When Rabbi David Wolpe stepped up to the lectern to deliver his Sabbath morning sermon last Saturday, he faced a divided and expectant audience.
Many of his congregants at Sinai Temple in Westwood took strong exception to a series of sermons he had delivered before and during Passover that examined the question of faith despite doubt and questioned the historical veracity of the Exodus.
The sermons were quoted in a front-page Los Angeles Times story on April 13 that led to a community uproar over Wolpe's thesis and the appropriateness of his comments.
The gulf in the audience between those who supported what he had said and those who were angered was as wide as the Red Sea itself.
But Rabbi Wolpe wasn't deterred. He appeared Saturday in front of a packed house of 1,300 congregants and visitors to his Conservative synagogue to present his defense. His voice was strong and his words were clear: "How dare anyone suggest [Jews] don't ask questions during Pesach? In this past week, the Pesach story has been discussed more than any time I can remember. Am I sorry? No, I am not. The more we talk, the better it is."
He addressed those who were still angry and confused, those who wondered if he had even done the right thing by bringing up such a controversial subject over Passover. After all, wasn't God sitting in judgment? Wouldn't God be angry too?
"There are moments in life when new ideas make us dizzy, and we don't know who we are or what we believe. But if we can work through it, and if we do not avoid [these new ideas] ... there will be discoveries in return. But we must ask ourselves: Why are we here? Why are we Jews? It may be for some of you because God split the Red Sea, but not for me," Wolpe said. "Because God is bigger than the sea, even bigger than Judaism..."
The audience stirred; some sat uncomfortably on what felt to them like the hardest bench in town, while others looked around and heaved a sigh of relief. You could hear a pin drop.
Quoting from modern and ancient rabbis and scholars, Wolpe went on to illustrate how, from the very beginning, Jews were meant to question and to argue, to brace themselves for the onslaught of new ideas. He told his congregation that he didn't go along with the conventional wisdom that Jews only have two choices: either to be tied to the past, in strict adherence to the Bible, or to be open to the modern world but have no Judaism. He rebelled against both. "I want both learning and passion," he shouted. "I'm not afraid because of my faith. I can observe what someone has to say and not be chased away."
Faith, then, he said, is the underlying foundation Jews need in order to be brave -- brave enough to address the questions the modern world has to pose, even if they are in contradiction to the Torah. "The Torah is about the spiritual truths of the Jewish people, not about the particulars," Wolpe explained.
"The Torah is not about how many people stepped on the sands but about how many people are stirred in their souls," he continued. You cannot be brave if you do not [experience being] afraid, and faith is for the brave." Wolpe paused, looking over his congregation, then, appealing to each and every one, he said, "Let us be brave together."
Thirteen hundred people clapping is a very large sound. When Wolpe concluded, people applauded, jumped to their feet, kissed their neighbors and their tallitot. Some threw their children up on their shoulders and sang loudly, as the Torah was brought around.