Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Welcoming the new year.

.הכנסת השנה החדשה

Another long week has passed since my last post - sorry for the lack of updates.

This weekend was, as I described it in Hebrew class, שופ''ש אוחים (a weekend of guests). On Friday night, Jessica baked challah with a friend of ours from HUC, and then the same friend joined us later in the day to watch a movie and cook dinner. A second friend arrived just as our movie finished, and the four of us shared a delicious meal and pleasant conversation.

On Saturday morning, Jessica and I went to Shabbat services at the Conservative synagogue affiliated with the Conservative Yeshiva, which I always find meaningful. During the kiddush, we met Rick, who's thinking about applying to rabbinical school HUC or Hebrew College next year. He was an interesting fellow, and we invited him to join us for lunch. He agreed, and we welcomed him and three other friends to a potluck lunch filled with delicious foods.

Saturday night, we had our final guest, who came over for S&S (Snacks & Scrabble). That, too, was delightful. All in all, a wonderful weekend!

Sunday, for me, began a time of finally entering into the period of High Holy Days (after the long buildup over the month of Elul). We had special programming at HUC about Rosh Hashanah, including a walk-through of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy that I found very helpful in my own ability to appreciate and find meaningful Rosh Hashanah services.

I'm finding that the more I learn about the liturgy, the more meaningful I find it. One of my goals for this year (I forget whether I've written about it yet) is to become more familiar with Jewish liturgy and to strengthen my "prayer muscles." For so many years, I sat through services, finding certain parts engaging and others less so - but I never had an appreciation for the service as an entire unit (let alone Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being a unit, let alone their being a unit with Sukkot, let alone their being a unit with Elul), and I want that to change. I think it's important not only for me as a rabbi but for me as a praying Jew to know what the service is, what comprises it, and how it can be meaningfully experienced. In some ways, I feel like I could have figured a lot of this stuff out already if I had taken the time in previous years, but on the other hand, at least I've decided to begin now ... and so far, I find my own expressions of faith growing with my knowledge.

For example, as I know more Hebrew now than I ever have (and I expect to be saying that every year for many years to come), I find that I can understand the prayers much better ... which is very handy here because we don't read a single word of English here in Israel even though we use the same Gates of Repentance machzor here as in the States. Knowing what the prayers are actually saying helps me follow the flow, feel comfortable where I am, and focus on what's being said in an impactful way. I can really focus in on the כוונה (intention) of the service and in turn, relate to the words.

So, what have these relations yielded? Here are some thoughts I've been having recently, inspired by Rosh Hashanah:

First of all, I want to highlight the latest progress in the development of my appreciation for Reform Judaism as normative and authentic. While theoretically, I believe that Reform Judaism is for Reform Jews as authentic as "orthodox" Judaism is for "orthodox" Jews, it can nevertheless be difficult to feel that way all the time. For example, when discussing with Jessica what do on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I mentioned that I wanted to continue our series of HUC services or go to the Conservative synagogue that we like. She said that if we're not going to have an Israeli "experience," we should stick with HUC as it will probably be similar to Moreshet Yisrael. I agreed.

But in subsequent conversations, we've been talking about how our HUC services are just as Israeli as any other service in Israel. They're entirely in Hebrew, the sermon was given by a non-American, and the music has an international, though certainly Ashkenazi, feel. The real differences aren't Israeli/non-Israeli but rather Reform/non-Reform.

So, should one go to a non-Reform service to have an "authentic" experience? Of course not. Modern Reform Judaism is just as much a part of the continuum of Jewish practice as any of the dozens of brands of "orthodoxy" out there, and to top it all off, I find the Reform Jewish experience meaningful. Our services are intentional, not minimalist; moving, not fleeing. My teachers at HUC are extremely learned--some might say pious--women and men who have made Judaism their life's work, and I'm proud to follow in their footsteps. It's tempting, especially here in Jerusalem, to think of ourselves as doing things the easy way or finding the most basic way of praying, but I do not believe that that's what Reform Judaism is, and when I'm a professional practitioner of Reform Judaism, I look forward to carrying myself with just as much pride and authority as any other self-respecting Jew.

While in the area of organized religion, I had a thought this morning at services about one of the greatest values of religion. I was listening to Avinu Malkeinu, perhaps my favorite piece of Jewish music, and it was having its customary significant impact on me. After the petition ended, I mused about the ability of that music and the choir and the Hebrew words to have a transcendent effect on me, to remind me that the corporeal world is an illusion and that reality is much more complex than our human senses can know. Something about the music helped me realize that.

