Unorthodox Judiasm

by rabbilimmer

Rosh HaShanah 5775

Chicago Sinai Congregation

Sixteen summers ago, when I lived in Lincoln Park, I would walk in the morning to Caribou Coffee.  I chose that café not only because they gave a discount for answering the trivia question correctly; I liked the array of newspaper boxes that stood outside.  Most days I would count my change and purchase The New York Times; on Thursdays, a special treat awaited me: hot off the presses rolled The Onion, a scathing satire of a  newspaper.  I could pick up a copy and start laughing at headlines like “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” “Fall Cancelled after 3 Billion Seasons,” or “Dolphin Spends Amazing Vacation Swimming With Stockbroker.”[1]  Still, my favorite story of all time is “Mistranslated Myths of Nomadic Desert Shepherd Tribe Taken at Face Value.”  It reads:

Arcane, poorly translated scrolls, etched by an unknown hand thousands of years ago, were taken at face value Monday, when orthodontist Donald Ruess consulted a manuscript titled Deuteronomy for guidance in a personal crisis.  “I was at my wits’ end over what to do,” he said.  “In the end, I got the help I needed from a book of stories inscribed by an itinerant Middle Eastern shepherd many millenia ago.  To my surprise, it was a historical account of the growth and persecution of the Jewish people, originally written in ancient Hebrew.  Not only were the tales relevant to my situation, they are completely true!”[2]

I nearly died laughing when I read this article.  I especially loved the photo caption about “an ancient parchment whose content is being taken literally by a surprising number of people.”  Behind the acerbic bite of this Onion article lays a simple fact: many moderns do not accept Torah as literal truth.[3]  Perhaps we feel it is a collection of ancient legends; maybe the Bible resembles a farmer’s almanac with homespun wisdom.  Few of us believe in our hearts that, over three thousand years ago, God dictated Torah’s text to Moses during a forty-day summit atop some sacred Mt. Sinai.

“The bible is not the source of Judaism, but the product of Judaism.”[4]  So spoke none other than Sinai’s founding Rabbi, Bernard Felsenthal, over 150 years ago.  How ironic that Felsenthal named his congregation—our Congregation—for the place he was pretty certain Torah wasn’t written.  The formative rabbis of Chicago Sinai Congregation shared a belief that our Biblical tradition was the product of human hands that put in script their perception of the spiritual world.  The Bible was seen not as a religious monolith, but as an archeological treasure, the excavation of which allowed serious students to see the beauty of strata sculptured by different Jews at differing times.  Historical veracity the Bible might not always possess; that hardly means our Torah does not teach authentic truth.

Rabbi Kaufman Kohler taught what truth means in a Jewish context.  After leaving Sinai’s pulpit to be the head of the Hebrew Union College in 1879, he explained, “Judaism is a religion of historical growth which, far from claiming to be the final truth, is ever regenerated anew at each turning point in history.”[5] Kohler captured the eternal evolution of Jewish tradition: each generation searches for truth in its own age, and seeks to share it with subsequent generations.  We understand we are links in a lengthy chain: we inherit a search for meaning even as we take upon ourselves the obligation to create Jewish meaning for our particular time. The Onion mocks mistranslated truths; we at Sinai have long known our responsibility is to translate Jewish teachings to speak to the issues of our day.  If Judaism rings false in the modern era, it is hardly the fault of William Tyndale, King James or the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia.  We—and we alone—bear the responsibility for translating our tradition so that all might understand its deeper, continually evolving, truth.

Here, we arrive at the essence of Judaism.  Here we see the core of an evolving tradition that has been defining itself—re-forming itself—for three millennia.  While today we call this phenomenon Reform Judaism, our former Rabbis had other names for it.  Bernard Felsenthal called it, “Pure, honest Judaism.”[6]  Over a century later, Howard Berman described our Jewish tradition as a continually creative process.  Rabbi Berman even explains that our constant commitment to translating truths for our times has been the secret of our success: “The key to Jewish survival throughout the centuries has been creative positive response to the countless challenges and dilemmas that our people have faced.”[7]  Ezekiel’s exile in Babylon hardly resembled the might of the Maccabees.  Life in the flourishing academies of Persia in no way paralleled the European encounter with the Crusaders’ sword.  Pogroms in the Pale of Settlement were at the far end of the spectrum from acceptance in American democracy.  Countless challenges, daunting dilemmas, our people faced over centuries: we have been at our best when we respond to our times with a contemporary, creative, positive translation of our truths.

This is the essence of Judaism.  Many today call it Reform Judaism; that almost belittles our time-tested—and remarkably traditional—approach by ascribing it a title created in recent centuries.  Instead, we might simply call our practice, inherited through millennia, unorthodox Judaism.  Orthodoxy—in the realms of religion, politics, and economics—is defined by conforming to the established truths of previous generations. Greek gives us “orthodoxy”: orthos means “proper”; doxa “teaching”.  At its literal root, any orthodoxy maintains it has found the true teaching, the proper opinion; orthodoxy is a commitment not to change.  Emil G. Hirsch, concluding an epic arc of sermons on the meaning of his Judaism, taught that, “Judaism is not a static religion,” that our religion “has always developed and grown”.[8]  We who gather in the congregation he built eschew any aversion of evolution, any constrained commitment to the practices of the past that potentially proscribes new opportunities for the future.  We at Chicago Sinai Congregation know orthodoxy is anathema to Judaism.

Our Congregation was specifically founded to be an unorthodox synagogue in keeping with the commitments of Reform Judaism.  Although we were pioneers by establishing in 1861 a synagogue committed to the continued evolution of Judaism, we were not among the original founders, twelve years later, of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism.[9]  Our Rabbi Hirsch believed labels are irrelevant. “We need not a new name, “ he taught, for “Under the new name we could only do what we do under the old inspiration.”[10]  Names limit and define; names are the tools of orthodoxy.  Labels describe precise contents, and make clear what is and what is not inside the bottle.  Placing such labels, limiting through names, is the opposite of any unorthodox religion.  So while it is true that we gather this New Year as Reform Jews—with a capital R and a capital J—I believe it is far more important that we understand ourselves not just as belonging to a movement of the past few hundred years, but also as flying high the flag of an intrinsically unorthodox Judaism that has been carried by our people for millennia.

What does it mean to bear the banner of unorthodox Judaism?  Our task is to translate the truths of our tradition so we can ensure our heritage will be alive and vital for today, for coming generations as well.  One generation ago, Rabbi Samuel E. Karff challenged us to be “boldly experimental” when engaging in this important work of continuing to breathe new breath into the body of the Jewish people:

We must remain boldly experimental, continually seeking to vitalize the covenant in the life of our people.  This experimentation should be two directional.  We must ask not only “What parts of the tradition no longer speak to us” but also ask, “What commandments may personally address us? What traditions may enrich our lives and the lives of our children?”[11]

There is no better example of this bold experimentation than the practices of Passover.  The twelfth chapter of Exodus explains we are to keep Pesach as an institution for all time; it also enjoins upon us the conditional command: When your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, because God passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt.[12] We understand it is our obligation to instill the story of the Exodus in the hearts of our children.  An unorthodox Jew asks, however: How we are to create the situation in which our children actually ask us, “What do you mean by this rite”?  The Book of Exodus expounds exactly how to sacrifice the Paschal Lamb, how to smear its blood on the lintel of our home, that we should hold this feast of unleavened bread as an annual occurrence.  But what happens if we perform all these rites and our children never ask us about their meaning?

Rabbi Karff’s system for bold experimentation requires we seek and even create those traditions that will enrich our lives and the lives of our children.  But the Rabbis of the Talmud knew this truth as well.  It was these remarkable Sages, our unorthodox forebears, who created that which the Torah never specifically required: the Haggadah, a home ritual, an open forum, an experience deliberately including strange symbols precisely to provoke questions from children, commentary from their companions.  The tractate Pesachim of our Talmud is filled with the Sages’ response to the question: what traditions may enrich our lives?  Four glasses of wine, reclining in special ceremony, exploring the meaning of the Exodus through the wee small hours of the morning: none of these are explicitly listed in Torah, but all are our Rabbis’ 2,000 year-old translations of tradition that made Passover vital for their time and place, and ours as well.[13]

Our Rabbis of antiquity not only added practices to enrich our tradition, they also took some away.  While the shankbone of the Paschal Lamb remains on our Seder Plate, gone is the sacrifice of the animal, any smearing of blood on our door.[14]  Absent as well from the text of the Haggadah they created is the character of Moses: our Sages believed we should focus more on the Divine power of deliverance than be led down the potential pathway of hero-worship.  While scriptural Sages might not have formulated the question, “What parts of the tradition no longer speak to us?”, our Rabbis of antiquity answered it, time and time again.  We inherit not just from the giants of Reform Judaism, but also from our Talmudic teachers of old, a Judaism to which we add as we must, and from which we subtract as is appropriate.  We inherit an unorthodox Judaism of bold experimentation.

The unorthodox Judaism we have always practiced at Chicago Sinai Congregation is a pure, honest Judaism, regenerated anew at each turning point, that always develops and grows our tradition, being boldly experimental to create a positive response to our times.[15]  We were not afraid to move our main worship service from Shabbat to a Sunday when the working life of our congregants demanded such in the past century.  We were among the first synagogues in America fully to welcome interfaith couples, a generation ago, with open hearts and open doors.  We even donated our sole sacred Torah scroll to the University of Chicago because we believed having a niche for a book bordered on bibliolatry; within a lifetime, we changed our minds and built a sacred ark in the center of our Sanctuary.[16]  Our unorthodox Judaism has had us cast away sacred cows of our tradition because they held no meaning to us; our unorthodox approach has also been humble enough to reframe and readopt those same practices once time altered our perspective.[17]  Eternal values matter at Sinai.[18]  Particulars of practice come and go as each generation redefines meaning for itself.

I did not forget Rabbi, Doctor Mann.[19]  He knew bringing the perspectives of our past into the future does not mean imitating our ancestors’ practice, but seeing the world through their eyes. Thus he emblazoned these words at the very entrance to our chapel: “It is not enough for us to stand where our prophets, seers and sages stood—great and exalted as was their position, but where they would have stood were they alive today.”[20]  Although Dr. Mann drafted this epigram speaking specifically of the prophetic call for justice, his words apply to our entire practice of unorthodox Judaism.  We are not in Judea as was Jeremiah, nor in Galilee as was Gamliel.  Maimonides lived in 12th Century Egypt, Mendelsohn in Enlightenment Germany, Leo Baeck in Theresienstadt, Ben-Gurion in the nascent State of Israel.  We cannot stand where they stood.  But we must see the world—and build our own connections to our Jewish heritage—as if they would, were they alive today.  The same holds true of our Sinai sages: our Chicago barely resembles the burg of Bernard Felsenthal; our society is so distinct from the days of Emil G. Hirsch.  This new millennium in downtown Chicago we will face challenges different from those faced twenty years ago in Hyde Park.  We do not stand in our past at Chicago Sinai Congregation, but maintain our unique outlook, treasured through our history, and bring it forward for our future.

I have learned a lot, and spoken a lot, of the Rabbis of Sinai’s past.  But what of this rabbi, the rabbi of this congregation today, and tomorrow, and hopefully many tomorrows to follow?  What can I say for myself as we enter together into this new era, as we greet the promise of the coming year and our shared future on this holy day of Rosh HaShanah?  First, I should make clear that I understand the past more clearly than I can foresee the future.  I do not yet know what great challenges will face us and the wider Jewish world in the years ahead.  If I cannot tell our fortune, I can share with you my pledge for the future.  I will continue to ensure Chicago Sinai Congregation remains a bastion of unorthodox Judaism, a beacon to our friends and neighbors of the promise and potential of honest, open, religion.

I pledge to work with this sacred community to bring our unique brand of unorthodox Judaism forward into a world that needs it now as much as ever.  From the evangelical deniers of evolutionary science to the pietistic picketers proselytizing around abortion clinics through the frighteningly militarized regimes in the Middle East, religious fanaticism poses a real threat to our world.  Some claim the only antidote is a strict atheistic abstention from all religion; we know our world needs rational religion, a thoughtful and intellectually honest heritage that relies on inherited tradition not to reinforce the past, but to create a better future for all humanity.  We live in a world where ethnic groups and faith traditions continue to turn inward in isolationist movement; it has become far easier to listen to like-minded voices on Fox News or MSNBC than to enter into meaningful discussion where people might not only disagree, but even learn from each other.  In this too-divided world, it is precisely our unorthodox Judaism—humble enough to know we need partners of other opinions, yet strong enough to work with friends from other faiths and maintain our integrity—that helps us develop meaningful relationships and effect the work of the Divine in the realm of the human.[21]

