know who they are, where they are, and what they want. Having grown up in the digital world, theirs is a culture of interaction and enablement. They want to inquire, discuss, and argue. They are natural collaborators and community-builders. And they will not be attracted by authoritarian Judaism; they want a synagogue that is more bottom-up than top-down.
That being so, I believe with all my heart that the Judaism best able to reach them is Reform Judaism, and the synagogue best able to meet their needs is the Reform synagogue. We must become the address for technological experimentation for web streaming, virtual board meetings, and a whole range of creative approaches that the innovators in our midst are already working on. To help our congregations begin this process, the Union has collected some of the best ideas for your review and consideration.
But there is one particular idea that I hope every synagogue will think about immediately, and that is a congregational blog not just an electronic temple bulletin, but a truly interactive, online forum. We need blogs because the era of one-way, passive information consumption is over. Our members, young and old, expect to talk back and have a conversation; they think in terms of networks rather than hierarchies. And creating a blog is easy and free, and the technology is so simple that even I can understand it. The Union has produced a guide with sample posts, technical advice, and ideas on how to draw people in. The key is to assemble a team of temple members who will agree not only to write for the blog but to read other posts and to comment. At the beginning, participants may be few, but if we address the real issues in peoples lives, the numbers will grow.
If this is to work, it cannot be the job of the rabbi or the administrator. They may choose to join in, but they have enough to do. Only if lay leaders take this on will a community come into being. As I said, if we ask our members to share their Jewish journeys, most will be flattered and eager to respond. Lets exchange Jewish memories. Lets talk about why we come to services or why we dont. Lets discuss the big issues of the Jewish world. And Presidents and board members can test ideas and ask for feedback, on anything from dues and membership to personal theology.
It is a rare business nowadays that doesnt have an online forum for customers to share insights, make observations, and post questions. Given the importance of our sacred work, shouldnt we be doing the same?
A word about the risks. A blog means you dont control everything. You must welcome honest and open conversation and give people the freedom to disagree, criticize, and complain. Once, as we see from the Talmud, Jews could be counted on to do this with civility. But today, blogging can be a shoot-from-the-hip medium. And if our blogs are taken over by the kvetchers and the whiners, by the grievance collectors and the supersensitive souls, we are lost. I suggest, therefore, a simple solution: every temple needs a volunteer moderator who will review comments before they are posted. The Union will offer online training to prepare the volunteers for their work. And I recommend three rules to govern what will be posted and what will not: you need to sign your name; your comments will only be posted if they could be read from the bima on Erev Shabbat; and no one blogger will be permitted to dominate the conversation.
Our NFTYites do not agree with me here. They favor a wide open approach and feel that those who are petulant or nasty can quickly be brought around. But I believe that if online conversation is to serve our sacred cause, tact and reflective judgment are essential.
So yes, there are risks, but they are manageable;we will lose some control, but we will gain the ability to hear and to learn, and to reach out in new directions. The greater risk by far is that we will do nothing, and the digital generation will pass us by.
So lets take up the challenge of the online age. Let this Movement do what it has always done: welcome diversity, encourage community, and join ancient tradition with cutting-edge culture. Let us create Torah, embrace Torah, and search out the unfolding word of God, wherever it may be found.
And by the way, this sermon will appear next week on the Unions blog, and I look forward to entering into discussion with you.
Permit me to say a few words about the State of Israel.
When the history of Reform Judaism is written a century from now, its authors will ask many questions: did Reform Jews study Torah, do mitzvot, and bring justice to the world? But most important of all will be the question: did we do enough to assure the security and well-being of the State of Israel? And if we did not, none of the other questions will matter.
I am worried now, not because we dont love Israel, but because we are distracted. We know from the years following the Great Depression that when times are tough and synagogues are struggling, North American Jews turn inward. We focus on our own problems and turn our attention away from the problems of the Jewish people. Understandable, perhaps, but a huge mistake nonetheless. We cant afford that now not even for a second. The world is simply too frightening and too dangerous a place.
And the greatest danger is clear: the government of Iran, with support from Russia and China, is inching toward the nuclear threshold; this is the same government that threatens to destroy Israel with such regularity that it is no longer news. How did it happen that the Jewish State is once again unable to take its very existence for granted? How did it happen that Israels survival today is more precarious than it has been since the Yom Kippur War?
What Israel needs from us now is unconditional support. It needs our visits, our dollars, our love, and our engagement. And it needs our political activism. We must call upon the governments of CanadaUnited States, both devoted friends of Israel, to impose the toughest possible economic sanctions on Iran if it fails to abandon its nuclear program. We should encourage other nations to join them, but both governments should be prepared to act unilaterally, if necessary. Time is running out, my friends. The only way Iran will stop its nuclear program is if it feels real pain. And God and history will not excuse us if we are silent. and the
Israel needs our help in other ways too. In this regard, we should be clear that unconditional support is not the same as uncritical support. We love the Jewish state, and we embrace Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people; but we need not accept every idea of those who rule Israel, from the left or the right, even if they are democratically elected. When 100,000 people are settled in the heart of the West Bank, in the place where a Palestinian state must one day arise, this is not Zionism; this is anti-Zionism, and a blow to the very foundations of the Zionist movement. When Orthodox women are relegated to the back section of certain busses in Jerusalem, this is not Zionism; this is an affront to the values that Zionists hold dear. And when the Reform Movement in Israel is denied recognition and equality before the law, this is not Zionism either. It is a tragedy for all and especially for us, who take pride in this Movement and see it as the best hope for Israels future.
So this, then, is our task: unconditional support for the State of Israel, abiding solidarity with the citizens of Israel, unbending resolve in the battle against Israels enemies, unshakeable determination in the face of all those who wish Israel ill. At the same time, we hold firm to our own vision of what the Jewish state must be, and we proclaim our commitment to a two state solution as essential to Israels well-being and security. And willingly, lovingly, joyfully, we engage in the struggle to realize Israels most cherished ideals.
I conclude with an experience that I shared with our temple presidents and that some of them asked that I share with you.
Before the Houston Biennial, I invited the members of our Movement to be in touch with me about what they were looking for in their synagogues. I received many responses, including the following:
I would like to find a temple where people can disagree butstill care for each other and build community; a temple that isnt too traditional remember, I grew up in the Midwest but not too classical either; a temple where I can find inspiration, and where the Jewish tradition really comes alive; a temple where truth is honored, where worship is meaningful, and where respect for each other is not the exception but the norm.
What was my response? You wont find a temple like that. Im sorry but you wont. You will have to make do with the same kind of temple that the rest of us have: a place that is filled with dreamers, and unruly children, and difficult characters, and the occasional village idiot, and that is prone to mistakes, blunders, and misjudgments. But now the good news: While you wont find all of what you are looking for, you can find most of it. There are plenty of synagogues that are true to their religious calling and that have become, or are becoming, a sacred community.
What was true then is true now, even in these hard times in fact, especially in these hard times.
Our synagogues are the place where we sanctify the ordinary and uplift the everyday; where we eat intentionally and reconnect our children to the table and to the earth; where we build holy community by connecting with each other in new and exciting ways; where we honor and serve the land on which we live and the land of our ancestors.
And we do all of this as only Reform Jews can: by embracing ancient traditions while bravely facing the future; by accepting with joy our Jewish inheritance while working with all our strength to refashion and recreate it.
How blessed we are to be leaders of the synagogue and to add our works to the story of the Jewish people!