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Shema: Radical Outreach - From the Inside Out, Rosh Hashanah 2016

10/04/2016 06:24:23 PM



Shema – Yisrael – Adonay – Eloheynu – Adonay – Echad
This is our truth.
This is our teaching.
If Hebrew had capital letters, this is a sentence in which every word would be capitalized.
Maybe every letter.
It is personal and universal.
Six words.
Shema - Listen –
Listening begins internally.
We must begin listening alone.
The physics of hearing happen inside our head.
Tiny membranes and bones in our ears
Translate the world’s vibrations into sounds
And our mind makes meaning.
The command Shema demands that we pay attention.
When we say the Shema we are listening for the vibration of God’s oneness.
But the second word of the Shema
Yisrael directs our concentration outside of our self.
We declare ourselves part of a group.
This group actually.
Shema Yisrael reminds us that listening is not only an inward task.
Most of our listening practice is done in relationship to other people.
We listen to their stories, listen to instructions and listen to their ideas.
When we say the Shema, the second word, Yisrael
proclaims our relationship to each other.
Together we commit to listen for God’s oneness.
It’s possible to discover God alone.
But, the path of Yisrael is to join together,
as we struggle to know God.
Shema Yisrael Adonay
The third word of the Shema requires us to listen in a particularly challenging way.
Esoteric even.
We do this by pronouncing the third word incorrectly.
Like a young reader who comes to a word they do not recognize and inserts their best guess.
All this focus on listening and we never get to hear
the actual name of God!
We say Adonay with such intensity.
It is so much a part of our prayer,  
but it might as well be a holy version of the kinds of bleeps used on the radio to mask curse words.
Adonay – means Lord.
But the prominence of this metaphor in prayer
has less to do with its meaning
than its value as the chosen bleep
pronounced in place of the most powerful
four-letter-word in existence.
It is hard to listen to the Name beneath the bleep.
But we intuit
that the third word of the Shema,
the name Yod Hey Vav Hey,
is an attempt to describe everything in existence with just four letters.
It is the unspoken name for the unnamable.
It means Being with a capital B.
It means Existence.
It means Was, and Is, and Will Be and Always.
All - Ways.
Shema Yisrael Adonay - In just three words –
we take a journey from our inward experience,
to our relationships with others,
to our name for the most Universal concept imaginable.
The name we call God describes the universe.
It means all existence,
as it has ever been,
as it ever will be,
and as it is at this very moment.
But no sooner does the Shema bring us to the universal,
than does it slam us back into our communal and personal experience.
When we say Eloheynu –our God,
we are saying that Adonay­ YHVH,
the four letter description of all space time
  • is Eloheynu Our God.
We are declaring a communal experience of that cosmic name.
Real lived Experience.
Experiences of suffering and experiences of liberation
and all the life in-between.
This connection between experience and revelation is proclaimed
when we conclude the Shema
 quoting God:
“I am Adonay your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God; I am Adonay your God.” [1]
When we say Eloheynu our God,
It grounds us in our historical narrative.
We have suffered.
We have been slaves.
We have been excluded.
We have endured pogroms.
We have survived mass genocide.
And our suffering
Is part of our understanding of Adonay Eloheynu
the All/Universe/Existence  our God.
we were brought out of the slavery for a purpose.
We remember our suffering and our liberation.
We were enslaved and we are freed.
The Temple was destroyed and we rebuild.
We were expelled and we have found new homes.
We were murdered and yet we live...
Again and again we have survived
And our liberation comes with a purpose.
Listen to the first commandment
– the first words of revelation at Sinai –
“I am Adonay your God
who brought you out of Egypt to be your God.”
Where is the commandment?
The commandment is to listen
to how God emerges from our people’s experience.
We have listened and truth about God has been revealed.
Ever since Sinai,
 We have been in a state of ongoing revelation.
We have abandoned idolatry.
We have replaced sacrifice.
We have re-imagined worship.
We have drashed, and explained and interpreted.
We have written and rewritten prayers.
We have studied and sang niggunim.
We have enlightened.
We have reconstructed Judaism.
Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu
– it’s all there in those four words.
That alone could be our prayer.
The words we live by;
the words we teach our children.
Listen – Yisrael – All Existence – Is OUR God.
Dayenu – It would have been enough.
But the Shema does the craziest thing.
It adds a fifth word –
Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu Adonay
 - it repeats itself.
We repeat YHVH the name of God.
If YHVH describes All the Universe for All Time,
What more could be added by its repetition?
It is at this moment in the Shema that the Universe
becomes Universal.
It is through the repetition of the word Adonay that we declare.
Even though we came to this truth
through our experience,
this truth goes beyond our experience.
And we emphatically strengthen the point with the final word– Echad - One
Adonay Echad - YHVH is One.
The universe is unified.
The truth of everyone’s experience is One.
All truths
of all peoples are connected.
Adonay is One directs our spirit outward
towards everyone.
Our truth is not only for ourselves but for all humanity.
It binds us to humanity.
And the word Eloheynu our God
now means everyone’s God,
