Friday, October 4, 2013

"A New Spiritual Search:" Rosh Hashanah Evening, 2013/5774

The following is one of three sermons I delivered on the High Holidays (2013/5774). This "sermon trilogy" was delivered before the joint services including the Reform congregation I serve as rabbi, The Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon (JCK), and the Conservative congregation with whom we co-own the synagogue building, Congregation Beth Shalom (CBS). More information about the partnership between JCK and CBS can be found here.

"A New Spiritual Search"

If you have called my cell phone and I was not able to respond, odds are that you have heard the following message: “You’ve reached Rabbi Josh Leighton. Unfortunately I am unable to take your call at the present time. Please leave your name, number, favorite biblical character and a brief message and I will return your call as soon as I am able. Thank you very much, Shalom, and have a great day!” For as long as I can remember, my family and I have been utilizing outgoing messages like this, sneaking in a creative and rather unusual request.
I have been using the current zany question, “favorite biblical character,” ever since I began my Rabbinic studies, and the responses to the question have ranged from the obvious (Moses, Miriam, Joshua), to the comedic (third donkey from the left), and to the profound (God). As a matter of fact, more than one person has answered that God is his/her favorite biblical character. Not only was I taken aback for a few seconds the first time God was left as an answer to my voicemail question, but that response has, in fact, helped form my theology and the way I go about teaching and discussing the various ways that we, as humans and as Jews, think about and believe in the divine.

Our tradition is replete with ancient wisdom. Among them, Proverbs 29:18 teaches: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Clearly, our ancestors knew what many of us know today, it is far easier to achieve your goal when you actually know what that goal is. 
Over the past few years, the Union for Reform Judaism has gathered professional and lay leaders from the various arms of the movement in an effort to create a vision for the entire movement going forward. As of this summer, that Think Tank produced what is meant to be the final proposal of that vision. While the proposed vision statement is a product of, and intended for the Reform Movement, many of the major themes that are expressed in the statement pertain to all of us.
The proposed Vision Statement for the Reform Movement is divided into three over-lapping spheres. And, since I will be delivering three sermons over the course of these High Holy Days, I think you can guess how this is going to work…
Tonight, I would like to share with you the first part of the vision statement, under the heading of “Our Faith.” It reads:

“Reform Judaism maintains faith in the Covenant between God and Israel as expressed over the generations in the teachings of an ever-evolving Torah and tradition. Stirred by the mandate of tikkun olam, Reform Judaism seeks to be the living expression of those teachings. It welcomes all who seek Jewish connection to pursue a life of meaning as inspired by the Divine and proclaimed in the truths grasped by Jewish teachers throughout time.”
The major theme from this excerpt that I wish to focus on is that of “Spirituality.” My colleague Rabbi James Gibson states in the commentary that accompanies the vision statement that the vision welcomes, “those who embrace God, those who struggle in their search and those for whom spirituality is only to be found in sacred human connection.”   
In this case, the vision points us to the goal of fostering increasingly meaningful connections to Jewish tradition by determining the nature of both our personal relationships with God and our individual spiritual searches. 
This leads us to the inescapable question: Why? 

  • Why is it important for us to develop a personal relationship with God? 
  • Why is is necessary to find a spiritual connection in our lives as Jews, even if that connection is with something different from the classical notions of God? 
  • Why do I care and why should you care?
Because, by and large, many Jews sit in the pews, listen, and recite passages that often hold little to no personal meaning. Because, quite frankly, I don’t want coming to services to be a waste of your time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed this trend back in 1953. He wrote:
“[P]eople who are otherwise sensitive, vibrant, arresting, sit there aloof, listless, lazy. … They recite the prayerbook as if it were last week’s newspaper. … Prayer must have life. … It must not be flattened to a ceremony, to an act of mere respect for tradition.” 
                                         (“The Spirit of Jewish Prayer,” 1953)

We all agree with Tevya that we come to temple and do these things because they are, “Tradition, tradition.” Yet, increasingly, “tradition” is not the captivating and mesmerizing force that it used to be. We, clergy and congregant alike, can no longer rely on tradition alone to compel attendance at services, connection with worship, or, for that matter, involvement in Jewish life in general. Rabbi Heschel’s exhortation is the ultimate answer as to why this vision of spirituality is important; it is important because “prayer must have life.”

The clergy can lead prayer, teach, and pose all sorts of provocative questions, but those are effective only when we have willing partners; allies for invigorating meaningful connections to our prayers and traditions. We need you!
Before we can work towards the vision of creating strong relationships with God, before we can raise our spirituality, and before we can build meaningful and engaging worship we must first figure out where we each stand at this point in our lives.
In truth, I would surmise that, generally, we go about our days not really contemplating God all that much. We rarely take the time to evaluate our sense of spirituality. We don’t typically have extended philosophical or theological discussions around the dinner table about the character of God or the nature of God. And when we meet someone new, absent among the first things we inquire about that person are the rather daunting questions: “Do you believe in God?” and “Where are you spiritually.”
For most of us, all we know about God, or what we default to, are the characterizations about God that we find in our liturgy and scripture. In our prayers and in our selections from the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, we are introduced to God as an entity with a persona of caring and compassion, a parental figure, and, of course, the all powerful deity. This will be succinctly summarized tomorrow morning during our Torah service when we hear: 

Adonai, adonai, el rachum vchanun, erech a’payim v’rav chesed v’emet, notzeir chesed l’alafim, noseh avon vafesha v’chata-ah v’nakeh.” “Adonai, Adonai is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.”

