My family decided to try a different synagogue for Yom Kippur services this year, a Reform synagogue in the San Fernando Valley that has been around for a long time. We had been congregants of a fabulous Reconstructionist temple for many years, but several of our child’s friends were in Hebrew school at the Reform location, so we decided we’d try it.
For the uninitiated, Yom Kippur is generally considered the holiest day of the year. It is a day of reflection and repentance, in which we acknowledge the wrongs we have committed during the year and ask others and God for forgiveness.
I think many Jews want to attend a service that makes them feel part of a community; that offers spiritual renewal; that makes them feel that Judaism is relevant to their everyday life; and that they are being guided along a spiritual path by a scholar of Judaic text — a Rabbi who can communicate the wisdom of Jewish thought in a clear and thoughtful manner.
Much of this burden falls to the Rabbi’s sermon. And I felt the Rabbi at this synagogue made numerous mis-steps that more than offset her sermon’s positive aspects.
The theme of the sermon was terrific. It recalled the story of Jonah, the moral of which is not to shirk your mission in life. The Rabbi talked about her mission in life — primarily reversing different injustices that many associate with issues taken up by members of left-wing philosophies in this country. Okay, good for her. She really exhibited her passion for these causes up on the pulpit. She shared with us that she is gay, that she cried at the last election because of how proud she’d been of the “Jewish activism” that got an African-American elected President, how sad she was that California’s controversial Proposition 8 had passed, and how committed she was to seeing that every American had health care, and that we pull troops out of Afghanistan since al-Qaeda was now in Pakistan, and so on.
Except that’s not why I come to synagogue.
I’m not interested in the Rabbi talking about herself.
I’m not interested in the Rabbi talking about her mission.
I’m not interested in the Rabbi talking about our country’s policies — whether I agree with them or not.
I’m not interested in the Rabbi talking about her fight for gay rights.
I’m certainly not interested in hearing about her sexuality.
Our previous Rabbis would have discussed Jonah, and thrown the question back out to us: “What is your mission?” They would seek out relevance in the Judaic text and put some kind of brilliant spin on it, finding previously unconsidered meanings in the translation of various words. They would focus on the text, context, and subtext of whatever Talmudic passage they were quoting and re-interpret it — to make it relevant to us. Essentially, they were all about us. This Rabbi was all about herself — and flogging her own political views on us.
Totally inappropriate and — dare I say — infuriating. To me, anyway.
Now, some may say that the whole point of Reform Judaism is that it’s supposed to be more personal. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut says that, “Traditionally Israel started with ‘harut’, the commandment engraved upon the Tablets, which then became freedom. The Reform Jew starts with ‘herut’, the freedom to decide what will be ‘harut’ – engraved upon the personal Tablets of his life.” Perhaps the Rabbi feels it’s perfectly reasonable to sermonize about whatever moves her.
However, the Jewish community has always had difficulty with relevance, and with making Jews feel like a synagogue really can fulfill their spiritual needs. Presumably, most of the congregation knows all about this Rabbi and is comfortable with her sermons. The problem is that her sermon was not inclusive. A synagogue is supposed to be a welcoming place — a community where all are welcome.
Her sermon excluded — at the very least by unintentional inference and at worst by intent — people who were proud of Jewish activism that worked to elect John McCain. Or people who believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Or people who believe that we must stay the course in Afghanistan, or that health care for all could do more harm than good.
How can this Rabbi expect to attract new congregants when she talks about issues that, frankly, I don’t think many people want to hear about it when they go to services? Politically conservative Jews are going to be turned off. So will Libertarians and, possibly, Independents. I happen to be an Independent with various views on these issues. I sat next to a Liberal and two Conservatives. All of us felt the sermon was totally inappropriate.
If she had taken a different approach and saved the personal views for one-on-one discussions, then the sermon would have been relevant to all — not just those agreeing with her political views. Because while she may see those issues as being moral imperatives against which there is no argument, not everyone sees it that way.
Worst of all, I was so annoyed by this sermon that the message about one’s life mission got muddied and lost. I left feeling angry, not uplifted. I hope that wasn’t her intent.
The good news is that Yom Kippur is about forgiveness, and Jonah is about giving people a second chance. So I forgive the Rabbi this transgression and will not judge this new synagogue on this one experience.
However, she needs to think about what a synagogue means to other people, and not just herself.