Time to Forgive Judaism
“Judaism is the perfect religion ruined only by the people who practice it.”
The quote was shared with me decades ago by a mentor, an Orthodox rabbi from Stamford, CT, who noted with great chagrin an overall erosion of Judaism.
Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, who in many ways I model my rabbinate after, noted at the time how so many religious leaders and laypersons often take lessons which are presented in the Torah, and follow tangents which in many ways contradict or misrepresent their essence.
And that trend continues.
As I often mention, one of the fastest growing religious categories in this country consists of those between 20 and 40 years of age, who classify themselves as “spiritual, not religious.”
Translation: “I feel that there is something more, but I do not find it in a book of fixed prayers or sitting in a pew.”
That attitude and humankind’s frequent frustration with organized religion I believe manifests itself in the high current number of unaffiliated Jews.
There are so many stories people carry which justify their overall mistrust if not contempt for communities of worship who by their nature are supposed to reflect the highest moral standards.
Here are some which I encounter. They are that different in theme with many encountered by our friends within the Christian faith.
“My daughter intermarried in 1993. Neither the Rabbi nor the President wished us Mazal Tov. We decided then we were done with Judaism.”
In many communities, Judaism has been slow to keep up with the realities of love. It was thought until recently that the best way to avoid intermarriage and assimilation was to punish those who found love outside of their religion. What a failure that approach has been in helping to assure Jewish continuity into the next generation.
“When my husband was sick, the Rabbi never came to visit.”
There is no excuse. Clergy will often argue that no one told them that a congregant is ill, yet caring congregations establish networks to ensure that if any member of the community is in distress, that the rabbi, cantor and/or others are made aware.
“My son is gay. He felt ostracized.”
Today, within progressive Judaism, the issue is a non starter. But the wounds of past attitudes run deep. Judaism, like the rest of contemporary society, has come a long way in how it views personal relationships.
“When I was in college I felt alone during the High Holidays. When I went to the local synagogue, they wouldn’t let me in without a ticket.”
How appalling. There existed at one point a business approach within religious organizations that the High Holidays were a time where people “needed” to attend services, therefore opportunities were seized to charge money for tickets, and deny access to others who wanted to attend.
For some, this “un-Jewish” approach from past years continues to resonate. But today, in particular in our congregation, doors are wide open during the High Holidays, as they are throughout the year. Open access builds relationships, and reinforces the value of association
“The Hebrew and the liturgy are out of reach.”
Often this is true. The idea of “reward and punishment” is often counterintuitive to the way we approach life in 2012. Yet, there are so many new texts, new prayer books and modes of expression and interpretation which have been developed. Congregations are seizing these opportunities in order to enrich the overall religious experience.
“With all the violence in the world in the name of religion, where is God? Religion is used to divide people.”
Religion is too often used to divide people, but this is a reflection of humankind’s free will. Perhaps it is also time to re-examine the concept of God as a “male deity in the sky” who interferes or influences human choice. Synagogues need to be places where these dialogues can be facilitated.
“I see “so and so,” who claims to be religious, who goes to synagogue or church every day and then models the worst practices in their business lives.”
This is exactly what the Biblical prophets railed about in ancient times. But is it an excuse for us to turn our faces away from God, and the essence of Judaism? Better to examine and improve our own corner of the world.
Friends, here we are on the eve of Yom Kippur. It is a time to let go. We resolve to forgive those around us. We ask others for forgiveness.
It is also time for communities, to consider, “is there anyone we’ve left behind. How can we resolve to be more inclusive, more open, more loving and above all kinder in the future?”
For as the Talmud tells us, “The Torah's beginning is in the performance of kindness and its end is the performance of kindness” (Sotah 14a)
Judaism has come a long way from the days when synagogues were viewed as exclusive clubs. Increasingly synagogues are being reconstituted as Batei Knesset, places to convene, where leaders are shifting their focus to a theology of community.
As Judaism’s ten days of reflection move towards their climax, it is important to reflect; what stereotype, what negative experience, what incidence of “Jew abuse” did we experience, and to ask ourselves whether it is constructive to hold on to those feelings today?
How will we live in the next year? And will Judaism be a part of it?
Will we have the courage to leave behind memories of the strict Hebrew school teacher, or other authority figure from our youth -- or the congregation which blocked our access?
This is a time of new beginnings.
As we approach Yom Kippur, let us also consider forgiving those in the past who, with the best of intentions, served to impede our spiritual growth.
Judaism today is not what it was then.
For while communities, clergy, our fellow Jews and neighbors may have their flaws, God has been here all along requesting of us what the prophet Micah preached twenty seven hundred years ago, “only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
This is the time to forgive family and friends. And perhaps equally important, a time to consider forgiving Judaism and those who practice it.
Like all of us, they are a work in progress.
And thankfully so is Judaism.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we all be sealed in the Book of Life – a life of peace, health and contentment in the year ahead.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman