5775 Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon – THE DJC AT EIGHTEEN – WHAT ARE WE READY FOR?

I want to ask you something – you’re not required to raise your hand but you’re invited to. Who here is 5 years old? 10? 13? 15? 18? In your 20s? In your 30s? In your 40s? 50s? 60s? 70s? 80s? 90s? 100 or up?

Listen to the whole piece that I’m going to read, but pay particular attention to your age group.

According to the Mishnah, a collection of 2nd century rabbinic teachings, (Pirkei Avot 5:24), at five years old, a person begins to study the Scriptures;, at ten years, the Mishnah; at thirteen, a person takes on the commandments. At fifteen, one is ready for the study of Talmud; at eighteen, for the bride chamber; at twenty, for one’s life pursuit. At thirty, ready for authority; at forty for discernment; at fifty for counsel; at sixty to be an elder; at seventy for gray hairs; at eighty for special strength (Psalm 90:10); at ninety (I’m sorry about this one) at ninety for decrepitude; and at a hundred a person is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world.”

This is certainly a text written in a particular historical moment and cultural context. I’m going to guess that most of us did not start studying Torah when we were 5, or Talmud when we turned 15, but we probably did start school at 5. Maybe at 15 you read a book that completely shifted your thinking and your perception of the world. For my 15 year old self, it was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book Between God and Man – no wonder I turned out like this.

And though most of us probably did not get married at 18, it was likely around that time we started to have almost enough balance between our brains and our hormones to look for closeness and to try partnership. These sources are setting out objective stages of life based on chronological age, based on beliefs, not only about what is valuable to engage with, but what you are ready for at each age. The text is not concerned with whether or not you feel ready. It is making a developmental claim – whether you feel like it or not, you are ready. At 30 are you ready to be an authority? At forty, a model of discernment? Maybe, and maybe not. And maybe it takes the challenge of someone outside of yourself telling you what you are capable of taking on, for you to step up, to fake it ’til you make it and, before you know it, you are inhabiting a new stage of growth.

Other Jewish sources frame stages of maturity or readiness not in terms of age but in terms of your life situation. Although these restrictions were lifted a few hundred years ago, according to tradition, in order to study Kabbalah, Judaism’s mystical and esoteric traditions, one had to be a man, over 40, with a family, and have a trusted teacher. If you were going to dive into the esoteric secrets of existence, your life had to be stable with the grounding influences of a family. You had to be emotionally and psychologically mature enough to assimilate mystical ideas and experiences without your mind melting. You had to have the foundation of Jewish learning and Jewish living, because you have to learn to walk before you are able to run. And you needed a teacher who could guide you.

Another interesting example – according to the Tosefta, another 2nd century body of rabbinic teachings (on Sanhedrin 7:3) – a eunuch and a man without children can adjudicate on cases involving money but cannot adjudicate on capital cases. Think about that for a moment – it’s quite brilliant. In other words, anyone who could potentially sentence another person to death has to know what it’s like to have a child, to experience bringing life into the world, and care that deeply for the life of another human being if they are to be trusted with the weight of sentencing someone to death.

These texts lay out qualities and stages of readiness for leading an insightful Jewish life, and name the Jewish skills and tools we need in order to get us ready for all aspects of life.

So here we are at the DJC, celebrating our 18th year. These sources inspire two questions in me that I want us to think about: One, who have we been in the past 18 years? And two, now that we’re 18, what are we ready for? What do we want to be ready for, and what are the skills, learning, and experiences that will prepare us for those new goals?

At 18 years of age we have a tremendous amount to celebrate. There is so much to be proud of and so much to thank each other for. So many of you have served on the board and on committees. You have helped set up chairs, licked envelopes, and cut apples. You have housed in-home Shabbat gatherings and movie nights, reading circles and music salons. You have organized b’nai mitzvah celebrations for our young people and a b’nai mitzvah celebration for our community. You have sewn exquisite hangings, written marketing materials, sung in choirs, and advocated for Roma refugees. You have been involved in listening projects, multi-faith walks, food drives, and community Seders. You have brought comfort to mourners and you have welcomed new babies into the brit, the covenant, extending the chain of the Jewish people into the future. Even if you have never walked through our doors until today, you are one of the people who enables the DJC to keep growing.

Over the past 18 years we have built a Jewish community that is deliberate about our diversity and is consciously inclusive of a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and beliefs, welcoming and inclusive of non-Jewish partners and fellow travelers, inclusive of the broad diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities, and is striving to become ever more accessible to people with diverse physical and mental needs.

We are not very formal or fancy. We prefer to be warm and heymish. We are a community that is reflective and questioning and quite funny. And today we have a school with 84 students and an excellent team of educators. We have a rich and diverse programming calendar filled with opportunities for Jewish learning and experiences that cover the gamut of spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and social programs. We have two incredibly skilled administrative staff and a proficient volunteer coordinator. We have a cantor who is running multiple choirs, and weaving beautiful music into more and more DJC programming. We have a fundraising team that is working hard to ensure this community will thrive for many years to come, and we have a rabbi, based in Toronto, who’s not half bad.

So where do we go from here? As an energetic 18 year old with an exciting life ahead of us, metaphorically ready to move out of our parents’ basement and forge new directions, what are we ready for?

Those of you who started the DJC were truly courageous and creative in building something outside of the often conservative and insular norms of the mainstream Toronto Jewish community. So many of you are refugees from other synagogues; fleeing experiences that felt marginalizing and judgmental, uninspiring, irrelevant, or filled with guilt. Many of you never had a substantive, engaging Jewish education, so Jewish communities can easily feel like places where you don’t know enough and therefore feel like you aren’t good enough. Many of you are Jews with non-Jewish partners, who may not have received a warm welcome in other Jewish contexts, or may have been explicitly told you don’t belong and that you are bringing an end to the Jewish people. So many of us are wounded Jews, accompanied by wounded allies.

So you have built a community that challenges the boundaries of a traditional Jewish community. You sought to widen the range of ways we can express Jewishness, and what it can look like to do Jewish together. In many ways, you started this community with the rebellious, free-spirited orientation of a teenager. That’s not an insult. Teenagers go through a valuable stage of rebellion and differentiation. Teens will often push for what is right. They have sensitized antennae to judge when adults are being hypocritical, narrow-minded, or too comfortable rather than being principled and passionate. They often need to reject many of their parents’ values and choices before they can consciously choose which ones they will weave back into their lives.

But now that we’re 18, now that we are an established community standing on our own two feet, I think we are ready to leave the remnants of our teen selves and step into organizational adulthood.

I think we are ready to do 3 things:

(1) Explore and define the Jewish values we affirm, rather than defining ourselves by the Jewish beliefs or practices we reject.

(2) Reexamine the aspects of Judaism and the Jewish community that were rejected in our teen years and see what may be fruitful, inspiring, challenging, and ennobling for us to reclaim.

(3) Heal the wounded aspects of our Jewish selves.

First, values. If you haven’t taken a look at our mission statement in a while, look at it after Rosh Hashana. It is the collective product of the board, committees, staff, and feedback from the sample of DJCers that Board Member Josh Greenhut interviewed. The explicit goal was to name positive values that describe who we are and what we care about. Of course the words inclusive, joyous, egalitarian, musical, accessible, and inspiring are listed. As we tried on other statements reflecting our commitments, it was clear that naming the values at the centre of this community shouldn’t only describe our current values, but should point at the directions we aspire toward. We wrote that we “share in the rich wisdom and inspiration of Jewish tradition and culture, while seeking to challenge, explore and reinterpret it”. We said we “are striving to revitalize our traditions and culture with moral courage, creativity, and generosity of spirit”. We asserted ourselves as “a vibrant community” that is “part of a larger progressive Jewish movement”. These are exciting, inspirational statements. I would want to be part of that community. And these are just the bare bones. Now it is our wonderful challenge to keep these values at the forefront of our minds, and make them concrete as they guide everything we do – our learning and programming, the ways we address conflict with one another, and the ways we show up for each other in times of mourning, to name just a few.

We are also ready, in our mature new state of being, to understand these values, not as our own inventions and not as the general values of nice liberals, but to discover their dimensionality in Jewish tradition, and their contemporary embodiment in progressive Jewish life.

Judaism certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on values, but the orientations and actions that Judaism calls for to express those values, cultivates them in particular ways. As one example, all religions call for giving to those in need. In Christianity, the use of the term “charity” is rooted in the Latin, caritas, which means love. Giving is an act of love, and one should give from the heart. The Jewish term for this kind of giving is tzedakah, from the word tzedek, which means “justice”. A Jewish conception of care for the vulnerable is viewed as an act of justice and responsibility, not subjective feeling. We give because it is the right thing to do. So, the more we learn about the Jewish nuances and philosophical foundations of the values we affirm, the more wisely and robustly we can inhabit them.

In terms of progressive Jewish values, the DJC is certainly a special community but it is not unique. Progressive Jewish communities, thinkers, and resources exist world-wide. We have a lot to learn from them and with them. The more we can examine how others reinterpret our sources through the lenses of feminism, anti-oppression theory, queer theory, etc., and how others re-imagine prayer and spiritual life, social activism, or end of life issues, the more we can learn from the lessons of our predecessors and partners, gain valuable insight to define our values with vision and substance, and bring more strength and substance to progressive Jewish life.

Second, revisiting the Jewish practices, ideas, and texts we have thrown out, or have never connected with. I want to be clear – I don’t believe there is one right way to live a Jewish life. That’s not what I’m interested in. But many of us walk around with strong reactions against Jewish learning and texts so that often what we do or don’t do isn’t rooted in live and adult engagement or knowledge. What I think we are ready for is what Marvin Gaye sang about – when I get that feelin’, I want textual healing. That’s right – healing our relationship with Jewish texts.

For many of us, our formal Jewish education ended at 13, and it likely left a bad taste in our mouths. So for many of us, our understandings of Torah or the narratives of the different Jewish holy days are trapped in unsophisticated, childish terms. Our conceptions of God became stuck in a literal, pediatric fairly-tale God, wagging his angry God-finger at sinners and afflicting them with boils – some hybrid between a cartoon, tele-evangelist, and Monty Python. We certainly wouldn’t try to deal with our finances based on what we knew about money when we were 13. I truly hope you are not in a romantic relationship based on what you thought love was when you were 13. Why then would we reject or accept any aspect of Judaism based on what we learned when we were 13 years old? Not only that, but since we were 13, some more recently than others, much has changed in the world and in the Jewish world, and the interpretations of our sources have to be alive to meet the greatest needs of our time.

Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, the visionary founder of Renewal Judaism who died this year, may his memory be a blessing, was a true rebbe, who swam in Jewish sources and radically innovated their meanings. Paraphrasing him, he said …

We are living Judaism 2.0. Our lives are so different from our ancestors and we need to read our texts differently, but we want to make sure our Judaism is backward compatible (he loved computer metaphors). We need a new cosmology that will help us heal the planet. We need ethics based on that cosmology and clarity about what it means to live that ethic. We need a transpersonal psychology and sociology to heal the planet. We need to teach people to get into a feeling place, to get our hearts to God with the same aliveness as when I connect to you. We need to get logged on to life.

Reb Zalman conveyed a strong message that we are living at a time when we desperately need wisdom and practices that have been tested by time, even as we transform their meanings and applications.

An excellent model are the secular yeshivot, houses of Jewish study, that have been cropping up all over Israel. More and more, secular Israelis are learning the literature of the Jewish people they had previously dismissed as “religious” – 2,500 years of the best Jewish thinking, legal argumentation, moral reasoning, imaginative creativity, and profound spiritual encounter. They are ensuring the texts at the heart of Jewish civilization do not belong to only one group of Jews, and that their meanings, insights, and questions are available to inspire and guide people with a wide range of orientations and concerns. When we become adept at reading them, there can be an organic relationship between tradition and innovation.

So what do you want to learn next? Do you want to learn Hebrew so that sources become accessible to you? It just so happens we’ll be offering beginner Hebrew this year. How about learning the skills of Torah interpretation? This fall, I’ll be teaching a series on Shabbat mornings called Scuba Torah – diving into the sea of Torah commentary. Don’t be afraid, the water is warm. For those of you who aren’t Jewish, learning Jewish texts can be an open and inviting way to understand more about Judaism, about Jews, and glean universal teachings from them without having to claim these sources as your own or hold any particular beliefs. If it’s not already clear, I’ll underscore that you are always welcome at any learning session.

The third task we are ready for is healing the wounded aspects of our Jewish selves. In this community, and others like it, because so many of you have experienced being excluded or marginalized from Jewish community for a range of reasons, but particularly for being in interfaith or intercultural relationships, there is heightened sensitivity focused on not wanting to exclude anyone for any reason. It is such an important value to help people know they are wanted, welcomed, and that they belong. But when the fear of excluding our beloved non-Jewish family and friends results in acting as if there are no differences between Jews and non-Jews, we all lose out – on several counts.

Real inclusion celebrates and honours differences rather than hiding them. Jews have a shared history and culture that mixes joy with trauma, incredible adaptability with fear for our survival, beauty and pride in our achievements with self-hatred and criticism. It is our work as Jews to look at what we have inherited that distorts our Jewish identity, and how we can heal it and let go of it. It is our work as Jews to discover what being a Jew means to each of us, and what we mean to other Jews and to the future of Judaism. It is our work to become relaxed, undefensive, joyous Jews. It is wonderful to be a Jew!

Being able to say that with clarity and ease does not in any way assert superiority or prevent non-Jews from being relaxed and pleased about their heritage. Being a proud and joyous Jew doesn’t push non-Jews out or make them feel bad. As long as it is not defensive, it actually creates less anxiety and more room for real diversity.

Can you notice when you feel embarrassment, shame, or ambivalence about being a Jew? Can you notice when you don’t identify yourself as Jewish or you deliberately distinguish yourself from ‘those other Jews’? What prevents you from claiming connection with your beloved Jewish sisters and brothers, your Yiddishe mishpacha, around the world, knowing that your connection with other Jews in no way excludes you from also claiming connection with all human beings? Loving your family doesn’t stop you from loving your neighbour. One is good training for the other.

Those of you from other cultural and religious backgrounds have different histories and heritages to come to terms with and to celebrate. Because this is a Jewish community, I want to hear from you – what kind of support and education you want and need so that you can feel as connected and at home here as you choose to be? Your work is to decide what you want your relationship with this community to be, and what you want your relationship with Judaism to be. Those are two different questions and both are important. How can each grow with authenticity and depth?

Finally, this is not a community that requires conversion to Judaism. Some of you may decide that you want to make the Jewish people your people, and Jewish practices and sources your own, and that you want to actively be part of contributing to the Jewish future. Conversion is a meaningful and powerful decision to step in with both feet, not just into the DJC community but into the larger Jewish family that we are part of. When we erase the differences between Jews and non-Jews, the decision to convert loses its power. It’s not a decision for everyone but for those who choose it, it should stand as a significant commitment and be celebrated.

It is important for us to be able to honour and support each of these. It’s time for us to gently heal that teenage reactivity and make conscious, adult choices. It’s time to have open conversations about these differences and explore how to be real allies to one another.

The DJC is an incredible community. I know some terrific 18 year olds, and we rank high on the list. What we are building here matters, not only for those of us who call this our Jewish home, but it matters for the whole of the Jewish community here in Toronto, and for the thoughtful evolution of Judaism, living up to its highest values. This work is important because we have big work to do in the world. A strong, conscious, mature, and joyous community is ready to take on the biggest issues of our generation. I am so excited to see how we will grow in the coming years.


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