Rosh Hashanah 5766
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
This is an emotional and momentous time for me, my last Rosh Hashanah as rabbi of this wonderful community where Gloria and I have spent nearly twenty happy, religiously fulfilled and extremely busy, years. They say that university professors never die, they just loose their faculties. I don’t yet know what happens to rabbis when they loose their pulpits. For Gloria’s sake I hope they don’t resort to preaching to their wives each day!
I thought long and hard as to whether or not to refer to my impending retirement on this occasion. I was prompted to do so by something the Chief Rabbi said at the launch of the Kol Nidrei appeal this week. He said that on Rosh Hashanah the shul is full of people who have so obviously been away on business for the past year! He also referred to a shul with a caretaker who had been there for decades and who knew more about Jewish practices than most of the members. Anyway, the time came when he was getting old and he needed to bring in some workers to erect the succah for him. The workers asked him what the purpose of that weighty structure was; and the old caretaker told them all about the festival. “You mean that they put all this up for just seven or eight days!’ said one of the workers. “Why, you think that’s something,” said the caretaker, turning and pointing toward the shul. “They put that up for three days a year!”
Of course that has not been the case with our Stanmore synagogue which, Thank God, is so vibrant and full of community spirit and activity throughout every week of the year. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding a packed shul every week, I am well aware that, in the context of our two and a half thousand members and their families, there is a large segment of our membership that is, in the words of the Chief Rabbi, away on business for most of the year. They may not be present on my last Shabbat or my farewell reception, and so I decided to allude to my retirement on this sacred occasion when I knew where they might be located.
It may sound gushing and fawning, but I assure you that it is true when I say that I have always had the same warm feelings for my members whatever their level of observance, whether they were twice daily worshippers or ‘away on business’ throughout the year. Friendship is not judgmental. A rabbi is a teacher, not a religious assessor. I do not know how the Almighty assesses us, and I cannot be sure that I will score any more spiritual brownie points than the members of my community. After all, Moses, our supreme rabbi, was punished by being prevented to enter the Promised Land. And why? Because of a minor infraction. God had told him to speak to the rock, in order to release water, and instead, Moses became distracted, and he struck it. The message is that the more learned the person - the more aware he is of the exacting demands of his religion, the more lofty and responsible the position he holds, and the greater his potential for piety - the more is demanded of him, the more serious becomes any minor dereliction of religious duty or neglect of his calling, and the more serious is his failure to reach his full spiritual potential.
The upshot of this is, to borrow the categories of Pesach’s ‘Four Sons,’ that God is clearly more indulgent with the simple and the indifferent son than He is with the wise one. So it might well be that the deeds of special concern and consideration, kindness and generosity, sacrifice and faith in the face of trial and adversity, displayed by so many non-observant and non-learned Jews might well carry far more Brownie points in God’s ledger than the regular prayers and devotions of many so-called observant Jews whose piety is confined to the realm of the verbal, and not translated into practical social action.
I do not know how to measure piety. I have never believed that it was the task of a rabbi to undertake that exercise. In my career, I have seen religious criminals. I have seen too many people donning the trapping of religion but behaving in a manner that was remote from its principles. I have seen too much of religious exhibitionism, too much score put by the uniform that one wears, rather than the heart that beats beneath it. I have long ago concluded, with Heschel, that ‘to apprehend the depth of religious faith we must ascertain not so much what the person is able to express as that which he is unable to express, the insights that no language can declare’ (A.J.Heschel, God in Search of Man, p.7).
A paper published in the Journal of Religion and Society has just concluded that religious societies are, more often than not, less wholesome, less moral and less caring than their secular-minded counterparts. It quotes the church-going yet dysfunctional nation of America as a prime example. Social indicators, such as murder, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy rates were far higher there than in any of the least devout nations. The study concluded that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional (See The Times, September 27th, p.17).
How do we explain this devastating critique of religion, and how do we defend the integrity of religious faith?
