In the Talmud – the text of our ancient sages’ interpretation of Torah—Rabbi Gamliel tells a story: “Picture it. I am traveling on a ship. In stormy waters, from a distance, I see another ship, that has shattered and become submerged. I believe my friend Rabbi Akiva is on board, so I grieve over his apparent death. But when I disembark onto dry land, there is Rabbi Akiva approaching me! Having survived, he invites me to study some Torah on the beach! I say to him: How are you here?! He responds: “A plank from the boat drifted to me. I clung to it and I bowed my head, accepting each and every wave that drew near.”
Stormy waters, that cannot be denied? A reality, that demands acceptance? This text originates from long ago, yet tells an eternal story. Our tradition does not propose that we deny the reality or the uncertainty of the storm. Indeed, it understands that our days are filled with uncertainty, even anxiety about what is to come. Rather than claim certainty, Jewish wisdom leans into the reality of the unknown and guides us to face it with courage and with our enduring Jewish values. Tomorrow morning in the Unetane Tokef prayer we will ask: Who will rest and who will wander, who will be humbled and who exalted…because we just don’t know! But through the discomfort, tradition guides us to cling to Jewish wisdom to rededicate ourselves to teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and righteousness.
In the unknown, we turn to the essence of our tradition.
Our acceptance of reality is essential not only in our personal lives, but also in the life of our institutions and in our commitment to sustain them. The season of Yom Kippur demands we transform; this era of American Judaism demands our institution transforms, as well. The American Jewish community finds ourselves in an uncertain time of transition. Researchers report, and I can confirm: the pandemic disruption accelerated what was already in motion: there are more Jews outside of synagogues than within them. I trust you see this reality in the choices of your friends or family. Rodeph Shalom’s newly adopted Strategic Plan responds in two ways: First, the Plan commits to deepening engagement with our members. And knowing that first step will not be sufficient, second: the Plan compels us to learn, about how we are going to transform in order to better serve this moment of American Jewish history. Because as robust as our congregational life is, we are missing too many Jews and seekers to fulfill our vision. Our congregations’ membership structures that were created decades ago and served me and many of you well, cannot alone be the structures expected to serve the present and the future. We have exercised the muscles of transformation in our Rodeph Shalom past – that’s why we are still here! …And throughout Jewish history – that’s why we are still here! In our age, societal shifts compel us to think differently –that’s how we will still be here, thriving, through the generations / l’dor vador. Judaism is not what needs to change; it is the human structures that define people’s relationship to Judaism that are incomplete. It is the package in which we deliver Judaism – that needs new ideas.
Here is how contemporary scholar Rabbi Benay Lappe characterizes the current era of Jewish life: She tells the story of a sociologist who when compiling the data of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study said to a friend: “There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is, Judaism will exist in 100 years; the bad news is it will be unrecognizable to us.” Rabbi Lappe’s take? A reinvented Judaism need not be bad news. In her work called “An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take,” Rabbi Lappe goes beyond honoring space for queer Jews in the Jewish community; she uses the term queer to think of any outsider, or once outsider, voice. It’s those outsider voices that in so many eras of Jewish history, have brought the perspective critical to sustaining Judaism, from generation to generation/l’dor vador!
Why is such a diversity of voices essential? Rabbi Lisa Edwards imagines: If donkeys read Torah, all the donkey stories would jump out at them; every time they’d see a donkey in the text they’d say ––there’s me, there I am again! All of those donkey stories that we completely miss.* Because it’s just not our experience.
Well, what are we missing? The stories of the majority of Jews –that is, those on the fringes of our congregations. They can help the Jewish community create something that may feel unrecognizable to our ancestors as Jews, especially Reform Jews, have done throughout the generations.
What stories in Philadelphia Jewish life, are we missing? How are people both within and beyond Rodeph Shalom bringing Jewish light to the big enduring questions of our lives: who am I, how should I live my life, what is my purpose? How can I close the gap between my values and my actions? What parts of my heritage are eternal? The ways we wrestle with these questions have so much to teach us about the Jewish path for the coming generations.
It is ours to discover: what might be the shape of the future, and who will be molding it? In part, the answer is us—you–the heart of this congregation. The traditions, longings, uncertainties, connections, and questions in your hearts. But only some of the answer lies within our walls. Part of our understanding needs to expand by learning from Jews and seekers beyond. Not only welcoming them –which we already do –but listening to them for all the stories, we would otherwise completely miss.
