Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Apikorus of Vilna: The Middle Ground for Religious and Cultural Jews

The Apikorus of Vilna: The Middle Ground for Religious and Cultural Jews
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, 12/13/08, Temple Beth Shalom of Long Beach

In our portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure at night. In his victorious struggle, Jacob receives a new name: Yisrael. “For you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:29) Many commentators have pointed out the implications of this name. Jews carry on Jacob’s heritage of God wrestling. God is at the center of our religion and our tradition, yet our collective and individual relationships with God are not characterized by a blind or unquestioning faith. Jewish wrestling with God takes many forms and has many results.
Last Shabbat as a Shabbat animator, I was asked to wrestle and lead a conversation with this question: Can you be a good Jew and not believe in God? There were people at the table struggling with this question. It is a good Jewish question. Why? Jews are more concerned about goodness than belief in God. Being good is crucial in a world more than the belief in God’s goodness. The Talmud has a famous passage to suggest that it is better spurn God than to spurn his commandments. This is because doing the commandments produces concrete good in the world, but belief in God does not necessarily lead to this.
The Jewish preoccupation with good behavior over proper belief is illustrated in this story from the old country.
An apikorus (a blasphemer) from Yennesvelt had heard of the great Apikorus of Vilna. Like all good Jews he wanted to ‘kaneh lecha rav’-acquire a master teacher for himself. He decided to travel to Vilna to learn from the great Apikorus of Vilna. He chose to visit him on the holiest day of the year when he imagined his heroic master would be engaged in the most astonishing apikorsus imaginable. So he packed his wagon and traveled to Vilna, spending most of Yom Kippur on the road. He ate his pork sandwiches on the way reveling in his anticipated encounter with the great apikorus.
When he reached Vilna, he kept asking the irritated religious Jews on his way where he could find the Apikorus of Vilna. They curtly pointed toward the city center, wishing to avoid contact with this small town apikorus who gleefully showed contempt for them and their holy day. When he reached city center, he was directed toward the Grand Synagogue of Vilna. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt was perplexed what his hero would be doing at the Grand Synagogue, but he thought it must be completely outrageous.
When he walked into the Grand Synagogue at the hour of Neilah he discovered that the Apikorus of Vilna was in front of the congregation, draped in Tallit, serving as Shaliah Tzibbur for the holiest service of the year. The scene was astonishing: The Apikorus of Vilna chanted the prayers with fervor, the congregation wept in prayer, and the room was filled with yearning and hope. Our Apikorus of Yennesvelt was completely stunned, unable to comprehend why the most famous Jewish blasphemer was leading the holiest service of the year.
When the service ended with the dramatic Shofar blasts and people with shining faces left extending greetings of Shanah Tovah, our apikorus made his way to the Bimah to confront his hero. He reached the Apikorus of Vilna as he was folding his beautiful tallis into his bag and eating a morsel to end his fast. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt confronted him: “How can you, an apikorus’ lead the Neilah service at Yom Kippur?” The Apikorus of Vilna smiled and gave his pupil the first lesson in apikorsus. “The difference between you and me is simple. I am an apikorus. You are an am Haaretz (an ignoramus). “
This old story from the late 19th century Eastern Europe helps to answer our question. Yes, you can be a good Jew and not believe in God. The reason is that Judaism does not focus on proper belief, but on mitzvot and actions that improve the human condition. Moreover, an apikorus despite his doubt in God can see in certain aspects of religious life specific goods and needs that should be honored. Does he think his prayers will be heard by God? Maybe not. But the Neilah service helps people to be hopeful about their lives and to feel connected to each other. So it is a good to be honored and supported.
Upon deeper reflection on our story suggests a couple of things about the tradition of skepticism in Judaism. A skeptical (apikorus) Jews could be both a learned and practicing Jew. At the very least the skeptical apikorus had a profound respect for the religious traditions and behaviors and often could be an exemplary practitioner, an observant Jew in every respect.
Another revealing side of the story is that the Apikorus of Vilna was given the honor of leading the holiest service of the year in a religious community. The implication is that this religious community held this man in the highest esteem, since traditionally the person chosen to be Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) for the Days of Awe was chosen from among the most respected persons in the community (He was not necessarily a professional Hazzan as is contemporary practice.) The religious community depicted in our story is also tolerant and lives by a broader standard of what a good person is.
There was a rich middle ground in Jewish life recalled by this story which seems harder to achieve, in our own times, but is a worthy goal. One of the sad realities of contemporary synagogue life is the loss of this middle ground in which religious and cultural Jews interacted and shared a common way of life. But I believe that recreating this rich middle ground is critical for Conservative synagogues and the spiritual life they aspire to. Let me share with you briefly a number of approaches how we might help create and sustain this middle ground in our congregation.
1. Emphasize within the congregation Judaism’s imperative to pursue the good and to practice Hesed-kindness regardless of whether you believe in God or not.
2. The life of mitzvot is the Jewish way of focusing on individual and collective practice on living a good life and finding a common language for doing so. Can we restore to centrality the life of mitzvah as the common language and way of Jews regardless of whether we are ‘religious or cultural’?
3. Give reasons for doing mitzvot that integrate religious and humane motivations. People who do not believe can be moved by cultural, psychological and humanistic reasons for doing mitzvot. We can encourage people to do Shabbat to respect the environment, make quality time for friends and family, avoid enslavement to our working lives, and express gratitude to those we love as well as to frame this holy day as a Day for the Lord.
4. Help people to gain depth and knowledge of practices that reduce embarrassment and increase meaningful participation and a sense of the broad commitment to goodness central to Judaism. I do believe that when people have some mastery of Jewish practice and language they feel a strong attraction to our Jewish way of life.
5. Work with our knowledgeable and traditional members to cultivate a tolerant, non judgmental, flexible, encouraging, and generous stance with others who are not religiously inclined or Jewishly knowledgeable. I have worked on myself to embrace these characteristics throughout my rabbinate. I understand this as “Torah and Derech Eretz”.
6. Encourage younger parents to learn, try practice, and model devotion to practice with their children. At the same time parents need to encourage questions their children raise. Modeling the Jewish middle ground for our children is a very deep, challenging, and rewarding way of parenting.
7. Make it safe to talk about God where people can express skepticism, doubt, disbelief, and faith and encourage all parties to listen to each other with respect. Also when talking about God, we must learn about and share the remarkable diversity and depth of approaches to God in Judaism.
At the dinner we held last week the discussion we had about God and goodness was long and engaging. I don’t know if the skeptical persons around the table were moved, but I do know that they were relieved not to have been judged harshly for their skepticism. One of the lessons I learn from doing lots of Shabbatot at people’s homes is that the table conversation about Judaism, God, and the purpose of life is a precious opportunity to explore these questions interactively. This sermon that emerged from that conversation is a by product to the all important conversation that I hope continues with those who joined me at their table that night.
Our conversations about God and living a good life has a direct ancestor in our God wrestling ancestor, Yisrael who we read about in this week’s portion. The name of our people comes out of this wrestling. When we wrestle with these issues we encourage our loved ones and friends to join us, we carry on the authentic tradition of our people and our relationship to God. The Apikorus of Vilna lived in this tradition and whether we are filled with faith and filled with doubt, we all can participate in being Bnai Yisrael.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time: Summary-Jews are the most secular "religious community" in America. Jews pray less than any other religious grouping. Why are Jews so Secular and how does it impact communal religious life? How then do synagogues which are religious institutions by definition connect with a largely secular Jewish public?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach, CA
Sermon Given: 12/6/08
Copies are at the synagogue website:
Our portion, Vayetze opens with a collision of sorts. “Vayifga bamakom-Jacob collided with this place.” It is on his hurried journey to escape the wrath of his brother Esau who wants to kill him. The Torah proceeds to describe Jacob’s unexpected night encounter with God. The Rabbi’s interpreted the phrase: Vayifga Bamakom as a proof text that Jacob introduced the evening prayer (Maariv). No one, according to the Rabbis, had ever tried praying at night. According to the rabbinic imagination, Jacob’s grandfather had introduced Morning Prayer (Shahrit) and his father, Isaac, fathered the Afternoon Prayer (Minchah). But Jacob completed the triad of Jewish prayer by praying in darkness.

