Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: “Moses’ final message to the Israelites was: ‘It is not enough that you have received the Torah from me. You must make it new in every generation.’ Judaism is the story of a love affair between a people and a book, the Book of books. The 613th command, to make the Torah new in every generation, symbolizes the fact that the Torah was given once, but it must be received many times, as each of us, through our study and practice, strives to recapture the pristine voice heard at Mount Sinai.”
I attended a Reform Synagogue in Maryland for Rosh Hashana. It was very important to them that we be reminded that these people are Reform Jews. Why? I don’t know. I thought we were Jews. Period.
The Rabbi led up to her sermon with the story of Choni the Circle maker. I was unaware of this one.
Rain was needed. It was that time of year. Which, of course, is this time of year in Israel and we pray for rain.
Choni prayed, but no rain fell. What did he do? He drew a circle, stood inside it, and said to God: “Master of the Universe! Your children turned to me because I am like a member of Your household. I swear by Your great name that I’m not budging from here until You have compassion on Your children!”
A rain began to drizzle.
Said Choni: “That’s not what I asked for. I asked for rains to fill the cisterns, trenches and reservoirs.”
The rains started coming down in torrents.
Said Choni: “That’s not what I asked for. I asked for rains of goodwill, blessing and generosity.”
A proper rain began to fall. But it continued to fall until the Jews went out of Jerusalem up onto the Temple Mount, because of the flooding caused by the rains. So they came to Choni and said: “Just as you prayed that the rains should fall, now pray that they should go away.”
Shimon ben Shetach sent a message to Choni: “If not for the fact that you are Choni, I would have issued a decree of excommunication against you. But what can I do against you, who nags (מתחטא לפני) the Almighty and He fulfills your wish, like a child who nags his father and his father fulfills his wish . . .”
And that brought us to the point of the story on Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, and the Rabbi decides that we must talk about…Greta Thunberg! There she was, on full display on the video screens on either side of the bimah. The Rabbi gushed over her. And rebuked those who said anything negative about her. After all we are in a climate crisis. An existential threat to all of us. The Rabbi then shared with us a report that came out in 1860 – yes 1860 – about climate change. Was it existential, then?
It is Rosh Hashana. Jews all over the world are under attack; from Germany where Jews were told not to wear kippot. I respect the fact that Reform Jews do not require members to wear kippot. In this synagogue more women were wearing kippot than men. More women were wearing Tallit than men. But at this time, when Jews all over the world are under attack, and Jews in Germany are told to hide their Jewishness, how nice it would have been for the congregation to wear kippot. All of them, in solidarity with Jews worldwide. Think of World Hijab Day when all women are called upon to don a hijab in the name of awareness and greater understanding.
Then there is Sweden, France, Australia, and of all places…America. Antisemitism is on the rise, coming from the left; coming from Islam. Jews in Brooklyn are attacked by black Americans. Wonder if that has anything to do with Louis Farrakhan who calls Jews termites and says it proudly. Or could it be from the lips of Ilhan Omar, embraced by David Duke of the KKK, or Rashida Tlaib, two virulently Jew-hating Muslims in Congress who have yet to be admonished by any Democrat? The only leader to comment on the hate was the President of the United States. Yet, Reform Jews are the first to attack him.
The Zionist Organization of America shared the FBI report that “Jews are the victims in sixty percent (60%) of religiously-motivated hate crimes.” There were nearly 2,000 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 across the nation. In Maryland there were 39 antisemitic incidents reported. They included 32 cases of harassment, six vandalism reports and one assault at Towson University. It was the first time in four years that there was an anti-Semitic assault in the state. Let’s see: 372 million Americans and between 4 and 5 million are Jews. So, 60% of all religiously motivated hate crimes are against 1.5% of the American population. Jew hatred is worse than 1939, but this Rabbi believes now is the time to raise climate change. There are 52 weeks in the year when the Rabbi can talk about climate change, but on Rosh Hashana?
Reform Judaism in America began as a backlash to Orthodoxy or normative Judaism. Jews, freed from the ghettos, wanted to be part of the culture of their country. In America, early radicalism was mentioned in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which dismissed “such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress” as anachronisms that only obstruct spirituality in the modern age. The platform stressed that Reform Jews must only be accepting of laws that they feel “elevate and sanctify our lives” and must reject those customs and laws that are “not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Over time Reform Judaism changed again to return to a more traditional approach to Judaism – distinctly Jewish and distinctly American. Today, Reform Judaism favours social justice, promoting part of the teachings of Hillel, with emphasis on community, not just the Jewish community; as opposed to Hillel’s reference to obligations to the Jewish community balanced with personal responsibility. Sadly, it is the same social justice one can get at the Unitarian Church where one learns about suggestions, not Commandments. Moral relativism rather than the absolute morality given to us by God at Mt. Sinai.
Yes, I know, this could be seen as mean. I am attacking our own people. I know. And here we are at Yom Kippur. Yet, I was left wondering whatever happened to the idea of Am Yisrael? The people of Israel? When did we start playing with identity politics? Reform Jew as opposed to other Jews? We are in the middle of a reboot of Germany 1939 when the antisemites didn’t care what kind of a Jew you said you were. The 7 billion people on the planet look at the 14 million of us and don’t care what we claim to be. To them, we are all Jews.
Rabbi Sacks wrote:
“We are what we are because of those who came before us. We are each a letter in God’s book of life. We do not start with nothing. We have inherited wealth, not material but spiritual. We are heirs to our ancestors’ greatness.”
We are heirs to our ancestors’ greatness and that means we are the keepers of that greatness to be passed forward to our descendants. What will we pass forward?
How did we, as a people, get to a place where we talk about secular problems on the holiest of days rather than the meaning of being Jewish? Now, when the left all over the world is attacking the Jews? Could the climate not wait another day?
From the Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Tarfon used to say, it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not exempt from undertaking it.”