On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘Yom Kippur’

Kol Nidre 2016

Message delivered by Chancellor Eisen at JTS Yom Kippur services.

I went fly fishing this summer with my son and a very patient instructor, and came away with three lessons directly relevant to the work of teshuvah.

First, fly fishing is hard, very hard, and if my skill at casting that day is any indication, it’s unlikely I will ever be very good at it.

Second, in fishing as in life one sometimes gets lucky. Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It, writes that “if our father [a Presbyterian minister] had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching it.” I was lucky: I did catch a fish that day. It is important, as we undertake the labor of doing better than we have in the past, to know and face up to our inadequacies. But it’s also important to remember, as Jewish tradition insists, that there is hope for us nonetheless. Reverend Maclean put it this way. “All good things, trout—as well as eternal salvation—come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

The third lesson is that often, when we bend all our efforts toward a single, difficult goal, we may fall well short of it—but if we look around, we may find that we have been vouchsafed a gift that never would have come to us otherwise, and that is worth far more than the goal for which we were striving. I set out that morning wanting to learn to fly-fish—or, to be completely truthful about it, to use a fishing lesson as an excuse for spending a few good hours with my son. He and I had those hours together. But what I learned with him at my side was the joy beyond words of standing knee-deep in a sun-dappled river, surrounded by four shades of forest green, looking up at four shades of sky blue, with waterfowl gliding overhead and woodpeckers making their distinctive call—all of this raised to an exponentially higher level of stunning beauty when the wind churned the water, and clouds covered the sun, making for a show of light and shadow that causes me to shudder even now, as I recall it. Talk about a moment of grace!

Thanks to that experience, I know something of what Maclean meant in the (very Jewish) mystical affirmation at the end of his story. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” We stand in that river, you and I, never with more awareness than on a glorious morning like the one I have described, or on a day like Yom Kippur.

It’s hard to do better than that sort of experience in this super- empirical age. Try to turn literature or memoir into theology or theory, I find, and you quickly run up against more conundrums than the technical terms in a fly fisherman’s lexicon. What is the “one” into which all things merge, exactly—or the One, the ehad, in the creedal affirmation that you and I will make in the final moment of Yom Kippur about YHWH, the God of Israel? When is the “eventually” when all things merge, or make sense, or allow us to figure out, as the characters in Maclean’s story ask, why it is so hard to figure out what people need, and to help them with it; why “it is those we live with and love and should know who elude us”?

I often meet Jews, young and not young, who throw up their arms in frustration that Judaism is so much better at asking questions like these than answering them. Sometimes, desperate for the answers, they mistake our tradition’s poetry, allusion, story, praise, reassurance, hope for things not seen, guidance for living, and companionship along the wilderness journey of life—for theology or even system. I too believe, and wish at times I could believe more. I am a seeker after every scrap of Truth that grace and art allow mere mortals to grasp. But my gratitude for Yom Kippur does not stem from the expectation that I will leave Ne’ilah with ultimate questions answered or will have all my deep-rooted doubts assuaged.

Why then am I here? What do I hope to receive in the next 25 hours, which we will spend largely with a liturgy that prompts introspection and resolve? I will answer by sharing two personal religious high points of the year that has just ended.

One was a conversation that took place at Yale University Hospital. I sat with a group of physicians, faculty, and staff who meet regularly to explore and strengthen the connection between “spirituality” and medicine. After a brief presentation by me on Jewish approaches to illness and healing, a physician at the far end of the table remarked that he goes to church regularly—and none of his colleagues understand why. “I go to church,” he explained, “because I find there a kind of discourse and community available nowhere else—certainly not at the hospital.”

Beautifully put, I think. I suspect that many Jews, perhaps many in this room, would say the same about their synagogue attendance, particularly at the High Holidays. The Pew Report of 2013 found that over 70 percent of American Jews self-identify as having a religion, Judaism. Yet 70 percent of those Jews declare in answer to a follow-up question that religion is not the major component of their Jewish identity. Judaism for them is rather a matter of family, ethnicity, tradition, ethics, or peoplehood. It claims their engagement, in other words, by providing a kind of discourse and community that is rarely available elsewhere.