Thus according to tradition the template of worship was laid out by our forefathers. Our patriarchs are depicted as inventors of a sort, innovators of prayer. Their startup religion, the religion of Yahweh, centered on prayer-the human approach and encounter with God.

It is with great irony then that in 21st century America, Jews are the religious group least likely to be found in its houses of worship. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently published data on religion in America ( ) showing that Jews are closer in their behaviors to the unaffiliated Americans than to religiously defined Americans of Christian denominations. While Jewish identity tends to be relatively strong, religious practice is much weaker. This is also evident in Israel, where most Israeli Jews are decidedly secular, rarely attend synagogue, do not observe Shabbat and more and more do not observe dietary laws. Over my career I have probably converted over 500 people. The most common perplexity of almost every convert I ever mentored was why most of the Jews they knew were less religious than they aspired to be as new Jews. How curious this perplexity. How miraculous that these new Jews hear the music of Jewish religious insight, but so many born Jews are tone deaf, unmoved by the songs of their legacy.

What is the impact on a Jewish community in which most of its people are secular? What are the implications for synagogues as religious institutions? These questions are often not honestly faced in synagogues? We sweep them under the rug? Or we let the Rabbi serve as the lightning rod for these unresolved communal issues. The reason is that there is an uncomfortable accommodation, especially in Conservative Synagogues between those who are more on the so called religious spectrum and those who are more comfortable on the secular side. Orthodox synagogues don’t suffer from these tensions as much because they are unambiguously religious in orientation and demand more strict observance from their members. Reform also has less ambiguity since they assume the secularity of the great majority of their members. Conservative congregations wobble, built on shaky coalitions so called traditionally oriented persons, but in reality a very broad spectrum of culturally oriented secular Jews and traditionally leaning Jews who find Orthodoxy too stringent or closed minded.