Everyone who is trying to understand
how all this Universe fits together.
How all this Life, is One.
This past Christmas Eve at Bnai Keshet, we hosted a dinner for 10 families who had fled the war in Syria.
We served Chinese food.
We were compelled by our Jewish story.
We recognized our experience in their stories.
Adonay is One.  
At the end of the evening, a Syrian man about my own age named Mohamed said through an interpreter:
“I am so grateful to be here.
I want my children to know that all the sons of Abraham are our brothers. This is not something my children could have experienced in Syria, but they saw it today in this synagogue.”
And we saw it.
Adonay is One.
The Shema is not only the motto of our people.
Our purpose is to share the truth of the Shema.
We Jews have needed to be in survival mode for a long time. And we have gotten really good at it.
We have worked hard for thousands of years to keep our traditions alive, to keep our children alive;
to keep ourselves alive.
We have struggled to pass on this truth.
Adonay is One.
From generation to generation.
The program for protection and survival is part of our Jewish operating system.
They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.
Yes, anti-Semitism still exists.
We must be vigilant in response to its presence, whether in Europe or the Middle-East, or on college campuses.
But we now live at an amazing time in Jewish history.
A moment and place where we are that:
we can afford to turn the dial slightly away from
protect, preserve, survive
and slightly towards live, teach and share.
Judaism has powerful truths to teach.
Truths embodied in the Shema but not limited to it.
Important understandings of the universe and God
and the nature of existence
that are needed not only by Jews,
but are needed by all of humanity.
This is a moment, in fact, when Judaism’s preservation and continued revelation will be best served by turning the gaze of our religious practice outwards.
We need to do better at sharing the Judaism we love.
Traditionally we read Torah not just on Shabbat,
but on Mondays and Thursdays.
This tradition developed because those were the market days. 
The Torah was read, our truths were proclaimed
In the market, where everyone went to buy their necessities on the busiest days of the week.
Today it would be some combination of the farmer’s market and the mall on Black Friday.
It has been a long time since we lived in a place
where we could share Judaism that openly.
But right now, at least in America, it is a time when we can safely share our truths.
We can bring our Torah to the marketplace.[2]
For anyone who might be starting to feel uncomfortable,
let me just say now, I am not talking about proselytizing.
I am not talking about trying to make anybody be Jewish or convincing anyone to leave their religious paths or traditions.
And let me also be clear,
I’m not even sure what this will look like.
Every interfaith service we have ever participated in is moved by this idea.
Three years ago, when we joined with local synagogues
and celebrated Hanukkah in downtown Montclair.
That was something like what I imagine.
Last week, I tried sitting outside of Starbucks with a sign on my table proclaiming I was a Rabbi offering free advice.
That was an effort to figure this out.
I am not giving this sermon about taking our Torah to the marketplace because I have figured out how to do it.
Rather, I am giving this sermon
because I think we need to figure out how to do it.
For our own good, we should proclaim the Shema
and everything it stands for
in some version of the contemporary marketplace.
To start with, it is what we believe!
The God we believe in is a universal God.
Alright, to be clear, we aren’t 100% sure what we believe.
BUT that we honestly admit this
is one the great strengths of Judaism.
Whatever we believe,
we certainly don’t believe
it only applies to us.
We understand that when truth dwells within us,
it is shared through us. (Ex. 29:45-46 p.131)
Our truth does not belong to us alone.
Adonay is One is a shared truth.
When we conclude the Aleynu we sing:
Vene’emar: Vechayah Adonay lemelech al kol ha’aretz.
Bayom hahu yihyeh adonay echad ushmo echad.
One day we will figure out as a world
that YHVH, Adonay, All Universal Existence
is the truth that rules the earth;
and on that day everyone will understand
that the many names we have for God and Life and Existence are all One.
And we will name that truth - One.
This belief is central to Judaism, but for Reconstructionists
And, I think, for most contemporary Jews, it is especially true.
We believe that our teaching is our unique path
but on a shared trip.
When Mordecai Kaplan began describing Judaism as a civilization, he was trying to find a language
that would allow us to hold on to our Jewish identity
as we embraced our American identity.
This was radically important
in a world that rewarded assimilation and integration.
But today it is not just Jews
who are bi-cultural and multi-civilizational.
The world has caught up with the Jewish dilemma Kaplan was describing.
Everyone lives hyphenated identities.
It is taken for granted that we can legitimately claim multiple cultural and identity allegiances.
The multifaceted nature of our identity is celebrated
as a source of enrichment, not contamination.
Yes, living with other cultures and religions comes with challenges,
but we are here, in this particular synagogue,
because we embrace the rewards
that come with those challenges.
So right beside our worries about assimilation and intermarriage,
Also exists our acceptance of assimilation and intermarriage.
We want to live with people who are different from us.
We want to interact in diverse communities.
We want the richness that comes from being with people different from ourselves.