Well, I have already expressed sympathy with that view when I said that I had problems defining the man or woman of faith, and that he or she was not to be located exclusively within the walls of the synagogue. The trouble is that rituals are often mistaken for religion, whereas one can be a spiritual pygmy in a giant-sized tallit. One can talk to God three times a day, and keep a stop-watch to ensure that one is praying neither earlier nor later than the prescribed times, but those prayers may still emerge exclusively from the mouth, rather than the heart. I call it spiritual disengagement. The words of our prayers are meant to be stimuli to service, touch-stones for self-scrutiny and self-renewal, not lapel badges or slogans proclaiming membership of a select inner circle of the pious.
This, I believe, is the meaning of the verse from Isaiah, V’ameikh kullam tzaddikim, ‘And your people are all righteous’ (Isaiah 60:21). At first sight this may sound a most incredible boast and unjustified claim. It can, however, be construed to mean no more than that they are all on the same level of righteousness. The implication of this interpretation is that the difference between the relative levels of righteousness we all attain is negligible. Construed in this way, we are also able to resolve the alleged conflict between that verse, ‘And your people are all righteous,’ and the verse from Ecclesiastes, with which we are familiar from the prayer at the house of mourning, Ki adam ein tzaddik ba’aretz, ‘For there is none righteous on earth that doeth only good and sinneth not’ (Eccl. 7:20).
And so, we stand before God on this holy day, with no degrees of spiritual ranking to demarcate any of us, with no cause for smugness on the part of the regular attenders, with the uncomfortable knowledge that, our superficial embrace of piety does little to change us personally, communally or nationally. We stand before God, mystified as to why He seems to allow His world to slide ever deeper and deeper into moral chaos, His values to be devalued, His cherished blueprint for mankind to be torn up.
We stand in awe before, and in submission to, the unfathomable Being whom, we are assured, loves us, warts and all, but who seems to show that love in ways that we do not always recognise as love.
Or is it that God only responds in kind, and that He can only be reached through love, through peace, through moral and ethical living, through faith and trust, through sincerity and kindness, and that He is repelled by hatred, greed, violence, war and exploitation?
And so, my friends, you have in a nutshell my philosophy of religion. Religion is indeed a double-edged sword. It can so easily be exploited by those who claim to speak in its name, and to represent the will of God in order to justify killing and maiming, and inflicting unspeakable horrors upon those who seek to find God in different ways and through variant historical traditions. But it can also be used to purify, to ennoble, to ignite deep love and to nurture altruism and sacrifice for fellow man. Religion is the most effective vehicle to extend man’s cultural horizons, to help man define himself in relation to other members of the faith community and to bond socially and emotionally with them. It helps to promote self-discipline, a responsible and caring society, to view one’s fellow as a brother created in the image of God, and to view one’s spouse and children as one’s chiefest blessing.
Are these two conflicting dimensions of religion reconcilable? The answer is that they are. But only to the extent that we use the latter, positive qualities as the criteria for a true religion, and the former as denoting nothing other than an idolatry.
The photographs of the Israeli soldiers going into Kush Katif without weapons, and some actually weeping as they shepherded their brothers and sisters out of their homes, defined for me the true Jewish soldier, the embodiment of Judaism’s ethics and finest values. The countless TV images of bloodthirsty members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad baying for the blood of Israelis, and the sending in of suicide bombers in a total rejection of the sanctity of human life, represents the very antithesis of the religious way.
O Lord, look down on your world on this the anniversary of its Creation. Pull us back from the abyss of self-annihilation. Help us to cope with the whirlpool of hatred and violence that threatens to overwhelm your world and to banish your spirit from it. Frustrate the will of the misguided and violent who falsely claim to speak in your name and to be fighting your cause. And let all who sincerely seek out your presence enter within it in peace, acknowledging with humility that we are all equal in our inability to comprehend your inscrutable ways, in the weakness of our moral resolve, and in the salvation that we desperately need and crave of you this day. Bless us and our loved ones, our community, our people, and our land with peace, security and happiness, V’kotveinu besefer hachayyim, and inscribe us all in the book of life. Amen.