Prophetic, Traditional, Reform

Yom Kippur Evening - Kol Nidrei
Prophetic, Traditional, Reform
10 Tishrei 5777
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York
by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

The purpose of Yom Kippur is:
to break the bonds of injustice and remove the yoke of bondage,
to relieve the oppressed and free slaves
and to take the homeless, the poor, into our homes
Never to let our own families suffer from need
Only then will our light burst forth like the dawn!

These words of the prophet Isaiah ring down through the ages and remind us of what we are asked to do on this day - and it is so much more than atonement.

Yom Kippur is about more than self-improvement. Our work here tonight and tomorrow is about changing the world for the better. This is the ancient prophet’s mandate for this day. The prophet’s correction, assertion, and demand, was that we should understand the link between the work we do on our selves, and the work we do to change the world.

This is not what we mean by prophet today - Isaiah is not telling the future, he is telling the present.

Forget all the meanings of “prophet” that echo in our ears from outside Judaism.

The older word is “Navi” in Hebrew - and while we translate it as prophet, it is better understood as “one who has been called”. To be called into service by God was to carry a burden, bringing important and difficult messages to people that often don’t want to hear them. Prophets are often called seers, “see-ers”.

Literally, we are talking about those who can see the truth of things, especially when that truth is difficult. 

Maimonides took this idea even further, saying that when prophecy was mentioned in the TaNaCh - in our Hebrew Scriptures - whether in the form of Jacob or Joseph’s dreams, or Moses’ or Isaiah’s conversations with God, our ancestors were really writing about the truths that lay beneath the surface. Maimonides understood prophecy to be the Torah’s language for what he would call science or philosophy.

Delving deeper into what the world really is, as opposed to how it appears, and what our words really mean, this is the prophecy that we are each called to do as Jews.

At the beginning of Reform Judaism, in the mid-1800’s, we revitalized this call. Reform Judaism asks each of us to live according to ethical ideals first expressed as prophetic visions in our people’s ancient texts.

The see-ers of the Torah looked at the present in light of our people’s history - asking us as individuals to live up to the potential of our people’s past as we made our way into the future. The Judges of Ancient Israel called upon our ancestors to live by the covenant that we crafted with God so that they could go forward and make a better nation. We at Temple Beth Zion must also look at where we come from to help guide us into a better tomorrow together.

We say that back in 1850 the founders of Temple Beth Zion were orthodox. It is not in fact what they called themselves. We look back and see “orthodox” - I imagine they looked around and saw “Jewish”.

How do I know this?

In 1854, four years after TBZ was founded, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, now considered one of the founders of modern orthodoxy, was still arguing about the use of the term “orthodox”. The first great American Orthodox rabbinic institution, the forerunner of Yeshiva University, was founded in 1915 - 65 years after the founders of our synagogue first met in the home of Hirsch Sinzheimer on Oak Street to gather together as Temple Beth Zion.

So what was the Jewish identity of the Jews who founded Temple Beth Zion in 1850?

On our website’s history, we mention that in their services they were accustomed to hearing sermons in German.

What made them different from the other synagogue in town, which pre-dated TBZ’s founding by a few years, was their regional heritage. According to Chana Kotzin’s published history, it sounds like people here at Temple Beth Zion were more likely to come from Germany and people at Congregation Beth El were more likely to have come from Poland.

In other words, we know they didn’t call themselves orthodox. They were “just Jewish”, and had a different background from the other Jews in town who were also “just Jewish”.

What was Judaism like where they came from?

Life in the shtetl - the little Eastern European village that is the setting for Fiddler on the Roof - was very different. While Fiddler takes us back to the early 1900’s, let’s go back all the way to the mid-1700’s. This is the start of modern Europe, and it is the beginning of the story of modern Judaism too.

The Jewish families of this time were just beginning to emerge from centuries of poverty and oppression. Jews in Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Germany, began to gain access to secular education. With the seeds of revolution and upheaval gripping the entire continent, Europeans, Christians and Jews alike, were beginning to question everything they had inherited, and were looking for greater meaning from their traditions.

European Jews lived through these big upheavals as movements for, and against, change, rose and fell in Judaism too. Like in Fiddler on the Roof, the arguments over the dinner table were fierce - parents afraid of children growing up and moving off to the big cities, other children following religious leaders into the forest for new forms of enthusiastic spirituality. The first Reform Jewish thinker, Moses Mendelssohn, made his way as a teenager into Berlin, leaving behind the traditional household of his father, who was a Torah Scribe.

