The In-Between Time

There’s a pretty heavy religious poem that’s recited in synagogue during the High Holy Days called the Unetana Tokef that lets us know that this whole Being Judged Business is no joke. It says that our Creator is paying very close attention to all of us at the New Year, deciding who will live and who will die by excoriating circumstances, including but not limited to being burned by fire, eaten by wild beasts or crushed by an earthquake.

The takeaway line of the Unetanah Tokef is “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” which means we’ve got about ten days to get it together and up our stakes for a better year using the spiritual currency of tefillah (prayer), tzedakeh (charity) and teshuvah (repentance). Considering just how badly we humans can screw things up, I think giving us a week and a half to turn things around is pretty darn generous.

I take this in-between time kind of seriously for someone with such an elastic approach to religion. Maybe I’m superstitious, or maybe I don’t need last year’s monkeys following me into 5771. (Speaking of big monkeys left behind, this holiday season marks five years since I’ve had a cigarette.) I try to release old grudges, pay any unpaid debts and examine and apologize for my many, many flaws, including but not limited to hostile impatience, delusions of grandeur, inappropriate sarcasm and disrespecting authority.

I’m having a difficult time with that last one. There’s been some serious issues in my synagogue of late which I haven’t addressed on this blog because 1) I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings (thus adding to the list of things I need to atone for) or 2) add to an already shockingly ugly situation 3) more and more and more, synagogue is becoming the most irrelevant part of my Jewish life, since I can’t seem to find any inspiration nor an example of how to be a better person coming from the bima.

Ouch. That wasn’t very nice, was it? But here’s the deal: I chose to attend a different synagogue for Rosh Hashanah so as to avoid the political messiness and lack of spiritual connectivity happening at the home shul. When we arrived, I saw quite a few other home shul families who must’ve been thinking the same thing: We just want to have a quiet morning of learning how to repent, pray and ways to give without all the other crap.

Instead we were treated to an hour-long sermon about the rabbi’s personal fears about Islam, his perceived disingenuousness of moderate Muslim leaders and whole bunch of other negative stuff that seemed wholly inappropriate for the bima, let alone the one service of the year when everyone actually shows up. Those who didn’t leave after he announced “I am an Islamaphobe” the third time politely waited until he finished and then cleared the room immediately. I stayed with the 30 or so remaining folks all the way through the Musaf service, more to test my stamina than anything else, as it was awfully hard to regain any spiritual mojo after such a strange and uncomfortable tirade.

All I could think was “What is my religion’s freaking problem with simple faith? What does a Jew have to do to get a little ruach in this town?!” Friends at the home shul reported that the sermons I missed there were also offensive, though for different reasons, and we all agree that it’s been a disappointing way to herald in a new year.

Given the opportunity and the audience to do so much good, why would a rabbi choose to speak about fear over love on Rosh Hashnanah—or ever? My understanding is that a rabbi’s role—in the Conservative and Reform movements, anyway—is to interpret the Torah, lead the congregation in prayer and in song, to emulate sagacity in times of trouble and to provide words of hope and faith—especially during a time when we’re all trying to turn the Divine tides in our favor.

During this in-between time when what is written can be transmuted into something I want to be sealed, I apologize for questioning the rabbis of this community and ask for forgiveness for the anger and frustration. I also pray for solutions for this community, for connection, for peace and for prosperity.

I don’t know where I’ll be listening to those last shofar blasts at the end of Yom Kippur on Saturday, and I guess all this confirms is what I’ve suspected all along: It’s up to each of us to cultivate our own faith, and in lieu of examples, we must do our best to be our own with what we’ve got.

That said, I may bring in 5771 with a webcast from L.A and a kazoo.

9 thoughts on “The In-Between Time

  1. Actually speaking about fear on Rosh Hashanah is perfectly appropriate. The problem is that your rabbi (or that rabbi, anyway) is afraid of the wrong thing. The only thing we should fear is God; one’s fear should be of slander of another god-fearing people. Ishamel is our cousin, and we are, in fact, commanded to respect and treat him well. In the Torah, no less.

  2. Thank you, KRG – the fear of God was the thought I was trying to find to tie this all together but couldn’t. Of course ALL humans are our cousins, and though some may act awful, we are commanded to love above fear.

