Sunday, September 28, 2014

George Stern's State of the Minyan Rosh Hashanah Davar Torah

Thanks, George!

Yom Harat Olam and the State of the Minyan
Rosh Hashanah Morning I, September 25, 2014
George Stern

            Imagine for a moment that you are the prophet Jeremiah, called by God to speak truth to power and to the people—only to find yourself mocked and, eventually, thrown into jail.
You enticed me, Adonai, and I was enticed;
You overpowered me and You prevailed.
I have become a constant laughingstock,
Everyone jeers at me. (20:7)

Not a good place to be in. Indeed, Jeremiah is in such pain that he adds:

Accursed be the day
That I was born!
Let not the day be blessed
When my mother bore me! (20:14)

No singing of Yom huledet sameach to him!
Then, speaking of the man who brought news of his birth to his father, Jeremiah concludes his jeremiad:
Because he did not kill me before birth
So that my mother might be my grave,
Pregnant [with me] for all time.
Why did I ever issue from the womb,
To see misery and woe,
To spend all my days in shame! (20:17-18)

Not a pretty picture. And yet, one of the phrases Jeremiah uses—harat olam—has found its way into our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. Let’s unpack that a bit.
            First, let me point out that the connection between the Jeremiah phrase and our liturgy is unmistakable. The phrase harat olam occurs only once in the Tanach, here in Jeremiah. The verse preceding it references t’ruah, “battle shouts.” The connection is clear.