Our actions imply we think the rewards are worth the risks.
When I talk about bringing Judaism to the marketplace,
I am saying that for us to maximally benefit from the diverse reality of our life,
we have to take our whole Jewish selves into the world.
We have to be open not only to learning from others,
but ready to let others learn from us.
When we teach others about what it means to be a Jew,
our own Judaism is transformed.
Try it.
Try explaining to someone else what it is like to be Jewish, what it brings to your life.
Take a second and rehearse in your mind your
“Why Be Jewish”
elevator pitch.  
When I do this,
I notice myself questioning my own descriptions of a meaningful Jewish life and asking:
Is that true? Do I really believe it?
Is it what Jews actually do
or just an idealized concept of what Judaism should be?
To the degree I realize my words are true,
they strengthen me.
To the degree
I don’t live up to my own descriptions of Jewish life,
they admonish me.
I say to myself:
If Shabbat is so great -
You should celebrate it more diligently.
If prayer is so powerful - why don’t you pray more often?
I remember when I was a kid, how my parents
would make us help clean the house when we had guests.
It seemed like we were covering something up.
I would say,
These are our friends, right?
Or our relatives who love us for who we are, right?
What would be so bad about them visiting our house
and it being messy like normal?  
But the bottom line was:
my parents were unhappy with our normal mess.
When we had guests coming,
they saw the messy corners with new eyes.
When I describe what is great about Judaism
to someone who isn’t Jewish,
if I notice embarrassment or perhaps hypocrisy –
I feel compelled to clean up my own house.
To demand that the Judaism I practice
and that the Jewish communities I am a part of
live up to the hype.
That they be every bit good enough that I can invite guests and relatives in with pride and confidence.
Intermarriage is not only a threat.
It can be an opportunity.
I believe Judaism has been well served
by the members we have gained
because they were introduced to Judaism
by someone they loved.
If it weren’t for intermarriage it is unlikely that Liz Lipner would be our President, and she has been a great President.
And she isn’t our only President or Board member
who chose Judaism after being introduced to it by a loved one.
I do not mean to underplay the challenges of building sustainable Jewish identities in an assimilating culture.
But I do want to raise up the truth that
it is a two way street.
And the Jewish people have been enriched by those who have chosen to be Jewish.
And By those who without explicitly converting, have nonetheless
dedicated their lives to raising Jewish children.
We have been blessed by those who have tied their fate to that of our people.
I am so grateful to everyone here today,
whether born into Judaism or not,
for having shown up to celebrate together
and to help build this community together.
Turning outward has brought valuable imports.
Judaism is a better religion today than it was 100 years ago because we have shown up to the market place of ideas as consumers.
We have embraced ideas that enhance
and sometimes change our Jewish practice.
Judaism is better because we listened to the demands of the women’s rights movement not just as Americans but as Jews.
It is a better religion because we have Bat Mitzvah
and full participation by women
and women rabbis.
And we are only beginning to see the benefits of these changes.
And we could tell the same story about our embrace of democratic practice, or marriage equality or the values of the civil rights movement.
And this is not new – Jews have always imported values & ideas
And we have also as exported values & ideas.
The world is better because
we have exported monotheism,
prayer as an alternative to animal sacrifice,
the importance of preserving minority opinions,
and the idea of Shabbat
known as the weekend.
The Jewish community is hyper-focused on Jewish continuity.
We are ultra concerned about preserving our Judaism for our children.
But what we are preserving
is not some museum piece from the shtetle.
It is not Anatevka.
It is not just bagel kitsch.
It is this Judaism that we are practicing today
in this community.
IF we aren’t satisfied with this Judaism,
then we should change it, not pass it on.
IF we are excited and moved by this Judaism;
if we are grateful to have inherited it or found it;
if we do want to pass it on to our children
then we should ask ourselves:
Why don’t we want to share it more broadly?
Why don’t we want to share it with everyone
who is interested?
Why don’t we look for people who might love Judaism
as much as we do?
How can we better embrace everyone who walks into the doors of our community for whatever curious reason?
How can we make it as easy as possible once someone has walked in the door to explore and practice Judaism
at whatever level they feel ready to embrace?
How can we practice sharing what we love about our Judaism?
How can we bring our Judaism to the public square?
– just to share it  -
Just to make its presence accessible to those
who might never have the reason to come into a synagogue
or be lucky enough to marry into a Jewish family?
If our ancestors were willing to publicly proclaim
Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu  Adonay Echad
When they were being killed for being Jewish.
Shouldn’t we find a way
to publicly share this truth
at a moment when we can freely celebrate
being Jewish?
Shema – Yisrael – Adonay – Eloheynu – Adonay – Echad

[1] Much of my learning about the Shema is based on the teaching of Arthur Green, Radical Judaism. See p.132

[2] I am told this idea has been offered by Rami Shapiro.

Sat, June 15 2024 9 Sivan 5784