It is not just our wider world that cries out for a religious approach that affirms all humanity, that gains understanding from others as much as it cherishes inherited tradition.  Now, more than ever, our Reform Jewish world needs our unorthodox Judaism.  In the past generation, too many Reform Jews seem to have lost the lamp of our enlightened approach.  We were scarred in the Seventies when the Civil Rights Era ended in rebuke from former friends, as many African-Americans turned to black separatism, black self-reliance, Black Power.  The Reform Movement transitioned from singing songs of protest in the street to writing folk music for our sanctuary; we moved from waving banners of protest to wearing ritual pennants sympathetic to past practice.  Rather than rely on their own autonomy, many Reform Rabbis began to default to traditional practice as defined by others rather than thinking through tradition themselves.  Granted, there is nothing wrong with infusing old, cast-away forms with new meaning, with Reform Jews reclaiming old traditions once cast away.  Rabbi Hirsch returned the Torah to the sanctuary at the close of his career; our congregation has twice updated the Union Prayer Book as times have changed.  The most dedicated of Reform Jews understand that the thoughtful practice of generations past cannot ossify into the orthodoxy of the future.  What we at Sinai can teach our Movement is that the way to ensure our tradition speaks to the current generation is to help that generation define meaning, thoughtfully and honestly and uncompromisingly, for itself.

Chicago Sinai Congregation—all of us, together—will proudly advance the banner of unorthodox Judaism into the next generation.  We will continue to work for the improvement of this world as called for in our prayerbook: l’taken olam b’malchut shadai, to perfect the world until our fractured society reflects the Divine Unity we worship.[22]  We will persist in our partnerships, with friends in the Presbyterian community, comrades in Catholic churches, like-minded members of Muslim mosques.  Of course, and with fierce fidelity, we will continue our commitment to work with and welcome both the intermarried and the religiously curious with open hearts and open doors. Chicago Sinai Congregation will remain a bastion of the intellectual honesty and devout dedication to study that are prerequisite of any unorthodox Judaism.  I cannot tell which new paths we will blaze, or which old ways we will reaffirm.  I do not know what will be the metaphorical Torah we return to our sanctuary, the proverbial Union Prayerbook we update and revise.  It will be up to all of us—this rabbi and this entire congregation—to determine how we translate the truths of our nomadic desert tribe so they remain relevant to our current situation.  In redefining our unorthodox Judaism for this next generation, in being boldly experimental, we will keep in our hearts the same core teaching of our rabbis past: we will make sure that the thoughtful Jewish choices made in ages past do not become the orthodoxy of the next generation.

The Book of Lamentations was written at a moment of transition, when the leadership of the past was no longer present, and the future seemed remarkably uncertain.  But that great poem born of despair ends with a resolute chorus of hope: Chadesh yameinu k’kedem, Renew our days as of old.[23]  Those same words subsequent generations recast into our High Holy Day Liturgy: as we turn to a new year, a new era, we hope longingly not to lose touch with that which has defined us in the past, even as we know we must grow and evolve for the future.  Sometimes it is easier for us to focus on the last words of this liturgy, k’kedem, that our days in the future might be as they were of old.  But we are, in fact, asking for no such situation; we are stuck in no simple nostalgia.  We want our days to be renewed, reinvigorated, revitalized: the word we use is Hadesh. We want our days to be like of old in terms of our principles and our values; we want our days, our New Year, and our future to carry those commitments forward in new, vigorous and vital ways.  We know our New Year “calls for new vision, new hope, new consecration.”[24]  We pray for such renewal here on Rosh HaShanah.  Tomorrow, and in all the years we share together, let us work to make that renewal a reality.

[1] The Onion, November 14th 2009, November 7th, 2007, and August 6th, 2013, respectively.

[2] The Onion, May 3rd, 2000 [edited for brevity (as was, despite appearances, the rest of this sermon)].  This truly is my favorite Onion article of all time: it was the opening piece of the first Rosh HaShanah sermon I ever gave as a rabbi, at Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk in the year 2000.  That sermon and this one have nothing in common save two things: they open with the same words from The Onion, and they commence my rabbinic tenure at wonderful congregations.

[3] Satirical sarcasm talking of Torah’s truth is not likely what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote, “Jesters do oft prove prophets.” William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, Scene III.  Still, there is often truth in jest.

[4] Bernard Felsenthal, Kol Koreh BaMidbar, 1857.  I am grateful to Peter Bensinger, Jr., former president of Chicago Sinai Congregation, not only for having Felsenthal’s work translated from the German, but also for sharing the translation with me.