There are times when I wonder, as much as the next person, why we really need to say all these prayers, the same ones day after day, or year after year, almost all of which were not written with 21st century Americans who carry smartphones in their pockets in mind. I have to tell you, though, that after following the latest news of the election campaign, reading the paper, listening to the pundits, I often feel cheapened, lowered, even sullied by what has been said and done. Is this the best that adult Americans can achieve in pursuit of the leadership of our country at this crucial time in the world’s history? This is the way we talk to and about one another, this is role-modeling for young people, this is what life is for and about? Maclean says gently, with the wisdom of his Presbyterian father, that “if you have never picked up a fly rod before,” as I had not before this summer, “you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess.” This election campaign has proven that, with or without rods and reels. The question this Yom Kippur, more than any other in my personal memory, is whether we will sink into the mess beyond hope of rising. Words and melodies like Kol Nidre, and the 25-hour immersion that follows, constitute an alternate discourse and a restorative experience of community. They are to me, and perhaps to you as well, a very welcome antidote to the mess all around. They may even help us to do better.

Last fall I had the privilege of joining about 200 other religious leaders and public officials at the service of prayer and remembrance that Pope Francis convened at Ground Zero. The pope’s words were moving, and, especially to an audience sitting in those literal and moral depths, his presence was palpably elevating. No less moving, to me at least, was the silence that greeted the Pope’s entrance; the multi-faith character of the audience that he led in prayer; and the singing of Oseh Shalom Bimromav with that group, in that place, at that moment. Had the Pope sought theological agreement from those assembled, he would have failed before he began. The members of the audience, dressed at Francis’s request in the distinctive garb of their various traditions, probably brought dozens of different notions of prayer to the prayers we shared. They held divergent notions of the shalom that exists in heaven and the shalom we hope to see on earth. Without doubt, they cleave to widely varied ideas of the Higher Power to which that day, we all agreed to attach the word God. The degree of theological unity among us counted for less that morning than the fact that we were humbled to stand before God as mere mortals, our time on earth fleeting, the work to which we are called immense, the planet with which we are entrusted in real danger of irreparable harm.

They, at that moment, you at this one, are my community as we face up to, and face down, the terrorists and the nihilists and those who think only fools believe in any goal other than self-seeking. They, you, are the community that guarantees the existence of an alternate discourse, a better language, a higher path. Joining with you in this space—a Christian space, davka, loaned to us by allies of another faith who know how important it is for us to exercise and strengthen our faith on Yom Kippur—I am raised up and you with me.

The rabbis, as they did so often, front-loaded a lot of the meaning of Yom Kippur into the opening moments of Kol Nidre, knowing perhaps that they had our maximum attention then, and wanting to take full advantage. Let me in conclusion draw your attention to what we said and did a few moments ago at their direction. With the ark open, and Torahs in hand, we said with as much solemnity and focus as we could summon, that “by the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.”

Who else is there to pray with, after all? How could permission to pray be given if we, all of us transgressors, did not grant it to one another?  Who else except a community like this, gathered at a moment like Yom Kippur, blessed with a discourse like the one we will inhabit for the next 25 hours, could affirm, in the face of the moral relativism peddled daily by our culture, that there really is an “above” and a “below”? That there is Good and Evil, Truth and Lies, and we need to turn from evil and lies to goodness and truth, and can turn? That there is blessing to be had, and we can choose it. That there is life—and with God’s help, we can choose that too, at least for a little while yet.

Then we turned the page, and requested release from vows we have not even made yet, and declared before God and each other that our promises shall not be considered promises, lest our inability to fulfill those vows and promises paralyze us from helping one another and making the world better. Finally, the liturgy offered the precious reassurance, in God’s name, that we can be and will be forgiven for whatever needs forgiving. We quote God’s words to our ancestor Moses, “I have forgiven, as you have asked.” That’s when we say sheheheyanu, having been given the promise we need in order to go on, and face another year.

Yom Kippur reminds us, in the Kol Nidre prayer and many others, how hard it is to get life right at any point. It teaches me that we may get it right nonetheless. We may get lucky. There may be grace. We may do better next year than we did before. And even if we don’t, there will be unexpected blessings, moments when we might be pierced by a melody, or a phrase, or the pleasures of a shared community.

