A guilt-free Judaism
Long ago, in this time of the year, when we meet with a lot of friends in shul, we used to share a lot of new jokes. Now we share jokes via Email. But there may be something in this season anyway. Actually, I receive funny Emails in these days, more than in any other given period of the year. So let me read one of those.
21st Century Synagogue Service:
Rabbi “Will everyone please turn on their tablet, PC, iPad, smartphone, and Kindles to the Siddur page 232. And please switch on your Bluetooth to download the sermon.”
“Now, Let us daven. Open your Apps, BBM, Twitter and Facebook, and chat with God”
“As we accept charity, please have your credit and debit cards ready.”
“You can log on to the Shul Wi-Fi using the password ‘Hashem18’. The warden will circulate
mobile card swipe machines among the congregants. Those who prefer telephone banking, take out your cell phones to transfer your contributions to the Shul account.”
This week’s shiur will be held on the various Facebook group pages where the usual group chatting takes place. Please log in and don’t miss out.
You can follow the Rabbi on Twitter this weekend for counselling and prayers
I wonder: is this where we are heading to? There may still be some obstacles such as: How can we use electricity on Shabbat? But it won’t be difficult to solve the matter. So probably yes. No more Siddurim, just apps on our Ipad.
We can joke as much as we like, but there is a serious question here.
How will synagogue’s life look like in the near future? Or, for that matter: What will Jewish life look like?
We live in a post-industrial society. People do not inherit merely their religious belonging. Now people choose their religious affiliation. In order to attract new members, and to keep the existing ones, religious communities have to compete among themselves. They have to learn how to brand themselves successfully.
In the Jewish world, it is happening already.
Think of Chabad, the most successful contemporary Jewish denomination. They have an excellent brand, which is Tradition with capital T. Rabbis who look very traditional (white shirt, black suit, very visible tzitzit, long beard … of course, these Rabbis are always male).
Personally, I may have some disagreement: Chabad is a mystical, Hasidic movement, hence it represents only a part of traditional Orthodoxy. It actually rules out the more rationalistic Lithuanian Jewry. It is a historic aberration that a Chabad Rabbi is the Chief Rabbi of Russia. Russia, historically, had been a stronghold of Lithuanian yeshivas. They sell it as a return to tradition, or a resurrection of Judaism, and it’s not like that. Russian Jewry, even in its traditional sector was never uniformly like that. But Chabad, indeed, is a very successful brand and they do a lot of wonderful things for the benefit of us all. Their brand is Traditional Judaism. A very successful brand.
Think also to American Reform Judaism. They have this catchword, Tikkun Olam, which literally means: repairing the world. In American Reform, Judaism Tikkun Olam stands for social justice. They do a lot of wonderful things, they manage to keep inside the Jewish life the current generation of young adults, which sociologists call the Millennials.
They do social justice, they volunteer here and there in their gap year, mostly in underdeveloped countries. They study together Jewish sources related to social justice. This way they build a strong Jewish identity in a generation that feels disaffected from Judaism.
Again, I may have some reservations especially concerning the use of the term Tikkun Olam, which actually comes from the mystical literature and means something more than social justice. Tikkun Olam has a strong Messianic connotation.
Originally, praying for Tikkun Olam meant to pray to accelerate the Messianic time, when all the human tragedies will come to an end, bringing, yes! social justice but much more as well. You find an expression close to Tikkun Olam in the second part of the Alenu prayer (le-taken Olam), the invocation of the Messianic kingdom we sing towards at the end of the service.
But yes, I have to reckon that Tikkun Olam Judaism works. In the USA a whole generation of young Jews is finding Jewish life meaningful and inspiring because Judaism is being sold to them with this successful brand: Tikkun Olam Judaism.
And what about us? I mean us, middle-of-the-road, neither Liberal, neither Orthodox. We, traditional yet modern Jews. What could be our brand? How can we sell ourselves and how can we attract members to our synagogues?
I believe we can call ourselves “guilt-free Judaism”. Inside our boundaries, which are clearly marked (a Jew is a Jew) we allow a variety of degrees of religious observance. We welcome everyone, without checking whether he/she keeps kosher at home or drive to shul on Shabbat.
Our synagogue, like the others of the Reform movement, is a non-judgmental synagogue.
We proudly practice guilt-free Judaism, encouraging families to take part in the services, to learn about Judaism, without passing to children and grandchildren that sense of guilt that was so heavy in the past and drove many people mad. This is a guilt-free sort of space. And it works. Guilt-free Judaism apparently is selling well.
But then you have a problem, which is what to do with Yom Kippur.
Because we know that Yom Kippur is all about guilt.
We pray we fast. We cleanse ourselves.
And to do so, we spend long hours in the synagogue to face our mistakes and transgressions. In doing so, we deal with guilt all the time.
When we observe Yom Kippur, we experience guilt, we feel guilty. A feeling of guilt is an essential part of the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar.
Is Yom Kippur out of place in a guilt-free synagogue?
What does Yom Kippur have to do with this guilt-free Judaism of ours?
To answer such a question, I think we have to look at the story of Jona, which has traditionally been associated with fast days, and especially to Yom Kippur.
We will read the book of Jona in the afternoon when this special day draws near to its close. When this time devoted to teshuva becomes more intense and our bodies will experience increasing weakness. And our guilt and transgressions will become even more present to our minds and hearts, even more strongly than it is now.
In the Book of Jona, we will read how God teaches the prophet not to be cynical. What God wants from Jona, and from each of us Jews to always maintain faith in the possibility of human growth and transformation.
Just as God forgives the inhabitants of Niniveh, so the human being, the Jew, can forgive and be forgiven for his (her) mistakes and transgressions. Jona longed to see the destruction of Niniveh, which did not happen because the Ninivites repented.
Then Jona is reminded that there are thousands of people there who are neither good neither bad, they just don’t know their right hand from their left, meaning: they are ignorant, uneducated. Their nature is human nature, not bad. It’s not evil.
When we commit a transgression, a mistake, a sin (if you like the expression) we are not, strictly speaking, guilty.
We happen not to be able to discern what is right from what is wrong. As in the story of Jona, God does not want to destroy us; rather God gives us a chance to do better and to transform our lives for the good.
And when we go through the process of teshuvah, when we experience change and repentance, then not only is our life transformed, but we also benefit from the spiritual life of the community we belong to.
When we do teshuvah, our community is stronger. I firmly believe that there will be room for teshuvah in the 21st-century hyper-technologic synagogue I mentioned a few moments ago, when you will not hear the Rabbi’s sermon anymore, but rather you’ll download it on your Ipad.
What will be the brand of that synagogue I don’t know yet, but I am certain that the Jewish future is of guilt-free Judaism, of enthusiastic and participated in Reform Judaism.
Yom Kippur 5775