On these High Holy Days, there will be empty seats in our synagogues. This is a letter found on one of those seats …
This year, I’m not coming to shul for the holidays. I know this will hurt you, and you’ll be angry, but perhaps you’ll hear me out.
I have always loved the synagogue. I like the rabbis and the cantors, and the sanctuary is familiar to me, but I just can’t go back. Something is missing; the service feels passive and almost perfunctory. I don’t feel like I belong anymore. When I was young, I appreciated seeing my friends from school, but when I left home for college I met new people who seemed to care about praying. There was singing and dancing, Dad. And then I came back to be with you and Mom, and found nothing in the services that moved me.
I’m of a generation that expects excellence. I search all over town for the most authentic Indian food, the most authentic clothing, and strive for the most authentic experiences. I think the same should apply to my Judaism as well. I want to experience the presence of God as I pray. I don’t feel the presence of God in your synagogue. You and your generation created a glorious cultural, humanistic, ethical Judaism. But you left God out. I want God back in my life. And I believe somehow that God wants me back.
I feel that I’ve spiritually outgrown the pageantry of services at the shul. The truth is, I care more about substance than loyalty. Please understand, Dad, this isn’t petulant adolescent rebellion. I’m searching for something … a treasure you told me many times is waiting for me in the Jewish tradition.
You taught me that the 613th mitzvah commands every Jew to write a sefer Torah. Even if our ancestors bequeathed Torah to us, every Jew has to write his or her own. So Dad, I’m taking you seriously. I’m beginning my own Torah, in my own voice. A few of us are gathering in someone’s apartment for our own services. We won’t wear suits and ties. It won’t be polished and professional. But it will be ours. Please understand I’m doing this because I love you and what you taught me. I will always be,
An e-mail sent immediately after the holiday:
One of the joys of my life is to gather our family together on these holidays. As the years go on, I become more aware of how precious these moments are. Time is an unyielding centrifugal force. As you move into your own life, I miss you, and I cherish the moments we can be together. I look around the synagogue and see the empty seats of old friends who are gone now, and I feel the need to gather us all in together.
There was a time when I, too, checked out of shul. The issue then wasn’t spiritual, it was political. The country was burning up. We were fighting a war that was deeply misguided. We watched the rise of black power, of feminism and environmentalism; we experienced a sexual revolution. We declared ourselves a counterculture and challenged every authority. We sought liberation. To all this, the synagogue had little to say. The cantor grew a mustache and sang Simon & Garfunkel melodies. But there was nothing in Judaism to answer our yearning. So we left.
Years later, I realized that my generation asked all the right questions. But we didn’t have the resources to find the answers. For a very simple reason — we were only talking to ourselves. Like you, we believed we were the first to challenge what is, in the name of what ought to be. Like you, we believed that our parents were hopelessly lost and only we possessed the courage to find truth. I don’t mean to belittle your search. It’s just now I can see this process at work. To find God, Abraham left his father’s house. Just what I did to my father … and now you to me.
About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply.
My generation didn’t banish God. After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God. Jews have always felt the presence of God in history — that’s what the Bible is all about. But after the Holocaust, how could one even entertain such an idea? So we did something else. We stopped talking about God, and we acted in God’s image. We did what God needed done in the world. God creates, so we created schools and synagogues, the State of Israel. God redeems, so we rescued Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. God demands justice, so we fought for civil rights for black people and for gay people, equality for women, dignity for working people and support for the poor. God didn’t speak in the Holocaust, so we were God’s response. God was in our hands.
It saddens me that you do not feel that this place is your home, and that you don’t sense God in the synagogue. I look at the thriving life of this community, and I do feel God is close. Remember that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. There is no Judaism without Jews. And there are no Jews without community. And there is no community without institutions. So be very careful before you dismiss or deride or destroy institutions. They were not easy to create. They are not easy to sustain. If your prayer group grows into something, you’ll surely find this out.
I wish you a year of blessings,
E-mail response posted at 2:30 a.m. that night:
Thank you for the seriousness of your response.
I am not ungrateful for the institutions your generation built. But you went well beyond protecting these institutions. You got so involved in them you forgot their higher purpose. For me, sitting in a folding chair in a basement praying with real feeling is better than sitting quietly in a cold cathedral.
In reality, much of your Judaism is about defense. Like the fighters of Masada pitted against an intractable foe, your generation’s sense of purpose is derived from some ever-present, impending crisis — anti-Semitism, Jewish survival, the survival of Israel.
Deep down, it’s all motivated by fear. And a commitment rooted in fear is bound to bear bad fruit. Out of fear, you pushed away those who intermarried. Out of fear, you pushed away those who questioned Israel. And out of fear, you pushed away Jews who don’t agree with you. Fear is no basis for a Jewish life. Ultimately, that fear will dominate your inner life and choke it to death. Dad, I want a Jewish life based on love, spirit and joy, and not fear.
You battled anti-Semitism so I would never know that hatred. I’m grateful to feel so much at home in America. And I know there are still people who hate us. But while you were so engaged in fighting those who hate us, we assimilated so much hate of our own. Just listen to the way Jews talk about immigrants, or Muslims. Listen to the way we talk about each other. The hate that crept into our communal vocabulary is more vicious and more destructive today than the hate we face from anti-Semites!