I thank God for the blessing of this day, the blessing of this discourse, and the blessing of this community. I wish us all a day studded with moments of great meaning, and a year of both art and grace.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

This has been a momentous and disturbing year for Jews who care about the future of their people and their tradition. 5774 began with news of prestigious research that cast doubt on the vitality and viability of the Jewish community in America. As the year draws to a close, that concern for the state of American Judaism has long since been eclipsed by fear for the ability of Israel (indeed, of any state) to defend its citizens from terrorist aggression. ISIS’s brutal march across Iraq and Syria has demonstrated that the threat posed to Israel’s borders by Hamas missiles and tunnels is part of a far larger threat from which no one, no nation, is immune. These events will weigh heavily on many Jewish minds as we sit in synagogue on the High Holy Days. I know they will be on my mind, crowding out a host of other concerns, both personal and communal, and eroding the hope we all need in order to accomplish repentance and renewal.

How shall we think about these matters during the High Holy Days? In what ways shall we act differently in 5775, as individuals and as a people? And, perhaps most crucially of all, what wisdom do the Days of Awe offer, in the face of truly awful events, that can help to restore hope and point the way toward life and blessing?

As if in response to these questions, I was suddenly reminded one day of the opening passage of the haftarah chanted on Shabbat Shuvah—the Sabbath of Repentance that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—by the Prophets Hosea, Micah, and Joel: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” Rereading the prophetic selections this year, I was struck by two themes in particular.

The first is that Israel should return to our God in recognition that we have “stumbled” or “fallen.” All is not right with us or the world. We can’t just proceed as usual, down the same roads as usual. Our course must be altered, or we will get nowhere. That lesson holds for many aspects of our lives, individual and collective. It is true with regard to Israel’s security situation in the wake of this summer’s war; Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum, embracing “left” and “right,” “religious” and “secular,” seem agreed that the New Year must bring new directions, new options, ways of moving forward not yet attempted, on paths as yet untried.

Hosea emphasizes one aspect in particular of the required change: new language.

Take words with you and return to God. Say to Him: Forgive all guilt, and accept what is good. Instead of bulls we will offer our lips. Assyria shall not save us, no more will we ride our steeds, or say that our handiwork is our god. In You alone orphans find pity. (14:3–4)

What we say to one another and the world, the way we use language to reinforce current belief and limit consideration of other options, or by contrast, open the door to new thought and new partnerships—all these matter. Our words have the power to persuade God to forgive us, the Prophet maintains. Do they not have the power as well to persuade one another that things we ourselves have fashioned—objects, ideas, policies—are not God? We can and should turn away from those things. That’s what the New Year is for.

One of the most remarkable and hopeful moments of the summer was the coming together of Israelis of every opinion, joined by American Jews of almost every opinion, first in response to the June kidnapping and murder of the three teens in the West Bank and then in support of the war to defend Israel against the rockets and tunnels that put its citizens in jeopardy. Jews are not good at unity much of the time, and not much better at listening to words with which we strenuously disagree. We are highly skilled at using words to categorize one another—secular, religious, settler, leftist—and flinging the words about with a contempt that declares dialogue useless. Two other low points of the summer were the murder of an innocent Palestinian boy in response to the murder of the three teens and the censure or ridicule of Jews who expressed sadness at the death of innocent Palestinians. Anger and fear took their toll on compassion. Our words were brought low.

We know—and should we forget, Hosea reminds us—that the God before Whom we stand in judgment on the Days of Awe is one in Whom “orphans find pity” (14:4). This same God sent Jonah, an unwilling prophet, to secure the repentance of Nineveh, capital of Israel’s sworn enemy Assyria. Nineveh, apparently powerful, is helpless in the face of God’s judgment. Widows and orphans, seemingly powerless, find safety in God’s compassion, which circulates in the world through human beings like you and me. Normal operating procedure for individuals and states is to look to force (“steeds”) and alliances for strength and salvation. I am not ready to abandon either force or alliances in the face of Israel’s enemies, and do not believe Hosea wants us to. His point is rather that we should not rely exclusively on those sources of strength. The ironclad security we seek is unattainable; such security as we can attain will require words of healing among ourselves and with our enemies. This is a hard truth in any time, for any country, and all the harder for Jews in this time, in our precious homeland.

