Tennessee: The Volunteer State

By Rabbi Eli Freedman, sermon delivered erev Rosh Hashanah evening 2011

As many of you know, this summer I got married.  Laurel and I decided to take a road-trip to and from our wedding in Texas.  While leaving Asheville, NC and heading into the birthplace of Rabbi Bill Kuhn, I saw a large welcome sign.  On that sign it read, “Tennessee: The Volunteer State.”  I usually do not place much stock in state mottos.  I come from the Bay State and now live in the Keystone state, neither of which names deeply resonates with me, however, for some reason I was struck by Tennessee: The Volunteer State.  I assume it is because, as a synagogue community, we have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a part of congregation in recent months.

Being a child of the 21st century, I immediately reached for my iPhone to look up the root of this interesting state motto.  According to the official web site of the state, Tennessee first earned its nickname as the volunteer state during the War of 1812 due to the large numbers of Tennesseans who volunteered to serve in battle against Great Britain. Although the men never faced battle, General Andrew Jackson brought the soldiers home at his own expense. Later, Jackson led 2,000 Tennessee volunteer soldiers in a successful battle against the British in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans. Following such success, as many as 30,000 Tennesseans again volunteered in the Mexican War.  Most of you are probably familiar with the legend (popularized by Disney), of the fateful day when Davy Crocket, born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, who killed a grizzly bear when he was only three, drew a line in the sand to see who would come fight with him at the Alamo.

I apologize in advance to all of you from the great state of Tennessee, but I do not like your state motto.  I think it is actually incorrect.  The Volunteer State.  What does it mean to be a volunteer?  In general terms, volunteering is the practice of people working on behalf of others or a particular cause without payment for their time and services. Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity, intended to promote good or improve human quality of life, but people also volunteer for their own skill development, to meet others, to make contacts for possible employment, to have fun, and a variety of other reasons that could be considered self-serving.

In my opinion, what is missing from the word ‘volunteer’ is a sense of obligation and weight.  The word volunteer lacks the sense of responsibility we have for those that we view as family.  One can not volunteer to be a son or daughter but we all know that a familial relationship contains certain inescapable commitments.  30,000 Tennesseans didn’t risk their lives fighting in the Mexican-American war because they wanted a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  They fought because, as Wilfred Brimley once said, “it’s the right thing to do.”  They fought because they felt an obligation to protect their family and friends from harms way.  They fought because they could not have possibly imagined doing anything else other than fight.

This concept of sacred obligation is rooted in our tradition.  In Judaism, we have an important concept called tzedakah.  When asked what this Hebrew word means, most people would say that tzedakah means charity.  I do not think this is actually a very good definition.  Charity comes from the Latin word caritas which originally meant preciousness, dearness, high price. From this, in Christian theology, caritas became the standard Latin translation for the Greek word agapç, meaning an unlimited loving-kindness to all others, such as the love of God.  This is much different from the Jewish concept of tzedakah.  The word tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root, tzedek, which means righteousness or justice.

Tzedakah is an obligation and not a voluntary act.  Tzedakah, although perhaps spurred on by our love for our neighbors and strangers in our midst, is rooted in justice and obligation.  As Jews, we engage in tzedakah because it is the right things to do.  And so it is the same with our relationship to our synagogue.  As Jews, we do not volunteer to be part of a task force or volunteer to come to services or volunteer to visit the sick and elderly of our congregation because it makes us feel good or because it’s a nice gesture.  We are obligated to engage in these righteous acts because we are a family.  We come to Friday night services because we could not imagine beginning our weekend without them.

What is the one aspect of Judaism that separates it from other religions?  All religions contain theologies that espouse making the world a better place and loving your neighbor.  They all contain their own unique rituals and traditions. All religions have special foods, dances, language, etc…  But what makes Judaism truly unique is our focus on this life.  What is the Jewish view of the afterlife?  Ask two Jews and you get three answers.  So why does Judaism have such a varied, vague definition of the afterlife – because our focus should be on this world.  While for other religions, the goal of life is to live justly in order to achieve some ultimate reward, be it heaven or reincarnation, for Judaism, we engage in acts of loving kindness in this world because it’s the right thing to do.

