Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Mishpatim (Rabbi Neil’s Sermon – 2/25/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanShabbat Shalom,

I first want to thank all of those involved in organizing this Shabbat service to honor our current and past leaders, whose insight is invaluable, for without our leaders, where would our synagogue be? The ancient Greeks posited that the head is above the rest of the body because this separation gives the thought processes independence and objectivity from the body’s instincts and also the possibility for elevation and holiness. Just as the head is to the body, so are our leaders to our congregation.   We need you to guide us with perspective and with eyes on the present and future. Thank you for your involvement in getting us here, overcoming hundreds of hurdles and laying a foundation for our future.

Speaking of leadership, I read an interesting article on President Trump in the Yahoo News by Matt Bai. He notes that people in Washington are now speculating as to how this Presidency is going to end, for it seems like it can’t continue in its current form.

Bai writes, “What we see now is the president at war with the media, aides at war with each other and fictions is at war with facts.

Both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal took out advertisements this week bolstering their rights to free speech and defending the Truth.

Indeed something has to change. The clamor and unrest that has typified the first month of our new President teaches us that leadership, and steering a ship towards a better future, is not a clear path. Leaders can’t be uncompromising and the ship may need to head toward different waters than originally intended.

Likewise leading the Jewish people is not easy. Involving the next generation of parents and children into synagogue life is extremely challenging, and we may need to shake things up as well.

Two weeks ago at the age of 91, one of the most influential American Jewish theologians, Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, z”l, died. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove wrote a biographical sketch about him that I’d like to share with you.

In 1973 Borowitz published a book called The Mask Jews Wear: The Self-Deceptions of American Jewry. He said that on the most basic level American Jews practice a sort of “chopped liver” or “lox and bagels” Judaism whereby we think that the thinnest manifestation of Jewish identity somehow serves as a substitute for substantive engagement with the riches of our faith and tradition. We’re proud of the Jerry Seinfelds, Mark Zuckerbergs and Ruth Bader Ginsburgs of our people, yet that pride does not fortify the depth of our faith nor is it a reliable means to transmit Judaism to the next generation.

Moreover, he says, American Jews engage in what philosophers call the reductionist fallacy, mistakenly identifying (or reducing) the whole of Judaism into one of its parts. To take an easy example, we frame the argument for Jewish identity not on its merits, but in the language of Holocaust remembrance, the obligation to be Jewish lest we hand Hitler a posthumous victory. Alternatively, we throw our energies into identifying and fighting anti-Semitism, an altogether worthy cause, but a far cry from a positive argument for Jewish identity.

If we were to ask many American Jews what defines their Judaism, they might cite ethics or Tikkun Olam, the obligation to mend the world. Yet that’s not uniquely Jewish either, for one can lead a moral life, feed the sick, and clothe the poor without being Jewish.

Borowitz sought to inspire American Jewry to adopt what he called “Covenant Theology,” a theology that “rests upon a reaffirmation, in contemporary terms, of the Covenant of Sinai.” In Borowitz’s own words, such a theology is “a way of living one’s life based on a relationship with God, a relationship in which the whole self is involved.”

As with any relationship worth having, the bond cannot be distilled or reduced into any single aspect. A covenantal relationship with God runs the gamut of life, including ethics, the holiday cycle, faith, ritual observance, the promise of the Land and beyond. Each of these categories is a constitutive building block of Jewish life. In a modern Jewish understanding, he sees the impetus for why we do what we do as Jews not as a top-down command, but by our seeing our choices as opportunities to give full expression to the covenantal relationship we share with God.

Being a Jew means believing that one’s personal destiny is tied into a narrative longer and larger than one’s individual well-being. A fulfilling Jewish life exists within a set of concentric circles, ever tethered to the Jewish community, and always anchored in empathy with our common humanity.

As we honor you, our past and current leaders, if we want Manetto Hill Jewish Center and Judaism at large to thrive, we need to embrace this encompassing idea of Covenantal life. Judaism is many crucial individual ideals and practices, but it’s most powerful when we string them together into one unit. Let’s work toward figuring out this formula to create a more vibrant synagogue and community.

Thank you for your dedication and service

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
244 Manetto Hill Road, Plainview, NY 11803
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