The Power of Choosing - Rosh Hashanah 2014

Shanah Tovah. I want to thank Arnie Friedman, and Rabbis Savenor and Gordon for inviting me to be with you, thank Andy for the wonderful davenning, and to thank you all for welcoming me into this beautiful community.

For the last two and a half years, I have run the largest program in the country preparing people for conversion to Judaism, based at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. I have worked with several hundred students a year who are on their way to becoming Jews-- in the classroom, in my office, and at the mikvah.

Working with people who choose to become Jewish is a little different than the work with born Jews that I had been used to. They are sooo polite. They show up to class on time. Nearly all of them believe in God. Most of all, they look at things that I have always taken for granted with fresh eyes. They think Shabbat is the most brilliant thing ever. They are excited to try taking on kashrut. They cry when I discuss shiva and tell me how much they wish they had it when their grandfather died. Over and over and over again I get to experience Judaism anew along with them. And it has made me a better, more grateful and aware, Jew in the process.

Allow me to stand before you and kvell about a few of my students:

Justin, a twenty-one year old African-American, made aliyah at the beginning of the Summer and is now preparing to join the IDF. He fell in love with Judaism when he was fourteen, and attended Shabbat dinner at the home of his freshman girlfriend. He told me that he had never seen a family together around the table like that — talking, singing, and simply being with one another in the light of the candles. From the warmth of that table, he began a journey that led to a new life in a new country.

Laura is a single mother of two teenage boys and mechanic in the US Army Reserve. Laura was deeply connected to her evangelical church in rural Colorado, but when her marriage fell apart she was shunned by her conservative community. When she moved to Los Angeles she started coming quietly into synagogues and sitting in the back. She Page 1 of 7 self-published a memoir last year, which she called Out of Egypt and in its final chapter she wrote: “Judaism offered me my full human dignity—something I truly had for the first time in my almost forty years. I was not subhuman because I was divorced; I was truly welcomed and embraced.”

George was raised in California’s agricultural Central Valley by deeply Catholic Mexican immigrants, but left the church when his priest told him that there was no space there for a gay man. George spent twenty years without religion, but had a moment of epiphany on a tour in Europe visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory. He calls that “the moment when my Jewish soul was born.” Since then he’s converted to Judaism, travelled to Israel, and just completed his adult Bar Mitzvah in a community that welcomes and embraces him and his partner.

Justin, Laura, and George—and a hundred more like them—are my profiles of spiritual courage. Like Abraham and Sarah, our first spiritual parents whose names are added to theirs upon conversion, they left behind a faith that no longer spoke to them and set off on a journey to claim a new religious identity for themselves. And, like Abraham and Sarah, in choosing Judaism they have both been blessed, and have come to be a blessing.

Yet, there is an element of these stories which profoundly challenges me. These three individuals, from three different worlds, each found in themselves the capacity to do something that I’ve never even once considered. They each made a critical, personal decision for themselves about what spiritual path they wanted to walk.

Sure, I have changed my practice a bit from that with which I was raised — my largely secular, left-wing Zionist parents were slightly mortified to have raised a Conservative rabbi. But, I can honestly say that I’ve never in my life considered being anything other than a Jew. It is fundamentally part and parcel of my identity, and while I question and wrestle and do all those other things that a Jew is supposed to do, I don’t give the slightest consideration to being anything else.

Living my life in the presence of hundreds of converts, I have become possessed with the question of what it means for religion to be a matter of active choice, rather than a passive inheritance. All my life I took being Jewish as a given. It sufficed for me to say that I am Jewish because my parents are, and they are Jewish because theirs were before them. I know my heritage by childhood scent memories of brisket and matzah ball soup, by Yiddish inflections that pepper my speech, by the way that the contours of my face mirror those in old family photographs. Now I wonder if this is enough.

When our Tradition sets out to speak about the origins of Jewish commitment and the nature of Jewish identity, it invariably harkens back to the moment, three thousand years ago, when at Mount Sinai our ancestors stood together and accepted Torah:

Atem nitzavim hayom, kulchem lifnei Adonai elohechem, ro’sheichem shiv’teichem, zik’neichem v’shot’reichem—kol ish yisrael.

You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your leaders, elders, and officials, every man, woman and child of Israel, from woodchopper to water-drawer to enter into this covenant.

The covenant is made both with our ancestors and with us. We are born into the identity in the same way that we are born into an American citizenship by virtue of historic ancestors (almost assuredly not our own) who came together to declare that some truths are to be self-evident. Just as the covenant that they enacted automatically embraces all future generations of Americans, so too the covenant enacted at Sinai embraces all future generations of Jews.

However, if we look closer at the actual formation of that contract, at the moment of the giving of Torah at Sinai, we discover a critical problem.

