Striving To Sound the Proper Note

By Jennifer Siegel

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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If it is the task of those delivering sermons on the High Holy Days to make sense of difficult times, this past year has certainly left no shortage of material to ponder.

In addition to the mayhem wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it also has been a year of genocide in Darfur, the Asian tsunami and bitter debates within the Jewish community over the evacuation of Israeli settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

Nearly all the rabbis asked about what they hoped to address in their sermons this year mentioned the tumultuous course of world events. But most of those surveyed said that their true task as speechmakers is to strike a balance between politics and spirituality, between eyeing the world stage and looking inward. From Israeli politics to the injustice of economic inequality, and from discussions of a new kashrut based on health to the question of the afterlife, this year’s roster of sermons will be as varied as the Jewish community is diverse.

“There are some rabbis who love to talk about current events and there are some rabbis who like to talk about the journey of the spirit and the soul,” said Carolyn Braun, rabbi of the Conservative Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine. Braun decided to speak about the afterlife after noticing that pamphlets on the subject kept disappearing from her synagogue’s library. “There is always a tug between what the congregation wants to hear about and what the rabbi wants to talk about.”

Joshua Chasan, rabbi of the Conservative Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vt., plans to address current events head on. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, he plans to speak about “the fault lines of class and race” exposed by Hurricane Katrina and urge his congregants to help the victims, as well as needy individuals closer to home.

Daniel Greer, rabbi of the Orthodox Yeshiva of New Haven in Connecticut, plans to speak about his disagreement with Israel’s decision to evacuate Jewish settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank. During his Yom Kippur sermon, Greer will argue that “the time has come to withhold support from the Jewish state and its agencies” and to “concentrate on ourselves” in the United States.

Others, like Rabbi Jeffrey Marx of the Reform congregation Sha’arei Am in Santa Monica, Calif., said they plan to invoke current events to provoke spiritual reflection rather than spur concrete action. Marx’s Kol Nidre sermon will use the story of Hurricane Katrina to discuss the delicate balance in life between holding on too long and letting go too soon. (To make his point, Marx said, he also will refer to “The Gambler,” the song by country music legend Kenny Rogers, with the chorus that starts, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”) In another sermon, Marx will talk about how his congregants’ increased focus on healthful eating choices can be seen a “new” kind of kashrut.

Several rabbis within the Conservative movement — which in recent years has struggled with both declining membership and internal debates over gay ordination and intermarriage — said that they will use their sermons to affirm the movement’s mission and sketch out visions for the future.

Braun said that she will invoke the Jewish thinker Maimonides, who argued that “the proper passage is in the middle and never in the extremes.” She will devote one of her sermons to discussing the importance of promoting the Conservative movement in Israel, where the religious landscape is made up primarily of secular and Orthodox Jews.

Rabbi Michael Siegel of Chicago’s Conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue said he will devote one of his sermons to discussing the need for the Conservative congregations to embrace a wide variety of Jews, including Jews of color, Jews by choice, lesbian and gay Jews, as well as interfaith families.

But other rabbis said they will eschew discussions both of world affairs and theology in favor of a more intense focus on the substance of the holiday.

“I don’t really use politics in my sermons,” said Hyim Shafner, rabbi of the Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Mo. “What I want to do is inspire people. I feel the function of a sermon needs to be for us as individuals to get something, not for me to tell them about politics.”

Shafner said he will stress that the High Holy Days are as much about returning to faith as they are a time of repentance. Shafner offered a vision of the High Holy Days that culminates not with Yom Kippur, but Sukkot. The lesson of the Sukkah, he said, is that Jewish faith brings joy and happiness even during the most unstable and tumultuous of times.

Some rabbis said they hope to use their High Holy Day sermons to build momentum behind specific synagogue projects or initiatives. In his Chicago synagogue, Siegel will introduce a yearlong “I Am a Jew” project, in which congregants will be encouraged to read “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” a collection edited by the parents of the Wall Street Journal writer slain by his captors in 2002, and then write about their sense of their Jewish identities on the congregation’s Web site. The goal, Siegel said, is to open up a community-wide dialogue on what it means to be Jewish. A number of other area congregations, he said, may launch similar initiatives.

Rabbi Ira Ebbin of Young Israel in Stamford, Conn., said he has an even simpler formula for spurring soulful living in the year ahead.

In past years, he has asked congregants, “What cause do they want to be able to say they fought with in their lifetime?” Ebbin said. “Without getting too morbid, what do you want to put on your tombstone?”

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