Very Interesting Read...Sermon from Conservative Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, Ph.D. from the prominent Park Ave Synagogue in NYC.

Religion Beyond the Limits of Reason Alone

Parashat Shemini/Shabbat Parah

I have a friend, who, for the purposes of discussion, we shall call David. David is the son of a Holocaust survivor; he grew up Orthodox, and is a fiercely proud Jew. Passover Seders with David are always fun – he knows every word by heart, can sing every song in Hebrew, and is always off-key. To say that David is at home in his Judaism is an understatement. But David’s Judaism comes with a few quirks. He will put on tefillin in the morning, but only on days that he is flying somewhere for business. His favorite restaurant is the steakhouse Peter Luger – which last time I checked is not yet kosher. That said, David would never eat pork products, except of course when he did, ironically during the year he spent living on a kibbutz in Israel. David never eats shellfish, would never dream of it, except of course, when he does – if he is eating at a restaurant with a Zagat rating of 27 or higher. David, you may be interested to know, is married to a bright, accomplished, beautiful non-Jewish woman. Which makes it all the more interesting that they chose to name their son, Isaiah, a fine Biblical name if there ever was one. Don’t worry, David isn’t a member of our synagogue – he is far more comfortable in an Orthodox shul. In fact, I invited David to be here this Shabbos, but he couldn’t make it, as he is coach of his son’s baseball team and the season starts this morning. He expressed his regrets, wished me a Gut Shabbos and promised to call soon.

Aside from being a great guy and an old friend, David is a case study in the state of American Jewry. While we may laugh, I suspect that there are many “Davids,” or people with David-like qualities in this room. David knows exactly what Judaism is and what Judaism isn’t. He knows the difference between kosher and treif. He knows Shabbat and holidays. He knows the rules – and he makes his own decisions. Even in the breach, he knows exactly what lines he is crossing and he would never dream of asking that that Judaism change for him. In fact, just the opposite. When David does choose to engage in Jewish life, to put on tefillin, to come to synagogue, to celebrate the sedarim – he wants to connect to a traditional expression of Yiddishkeit. He wants that ritual, he wants that old-time religion. He will be the first person to admit that his own personal practice has nothing to do with what Judaism says is OK, but that is his decision. In his logic, it would be sheer chutzpah to ask that the rules be changed. Actually, he counts on the fact that they don’t change. In David, and in so many like him, we see a living expression of George Bernard Shaw’s wisecrack “I may be doing wrong, but I’m doing it in the proper and customary manner.”

we see a living expression of George Bernard Shaw’s wisecrack “I may be doing wrong, but I’m doing it in the proper and customary manner.” 

I imagine it won’t come as much of a shock to you to hear that when it comes to Jewish observance, for pretty much all of us, inconsistencies – shall we say – exist. How many of us grew up or presently live in homes in which a different standard of Kashrut is observed in the house than out of the house? A two stomach theory? A sort of gastroenterological hypocrisy? Perhaps…but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. We want Jewish homes, homes where every Jew feels comfortable eating, but we insist on making our own decisions in the private sphere. We would never dream of asking our synagogue to allow non-kosher food on the premises, but what we do in our space and time is nobody’s decision but our own. I recently heard a story told of a restaurateur in Manhattan whose restaurant, while kosher, is open on Shabbat, and thus does not receive the seal of approval of the Orthodox establishment. One prominent Orthodox rabbi approached the owner, imploring him: “If only you would close on Shabbat and receive proper hashgachah, the kosher stamp of approval, then I could endorse you from the pulpit, and all my congregants would eat at your restaurant. The restaurateur looked at the rabbi and replied, “Rabbi, all your congregants already eat in my restaurant.” What Walt Whitman said about himself could be said of modern Jewry: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it is that draws people to religion or, as is often the case, what pushes them away. There is, and we shall explore this a bit further, a theory that people come to religion to feel the comfort of home, to see their values given expression in prayer, ritual and community. By this formulation, religion is a form of self-affirmation in that religion must accommodate the values we hold dear. There is, however, another side of the discussion, a side that says that when people come to religion, whether it is here in the sanctuary, in their homes or elsewhere, they do so not to affirm the familiar, but just the opposite. People come to religion because it engages a totally different muscle group and set of expectations. The rites and rituals of any faith tradition are supposed to be a bit irrational, they are intended to make us feel out of place. After all, what is the point of religion if not to give expression to the sacred, the unfamiliar, or to use the technical term – the numinous? Read any study of popular religion from the Good Friday Stations of the Cross on the Lower East side, to the Madonna of 115th street in Old Italian Harlem, to evangelical healing services, and you will learn that that the strongest and most enduring forms of religious expression are most often the ones that are beyond explanation, neither seeking nor desiring to conform to our weekday ethic.

