Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018

So, what’s Reconstructionism?

Don’t worry – this isn’t a pop quiz. Our movement can be difficult to explain succinctly. Especially with the recent organizational name change. But I’ll try.

Ours is the first major Jewish movement founded in the United States. We’re only about a century into existence. We were the first movement to ordain openly gay rabbis. The first to recognize the children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews. The founder of the movement, Mordechai Kaplan, was the father of the bat mitzvah (literally…his daughter was the first girl to ever become bat mitzvah).

Kaplan grew up in New York City, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. He studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but he also went to Columbia University, studying philosophy, sociology, and education, and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in Lithuania (on his honeymoon). He knew what he was talking about when he said that American Jews were living in two civilizations.

Kaplan understood that if young American Jews were forced to decide between being Jewish and being American, Judaism was going to lose. Rather than isolate Judaism completely from American influence, Kaplan used his secular training to advocate for a new form of Judaism that would bring American values, such as the democratic process, into contemporary Judaism.

Kaplan’s ideas were provocative. The changes he made to the traditional prayerbook were so controversial that a group of Orthodox rabbis ex-communicated him (and then one of them burned the prayerbook). He advocated for a Judaism where religious practice, though certainly important, wasn’t the entirety of Jewish observance. He believed that as a civilization, Judaism offered many points of entry and engagement: music, food, art, literature, sport. He felt that Jewish communities should be encouraging different expressions of Jewishness.

Kaplan was seen as a radical for his beliefs and approach, but that’s not an entirely accurate representation. Yes, he believed in change – he defined Judaism as “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” Emphasis on “evolving.” But evolution didn’t mean completely throwing away the traditions. Although Kaplan didn’t believe that Jews were the Chosen People, commanded to observe mitzvot, he still believed that mitzvot were important. He called them “folkways,” and he believed that they were important because they were our traditions, passed down for generations and generations. That made them valuable and important. (You can see his training as a sociologist coming into play).

This alone was not a rationale for strict observance. To the contrary, one of Kaplan’s most famous statements was that “the traditional voices should get a vote, but not a veto.” In other words, we should heed the voices of our tradition – but we also shouldn’t be afraid to listen to our own voices. There is a natural relationship between conservation and innovation. As Reconstructionists, we engage deeply with our tradition, while also engaging in reflection about the ways in which we need to move forward and bring a relevant and vibrant tradition along with us. Kaplan’s genius was that he recognized that the work of bringing Judaism into conversation with the contemporary mainstream civilization was not a 20th-century innovation, but a project in which the Jewish people had been engaged for millennia – carrying tradition along, and adapting it to their particular circumstances. From the innovations of prayer and synagogues after the destruction of the Second Temple to the developments in Jewish theology and philosophy precipitated by encounters with Islamic rationalist thinkers on the Iberian peninsula, Judaism has always been influenced by its place and time. It is a rich tradition, but it is also a multi-layered tradition. In our Jewish history, you can find many different strains of Jewish practice, theology, observance, and thought. There isn’t just one Jewish tradition, and it weakens our understanding of the richness of our heritage to reduce Judaism to one viewpoint, or one form of practice.

You may have recognized that our musaf service included a few references to the Disney film Moana. You might also have noticed one at the end of last night’s sermon. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. It is an extraordinary film – with rich animation, evocative and ridiculously catchy music co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a narrative that is full of themes resonant to Jews and the High Holy Day season – themes of joy, loss, community, environmentalism, healing from trauma, identity, tradition. In fact, a rabbi could write multiple High Holy Day sermons using only Moana as a primary text. Although one would hope that a new rabbi would show a decent amount of self-restraint in their first year with a congregation. Well, there’s always next year.

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen the film: Moana is the daughter of the village chief of her Polynesian island. Their culture is built around their tradition – they utilize the natural resources of the island – “each part of the coconut” and the taro root. But Moana is drawn outward, to the ocean. Her father encourages her that “you can find happiness right where you are.” And yet, Moana continues to be pulled away – to the water.