The long history of the Jewish people gives hope that, having survived so many tragedies and overcome so much adversity, we will be able to work through present difficulties, hard as they are, and take full advantage of the enormous blessings that come with renewal of Jewish sovereignty and participation in the greatest Diaspora we have ever known, the United States of America. The study of Jewish tradition offers confidence that our Torah is profound enough, complex enough, and compassionate enough to point a way through moral quandaries like those imposed upon us by the enemies of the moment. I wonder if the Rabbis directed us to read three different Prophets on Shabbat Shuvah—unparalleled in the annual haftarah cycle—to stress the need for a multiplicity of differing voices in the quest for turning and return.

Hosea calls us to recognize the fact of stumbling and embark on the search for new words. Joel assures us (2:19–20) that Israel’s enemies will be overcome, and life safeguarded: “I will grant you the new grain, the new wine and the new oil and you shall have them in abundance.” And the haftarah concludes with Micah (7:19–20), who promises—lest we doubt this going into Yom Kippur—that God will continue to “keep faith with Jacob,” and will “return to us in compassion” or, as the Etz Hayim translates the Hebrew, “take us back in love.” The love is put into the world by God, but is made effective here by us, manifest in better words and wiser paths.

My very best wishes, on behalf of everyone at JTS, for a year that is both sweet and good.

Bridging the Secular/Religious Divide in Ourselves and the World

The Yom Kippur liturgy holds out a special welcome, which I want to reinforce, to the tens of thousands of Jews who will attend High Holiday services this year, and perhaps fast all or part of the day despite complex and ambivalent feelings about religion and uncertainty or outright skepticism about belief in God. If you are among them, let me urge you not to be put off from fully embracing the opportunity this day affords by the fact that the liturgy seems to assume a year-round regimen of practice in which you may not engage, and makes assumptions about life and death that you may not share. Let me confess that one of the most important moments to me in the history of modern Jewish thought—my scholarly field of expertise—is the one in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book Man is Not Alone, when Heschel follows a gorgeous and moving page describing personal religious experience of God with a chapter titled in boldface headline, “Doubt.”

I want to build on that juxtaposition of faith and doubt for the next few moments, in the hope of helping all of us take maximum advantage of the 24 hours ahead. I want to challenge the assumption that the purpose of Yom Kippur is to get us to be more religious, in the sense in which that word is ordinarily used these days—religious as opposed to secular. In my view, we are not meant to go forth from this hall at the end of Ne‘ilah and forswear life in the secular world in favor of a putative religious existence in some other realm. Most of us live our lives in the secular world, and have no intention of abandoning it. We treasure science and technology; culture and the arts; the free exchange of ideas; the fabric of daily existence with family and friends that we share with other participants in modern times. If I thought that the purpose of Judaism, and so of Yom Kippur, was to get me to leave that way of life behind—as some forms of Judaism maintain—then my position on Judaism would bear the same title as that chapter in Heschel’s book: doubt.

Thank goodness the very opposite is the case. The Judaism I have been taught all my life—the JUDAISM of the Bible and the Rabbis—has no interest in the religious/secular dichotomy. Jewish tradition has never fit comfortably inside the notion of religion. Fasting and prayer are two among many hundreds of commandments meant to guide Jews to a good life and a better world. The Hebrew Bible includes lengthy legislation and narrative concerning politics, economics, social justice, and the arts; profound philosophical ruminations and moral insights; one of the greatest love poems ever written; and bloodcurdling tales about kings and their intrigues that highlight the limits, use, and abuse of power. Major sections of the Talmud and subsequent legal codes likewise cannot be contained inside any narrow definition of religion. They remind us that the Torah does not command Jews to be religious. It commands us to be holy, to pursue justice, to walk humbly with our God. That requires action outside the sanctuary more than inside it; seven days a week, and not just one.

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