This is what this Shabbat is all about. Shabbat Parah, a special Torah reading and Haftarah reading devoted to a ritual that defies explanation – the Red Heifer. It is meant to be a purification ritual, a reminder of our own preparations for the upcoming holiday of Passover. In this rite, the blood of a red cow is burned with the cow’s body and the ashes are used as an ongoing instrument of purification, while the person who burns the cow himself becomes impure. It is paradoxical, it is unintelligible and it is to be obeyed. It is a perennial puzzle for countless scholars who have sought to explain it. But when all is said and done, I think it was our own rabbis who were the closest to understanding its meaning when they explained that the whole point of the ritual is that it is not meant to be understood. It is the paradigmatic example of the ritual law that defies explanation – in Hebrew, a hok. King Solomon, the wisest of all, the midrash tells us, was baffled by the Red Heifer. There is even a rabbinic story that when Moses ascended on high he saw God studying God’s own law, pondering the meaning of law of the Red Heifer. (Numbers Rabbah 19:7) Surely if God, Godself, can’t figure it out, then who are we to think that we can? It is, according to the Tosafot, akin to the power of a lover’s kiss, which can never be explained but only experienced. (Avodah Zarah 35a)

The Red Heifer ritual reminds us that while it may be reasonable to hope that our ritual life squares up neatly with our day-to-day life, when it comes to religion, reason is hardly the determinative variable. When people come to religion, they aren’t seeking to have all their choices affirmed. If that were the case, they would go to the self-help section of the bookstore, watch Oprah or stare at the mirror. People arrive at synagogue because within each of us there is a longing for the sacred, for the transcendent, for the truths that elude our rational selves. Religion is meant to connect us back to a mythical past and into a future beyond well our time on earth. Read any theorist of religion, Durkheim, Geertz, Eliade. All of them say what you and I know in our hearts to be true. Ritual and religion are not there to accommodate us. Rather we come to religion in order to experience an authentic dialogue with that which lies beyond our comprehension.

If you want to know who knows this better than anyone else, then you need look no further than your local Chabad house. Chabad, God bless them, make no bones about it. Come as you are, do whatever you want to do in your private sphere, but when you walk into a Chabad house, we promise you it will be brimming with authenticity. Chabad knows that this world is full of Davids, people who want to make their own choices in the private sphere, but when they do access religious living, they want it to be Torah-true. Chabad dresses the part, they claim to be the real deal, their theology is oblivious to the last 200 years of western thought and they make no judgments about who you are and where you came from. And you know what? Surprise surprise, they are the fastest growing segment of American Jewish life.

And if you want to know who is missing this message, then you need look no further than our own Conservative Movement. For reasons that I will expand on next week, the story of Conservative Judaism is the story of traditional Jews trying to accommodate Jewish practice to modernity – a noble project, but one that has long since run its course. We have explained why under certain circumstances it is OK to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. We have demonstrated why we know that swordfish, previously thought not to be kosher because it lacked scales, is actually kosher because at a certain point it does in fact have scales. But in all our erudition and intellectual fire-power, the Conservative movement has forgotten that in the interim, the “Davids” of the world have long since checked out of the conversation. The Davids of the world will or won’t eat swordfish not because I say it is or isn’t kosher, but because of its Zagat’s rating. The Davids of the world don’t look to their rabbi to call kosher what they know is treif. In fact, if the rabbi does so, not only is Judaism diminished, but the stature of that rabbi is diminished. The Davids of the world, if we are lucky, come to shul because they are seeking to connect with the one thing that doesn’t have to answer to them. The moment it tries to do so, they see right through it and the game is done.

Chabad has dug in its heels and positioned itself as the non-judgmental voice of authentic Judaism 

Chabad and Conservative Judaism begin from the same working premise, that there is a gap between the assimilated Jew and the faith of our ancestors. The difference that has made all the difference is the tactical response to this gap. Chabad has dug in its heels and positioned itself as the non-judgmental voice of authentic Judaism. We, on the other hand, have sought to make Judaism palatable to the modern Jew; in doing so, we have forgotten the very reason that people turn to religion in the first place. We have become caricatures of Groucho Marx’s quip: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.” In other words, we have been so busy trying to keep our job that we have forgotten to do our job and that, my friends, should end right now.

It is time that Conservative Judaism steals a page from the Chabad playbook. I believe we should position ourselves as the non-fundamentalist Chabad of the Jewish world. We should spend less time explaining why swordfish is kosher and more time explaining what kashrut is. We should stop writing about whether electricity is or isn’t allowed on Shabbat, and start teaching people how to light Shabbat candles. I think the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the CJLS, a committee designed towards creating a progressive halakhah, Jewish law, should be repurposed as the Committee on Jewish Life and Spirituality (it can keep its acronym), a committee whose sole function is to bring people closer to a life of observance. What I am proposing is different from Chabad in that it is non-fundamentalist. Meaning, I neither insist on nor seek a literal reading of the Torah and am fully willing to confront and yes, discard, those parts of the tradition that would make any Jew feel marginalized in his or her own community. Jews will or won’t grow Jewishly, but they are far more likely to do so if they believe that the religion being proclaimed is authentic, not some watered-down virtual reality. It is possible to push and encourage Jews on a path of learning and observance without casting judgment. Conservative Judaism has been set back on it heels for far too long. It is passion, not accommodation, that Jews want, ritual not reason, authenticity not excuses.

Last week, I officiated at a funeral of a congregant at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. As you may know, that cemetery is where the long-time leader of Chabad, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is buried. On my way out, out of sheer curiosity I stopped at his gravesite, and saw the regular crowd gathered there. I looked at all those people, religious and secular, praying and dropping notes at his grave. However odd it may have been, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that for them, but really for all of us, this is what religion is all about. The answers we seek will be found only by embracing that which is unanswerable. It will be in the mysterious and unknowable nature of humanity, our universe and our God that we will find the wellsprings of our faith, and is in those places that we will uncover the promise for a vibrant Jewish future.