            But how do we get from there to here, as it were? In fact, harat has more of the sense of pregnancy or conception than birth, and olam means “forever.” So harat olam means something like “eternal conception,” or, as just translated, “perpetually pregnant.” Jeremiah wishes that instead of coming forth from the womb, he could have remained within it, sheltered and happy. (Never mind what his mother would have thought of that!)
            Yet in our liturgy, harat olam has come to mean “the birth of the world,” something quite positive. Harat has been interpreted to refer to the last day of the pregnancy, i.e., the day of the birth, and olam to mean “world”: “today is the day for giving birth to the world.”
            As Ilana Grinblat, who teaches at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in L.A., noted in a recent article, “God’s creation of the world is similar to a mother giving birth to a child”—a process fraught with fear and pain, and also the most sublime joy. She goes on to say: “We hold the same mix of feelings approaching Rosh Hashanah as we have when we are about to have a child: anticipation and excitement along with worry and even dread. On the High Holidays, we hope to give birth to new, improved versions of ourselves, but any potential change is accompanied by wide-ranging emotions. Our are about to be transformed, but we don’t know how.” About-to-be parents and Jews everywhere: beware and be happy!
            I would like to go a step further than Grinblat or, for that matter, the way in which even our Machzor translates harat olam. In this I follow, among others, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, who suggests that it would be better to translate the phrase as “today the world was conceived.” In other words, today, as on every Rosh Hashanah—and, one might say, every day—the world is conceived anew, something fresh becomes available to us. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for us and is, in fact, the basis for teshuvah, the idea that we can turn, return, and change—link ourselves anew with one another and with God. The spiritual work of Elul and the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe, can indeed make a positive difference, for us, for those around us, and for the ever-rebirthing world.
            Given all of this birth imagery and the notion that we and the world are being recreated continually, it is no wonder that in both the Reconstructionist and Reform Machzorim, the Creation Story—Genesis 1—is suggested as an alternative to the traditional Torah reading about Hagar and Ishmael. (Parenthetically, let me add that such a change makes especial sense when one realizes that, according to some scholars at least, the choice of the Ishmael and Isaac story had much to do with assertions of Jewish primacy—Jacob, not Ishmael, is “the man.” Hardly an assertion Reconstructionists are comfortable with.)
            So it was a matter of some disappointment for me that, when we discussed High Holy Day Torah readings at a recent Dorshei Derekh Quarterly Meeting, the suggestion that we consider using the alternate Creation reading, for this year at least, was rejected. For some, making changes to High Holy Day liturgy is difficult to accept—even though our Machzor already differs in some important respects from the traditional one. (In my congregational rabbinic days, I used to refer to “Reform orthodoxy”: we made a change, now leave me alone.) Another reason for rejecting the change in Torah reading was concern that recordings of Genesis 1 using High Holy Day trop are not available. I personally understand both arguments, but would have liked us to try something new, especially since the alternative is right there in our Machzor and would be a great example of at least low-level creativity on our part. Surely we could have found someone to record Genesis 1 in High Holy Day trop, just as we did in my congregation decades ago. The same could hold true for the inspiring Atem Nitzavim, which replaced what I consider the rather uninspiring “scapegoat” reading on Yom Kippur—an alternative that’s also in our Machzor.
            While change can be scary, it is also inevitable. Even those who “sleep in the dust” change—from flesh and bone to dust to perhaps a beautiful daisy. In fact, the Hebrew word shanah, translated as “year,” comes from a root meaning “change.” Today is the day that our calendar year changes. It’s also the day we proclaim the possibility that we, too, can change, although we know from the results of “promises” we made during High Holy Days past that change is very difficult—for individuals and, sometimes more so, for institutions.
            But the fact is, failure to change can be even more devastating than coping with the challenges we face when controlling change under our own steam. I’m sure we have all experienced not only the sad results of failing to make changes in our personal lives, but also the disastrous results when an institution remains stuck in a rut.
            As an example of controlled and ultimately happy institutional change, I cite the following: Within the next few months we will mark the 40th anniversary of the Germantown Minyan, out of which both Masorti and Dorshei Derekh grew (after some pretty tough birth pangs, I have been told). Imagine where this Centre would be had it not—sometimes kicking and screaming, to be sure—welcomed the Minyan members and figured out how to incorporate them, slowly but surely, into the whole. Without today’s “community of communities,” it’s probably a safe bet that GJC would be no more.
            All of which leads to the following: Our indefatigable High Holy Day coordinators, Beulah Trey and Chana Dickter—to whom we all owe a huge debt—suggested that it would be a good idea if I, as the coordinator-in-chief, gave a talk on what they called “the state of the minyan.” In truth, I was hesitant to do so, but I agreed to take it on.
            I start by providing some perspective. I am by no means one of the founders of Dorshei Derekh, and certainly not of its predecessor, which Mike and Rachel could tell you all about. I did not live through the 1970s struggles with the shul, the split that occurred within the Germantown Minyan, or the controversies over our affiliation with the Reconstructionist Movement and the adoption of Kol Haneshamah as our siddur. My Jewish background is neither Conservative nor Reconstructionist, though I did co-author a theology paper on Reconstructionism with my good friend Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism. All of which is to say that I lack history and a full understanding of how we got to be who we are. That may be a deficiency—or maybe it allows me some perspective. I also served as a Reform congregational rabbi for almost three decades, a fact that may or may not help me understand our minyan.
            When Debbie and I moved here in 2002, we discovered in the Maslow a welcoming community. We loved the singing and appreciated the willingness of members to pitch in, giving of their time, expertise, and intellect to keep things humming. We also appreciated the stated intention of allowing for creativity in liturgy, as well as openness to occasional non-liturgical, events—academic and social. We still cannot imagine a better place to spend Shabbat mornings, and holidays as well. We are fortunate to be part of a loving community. Members of Dorshei never have to look far to find support.