[5] Kaufmann Kohler, Yearbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, vol. 18, (1908), p. 112.

[6] Felsenthal, Kol Koreh.

[7] Howard Berman, “Open Hearts and an Open Door”.

[8] Emil Gustav Hirsch, “The Conclusion of the Matter: A New Religion or the Old?,” My Religion, p. 211.  This is the last of eleven lectures Rabbi Hirsch delivered explaining the topic that became eponym for this collection, “My Religion”.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Felsenthal taught, “Restructuring is what orthodoxy denies”.  Felsenthal, Kol Koreh.

[9] In the archives of Chicago Sinai Congregation is a 1873 invitation to join a session in Cincinnati to found a “Union of Congregations”.  According to Michael Meyer, it was at these 1873 meetings that the Union for American Hebrew Congregations [now the Union for Reform Judaism] was founded; Meyer also notes that no representatives from Chicago Sinai Congregation attended the sessions.  Meyer, Response to Modernity, pp. 260-261.

[10] Hirsch, “Conclusion,” My Religion, p. 222.  I should note that Hirsch made these comments in a different context, but I believe they apply equally here.

[11] Samuel E. Karff, “What Makes a Jew Reform,” December 8, 1968, as reprinted in The Sinai Pulpit of that same year.

[12] Exodus 12:26-27.  My translation.

[13] Furthermore, all of these were translations of our Sages’ time and place: in essence our Passover Seder remains a Jewish version of the Graeco-Roman symposium at which, dining on recliners named triclinia, guests drank copious quantities of wine while discussing important issues.  The best-known example of such a festive and intellectual event remains the extended dialogues regarding the topic of love in Plato’s Symposium.

[14] Granted, this also had something to do with the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 A.D. However, the Seder traditions were already evolving before that cult center was destroyed.  Thus the Rabbis were already moving away from the sacrificial system as the primary pathway of Jewish religious expression.

[15] In order, the chronological words of Rabbis Felsenthal, Kohler, Hirsch, Karff and Berman.

[16] Sundays at Sinai, p. 172 [on the removal of the Torah scroll] and p. 236 [on its subsequent installation].

[17] Here I feel compelled to share the words of Rabbi Hirsch as shared by Rabbi Berman:

Quoting Dr. Hirsch, “If Judaism protests, with all fervor that strength and truth of conviction can command, against the dogma of materialism, it does not less raise its voice against the materialism of dogmas.”

“It was the materialism of dogma that Classical Reform fought in its religious quest—the emancipation of Judaism from the dogmas and forms, the superstitions and irrelevant customs, that belied the essential spirit of progress and evolution that had always been a dynamic force in our faith.”

Howard Berman, “The Faith of Classical Reform”.

[18] This, since our founding, when Rabbi Felsenthal argued that since many spiritual symbols had “lost meaning and influencing power,” we could remove them from our practice, as “all institutions of this worship service are changeable to the extent they are not eternal moral statutes.” Felsenthal, Kol Koreh.

[19] Likewise, I have not forgotten my other predecesors in the Sinai Pulpit.  However, even this prolix author admits it would have been too lengthy a sermon to include the teachings of all of Sinai’s former leaders.  Thus I offer my apologies to my un-mentioned predecessors, Rabbis Chronic, Kranz and Sternfield.

[20] Louis Mann, from inscription at entrance to Chapel.  However, I discovered, through most rudimentary research, at least portions of that inscription stem from Rabbi Mann’s inaugural sermon, “The Three-Fold Function of the Synagogue,” delivered Rosh HaShanah eve, September 10, 1923.  The full text exists on a published pamphlet in Sinai’s archives.

[21] Here I quote the eloquence of Rabbi Mann, speaking to the same issue in his inaugural sermon:

“We must never forget that the cause is greater than any one congregation, that each congregation is a link in the chain, that Sinai Must, and Sinai will, co-operate with other Jewish congregations—Reform, Conservative or Orthodox—in every Jewish cause, and with other denominations in every human cause.  Nothing Jewish and nothing human will be foreign to Sinai.”

[22] In truth, our Sinai Edition of the Union Prayer Book omits these words from our Adoration.  But the sentiment remains.

[23] Lamentations 5:12.

[24] Rabbi Mann, Inaugural Sermon.