You battled for Jewish survival. You identified intermarriage as a communal catastrophe. I get that. We’re a small people, and getting smaller. But I also know lots of good Jews who fell in love with partners who weren’t Jewish. It wasn’t a gesture of rejection — they still want to be Jewish. They’re all are looking for a way into our community, some as converts, others as seekers. If we keep talking about intermarriage as a catastrophe, they will always be intruders — unwelcome and rejected. Is that what you want? Perhaps we’d get farther with an open door and a word of welcome, no?
When it comes to Israel … Dad, you and I are really going to disagree. You taught me the importance of Israel, how it’s our refuge and homeland. So I chose to go to Israel when I was in college. The Israel I found wasn’t what I had expected to find. When we talk about Israel here in America, it’s always in the high-pitched tone of crisis. There is always an imminent threat, a looming disaster. It’s always about the conflict, the desperate struggle for Israel’s survival. That’s a part of life in Israel, but it isn’t everything. What I loved in Israel had nothing to do with crisis and conflict and struggle. That’s not how I engage Israel … because Dad, that’s not how Israelis engage Israel. What I loved was the life of Israel: Jews creating new Jewish art and music. It was about the Jewish life that thrives there despite the conflict.
You taught me to be a critical thinker — except when it comes to Israel. I feel constrained never to criticize or object to what Israel does, and if I ever questioned Israeli policy I would be immediately labeled a communal traitor.
Your generation is concerned with Israel’s existence. My generation is concerned with Israel’s character. Grandpa called himself a Labor Zionist. You call yourself an American Zionist. I’m a Critical Zionist. I love Israel. And I will demand that it live up to my Jewish values … the ones you taught me. I love Israel enough that when it falls short of our values, I’m going to speak out. I’ll support Israel, Dad, by supporting those in Israel who work for an Israel I can be proud of.
I just hope the fear within you doesn’t keep you from remembering that I am and always will be,
E-mail posted the day before Yom Kippur:
The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi says that there are two kinds of Jews — Pesach Jews and Purim Jews. Pesach Jews hear the biblical commandment, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Because we were slaves, we bear a special sensitivity to the rights of human beings. Purim Jews embrace a different biblical commandment: Remember Amalek. Remember there is evil in the world, and remember that you were the object of that evil. The Pesach Jew is the bearer of Jewish conscience and lives by the rule: don’t be brutal. The Purim Jew is the bearer of Jewish resilience and lives by the rule: don’t be naïve.
You, my son, are a wonderful Pesach Jew. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that you are so adept at finding our flaws and failures. I’m proud of your Jewish conscience.
I, on the other hand, am a Purim Jew. Perhaps it comes with being a father. The Jewish People is my family. And like any father, I have a keen instinctual sense for the dangers that affect my family.
When you demand a more ethical Jewish community, I’m proud of you. You’re certainly right that hate has infected us, especially in the ways we speak to one another. But at the same time, I don’t see that our fight against anti-Semitism is over, nor do I see that our continuing vigilance is wasted. I wish you were right, but we’re not done yet with anti-Semitism.
We are not as far apart on Israel as you think. I appreciate your stance as a “Critical Zionist.” You have a right to criticize. It’s the question of the tone you choose when you criticize. When we criticize someone we love, we use a special tone. We don’t want to hurt the other. We want to inspire the other to grow. You want to protest the policies and practices of Israel, that’s fine. But do it with humility, care and love.
You’re not worried about Israel’s existence. I am. Israel, thank God, is strong, but far from invulnerable. Iran is building a nuclear weapon, and once again the destiny of the Jewish people rests in the hands of others. In the meantime, the world is convincing itself that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Israel is currently engaged in an ideological war for its own legitimacy. That legitimacy has to be earned. I think you and I would agree on this: Israel’s policies are politically sustainable only if they are morally defensible. So I offer you this deal: When you perceive that Israeli policies violate our values, speak up. Your critical voice is welcome. But when Israel acts with reasonable morality and the world unjustly accuses it, you become Israel’s character witness. When double standards and ridiculously biased judgments are cast upon Israel, you must stand up and say: This is not an evil nation. This is a nation striving toward a moral ideal. Do we have a deal?
You’re right about the destructive effects of fear. The problem is, there are real enemies out there, there is real evil in the world. And we have to fight it. I promise you that I will not let fear separate us. We need to learn from one another, you and me, your generation and mine. We are a people strong enough to accommodate a vigorous debate. We are a people wise enough to learn from one another. I know that your group is meeting on Yom Kippur. Come be with us for Neilah. When the gates close, I don’t want them to close us off from one another. Bring your friends, too, we have plenty of lox.
Text message sent immediately:
Is there really room for us?
Text message sent in reply:
There is always room for you.
Text message sent in reply:
Then, deal. We’ll be there. Shanah Tovah, Dad. I love you.
Text message sent in reply:
I love you, too.
This is an edited version of a sermon delivered during the High Holy Days two years ago by Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Zvi Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative synagogue in Encino.