Rosh Hashanah 5782/2021 - Rabbi Shapiro

  • 5782/2021
  • Rabbi Shapiro
  • Rosh Hashanah

I am a Jew by accident. I did not choose to be born to Jewish parents or raised in a Jewish home. I am a Jew by accident. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m always inspired when someone comes to me wanting to learn about Judaism and wanting to become a Jew. Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic intern, Rabbi Fox gave me the opportunity to co-teach an Introduction to Judaism class for students considering conversion. There was something so special about the conversation that happened in that conference room on Tuesday nights. The quality of the questions was astounding and constantly forced me to think about Judaism in ways I never had before. 

As some of you may know, a little over three years ago, we completely reimagined what the path to Judaism could look like and created our own program called Choosing Judaism. Despite the fire that destroyed our camps where much of the program initially took place, and a global pandemic that forced us largely online—we’ve welcomed 128 alumni in the family of the Jewish people and the family of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

I’m often asked whether our cohorts are filled with a bunch of people who are there because they’re getting married, and while I’ll admit that was often the case in other Introduction to Judaism classes I’ve taught over the years, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Choosing Judaism. The diversity is astounding. There’s the twenty year old, single sorority girl who always loved shabbat dinners at her friends’ houses and then took a Jewish history class her freshman year and decided to convert. There’s the thirtysomething Chinese graduate student who could barely speak English and grew up in communist China where religion had no place, but wondered if there could be something more, something greater so she started reading, and the more she read, the more Judaism resonated with her and she ended up in my office. I think about the young African American man who played piano in half a dozen gospel groups and whose father is a preacher, yet came to me to share that the teachings he’d grown up with no longer resonated with him and Judaism spoke to him. I remember the Latino man who discovered his beloved grandmother had been a conversos and wanted to reclaim the tradition that was rightfully his. I recall my surprise when a couple came to see me to tell me that while neither was Jewish, they wanted a spiritual home for their family and they believed they could find it here. There wasn’t a dry eye at the mikveh when the two of them, along with their two children emerged from the water as Jews. There are the women who have lived as the epitome of Jewish mothers for decades and who finally decided to affirm the lives they’ve lived, and the families they’ve built by officially joining the family of the Jewish people. There are the men who have studied Torah every shabbat morning at the Temple for decades who at long last took the plunge. And there are countless others whose stories inspire me and show me how meaningful, how rich, and how beautiful Judaism truly is. 

So here’s what I’ve fallen in love with about Judaism all over again thanks to our 128 Choosing Judaism alumni.

Number 1. Theologies. Some of you have heard me talk about my friend and Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Ryan Bell who shared with me over breakfast a few years ago that he wasn’t sure he believed in God anymore. He had just left the church and the ministry to begin a twelve-month soul-searching journey he called “A Year Without God.” 

“I’m filled with questions and I’m filled with doubt,” he told me. 

“It’s very Jewish,” I replied. “Your journey, your questions, your doubt, it’s all very Jewish.” 

“I know,” he said with a laugh and a wry smile. “I know.”

We all have our doubts – that’s very Jewish, and that’s the point. If you have a kid who became a b’nei mitzvah at the Temple, you might remember the very first small group meeting you had with me or one of the other rabbis bright and early on a Saturday morning. We call it a “Theology meeting” and for about an hour, all the kids and all the parents chat about what we do believe, and what we don’t believe as we learn about and explore half a dozen different ways to think about that which is greater than we. I usually end my sessions by highlighting the fact that the discussion we just had is unique to Judaism. That in most other religious traditions, it would be considered heresy, but for us, it’s simply a conversation over some lukewarm coffee.  

Number 2. We’re in the community business. I often like to say that we’re not in the God business, or the religion business, or even the Judaism business. Rather we’re in the people business; we’re in the community business and we use all those things as tools—tools to help us create community. 

Number 3. Question, question, question. I hate to break it to you, but the rabbi doesn’t have all the answers, in fact, we have very few. As one alum put it, “Judaism not only allowed me to question things and pursue truth, but promoted the practice!” And all that questioning has a funny way of leading to more questions. Doubt and uncertainty are not to be suppressed, they are to be articulated and explored. It’s not always satisfying because we’re human and sometimes we just want an answer, but it leads to such a rich, meaningful, and beautiful journey when we’re able to question. 

My father-in-law is loves to share the irony that his Jewish daughter won the religious studies award at her Catholic high school every year four years in spite of being Jewish. Ashley will tell you she won precisely because she was Jewish, because she wouldn’t take any answer at face value, she questioned everything when many of her classmates did not. For better or worse, Judaism isn’t for the intellectually lazy, it’s for the curious. Consider the Talmud for a moment, 5,422 pages of the rabbis asking questions, fiercely debating possible answers, sometimes successfully, other times not, but always passionately pursuing understanding, always questioning. 

Number 4. Actions speak louder than words. Ours has long been called a religion of “deed” over “creed” – a tradition that privileges behavior over belief. It’s true. 

Stenciled on the wall of the Karsh Family Social Service Center is one of Rabbi Leder’s favorite quotes attributed to the sage known as Shamai who taught his disciples to “…speak little, and do much….” It really is that simple. 