I call your attention to the Book of Exodus, which describes the moment of covenant this way:

On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain and a very loud blast of the shofar and all the people who were in the camp trembled as they stood at the foot of the mountain. Sinai was all in smoke, and God came down upon it in fire, so the smoke rose like a burning kiln as earthquakes shook the mountain. (Ex 19:16-20)

A little while later, a new detail of the scene is given:

Moses built an altar and collected the blood of the sacrifices in a vessel and then took the Book of the Covenant and read it into the ears of the People and they said: “All that has been commanded, we shall do!” Then Moses took the blood and splashed over them saying “This is the blood of the covenant which God has made with you.!” (Ex. 24:1-8)

Even a cursory look at these descriptions reveal a deeply problematic truth. Our ancestors may have entered into a covenant, but they can hardly have been described as doing it of their own free will.

Imagine the scene: You have just witnessed the utter humbling of the world’s greatest empire and its god-king with ten horrific plagues. Shortly after, you walked through a split sea, with water held in invisible suspension on either side of you, only watch it come crashing down on the heads of your enemies. You are now in the midst of a harsh, moonscape desert—utterly dependent on God for food and water, and the mountain that you encamp before explodes in fire, smoke, and earthquake- while all the while God’s voice booms thunderously over the din of a thousand unseen shofars commanding your obedience. Imagine that your leader stands before you demanding your loyalty, while splashing you with the blood of sacrificed animals—the message clearly being that you can choose God’s team or wind up like one of them. This is not the covenant of free people, but of intimidation and duress. If the dominant metaphor in the midrash for Sinai is that of a wedding, this is certainly a shotgun marriage.

Our Rabbis were not insensitive to this reality. In one of the most powerful discussions in all of the Talmud, they gather together over an almost unaskable question: If the People were not truly free to choose the covenant, what does that mean for us—their descendants?

Rav Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: “The Holy One held the mountain over their heads like a cask and said to them: “If you accept Torah, that is well and good. If not, I will bury you here.” To which, Rav Aha bar Yaakov replied: “If this is so, Torah itself might be refuted.”

In this singularly devastating image of a People standing under a thousand tons of suspended stone, being told that they have no choice but to accept God’s command—the entire edifice of Jewish civilization is in danger. Standing under the mountain, free will gives way to the survival instinct. And in survival mode, words like purpose, mission, and meaning fall away and all there is making it to another day. For many of us, our Jewish identity was inculcated under the shadow of a mountain.

For many, the Shoah was the mountain—we dared not leave Judaism behind, lest we grant—in Emil Fackenheim’s powerful words—a posthumous victory to Hitler. For this generation, the mountain is our demographic terror—first clearly articulated in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, and for the past eleven months centered on the Pew Study of American Jews. We tell our kids that they cannot be the ones to break to the chain, that if they don’t maintain their Judaism that our people is as good as dead and buried.

I believe that we are called today to take a tremendous risk. The old strategy of dangling the mountain over our head is no longer working. We cannot compel Jewish identity through coercion or ethnic guilt—and if we ever could it was simply because the outside world was doing the work for us. Neither the memory of the Shoah, nor the threat Hamas, nor parental handwringing over their children’s dating choices is going to guarantee that our People have a future.

Today, we need to draw our inspiration from the convert, from someone who looks deeply at our tradition and makes an affirmative choice. We need to offer the opportunity for a new generation, and take the chance ourselves, to ask whether the Jewish Tradition can offer us peace in the face of life’s storms and meaning when we approach the end of our days. We need to know if Judaism still has the power to thrill us with its insights into the human condition, and bring us to tears with its ancient rituals. Our passive acceptance of our Jewish heritage is no longer enough to carry it into a new era—we must decide if it is worth our active engagement.

We live, you and I, in the shadow of an unredeemed world. It was a summer of sirens and terrified children, of the reemergence of horrifying diseases, of young men shot down on our streets and young men beheaded on television, and of the looming threat of more endless war. In this time of chaos and confusion, we are called to demonstrate the kind of spiritual courage that it takes to step up and claim holiness in the midst of insanity, wholeness in the midst of brokenness. If we believe that Judaism still has a roll to play in helping bringing healing to our world, then now more than ever it is incumbent upon to that we actively step forward and claim our heritage and our destiny.

If this season has one watchword, it would assuredly be Hineni, “Here I am. Count me in.”

Hineini is Abraham, setting out on a journey of faith.

Hineni is Moses, pursuing justice for his enslaved people.

Hineini is Elijah, responding to God’s still, small voice.

Hineini is Ruth, standing by the side of her mother in law, speaking the words of conversion: “Your people shall be my people, your God, my God.”

Hineini is every generation of Jews who lived and died and believed and chose to take their place in a sacred strand that goes back to the sands of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan.

And Hineini is every soul, from every background and past, who assert proudly that they once stood with us at Sinai and choose now to add their names to our sacred story.

This year, the program I run will help to welcome around 115 brand new Jews into the community. That’s practically a dozen new minyanim who weren’t with us las tyear. At each of their conversion ceremonies, as they stand before the Bet Din, they say: Hineini —here I am and it is here that I belong.

Our challenge as we begin a new year together is whether we join them in saying those words. Not out of fear, but out of faith. Not because we are scared for Judaism, but because we are inspired by it. Not because we have no choice, but because we believe in the power of the choice we make. And taking that affirmation ourselves, we give permission for others to join us—to share in this great and holy experiment, this chosen and choosing people.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald