This post was delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.
A tale of two synagogues.
The first synagogue is an Orthodox congregation that was established in Duluth, Minnesota in the late 19th century by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. By 1900 they were able to build a substantial synagogue building, and there generations celebrated holidays, life cycle events, the passage of time. By the second half of the 20th century, the area became less Jewish as younger Jews moved away, or were less interested in traditional Judaism, or maybe they married someone not Jewish and thus were not welcome in an Orthodox synagogue. Other traditional congregations in the area eventually closed or merged. By 2019, Adas Israel had 75 members in charge of 14 Torah scrolls – an odd ratio of heirs to inheritance! Last month, the synagogue caught on fire, burning down the building and destroying 6 of the 14 Torahs. The congregation found somewhere else to celebrate the High Holidays, and they may still keep a regular prayer minyan going, but it will never be the same. We know today that the fire was set accidentally by a homeless man trying to stay warm in the congregation’s sukkah; it was NOT a hate crime. However, given recent events, we would not have been surprised if it were.
The second synagogue has lived two lives so far. Its earlier life as Congregation Beth Or began as a suburban Reform temple, which evolved thanks to a visionary rabbi and committed members into one of the first Humanistic Jewish congregations in the world. After thirty years, there was transition and conflict, and from that, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation emerged in 2001. We have gone through our own transitions and challenges. 18 years later we look forward with optimism, a congregation where membership is about meaning and not money, a community that is doing Jewish differently, a place to think and to speak and to sing our Humanistic Judaism with energy and integrity.
Both of these synagogues are the American Jewish present – challenges of integration, growing distance from the immigrant generation and its traditions, the fear and sometimes reality of antisemitism, the difficulty of getting along, the possibility of new beginnings. Which synagogue is the Jewish future? Is the kiddush cup half-full or half-empty, and is it full of celebratory wine, or negative whining?
This High Holiday season, we look at old challenges anew. We are not the first generation to ask what the Jewish future will look like, or if there will even be a Jewish future. After Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE, Judean exiles asked the same question (Psalm 137):
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of YHWH while in a foreign land?
The Judeans did figure out how to sing again, they learned to live in Diaspora. 600 years later, after the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, you may recall from Rosh Hashana that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai calmed anxieties about atonement without a Temple by claiming “We have another form of atonement as effective. Deeds of Loving Kindness.” (Avot di Rabbi Natan) He made other changes to continue Judaism – “If Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, they used to blow the shofar in the Jerusalem Temple but nowhere else. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai decreed that they should blow it wherever there was a court.” (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 4:1) As we do to this day. There have been other historical candidates for the Third major Jewish destruction: the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Chmielnitzky pogroms in Ukraine around 1650, the European Holocaust over 70 years ago. After each of these disasters, a Jewish future was questioned, yet a Jewish future there was. Today there are almost 7 million Jews in Israel and the West Bank, 6 to 7 million Jews in the United States and Canada (depending on how you count), over a million in Europe, half a million in Latin America and another half million around the rest of the world for a total of around 15 million. We have not yet caught up to the pre-Holocaust 17 million, but, to paraphrase Mark Twain when his obituary appeared when he was still alive, the report of our death is an exaggeration.
Does it matter to the world and not just to us whether there will be any Jews 200 years from now, in the 23rd century? Absolutely. For one thing, the 23rd century is when the original Star Trek is set and imagining that anniversary without articles about “The Jewish Roots of Star Trek” is inconceivable. More seriously, think of what would have to happen in those 200 years that would result in ZERO Jews. There would have been a massive Holocaust of a disaster in Israel. There would have been a massive surge of persecution in Europe and Latin America to drive Jews out, or to drive them away from being Jewish. In the United States, there would have been many factors: massive alienation from positive Jewish identity, massive persecution of Jewish institutions, some way to get Orthodox Jews to stop having children and some way to stop up to half of their children from leaving Orthodoxy for more liberal Judaism. For ALL of those things to have happened, what would have happened to American society? What civil liberties, what freedom of association and freedom of religion and freedom of speech would have been destroyed to make a world without Jews?
In some ways, antisemitism is like a canary in a coal mine, an early warning sign of a crisis in liberal democracy and social cohesion. Over the last 20 years, 12 black churches have been vandalized, burned, or otherwise attacked. Jews are a much smaller percentage of the US population, and in the same period TWENTY Jewish institutions have been attacked in some way. This is not the Oppression Olympics, but it is sobering to note the statistical reality. We do live in a very different world than the 1930s – our police protect Jewish institutions, as they are doing outside, right now. State and federal courts prosecute racist vandals who scurry to hide from the light, and popular culture rejects rabid antisemitism and racism rather than reinforcing it. Even from my youth 35 years ago, popular culture is much better – my childhood VHS tape of Disney’s movie Peter Pan had a racist song and dance called “What Made the Red Man Red,” with all of the terrible Native American stereotypes you could imagine. The movie was made in 1953, but they had no problem selling it in the 1980s. Today, you can find that scene on YouTube, but it is not in any movie version available from Disney, and that’s good.
Nevertheless, there is limited comfort when the true haters are emboldened to do more, say more, and say it louder. The fact that we are not the only ones hated gives us allies, but not a greater sense of security. I recently had a discussion with our hosts at the North Shore Unitarian Church regarding their security, and their minister pointed out to me that Unitarian Churches have also been targeted for vandalism because of their support for minority and LGBTQ rights. Do we feel better or worse knowing that? Civil society does not function only through enforcement by police and courts; civil society also requires unwritten social contracts to tolerate difference, to channel disagreement into politics, to love your family and friends without hating others.
Paradoxically, antisemitism can have the opposite of its intended effect – anti-Semites want Jews to fade and disappear, but experiences with antisemitism can provoke a stubborn insistence on Jewishness, even a re-connection with family heritage. Some hide in fear, others stand up in defiance. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year, Jews who had not been to synagogue in years chose to #ShowUpForShabbat. Many of us were here, supported by our friends from the NSUC. Some may recall a story I told once about a rabbi in Eastern Europe: when Napoleon’s armies were on the march into Russia, the rabbi’s followers asked him for whose victory should they pray, for Napoleon or for the Tsar? He answered, “Pray for the Tsar.” “For the Tsar? With all of the suffering his oppression has caused us?” “If Napoleon wins, it may be good for the Jews but bad for Judaism: individual Jews will have more freedom, but organized Judaism will be challenged. If the Tsar wins, it may be bad for Jews but good for Judaism: his oppression will keep us together.” Will today’s Antisemitism be good for membership? Who wants to think that way?
Unfortunately, the Enlightenment-influenced Western Europe that was supposed to be good for Jews and problematic for Judaism is now challenging for both. In France since the year 2000, antisemitic hate crimes have gone from 90 a year to over 300, some years as high as 1000. Jews are less than 1% of the French population, but 40 to 50% of the hate crimes are antisemitic. 1 in 5 French Jews personally report being harassed for being Jewish. In the UK, many British Jews have lost confidence that Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will stand up to antisemitism in his party, and leaders of British Jewry have said they fear a Corbyn-led government would be an “existential threat” to their community. And 40% of Europeans in seven large nations say that Antisemitism is a growing problem in their county and that Jews there are at risk of violence. Even wearing a kippah or speaking Hebrew in public can be risky. Some of this is a carry-over from the Israel-Palestine conflict, with large Muslim and Arab populations perpetuating prejudices from their nations of origin. And some is native grown from deep in European soil. To be sure, most European governments and their leaders have said the right things and responded the right way. Still, over the last 20 years at least 10% of the French Jewish population has left, most for Israel or America. It remains to be seen whether, with greater Muslim integration to European culture, and maybe some positive developments in the Middle East, the genie can be put back in the bottle. Or we may be facing Pandora’s box, the demons already on the loose.
In America, the Jewish future looks vibrant. It will look different from the Jewish present, and very different from the Jewish past. And these changes will reflect larger trends in American society and the world. That difference from the Jewish past is why some are pessimistic, their kiddush cup half empty and draining. The thought process goes like this: Since the 1950s, most American Jews have been members of synagogues; today, many established synagogues are declining in membership and closing, so the Jewish future is in danger. And the same for other mainline religious institutions, as more young Americans are less religious than ever. In the 1950s, American Jews had ethnically Jewish parents; today many Jews find love and family with people of other heritage. Their children may or may not identify as Jewish, and growing numbers of Jews by choice have NO ethnic Jewishness at all. Without ethnic Jewish heritage, without Yiddish and kugel, the Jewish future is in danger. The same fear strikes white America facing ethnic mixing and demographic change. In the 1950s, most American Jews practiced a core of traditional Judaism like kosher laws and traditional prayers; today most Jews are non-traditional and there is no ritual consensus; without “Tradition” the Jewish future is in danger. The general fear of this modern freedom to choose has driven some to evangelical and fundamentalist religions who do the choosing for you.
“Tradition”, sings Tevye at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof. The secret of the Fiddler story is that is it about the changing of tradition in service of Jewish survival. The matchmaker is demoted in favor of happy marriages for love. The family must leave its shtetl, but they leave for the America that viewers know to be a goldeneh medina, a golden land. Trains and sewing machines and steamships transformed Jewishness then as surely as smartphones and podcasting and Youtube are transforming it today! We live, as Rabbi Kerry Olitzky wrote, in a world of “Playlist Judaism” – the original album and artist does not matter if you want to listen differently, in your own way. A world where you can get your Starbucks coffee exactly how you like it will produce religion and culture that meet your needs, reflect your beliefs, celebrate your creativity. And for a community to thrive in that world, its members must know how to disagree without being disagreeable. The 21st century will be different, which means it will also be Jewishly different. I just hope to retire before robot rabbis arrive!
The same is true for these other fears. The kiddush cup is half full and rising, but with a new vintage – these days, there are many options beyond Manischevitz! Some synagogues are closing, but other Jewish communities are thriving with new and creative approaches to membership, community and celebration. Podcasts, YouTube channels, Facebook Groups, even online congregations like SecularSynagogue.com (led by a Humanistic Rabbi by the way) – in 10 or 20 years we may no longer make a strong distinction between ‘virtual life’ and ‘in real life’ – the emotions people feel, the support they experience, the learning they find, the friends they make through the internet are all real – real friends, real emotions. The Jewish organizations that will survive and thrive will be those who can swim in the new currents. In Hebrew, synagogue is beit Knesset, a house of meeting – it can include prayer, or study, or celebration, or all of the above; it might not even have its own beit, its own building. The synagogue is dying; long live the synagogue.
The new Jewish diversity produced by intermarriage, adoption and conversion is only a threat to last century’s Judaism – the new Jewish diversity is central to the new Judaism being born. The idea of “looking Jewish” will become increasingly strange, because our Jewish communities will reflect the world’s diversity. “Being Jewish” and Jewish heritage will continue to be important for some, and others will find meaning in “doing Jewish,” whatever their personal identity – baking hamentaschen for Purim (or just eating them), participating in a seder, lighting Hanukkah candles – those activities are not just for Jews any more. On most college campuses, there are more students with one Jewish parent than with two, and more of those students self-identify as Jewish than ever. Your desire to continue to feel Jewish or to be Jewish or to do Jewish will not limit whom you love and marry. Humanistic Judaism has celebrated this all along, and more Jewish communities are catching up. Tonight begins the Jewish day of atonement, when we confess our wrongs and strive to do better. We are supposed to accept improved behavior without rubbing it in. However, I do believe that Reform and Conservative Judaism, who are now more intermarriage accepting than ever, still owe some teshuva, some repentance to those generations of intermarrying Jews they drove away, the families they labeled threats to the Jewish future and a new Holocaust (I am not exaggerating – intermarriage is still sometimes compared to the Holocaust). Let me say it clearly: marrying for love is the opposite of being murdered by hate.
There are broader lessons from this Jewish experience for all people, and for relationships between people. Accept that change is inevitable and can be good if accepted in the right spirit. We all have the right to express our personal desires, and we need to communicate to find common ground. We do not always have to agree with our partners and friends if we practice HOW to disagree. What we DO, how we treat each other with our actions is as important as who we say we are. And finally, smartphones have been bad enough for our relationships so BEWARE THE ROBOTS!
As for Israel itself, the Jewish future there has its own complications – what does “Jewish” mean for a Jewish state? If it means increasing rule by Rabbinic Jewish law, we are decreasingly interested; the secular Jewish culture that Israelis have created and we celebrate will be harder to find. Already there are thousands of Israelis living in America by choice; a new Diaspora. If Israel continues to insist on these three: being a democracy, being a demographically and culturally Jewish state, and controlling the West Bank > then something’s going to give among those three. The new Israel, or Israelistine, or whatever it becomes may or may not be good for the Jews, or for Judaism, or for the rights of all those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, the risk of biological or even nuclear terrorism from Iran or Lebanon is definitely greater than zero. A dirty bomb spreading radiation does not need to be fully nuclear to be a disaster. There are real risks to that Israeli Jewish future, and not all of them are self-inflicted. At the same time, there are hundreds of organizations and thousands of people working for the kind of Israel we support and admire, an Israel that celebrates religious and ethnic diversity, a state for all of its citizens, a positive force for the Jewish future. In a month, I will be visiting that Israel to celebrate the ordination of new Humanistic Israeli Rabbis – I hope you will all come back to this very space and hear all about it on a November Shabbat to come.
Candidly, I cannot guarantee the future. Especially in Humanistic Judaism, since we are a decidedly non-Prophet organization. I DO believe we can be rationally optimistic about the Jewish future from our Jewish present. Predictions of doom can become self-fulfilling prophecies. No one gets onto a sinking ship! What we have to avoid most as we face these old challenges anew is the feeling that we can do nothing, because then we will do nothing and what will be, will be no matter what. To here more about what we CAN do, I hope to see you tomorrow morning.
A tale of two synagogues in the Jewish present: a declining traditional institution, and a growing innovative community. Which one is the Jewish future? In the old Jewish tradition, BOTH are. We face the challenges of blending inherited tradition from the 20th century with the hope and creativity of the 21st. What will make the difference in a complex reality that can be half-empty and going down or half-full and rising? You, and me, and we. Wishing you all a happy, healthy and hopeful new year.