October 2, 1997
It’s Time to Talk
It's High Holiday speech season. Rabbis prep, call each other withideas, exchange jokes, insights, and witty stories. They ponder thegreat issues of the day and get ready for prime-time talking in therabbinical world. Synagogues may not be full throughout the year, butcome Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is hardly an empty pew. Thisyear, attendance will be a bit higher, as Yom Kippur falls on aweekend.
Over the years, I have made a private rule to resist thetemptation to talk about the ills of society, the great politicalcrisis of the moment, or social problems. I have always believed thatthe High Holidays are a time to focus inward, to the spiritual self.A time to awaken Jews from their yearlong Jewish hibernation with afew words of inspiration that will carry them for the months to come.
The High Holidays also can be a time when rabbis get lucky. Theright words might motivate parents to enroll their child in a Jewishschool, or cause a family to become more involved. A few years ago, Ispoke on one occasion about keeping Shabbos. If the whole Shabbos istoo much to swallow, I suggested starting with just Friday night.Turn off the TV, forget about the phones, and sit with the family andtalk about the Torah portion. One family told me, a few months later,that they we doing the "partial Shabbat" plan every week. Never had Iimagined it was them that I had inspired.
Two years ago, I departed from my norm. After almost being killedin a bus bombing in Israel, I spoke about he pitfalls of the Osloaccords. While I may have moved some of my constituents from the leftto the right, I did little for their souls. In retrospect -- andafter severe criticism from my rebbetzin -- I felt that thetime for the speech was inappropriate. Instead of trying to uplift, Ihad talked of politics. None of my members were going to vote in theIsraeli election, nor did anyone have a direct line to the presidentor could they influence Yasser Arafat.
The featured attraction for this year in most liberal Jewishcongregations is going to be a passionate speech about pluralism.People who come to shul but once a year will hear about theconversion legislation, the conflicts at the Wall, and the plight ofthe Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.
Emotions will be raised, and money will flow into the coffers.Rabbis will tell the story of the Reform kindergarten near Jerusalemthat was burnt in a blaze. The accusation "that it was thosenefarious ultra-Orthodox who did it" will be repeated across thecountry. The police have announced no suspects or made any arrests.Nowadays, you are guilty when accused, even though there are nowitnesses or proof. Then again, it becomes a case of "he said-shesaid." "My rabbi said it, so it must be true -- it was thosereligious cousins in Jerusalem. I never liked them anyway." Except inthis case, the rabbi has the pulpit, and the other side will not beheard.
These rabbis will lament from the pulpits that "the great majorityof Israelis are secular and not interested in Orthodox Judaism." Theywon't mention the fact that more than 80 percent of Israelis attendHigh Holiday services in Orthodox synagogues -- far higher than thepercentage of American Jews who attend services of any type. Nor willthey point out that the percentage of Israelis who are religiouslyobservant is growing in recent years. According to recent surveys, 25percent of the women visit the mikvah monthly, more than 60 percentkeep kosher, and about 30 percent fully observe Shabbat.
Still, there are more important questions that need to be asked ofmy more liberal rabbinical brethren -- or sisters for that matter:Aren't there more pressing matters to talk about on the HighHolidays. How many members of your congregations attend servicesregularly? What is the rate of intermarriage? What percentage of thechildren receives Jewish education?
At a time when Jews are drifting away from their heritage, is thedebate about the conversion bill the most pressing message to thosewho come but once a year? Grab the moment and uplift them with aspiritual message. Inspire your congregants to renew their bond withTorah. Reach into their souls and stir their consciousness.
There is no question that it is much easier to seize theirinterest with talks about religious freedom. There are lots of pressclippings, you don't have to research the books, and the topics arefresh and exciting. Stories of oppression sell well, and you can makea few dollars for the cause. After Yom Kippur, you will be the talkof town at the break the fast conversations: "Did you hear what myrabbi said about those Orthodox extremists."
If it is so important, save it for the first Shabbat after theholidays. Those who are more committed will be there. They are theones who will lead the battle anyway. If the rabbi does a better jobon Yom Kippur, he -- or, for that matter, she -- might have a biggercrowd. But let's not fool ourselves. No one is going to come toservices, put his kid in Hebrew school and sign up for adulteducation when all he hears on the holidays is the battle againstthose "Orthodox fanatics" in Israel.
As for me, I will hold myself back from talking about the liberalswho seek to impose their unilateral changes of Jewish practice on thebulk of world Jewry. Nor will I talk about the liberals who talkabout us Orthodox in a negative way. Instead, I will try to upliftand inspire. If I get lucky, maybe another family will keep a bit ofShabbos, or someone will put their child in school, or another willrealize that the shul is open more than once a year.
I'll save the politics for my Shabbos regulars. Anyway, they haveheard me so many times that they need an occasional break from theroutine weekly sermons.