            But it didn’t take long before I began to sense that, simply because of who we are, we can be very intimidating to potential newcomers. Our comfort with Hebrew and the often-scholarly nature of our discussions speak to only certain Jews. In addition, I noted that, without realizing it, liturgical creativity fell to just a few people and was often absent altogether. (I, of course, played a role in that, insofar as I did not push the boundaries when I took leadership roles.) After experiencing services at several other Reconstructionist communities, I also came to see that Dorshei Derekh is quite unlike the others. And given the nature of the other two minyanim here, Dorshei is not the unique alternative that another Reconstructionist group might be.  Which is all well and good, I guess, insofar as our raison d’etre is to create a meaningful spiritual experience for ourselves and people like us.
            There are, however, some questions that sometimes haunt me: Have we lost the energy to embrace change, the kind of energy that led to the creation of the Germantown Minyan, its split, then the affiliation of Dorshei with the lamented Jewish Reconstructionist Federation? Have we settled into a sort of “Reconstructionist orthodoxy”? When I served a Reform pulpit, I used to insist that Reform Judaism is just that: Reform, not reformed. It’s not by accident that the late Leonard (Leibel) Fein called a study he was commissioned to produce Reform Is a Verb. Similarly, Dorshei is part of the Reconstructionist, not the Reconstructed, movement, again implying the necessity of openness to change. If we have fallen into comfortable patterns, whom are we serving? Do we have obligations to the broader GJC and Jewish community? Indeed, are we paying sufficient attention to the changes that have occurred within the minyan itself so that we can respond to changes that have occurred whether we like it or not? What are we doing to ensure our sustainability?
            Here are a few challenges that give me pause:
·         Our numbers have dropped by almost 20% over the past year.
·         For two years running, some of our High Holy Day services are led by people who are not Dorshei members—including both of the separate Kol Nidre services that some of our members fervently wanted but which none stepped forward to lead.
·         Leyning has become qualitatively problematic, which is why we are now experimenting with shorter aliyot.
·         The number of potluck Kiddushes is on the rise.
·         We are experiencing a recycling of minyan leaders—think moi, and think also of the game of musical chairs that some of our sub-coordinators (or whatever the others are called) play.
·         A dozen people make most minyan decisions—the same “dirty dozen” as years ago.
I imagine some of you could add to that list, but for now that’s not necessary. My intent is not to criticize but merely to hold a mirror up to ourselves. As I said, ours is a special community, and I would hate to lose the positive aspects of what those who formed this minyan created and from which they and all the rest of us benefit to this day.
            Are the challenges I have presented compelling, or blips in an otherwise serene situation? Maybe if each one of us simply asked, “What can I do in the next year to respond more often and more decisively to minyan needs?”—and then volunteered to sponsor that Kiddush or go to a minyan meeting or take advantage of volunteers who say they’ll teach davvening or leyning—we’d be in fine shape.
            Personally, I could imagine being content remaining as we are. I could take the position that, as long as we’re able to maintain Dorshei Derekh long enough for Debbie and me to have a comfortable Shabbat communal experience until, well, we don’t need one any more, that would be just fine. But isn’t that selfish? Given the challenges faced by the entire Jewish community, do we have an obligation to offer what GJC members and others cannot find elsewhere? How can we best remain faithful to our Reconstructionist roots?
            Assuming it would be worthwhile for us to examine our long-term health, we should of course start by recognizing what factors lie behind the challenges I’ve outlined.
·         Smaller classes at RRC have significantly decreased involvement by rabbinical students, who in the past added a great deal of life to our group, led davvening, and frequently leyned.
·         Second, the minyan that seems to be growing is the one that, until a couple years ago, was pretty moribund: the Charry, led now by dynamic rabbis with consistently good voices and more open to involvement by worshippers than ever before. Is there anything we can learn from that? Are there ways in which all three minyanim can help each other?
·         Third, the number of davvening and learning choices available on Shabbat morning has been growing. That does not affect our membership, but it does affect members’ availability for leyning, leading davvening, and giving Divrei Torah.
·         Fourth, the truth is, society all around us has changed. New gender roles and the prevalence on the one hand of single parent families and on the other of two-earner families are two of the most obvious social changes of the past 40 years. 
To be sure, adapting to changes brought about by factors beyond our control is often not simple. As an example: Forty years ago in my Nyack, NY, congregation, our Women’s Club took too long to figure out what kinds of programs younger women, almost all of them working, would respond to. Ultimately the group went dark for a few years until someone new came along to recreate it. Also, in my opinion, it took way too long for the board and committees to realize that younger moms and dads, away from the house all day, were no longer willing to hire babysitters in order to come to the temple, so that synagogue programming had to appeal to multiple generations, with childcare available.
            Of even more significance, perhaps, is what has happened to the Conservative Movement. Like Reform, it too commissioned a study of the state of the movement in the early 1970s. Sadly, not liking what they saw, they suppressed it. Now the future of the entire movement is threatened. (Reform is struggling, too, but not as badly.)
            Again: We all know that dealing with change is challenging, sometimes just about impossible. We also know that not all change is desirable. Nor is it universally true that institutions must change or die. Yet I think that individuals, organizations, and even nations are wise to engage in ongoing, careful self-examination, so as to determine when new ways of thinking and acting are in order. Complaining may be a necessary step in confronting reality. But as with Jeremiah, it’s crucial to move on to problem solving.
            We welcome today a new year—5775 in the Hebrew calendar. In an Israeli newspaper the year would be represented by the letters ת-ש-ע-ה, 775 in Gematria (the first 5 is assumed, and will be for some time to come). As it turns out, those letters spell a word,
העשת, “you shall pay heed,” “you shall look about.” I hope that each one of us will take advantage of the fantastic opportunities these Yamim Noraim provide us to do just that—to carefully observe ourselves, our families, our relationships, and, yes, our minyan. To what wonderful and beneficial ideas can we give birth? Hayom harat olam: this is the day that the world can be born anew.

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