Number 5. The power of ritual. While I realize this might be surprising coming from a rabbi, in the moments after Ashley and I got married, I remember thinking how perfect all of the rituals that take place under the chuppah at a Jewish wedding were, they just worked. It’s no different at the bris or the b’nei mitzvah, and it’s especially true at the gravesite, at the shiva, and reciting kaddish. All of it carries us through the good times and bad. It’s the gift of ritual, the gift of structure, the gift of tradition that links us across the generations. It’s the tallit that has been in the family for five generations, from which a chuppah was made, that is placed onto a b’nei mitzvah’s shoulders as they chant from the Torah; it’s the kiddush cup that’s traveled the globe to be a part of countless family celebrations; it’s the shofar blasts echoing in our hearts, it’s the stirring, and seemingly timeless sounds of Kol Nidre; holding us, carrying us, connecting us—the magic, the gift, the power of ritual. 

Number 6. Jews are homebodies. “Rabbi, you must be so busy at the Temple, what with it being…fill in the blank…Sukkot…Chanukkah…Passover…” “Not really,” I usually respond, “most people are at home with family or friends.” 

There’s a midrash that when the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, that every person’s home became a mikdash me’at – a miniature Temple. A Jewish home is a holy and sacred space. But the rabbis don’t stop there, they go on to say that not only is the Temple replaced by the home, the alter is replaced by the table. 

So much of the beauty and the magic of Judaism happens at home, sitting around a table, folding hamantaschen, spinning a dreidel, lighting the chanukiah, eating latkes, retelling an ancient, yet somehow timeless story of freedom and redemption, and of course the simple pleasure of candles, kiddush, and motzi—sitting down to shabbat dinner with the people we love most.

Number 7. The holiness of time. One of my favorite questions to ask at a bet-din, is whether or not there is a particular ritual or observance that the candidate has learned about that really resonates with them, or that they really enjoy. The overwhelming majority of the time, the answer is the same—shabbat. Our ancestors’ innovation was to make time, not space, holy. To carve out and separate one day from the rest of the week and elevate it, making it an opportunity to pause, to reflect, recharge, and reconnect. How ironic that thousands of years later, we need it more than ever? Heschel beautifully wrote that shabbat was “…the silence of abstaining from noisy acts.” There is so much noise in our world and in our lives. Shabbat is an invitation to, permission to, turn it off for a day, and simply be. 

“The week has a rhythm now that is not just based on my work schedule but also my renewal schedule,” Amy shared with me. “The renewal marked by shabbat…I turn off my phone for a day. I say good-bye to the week and hello to family time, rest, [and] reflection.” 

As the Israeli essayist Ahad Ha’am beautifully wrote, “More than the Jewish people has kept shabbat, shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

The word rabbi literally means “my teacher,” and while I know everyone who participates in Choosing Judaism learns a lot, I’ve learned so much more from them.   

There was a reading in the prayerbook I grew up with that might be familiar. I came to learn many years later that it was written by a Jewish French writer named Edmond Fleg nearly one hundred years ago. I hadn’t read it in years until it arrived in my inbox, sent to me by a Choosing Judaism student the day before his bet-din. The subject line simply said, “Yes!”

I am a Jew
I am a Jew because my faith demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because my faith requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, I weep.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, I hope.
I am a Jew because the word of the people Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not completed; we are completing it.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, humanity is not created; we are creating it.
I am a Jew because Israel places humanity and its unity above the nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because, above humanity, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine. 

It’s so easy to take that which has always been ours, right in front of our noses, for granted. Despite years of study in college and rabbinic school, and more than a decade of learning and teaching with so many of you—I know I did.

I know we’re all tired of looking for the silver lining of this pandemic, but perhaps we can indulge in one more. COVID has given so many of us the opportunity to “choose Judaism.” How many of us sat in our living rooms on a Friday night and watched a shabbat service that we never would have schlepped to ordinarily? Ashley and Evie bake challah together nearly every week—something they never even attempted pre-pandemic. One of our Trustees and his wife Zoom every Friday night with their children and grandchildren to say goodbye to the week, and welcome shabbat. When we’re once again able to live our lives in closer approximation to how we once did, let’s not loose what we’ve gained, let’s keep choosing Judaism.

To be a Jew is to take nothing for granted, to be grateful for everything. That’s the reason we’re meant to recite a lengthy list of blessings each and every morning—the nisim b’chol yom—the blessings for the daily miracles of our lives—blessings that we chanted earlier this morning in our service. Near the end of the list is a very simple blessing. Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam sheasani Yisrael—Praised to you Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe who has made me a Jew. 

For years I thought it to be a bit too particularistic—egocentric even. It’s not. It’s a simple recognition of, and appreciation for, the richness, and the beauty of Judaism and how blessed we are to be a part of this ancient and timeless tradition. 

The final ritual that accompanies a conversion is immersing in the waters of the mikveh. Mikveh is a physical ritual that we use to mark the beginning of a new chapter in life—a fresh start. Conversions are one of many reasons people visit the mikveh. Brides and grooms customarily visit the mikveh before a wedding. I visited the mikveh before I was ordained as a rabbi, and the past month has been particularly busy because many people visit the mikveh before Rosh Hashanah as a physical way to make a fresh start for the new year. We’re meant to emerge from the waters of the mikveh changed—transformed. Just as mikveh is the ritual that marks the transformation for those choosing Judaism, Rosh Hashanah is about our transformation—transforming ourselves for another year.

Maybe I’m not a Jew by accident after all. While it’s true I did not choose to be born to Jewish parents or raised in a Jewish home. I’m standing here this morning because I did choose Judaism—every single one of us did, or we wouldn’t be here today. Let’s remember that as we start a new year. Let’s see the pearls of wisdom and wonder that have been right before our very eyes, and embrace them, cherish them, and use them to truly make this a Shana Tova u’metukah—a good and a sweet new year.