And I realized in turn that religion can have this effect on all of its participants if they're open to it. There are certainly people in this world who can have truly transcendent, spiritual experiences on their own or in smaller communities, but generally, people need help. Sometimes help comes through a parent, friend, or mentor or a group comprised of those people. Sometimes, help comes through a non-human intermediary. And sometimes, help can come through communities. In my case, my Jewish community is the beneficiary of thousands of years of trial-and-error, of intense debate, and of serious study. Hebrew has become a holy language because of the infinitely deep contexts it has collected, and my prayer in Hebrew in a community of Jews has the ability to transport me beyond myself and, through relation to other Jews, beyond this physical world.

So, religion--at least my religion--is extremely powerful. But it's also entirely dependent on community. My theology, though certainly influenced by countless external factors, is my own ... but my ability to relate to theos is almost entirely in the communal setting. I think that if I'm like a lot of people, this is probably the primary raison d'être of religion worldwide.

Thus, religion is for us. It helps us connect through one another to the spiritual realities that compose and transcend this world - and therefore, I believe, all of religion is really about us. As much as we describe God and thank God and petition God and ask God for forgiveness ... it's really all about us. We say אבינו מלכנו שמע קולנו (Avinu Malkeinu, sh'ma koleinu) - our Father, our King, hear our voice ... and yet I believe it's much more about koleinu than it is about Avinu Malkeinu. When I ask forgiveness from God, it's because I recognize that I've done something that needs forgiving. We're taught that one doesn't receive forgiveness unless one has resolved not to repeat the transgression - so, we come to God with a contrite heart and readiness to change. Therefore, the value in "being forgiven" is not simply to receive God's forgiveness but rather to have changed in response to recognizing our own wrongdoing. I confess to confess, not to be forgiven by God.

Now, does that mean that I shouldn't think about God during prayer? I don't think so. I believe that there is a God but that God isn't able to be comprehended on this level. Nevertheless, there can be no greater achievement than to relate to God, so we shouldn't just give up. On the contrary, we should try even harder to transcend "this level." If thinking about God as a King helps us to do that, that's fine. For me, I don't believe that God rules over our daily actions, but I don't mind calling God King in order to further a theology that supports and enables people's connections to God. And, by participating in that communal prayer, I also build bonds between myself and my fellow community members, and those bonds can be of infinite value to my person and my super-person.

Because active t'filah (prayer) always comes to an end, and what we have left are the pray-ers who are ready to go about their daily lives, now in a stronger relation to one another than before the prayer service. It reminds me of Avinu Malkeinu - the music soars and transforms and concludes with a congregational melody that lacks the awesomeness of the previous lines. Similarly, we can be transformed and transported during prayer, but we always have to alight back on earth and continue living our lives. And those lives are made richer -- and re-transformation is made easier --- through the lives of others.

This can also be reflected in Rosh Hashanah's placement in the calendar: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts (Leviticus 23:24). According to (a) tradition, God created the world on Rosh Hashanah, on the first day of Tishrei (the seventh month). On the first day of creation, before which the world didn't exist, it was the seventh month. Thus, six months would, theoretically, have been in the history of this first day of existence. Why wouldn't the world be created on the first month?

One response I've been thinking about is that the world begins in the middle. Our acts of transcendence during prayer are timeless, and yet they are couched in history. Similarly, when we emerge from these moments, we will once again resume relating to the world in a timebound fashion, waiting for the next new beginning. Just as we can understand God to be "day by day renewing the works of Creation," so can we understand the very "first" creation to have taken place within a context of קודמות ("previousness" - both Hebrew and English made up by me).

So, those are a few of my raw thoughts that this period of holiness has inspired in me. I hope to continue to generate thoughts along these lines during the upcoming weeks, and hopefully I'll be able to share them here. And, of course, I look forward to elaborating on these ideas in a more significant fashion as I continue my path toward the rabbinate.

In the meantime, I wish all readers a sweet and good new year, despite and because of all its contexts and aspirations.

2 comments:

Elyse C said...

Daniel, your perspective on the deeper meaning of Rosh Hashanah has been an uplifting, enriching gift to your readers, and to, of course, your Self.

Your understanding of yourself as the pray-er, and your insight into the life time of that prayer opens channels of perception for all of us.

Avinu Malkeinu is my own personal favorite religious song; it never fails to move me to tears. Its tune becomes part of me, beyond its words (Hebrew or English) it nevertheless "speaks" to my soul.

Understanding the distinction between religion and spirit is a lifelong pursuit of truth.
Finding your way to combine them, Daniel, will be the hallmark and highlight of your rabbinical studies.

Knowing that all worldly things are but illusions compared to the unfathomable but reliable resilience of the soul is absolutely essential on the journey towards Light.

May the remainder of your High Holy Days be filled with greater insight, deeper joy and brighter faith than ever.

Sent with love and admiration.....

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