The German Jews who began the Reform movement wanted an educated and thoughtful Judaism that kept up with the times as Jews moved from the countryside into the cities that were just beginning to allow Jews to live with some degree of equality. These Reform innovators were the first generation of Jews in Europe, since of the Golden Age of Spain in the 1200’s, who were both secular and religious scholars. Following the lead of Moses Mendelssohn in the mid-1700’s, that boy who moved from the country to Berlin, the “enlightenment” movement, the Haskalah, laid the groundwork for a Judaism that consulted ancient sources, translated them, and began to learn Judaism in ways that incorporated Western learning.

Out of this attempt to create a Judaism updated and in step with the values of newly educated and urban Jews, we get changes that are grounded in Jewish tradition. They were not making changes just to make changes - discarding old fashioned styles - they were trying to act according to the underlying principles worked on for thousands of years before and that still seemed valuable in their modern context. Early Reformers claimed the historic right that Jews everywhere have always had - that we get to interpret tradition and find our own meanings and connections. They were accused of being revolutionaries and so faced a backlash.

Despite early Reformers’ attention to learning and history, their attackers accused them of throwing out all that went before. Our Reform ancestors were intent on creating a living Judaism that connected the past with the future they wanted to see come into being.

The Talmud - the foundational legal document upon which all Judaism after the ancient world rests - talks about the need to pray with the full attention of our hearts and our minds, and so it debated whether or not we can ask Jews to pray in Hebrew, which, like today, was not understood by Jews who were not scholars. The rabbis of the Talmud concluded that the only part of the prayer service that Jews should say in Hebrew is Sh’ma and the first paragraph of V’ahavtah. We cannot be required to pray something with our complete attention that we don’t understand. The Talmud was willing to ask Jews to understand the content of Sh’ma in Hebrew, but nothing else in the service. The rest of the service should be prayed in any language that we understand. This teaching is at the heart of what we now call “Classical Reform” - a prayer service written to be understood.

When Temple Beth Zion became a Reform synagogue only thirteen years after its founding, we can understand our founders’ desire to embrace ancient traditions and update them in an authentic manner befitting a modern people in the boomtown of Buffalo. Instead of turning their backs on orthodoxy, the founders of Temple Beth Zion were fulfilling their mission of serving the Jews of their time with a Judaism that honored tradition and understood that Jews had lives outside of Judaism too. They were prophetic see-er’s into the needs of the Jewish people at the time, the demands of a Jewish history that embraced growth and change, and the opportunities to participate in the grand future of the American Dream.

I go into this history tonight to help us reclaim the word “traditional” by pointing out that we do what Jews have always done, and that orthodoxy is in fact newer than the Reform movement.

Let me say that again so that it sinks in - Reform Judaism came first, and orthodoxy was a reaction against it.

The founders of Temple Beth Zion were “traditional” Jews when they brought our community into the Reform movement. We honor who they were as their descendants. We follow in the traditions of the prophetic Jews of our Torah, the rabbinic Jews of the Talmud, the scholarly Jews of the Middle Ages, and these Jews who created and embraced the Reform Movement two hundred years ago.

And now today, here we are.

Who are we?

We are diverse.

We honor that small group of Jews who founded TBZ in 1850 and brought us into the Reform Movement thirteen years later. We have become so much more. We now look like a beautiful tapestry of Jews the world over - all brought into one community under one roof.

We continue to take the vision of our prophets of a world that can be improved by our actions, and one that needs all of our efforts, and turn those into deeds that make the Jewish community of Western New York a beacon. Temple Beth Zion is the ambassador of progressive Jewish thinking and doing to the wider world of Buffalo and beyond.

As we take stock of all that we have done this past year, I offer you these two points of growth and relief. 

One, we get to leave the guilt of “not being Jewish enough” behind. Our Jewish neighbors of all backgrounds all have valid interpretations of Judaism through the ages, and ours is equally valid, equally historical, and equally traditional. Our Judaism, like the many versions of Judaism of those who went before us, works at providing us meaning and opportunities in the non-Jewish world, while still being connected profoundly to a vibrant, dynamic, and constantly growing Jewish world too.

Two, let us own our Jewish insight into the workings of the world - we, each and everyone of us, are prophetic see-er’s into the way things work, and prophetic speakers of truth. We know how to get along with people we disagree with and still call one another family. We know how to speak differing truths to each other and still respect one another. We can be the voices that empower our society to live between the pro and con dead end arguments and find common ground and solutions in the middle. We do that whenever we argue and discuss within our own minds, within our families, within our committee meetings. We must bring our broad minded sense of family and consensus building to our communities and to the world. We are needed.

When we do the work that allows us to see our inner strengths, love and embrace our rich history, and powerfully grow into the future, we can do great things together.

Let us take our pride in our Jewish traditions and our prophetic visions, into the New Year, and continue to see and do better.

May we all be well-written and inscribed for good in the Book of Life.

A meaningful Yom Kippur to us all.