These are all extraordinary character traits, ones we certainly hope for and expect in God, as well as ones we, as humans, aspire to embrace in our own lives. But do these accurately depict the true essence of the divine? Is there some detail about God that exists outside of that character in the Bible? Can we even relate to this passage and others if we don’t believe in God?
Consider the following writings of Martin Buber. On the one hand, Buber teaches that “It is not necessary to know something of God in order really to believe in God; many true believers know how to talk to God but not about God.” Elsewhere he also wrote that “God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” These seemingly contradictory writings teach the same lesson; that God is ambiguous, intangible, and wholly un-knowable. In keeping with the theme of our eternal struggle with God, Rabbi Leo Baeck taught:

“The Jews have always been a minority. But a minority is compelled to think; that is the blessing of its fate. The conviction of the few is expressed through the energy of constant searching and finding.”

In that spirit, take a moment now. Close your eyes if you’d like. And think about your relationship with God:

  • Do you believe in God? 
  • Do you believe in some divine presence that doesn’t quite fit with the “character” of God? 
  • Are you pretty sure there is some greater force in the universe but you’re hesitant to call it God? 
  • Are you pretty sure that there is no such thing as a god or any divine or supernatural force in the universe? 
  • Do you have a relationship with God?
  • How would you characterize that relationship?
  • Are you even yearning to have a relationship with the Divine?
  • What exactly are you doing when you pray? Why are you doing it?
  • Do you yearn to be connected to something greater?

Let us switch gears and talk about spirituality.  Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes1 that Jewish spirituality is a journey very much like “connect the dots.” We are on a journey going from stop to stop looking to complete a greater picture. And we complete this picture by finding places where our individual lives connect with Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hoffman continues by saying that “to be religious is to aspire to a life that is a pilgrimage, not a tour.”

Now take a moment to reflect on your personal sense of spirituality:

  • When do you feel the most spiritual? During what activities? In what locations? With which people?
  • Have you ever felt spiritual?
  • Are you on a personal journey? 
  • If so, what are looking for? Where are you going?
  • How often do you try to reach beyond yourself?
  • What role might God play in your sense of spirituality?
  • How does your Judaism factor into your spiritual self?
And now that we have contemplated where we each are with regard to the divine, and where we each are spiritually, all that we are left with is to figure out how to get from where we are to where we want to be. Even if you have found that you have a solid relationship with God and a strong spiritual sense, there is no limit to those feelings. We can always grow, our connections can always be bolstered and rejuvenated, and there are endless, boundless amounts of meaning that we can find in our tradition.
I have posed a number of questions this evening, and, like a good rabbi I have answered those questions with even more questions. Now I would like to pose one more question, and, actually, provide a few answers.
How? After reflecting on your personal stance regarding God and spirituality, after all that we have discussed, how do you go about strengthening these aspects of your soul. 
Throughout the year we offer a multitude of opportunities to delve deeper and deeper into our tradition, to build connections to our culture and to each other, and to continually discover your personal relationship with something greater than all of us. Every week we hold services right here in this sanctuary. Come by once in a while and immerse yourself in the words and melodies of our prayer. Sporadically, we also offer a number of innovative worship opportunities. Come to one of the JCK family services that morphs into “Hands-Free Shabbat” as we project the words of our prayers onto the big screen. This allows everyone to pray as one, without having our heads buried in our prayerbooks. Or join us for a musical shabbat with guitar led prayers. Or attend one of Rabbi Bockman’s various Lab-Shuls.  Learn more about our prayers, scripture, and other aspects of Judaism in adult ed classes. Learn Hebrew. If we are not offering something that you might be looking for, ask us and we will either begin to offer whatever you’d like, work on it with you, or point you in the right direction for your own personal studies. Become involved in congregational life in some way greater than you already do now. That sense of ownership also translates into meaningful connections.
Pslam 39, verse 4 reads, “While I was musing, the fire was kindled.” I hope that this opportunity for you all to reflect on the questions posed has allowed fires to be kindled in your thoughts and your souls. I hope that my musings and my words throughout this sermon have helped to spark a greater understandings of where each of us is in our lives. And I hope to have ignited your desires to continually build upon those understandings.
We are here for you. I am here for you. Please be a curious and willing partner. Let us heed the advice of our ancient wisdom and work towards achieving our vision. 
Together we will foster meaningful worship, we will build stronger relationships with God, and we will advance our individual spiritual searches. 
The next time you leave a voicemail on my phone, you might just be asked a new zany question about God or spirituality. Think about it. When the time comes...what will your answer be?

1) Hoffman, Lawrence A. “In search of a Spiritual Home.” in Reform Judaism, Fall 1994. Vol. 23, No.1 (p. 32)

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