Torah asserts that not all listening is the same. Sometimes the purpose of listening is just to consume information; other times the purpose goes deeper and listening can even transform us. Consider Judaism’s central prayer – these words from Torah: “Shma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad /Listen O Israel, the Eternal is our God the Eternal is one.
Contemporary Rabbi Deborah Silver interprets the Shma, as the highest form of listening. She explores the listening that connects us with the divine. An encounter with God—or with any of God’s creatures—has the potential to bring us closer to a sense of oneness, to open us to hearts and minds different from our own, to emerge from the conversation, different from the way we went in. An encounter with the Holy One or with holiness changes us, if we let it. Here, Torah reveals transformative listening. Transformative listening inspires us to understand insights far beyond our own, to seek growth that alters us, sparks new thinking, and shapes our future.
This highest form of listening is not easy. Pulling us out of our comfort zones, it forces us to face reality today. Transformative listening ensures that even as we return to our roots we untangle them from nostalgia. Only then, can we become good ancestors for the generations to come.
As our Rodeph Shalom Boards lead this work of transformative listening and determine the path of our Strategic Plan, please look out for invitations in RS communications to get involved. I hope all of us will bring our voices to this conversation and help shape the future. And, understanding we are responsible for nothing less than the future of the Jewish People, we won’t stop there. So, to whom else might we listen? Whom beyond our walls might seek Jewish life and bring insights about how to shape it? As it turns out, lots of people.
Understandably, there’s been lament about the national decline in synagogue affiliation rates. Yet, the Union for Reform Judaism Vice President, Amy Asin, draws a different conclusion, one that rejects anyone’s temptation to throw up our hands in defeat or abdicate responsibility. Amy Asin points to the recent Pew Study’s report that a high number of people identify as Jews, and care about Judaism,
but do not affiliate with a synagogue or Jewish organization. Amy Asin insists and convinces me this is not a reason for lament; this is good news. Opportunity! People might not be compelled by the package we decades ago designed for delivering Judaism, but they care about Judaism. Perhaps then, our congregation might become open to a new kind of relationship… to thinking differently about the possibilities of relationship to Jewish life at Rodeph Shalom and beyond.
A newer organization called Atra just completed a study of 18-44 year olds who identify with Judaism in some way. The study finds this population is not rejecting Judaism or Jewish community; rather, they want more connection. So many people, beyond our walls to whom we will listen. In ways we cannot yet know, transformative listening with them, will change us. Supporting them, will transform us. Trusting them, will shape the future.
Indeed, there is hope in the fact that the Jews and seekers outside of our walls, are many. The institutional structure that was created in the 1950’s, worked for me. I was raised in it. I am here. And you are here. We ought not abandon what already thrives–the heart of the Jewish community and this congregation. And. To bring it forward means accepting that reality evolves through history. To move forward means encountering the future; and true encounter will change us.
Daunting as the notion of unknown future change may be, Jewish wisdom lights our path. Remember that shipwrecked Rabbi Akiva, who in stormy waters clings to the plank of wood as he bows his head before each wave that draws near? The Hebrew word for plank—that piece of shattered boat that appears –is “daf.” When Rabbi Akiva grabs hold of the daf and navigates the waters instead of fighting the daunting waves he nods his head as each wave approaches maintaining calm, clarity, and acceptance.
Contemporary Rabbi Laura Geller, telling the story, imagines him saying “yes” to each wave –riding it, even welcoming it. But here’s the secret sauce: she imagines that he is also strengthened, by his understanding of the wordplay. For in Hebrew the word “daf,” that plank he hangs onto, also means a page of Talmud. What keeps Rabbi Akiva–himself, a timeless symbol of Torah study—what keeps Rabbi Akiva centered, ready to be present and respond to the world as it is? He is holding on to Torah.
Amid stormy waters, what keeps Rodeph Shalom centered, ready to be present, to respond to the world as it is? We hold onto Torah. We welcome each wave and nod yes, ready to respond to uncertainty and unease with meaning and holiness. None of us unchanged, all of us knowing there is no going back, we shall nod to greet each wave of the future.
G’mar Chatimah tovah – may this congregation and its future be sealed for goodness.
*As told by Rabbi Benay Lappe