  3. This is akin to the priest/minister on the two largest attendance days of the year (Christmas and Easter) spending the majority of his/her homily on lambasting those who seem to only show up on those high feast days. Rather than leaving encouraged to perhaps dip their feet once again and more regularly in the community of faith, visitors leave convinced that there is little love, grace or hospitality on display in that place. It is a chronic condition for may “preachers” in all sorts of denominations. So much so that I probably go to the extreme to make the ex-churched feel welcome – even if i only see them at Christmas or Easter. Not exactly parallel to your situation, but at least a close cousin

  4. Yo, Yenta, I feel your pain. Literally. That hurt. Of course that’s cause you pinch me when I talk during the service. I can’t help it, I get bored. And you’re Hot! Especially hot in Synagogue. This is why we are not Orthodox. I need to sit next to you so I can whisper inappropriate things in your ear while that guy with the little hat on his head and the fancy scarf walks around the stage and talks about inappropriate things. He’s the Rabbi? Well if you were standing next to him instead of the redundant, circumlocutive inappropriate nonsense he’s been pattering on about, he would be reeling with pain from all the pinching. I don’t go to Synagogue often for a reason. It has so much ego and bullshit (and I’m just referring to my own contribution to the service) you have to look at the artwork and Jewish fashion accessories to tell you’re even in a holy place.

    I think our Rabbis have confused “saying nothing intelligent for hours” with “freedom of the bima”. As my HS principal once said for the eleventeenth time, “Mark, just because you have the right to do something, does not make it the right thing to do.” The Rabbis need to go to the principal’s office.

    Marc Twain once said “Golf is a good walk ruined!” He cold easily have been referring to synagogue life in Savannah; “going is like a simcha tefila ruined” (a good prayer ruined)

    I know nothing about G-d and Judaism. But I know this. Many Savannah Jews are
    wondering aimlessly in the desert of Jewish synagogue disenfranchisement. Fortunately that alone provides a tremendous sense of comfort and belonging. I think we have a minyan! We are believers, but not joiners. We need to be inspired. We are of course inspired all the time to contribute immense amounts of our time and money to environmental, social, school, community, athletic, endeavors all across the city. We don’t just give out time and money, we give a damn. We are strong leaders and strong supporters. But we are not tepid joiners.

    I hope that someone lets the Rabbis know what it is we are actually looking for so that they can help us know G-d while we are sitting in the pews. We just want uplifting, intelligent, words from a human. Some good spiritual music to sing together. Some education about what the Torah says about the topic of the day (not your opinion alone). And some comfort to those who are suffering from the woes of the human experience.

    Ow! stop pinching me!

  5. Dear Yoyenta:

    I appreciate the fact that we were able to speak on the phone, but I non-the-less feel a need to post a response, not only to your blog, but to the comments above. It would be ‘fair’, let us say, if you were to post this comment directly on your blog, and not leave it sitting here in the comments. I see two issues, and regret that you did not hear my Kol Nidre sermon, of which I will write below.

    I will be the first to admit that the sermon was far too long – my own fault: I accidentally put the draft materials instead of the final outline on the Bima. That forced me to work from my memory, something I was loath to do when speaking on such a controversial topic.

    Let me begin with the fact that absent from any part of your discussion was the initial admission that you disagree with the basic thesis. ‘Your rabbi’ used the Savannah Jewish News to state his opinion, with which you obviously agree. Since you disagree with me ab initio, might I suggest that your expectations were ‘tainted’ in a not so subtle way. Perhaps you would comment on my piece in the News, and its appropriateness in relation to ‘your rabbis’ message. After all, your rabbi used the News to send what I would call a position message. I chose to reserve this for my congregation, and you chose not to go to your shul / Temple. We may disagree on the position, but we both made decisions on whom to address, and when to do so.

    Quite similarly, a comment above calls Ishmael ‘our brother’, and instructs us that we are commanded to love him. While we are commanded to love, we are also commanded not to ignore existential threats. Where are we taught that we must ‘love above fear’ in all cases? Please don’t quote me a few verses of Tanach or some out of context sayings from Avot; The entire Jewish tradition has always learned from historical experience, and that has taught us much, including that fact that threats to our existence must be met, even peremptorily. It seems clear to me that KRG disagrees completely. My position is directly the opposite. You have acknowledged that ‘youthful liberalism’ may need some rethinking. Whatever the result, I do appreciate that your comments were not intended to be disrespectful.