This concept of sacred obligation also inspires our own congregation.  We no longer have an annual program guide; we have an ‘Invitation to Engage.’  We no longer have a volunteer choir; we have a congregational choir.  At Rodeph Shalom, we do not have volunteers; we have family members.  This may seem like semantics but language matters.  Language is one of the key defining characteristics of who we are as human beings.  It is what separates us from animals.  One of the first tasks that God assigned Adam in the Garden of Eden was to name each and every animal.  As we continue to grow as a visionary congregation, we will continue to use language that reflects that vision – language of family and obligation as opposed to volunteering.

Many of you will remember, back in March when Rabbi Larry Hoffman joined us for a weekend of congregational visioning.  During his time with us, Rabbi Hoffman spoke at Friday evening services about the changing nature of congregational life.  Specifically, he spoke about the idea of civic obligation.  60 years ago, if you were Jewish, you would have belonged to a synagogue.  Why?  Because you really like the religious school?  Because you had a lot of friends in the Men’s Club?  Because you loved the sound of the cantors voice?  Because you longed for the rabbi’s sermons?

According to Hoffman, all of these may have been perks to belonging to a synagogue, but Jews belonged to synagogues because that was what you did.  There was a greater sense of civic obligation in the bygone era that ended with the revolutions of the 60’s.  And not just in the Jewish world; across religions and into the secular world, people belonged to communities because it was the right thing to do.

Today, we no longer live in a world ruled by civic obligation.  Some may pine for the days when this obligation was as mandatory as paying your taxes or brushing your teeth.  However, I believe that this new age where civic obligation no longer applies allows us to have a more meaningful relationship with God, Judaism and our community.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a well known post-Holocaust Jewish theologian, wrote an article a number of years back entitled “Voluntary Covenant.”  In his article, Greenberg refers to three main epochs in Jewish history.  The first, the Biblical Period, was marked by an unbalanced relationship between God and the Israelite people, with God as senior partner holding more power than the Israelites.  We see this relationship reflected in the covenantal language of Deuteronomy – if the Israelite people obey God, they will be prosperous but if they disobey they will face harsh consequences.

The second epoch, according to Greenberg, is the Rabbinic Period where the covenantal relationship between God and Israel changes significantly.  In this new brit or covenant, the Rabbis have become the senior partner, with God no longer capable of revelation. Decisions are now placed in the hands of mankind.  A prime example of this relationship can found in such texts like the ‘Oven of Akhnai.’  This famous Talmudic story begins with a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages as to whether this certain type of oven is kosher or not.  Rabbi Eliezer is so sure that the halachah (or Jewish law) agrees with him that he calls forth numerous miracles including a flying carob tree, a backwards running river and ultimately the voice of God to prove that he is correct.  The Sages do not except Rabbi Eliezer’s supernatural proofs and retort, quoting parashat Nitzavim, saying, “The Torah is not in Heaven.”  According to the Sages, the age of prophecy is over and it is up to human beings to make decisions for themselves.

Greenberg’s final time period is the current post-Holocaust world.  The old idea of covenant was shattered once and for all at Auschwitz.  Greenberg quotes Elie Wiesel, “When God gave us a mission; that was all right.  But God failed to tell us that it was a suicide mission.”  There can be no question of reward and punishment or Divine providence any longer.  There can be no sense of shared loyalty and mutual love or responsibility between God and Israel.  God sent us on a “suicide mission,” thus permanently revising the terms of the covenant.

With his theology that the covenantal relationship formed at Mt. Sinai is no longer valid, does Greenberg then choose to abandon Judaism?  On the contrary, Greenberg suggests that any relationship we now have with Judaism, God and our congregation is that much more powerful because it is based on a voluntary covenant.  We are no longer held to the covenant made for us so long ago at Mt. Sinai when in parashat Nitzavim God said, “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God but also with those who are not here today,” the future generations.

I love everything about Greenberg’s theology except for the name of it – Voluntary Covenant – and what that implies.  For the same reasons that I find the Volunteer State to be a name lacking in a sense of obligation, sacredness and familial connection, the voluntary nature of Greenberg’s theology could be improved.  What Greenberg touches on in his entire article is a sense of partnership.  In each of his three epochs he speaks about a changing partnership between God and Israel; a sacred partnership that begins with God as the senior partner, then moving to a relationship where the Jewish people run the show and finally coming to a point in our time where we are equal partners with God in this world.