Who are secular Jews? The term itself is broad. They are variously described as unaffiliated, but the truth is that many are affiliated. Sometimes secular are described as non-religious. But even the so called religious in a Conservative congregation are selective in their observance of commandments, like coming to services but not having a kosher home or only observing some Shabbat laws. The term ‘apikorus’ is rarely used but helped previous generations portray secular Jews as non-believers, open atheists who still maintained an ardent loyalty to their people. I prefer the nomenclature of ‘cultural Jew’. Cultural Jews have an affinity to many aspects of Judaism including many of its religious dimensions, but are not pious or meticulous in their commitment to the traditional commandments.

This in turn helps us to describe a religious person. There is no term for religious in classic Hebrew. Rather a person who was devoted to a religious life was described as Shomer Mitzvot-a guardian of the commandments. In Conservative synagogues the underlying tension is between those who shomer-guard certain communal commandments like the koshrut of the kitchen or the laws of the Shabbat services in contrast to the members who don’t guard those traditions with equal fervor. Thus there is often a tension in a Conservative synagogue between those who piously value attending services and those who don’t often attend or who casually attend based on reasons other than a sense of religious personal obligation.

As a congregational rabbi I have to mediate these often subterranean tensions. I have had 25 years to think through this problem and here are some principles I have arrived at.

1. There are many mitzvot in the Torah. The Torah does not generally prioritize them, so my role is to praise and validate whatever mitzvot a Jew has taken on to do.

2. I believe every Jew does some mitzvot. So called cultural Jews do mitzvot. Jews who attend synagogue do other mitzvot. Jews who work in social action do mitzvot. Jews who go to Israel do mitzvot. They all deserve praise.

3. While I think the mitzvot connected to communal synagogue life such as prayer are very important, I do not guilt trip, browbeat, and condescend to cultural Jews who do not focus on these mitzvot. I will also not function as a DGT (designated guilt tripper) on behalf of congregants who think the rabbi should do this. I encourage people to perform these mitzvot and teach people who are willing to listen why they are important.

4. I acknowledge that there is a lot of alienation from the synagogue by cultural Jews and realize that one of the ways to connect to them is in other places than synagogues: at their home tables, at their workplaces, in supermarkets, and at social justice events. Therefore I believe that rabbinic work involves serving as a rabbi in these contexts.

5. Most important, most Jews are agnostic and atheistic. Therefore they have often unarticulated or sometimes highly thought through opinon about prayer, God talk, and rituals that assume belief and affirmation of the God of Israel. Assuming that everyone has resolved this issue in their minds when we conduct public rituals strikes many Jews as either arrogant or pure obliviousness. I hate to be viewed as just another oblivious rabbi, so I try to work hard to acknowledge this ambivalence on the part of most Jews.

6. Our services should be places for people to express their faith and doubt. Jewish prayer has one great advantage over worship in other traditions. It is highly participatory and allows for people with different levels of faith to participate and to feel involved. This beautiful flexibility has led me to emphasize giving as many people as possible roles in public worship that overcome resistance to the religious ideas and expectations of the prayers. The more people participating the better. They become stakeholders and ‘spiritual citizens of the minyan’.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Larwence Kushner beautifully expressed how synagogues should accommodate and support different types of Jews. I believe his words are very important for Conservative synagogues and creating a climate of communal purpose, toleration, and collaboration.

“Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts which they should not and probably cannot, do alone. Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews. Consequently, it is also the only justification for the existence of a congregation. Everything else congregations do, Jews can always do cheaper, easier, and better somewhere else. “

“There are three ancient kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds, or in the classical language of Pirke Avot: Avodah, Torah, and G'milut Hasadim. This is not a capricious categorization. Prayer is emotional: song, candles, dance, meditation, and silence. A matter of the heart. Study is intellectual reading, questioning, discussion, rigorous logic and argument. A matter of the head. And good deeds are public acts: helping, repairing, matching, fighting, and doing. Matters of the hand. Only rare individuals are able to do all three with equal fervor and skill. And so our membership in a congregation and association with a broad spectrum of Jews will compensate for our personal deficiencies. “

In our portion, Jacob after his ‘collision’ with the places has a dream. He wakes up and says: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.” The challenge of modern synagogue is to create ‘collisions’ in which people end up saying Jacob’s words. Right now, many Jews don’t expect to find God in the synagogue, much less anywhere else. All we can do is open the many doors of Jewish life for our fellow Jews and hope that they have a Jacob-like collision. That is the holy work I have committed myself to and I hope you will join me.