    I felt, and still do fell, that I had an obligation to speak out. A Rabbinic responsibility to speak out. Not every occasion is going to be good news. We have suffered too many misguided ‘It is not a real problem and it will go away’ sermons for me not to take at least one day and speak my mind. I would also note that I am not an Islamophobe. The use of a ‘phobia’ implies something irrational. I have come to understand that it is not irrational at all. Whence the Times Square Bomber or The Christmas Day attempt? Where was the outcry from the ‘Modern” Islamic community in condemnation.

    I have had years of ‘dialogue’ with Muslims, all of it fruitless. In preparation for the sermon I read, or re-read the major works of Keppel, Harkavy, Levin, Gold, Stein, Ajami, Kuttub, and especially Rakover (Mesirut Nefesh – self sacrifice in Jewish Law) along with dozens of articles. I listened to Choudry shout down Fareed Zakaria on C-span. I reviewed hundreds of posts from MEMRI, and sought out material that would convince me that I was wrong. I remain unconvinced, and I had to speak out.

    I would ask you to reflect on the significance of two ‘incidents’ which I did not mention; I am curious as to how you view them.

    First, the Ninth Circuit of the Federal Appeals Court held a seminar / retreat in Hawaii [lucky them] on the issues of the Court, Law, and Terrorism. It was broadcast on c-span and you can easily find it using google. Each of the Judges save one was in view. Justice Leonie Brinkema was heard, but she was not shown for security reasons – she was the presiding judge at the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui, who is now serving a life sentence for his role in the 9/11 attacks.

    What does it say about a nation that is so fearful that a judge must hide, and its response to the source of the fear?

    A young political cartoonist Molly Norris of Seattle has gone into hiding for suggesting a ‘draw Mohammed day’. She was clearly disgusted with the violence directed, even the murder (Theo Van Gogh), at those who ‘dare’ to engage in their right to free speech. She wanted 100 million people to draw a picture of Mohammed, thereby challenging those who would issue a fatwa calling for her death. Is free speech no less important than the Freedom of Religion that your rabbi invoked in his SJN piece?? I invite your comment.

    I do wish that you had been at our Kol Nidre service. It was here that I noted that the fastest growing group within Judaism is Orthodoxy, by simple numbers. The second fastest growing group are the independent minyanim. Made up of primarily disenchanted Jewish Day School grads [Orthodox and Conservative for the most part] they are making a powerful statement about the inadequacy of the structured Jewish Community as it now exists. In honesty, many do not want to or cannot pay synagogue dues and will face a real challenge in educating their children. But the underlying impulse is one of deep attachment to tradition without the rigid structures and presuppositions that are part of every synagogues ‘identity’. I challenged my congregation to open itself up and become the big tent.

    Do you think I, as a rabbi, am unaware of the spiritual disconnect?? I live it every day!!!
    Two years ago I created a ‘Family Night’ Shabbat service with music. It has not been redone. One morning we had only five people in shul for minyan. What a wonderful opportunity for individual prayer, unimpeded by the dictates of ‘we are now on page whatever’!!!. Cost us a member who believed that he is ‘owed’ a rabbi led service, with a formal structure, even though there was no minyan. This just scratches the surface of the ‘structural constraints’ which are so ingrained as to impede the real job of the synagogue: to empower Jews to enrich their Jewish lives. Do I have to say more?? Is my own frustration clear??

    Finally, El Yenta Man does cross a line of respect. Although the blog is not his, I believe that you have a responsibility to insure that those who respond are similarly respectful. His having the ‘Hots’ for you in shul on Rosh HaShanah suggests that he was not really paying attention. I will attribute his characterization of me as ‘guy with little hat and fancy scarf’ and the ‘circumlocutive pattering’ not only to his disagreement with the thesis and urgency which I felt, but also to his being inappropriately distracted. Sex should be the last thing [or near the last] on the High Holy Days.

    So, an invitation – there is a powerful, spiritual, transformative Judaism that has been buried under to much ‘tradition’ that is nothing more than local nonsense, or egos out of control [never underestimate the power of the self anointed]. I see it as my mission to transform this institution, bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century, else it will die.

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