She can’t fight the urge to break away from the tradition of the island, as much as she loves her community and wishes to remain connected. She is called beyond the reef – to explore the unknown.

Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about how this urge influenced the writing of the song “How Far I’ll Go,” saying:

… it’s a challenging song. It’s not “I hate it here, I want to be out there.” It’s not, “There must be more than this provincial life.” She loves her island, she loves her parents, she loves her people. And there’s still this voice inside.

For a brief period of time, if you asked my three-year-old son Daniel how his day was, his regular response was “Pretty Fine.” It’s a classic Daniel-ism – he enjoys life, but he wasn’t always effusive about it. And yet, this phrase has resonance for me. Moana’s life on the island was “pretty fine.” She had everything she could have wanted – and yet, she still had the sense that something was missing.

If you were at services last night, you know that I spoke about finding contentment with what you have and where you are. So know that when I speak about Moana’s struggle with a life that’s “pretty fine,” I’m not encouraging you to find fault with a life that is good. I’m not suggesting that you quit your job to follow your dream of being a poet, or that you leave your partner because sometimes you fight. That’s a Hollywood solution. Movies are good at telling us that we need to be willing to make dramatic changes and uproot everything to make our lives better. Sometimes, that might be true. But not every feeling of yearning for something more is an indicator that you’re in the narrowness of Mitzrayim – a slave in Egypt, dreaming of escaping to freedom. And the answer isn’t always uprooting your life and starting over again.

This is the question I want to ask: when you’re happy with your life, but you have an urge to connect to something bigger – the sense that you’re being called to something new – how do you answer the call? What do you do if it calls you away from where you are, where you want to be?

One person who answered that call was Rabbi Akiva – one of the greatest scholars in our tradition. Until he was forty years old, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd. One day, he saw a stone well which had been worn down by years of water. He said, “if something as small and gentle as persistent drops of water can make such an impact on something as hard as a stone, then my brain can take in words of Torah.” He went to school with his son and learned the aleph bet, then a section of Torah, and then the whole Torah. Then he studied the Mishnah. His perceptive mind led him to ask tough questions. His wife was his biggest supporter – she encouraged him to go and improve himself – to develop as a scholar and teacher. His studies took him away from his home for twelve years, but he returned with twelve thousand disciples. And then he went away for twelve more years, and returned with twenty-four thousand disciples. He went away to grow – and then he returned to bring his talents back to his community.

My teacher, Rabbi Margot Stein, says that one of the most magnificent things about being human is that there is something within us that urges us towards growth.

When Moana leaves her island, it isn’t because she wants to get away – it’s because the coconut trees are dying. Her island needs to do something different to survive. She discovers that though using each part of the coconut tree is indeed an ancient tradition of her people, going back at least a thousand years, there is another, older tradition of wayfaring – of voyaging across the sea, discovering new islands. Stepping away from the tradition doesn’t always mean running away – sometimes it can even be about exploring within the tradition. Moana is called to the sea – not in opposition to her tradition, but towards it. In fact, the urge which seems to be pulling her away is actually connecting her more deeply to an ancient, and largely abandoned tradition. Moana is reviving an ancient heritage for her people – and bringing that tradition back home to share with them.

Some of the major innovations in 20th-century Jewish life were actually acts of recovery – rediscovering parts of our tradition that had been abandoned, or set aside, or ignored, for one reason or another. Gershom Scholem’s research into kabbalistic texts reinvigorated the study of Jewish mysticism. Solomon Schechter’s excavation and examination of the contents of the Cairo Geniza deepened our understanding of the society our ancestors inhabited.

Moana had to trust that she was making the right choice in leaving home – that the knowledge and experience that she sought would benefit her community. We must trust that when we go out into the world, following a call, that we are doing so in order to strengthen our community, tap into our tradition, and bring back something important, relevant, and valuable that we can share with the people we love. And we must encourage the next generations to explore, question, study, and be courageous enough to take the meandering path towards the tradition. Who knows what they might discover along the way – maybe even something that we’ve lost – something we thought was gone forever. That? That is reconstructing Judaism.

Published in Rabbi Jake's Sermons on September 15, 2018