An image from our tradition that does speak to the juxtaposition of the voluntary and obligatory nature of our relationships is the nazirite.   Numbers, chapter 6, presents the laws of the nazirite, an individual who has, by means of a vow, taken on a special sacred status.  For the period of the vow, the nazirite may not have contact with any dead body, or consume any wine, or cut his/her hair.

Many have observed that these restrictions are similar to those of the kohanim, the priests. But, in fact, the nazirite’s restrictions are even greater than the priest’s.  A priest is permitted contact with the dead of his immediate family.  Priests are prohibited from drinking intoxicants only while “on duty” and priests were not allowed to shave their heads but were required to trim their hair.

Often we think of the biblical period as a time in which God dealt out sanctity and special status on a rather arbitrary basis.  The Israelites were chosen from among all peoples; they had no choice.  The priests inherited their priesthood; they had no option.  Even the prophets felt compelled to speak in God’s name.

But in the nazirite, we have a model of sacred status – with increased responsibility – entered into voluntarily, by any man or woman willing to accept the terms of the challenge.  Such voluntarism in accepting responsibility for kidushah, holiness, is a valuable model for our age, when all coercive elements have faded from our Judaism and our participation and commitment are strictly a matter of choice.

Now, I am not advocating for us all to shave our heads and abstain from grape products, but I am saying that we can learn quite a bit from the model of the nazirite.  We can all take our own unique vow this year that will elevate us to a more sacred status.

My friend Rev. Linda Noonan, a UCC pastors, always says, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”  This witty aphorism is meant to convey the idea that God still has more to say to us than just that which was written in the Bible.  So too, in Reform Judaism, we believe in a continual process of revelation.  Revelation was not a onetime event at Mt. Sinai but is an act that we engage in every time we come to services, every time we occupy ourselves with the study of Torah, every time we light Shabbat candles or say the Kiddush on Friday night.  Every time we choose to be Jewish, we are re-experiencing revelation.  As Reform Jews, we are modern day nazirites.  When we choose to connect with God, each other and Judaism, we are entering into a sacred vow.

This New Year let us all become nazirites.  Let us engage with our community on new levels and have profound connections with our Rodeph Shalom family.  Let us all be present for each other, ourselves and God because we want to, because we need to and because it is the right thing to do.

There is only one law about how a synagogue needs to be built.  It can have any kind of seating, any kind of ark, a balcony or not.  But it says in the Talmud that a synagogue must have windows.  Why, ask the rabbis?  In order that what we do in here should be reflected in what we do out there.  Everything I have talked about tonight relating to sacred partnerships, obligation and family is not just true of our relationship with God, Judaism and this community; it should inform our relationship with all others, the entire world and our fair city of Philadelphia.

Last Sunday, POWER which stands for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild held its founding convention.  Over 2,000 congregants from over 40 congregations across the city came together along with the Mayor, city councilmen, and business leaders to advocate for change in our city.  This interfaith community organizing group, of which Rodeph Shalom is a founding member, is entirely volunteer run.  But just like those 30,000 Tennesseans who fought with Davy Crocket, those involved with POWER are much more than volunteers, they are modern day nazirites.  They’ve spent time meeting with elected officials and policy analysts, having face-to-face conversation with those in our community mired in poverty because of an obligation that they feel to help their neighbors.  So, this New Year let us all make a sacred vow, let us all become nazirites – not just in our own community but for our entire Philadelphia family.

The great state of Tennessee has their Volunteers.  But perhaps a better word, to fully describe the obligation, holiness and justice rooted in volunteerism, could be the nazirite.  I am not sure if this would have the same ring for the football team – the Tennessee Nazirites, but it does capture the true meaning inherent in Tennessee’s rich history of doing what was right.

Whether it is through community organizing, coming to Friday night services or having meaningful conversations, let us all become modern day nazirites this year.  Let us choose to take upon ourselves the sacred obligation of being partners with God, our city and our synagogue family.