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10/02/2017 09:35:19 AM


Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

Yom Kippur 5778

On my desk sit two handwritten letters that I have received this year. One is from a Christian woman who is a local resident of Shepherd Park. The other is from a Jewish man who is currently an inmate at a Maryland State prison. I don’t have a prior relationship with each. But despite the obvious differences in their background, both people took the time to write to me for the same reason - they both read articles, she in the Washington Post, he in the Washington Jewish Week, about the OU conflict surrounding my role here and my title. They were both so moved by what they read that they took the time to reach out to me personally and express their support for the shul and my role here.

When I read both of these these letters I had the same reaction - a combination of both feeling so touched, but also one of essentially rolling my eyes. Not at their sincerity, God forbid, but that this was even a news item in the first place. Of the embarrassment that I felt that this is what had landed Orthodoxy, and the Orthodox establishment, in the news. Of the fact that our community representatives chose to tackle certain issues that moved these 2 individuals to take the time to sit down and write to me personally. And that when these 2 individuals now thought about Jewish religious observance, they would think about this story. It’s so frustrating, and upsetting, to know that people who are otherwise unaffiliated with Orthodox Jewish life would now have this association to it. To be an Orthodox Jew is so much more than divisive rhetoric and controversy.

And I’ve always felt so proud to call myself Orthodox! [And I know that not everyone in this room identifies as Orthodox per se - one of the things that I love most about our shul is that we come together from a myriad of religious backgrounds. But while we may not all carry that label, we are united by a desire to deepen our connection to Torah and imbue our lives with a holy purpose. In that respect, I see us as being united religiously, regardless of what label we use to define ourselves.] But while I am proud of my identity, I have had moments this year when I have wavered. I’ve wondered - why am I doing all of this? For what? Who am I trying to impress? What broader community am I trying to be a part of? What does it mean to be a halachically observant Jew when the institutions that claim to represent you are not only not representing you, but upsetting you and causing you a lot of pain? Disagreeing with you on some of the values you hold most dear? Is this just part of what it means to live an observant life in 2017? In full disclosure I will say that at times this has been a struggle for me, and I’ve struggled to greet my observance with the enthusiasm that it deserves. And I know that I haven’t been the only one who feels this way. I’ve heard similar reactions from friends, colleagues, and some of us in this room.

We’ve seen other examples of frustration with religious observance as well beyond the OU situation. Just a few weeks ago, an Orthodox father of four anonymously published a piece in the Times of Israel lamenting the staggering costs of trying to lead an observant lifestyle. Wanting to afford a home close to shul, shul memberships, the rising costs of day school tuition, summer camps, kosher food, meant that he was barely making it financially, despite earning a respectable income. I had many many issues with his article, and I think he got a lot of points about the Jewish community and how costs are structured, wrong. But that aside, to see how many times it was shared on Facebook, and how many people commented on it and shared similar concerns that they have about religious observance becoming a burden, was striking to me. Independent of my criticisms of the piece, it is very clear to see that so many people are struggling to live an observant lifestyle. It’s incredibly expensive, and no matter how much you work or how much you pay, it never feels like enough. It leaves Jews feeling drained, and perpetually inadequate.

Just this week, a comprehensive market research study of over 4,000 Orthodox Jews was released. One of the most interesting and unsurprising takeaways from the research indicated that the biggest problem facing Orthodoxy was the cost of Jewish schooling, with 97% of respondents saying it was either a major or somewhat major problem. [I was also heartened to see that 53% - more than half - of respondents indicated that they fully or somewhat agree that women should have broader roles as clergy within Orthodox synagogues.]

The study also focused on "religious observance," asking questions on areas of observance of Shabbat, Kashrut, Tefillin for Men, and Taharat Ha'Mishacha. While the study found that among the more "right" streams of Orthodoxy, there has been a notable increase in religious observance over the past decade, among the more "left" streams of Orthodoxy, there has been a slight decrease in religious observance over the past decade.

So whether it’s the sometimes unbearable costs, the challenging public images, or divisive rhetoric, there are those of us who are struggling. I know that at the very least I can speak for myself when I say that I’ve struggled at times this year to really connect with the beauty of religious observance the way that I wanted to be able to, and not view it through the lens of frustration, or perhaps even burden.

The irony of these feelings is that they are precisely the opposite of what rabbis have been trying to fight for centuries. As we just read in our Torah reading today, and we will elaborate on in musaf, the Biblical practice of Yom Kippur was largely one of ritual. The Israelites would gather at the Temple to fast, and witness the execution of the sacrifices, and the Kohen Gadol entering the Kodesh HaKodashim to atone for their sins.. As we will see in the musaf retelling of the process, yes it was certainly awe-inspiring, culminating in the joy and relief of mar’eh kohen, witnessing the beauty of the Kohen Gadol’s face when he emerged from the Kodesh HaKodashim, having successfully atoned for them. Based on the Torah reading alone, one would infer that the process of atonement on Yom Kippur is in many ways passive for the community, and also based on ritual.

But then we turn to the haftarah, in which the prophet Isaiah admonishes the Israelites for approaching Yom Kippur observance in precisely this way. The people ask God “Why is it that we are fasting all day and oppressing ourselves, just as the Torah commands, and You God do not acknowledge it?? They feel that they are observing the day the way they are commanded, and that God is ignoring them. But, responds God, I am not ignoring you. Even as you stand here fasting and atoning before me, you are treating other people poorly. You oppress your laborers. You are fighting with each other. You are not seeing the human suffering that is right before you. I don’t want your ritual fasts and observance of the day! I want you to clothe the naked. I want you to feed the hungry. I want you to lead a righteous life. God reminds us that we cannot come to shul on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins that we have committed between us and God - sins typically focused more on ritual observance, like Shabbat and kashrut, if we have not yet atoned for the more grievous sins of not treating other people properly.

Rabbis have used this material for centuries to remind their communities of the importance of being a good person, in addition to a good Jew. To remind them that it’s completely wrong to care more about which hechshers you follow than about whether you are paying your taxes properly. To remind them that if you don’t conduct yourself like a mensch then it doesn’t matter how strictly you keep Shabbos. The core of our religion is not about ritual observance, but about treating people properly. The assumption that I’ve seen behind these sermons is that their constituents are more inclined to ritual observance - mitzvot ben adam l’makom, or mitzvot between a person and God, than they are to mitzvot ben adam l’chavero, or mitzvot between people.

But for me, this year, the paradigm is reversed. Yes, there are all ways that we could work to improve ourselves, and treat people better. But as I spoke about a few weeks ago, overall we are doing pretty well. We’ve engaged in such extraordinary acts of chesed this year. Our community has supported families devastated by disasters and tragedies around the world. So what if we don’t need more inspiration to be better at mitzvot ben adam l’chaveiro, but ben adam l’makom? I do not want to speak for anyone else in that respect, but I know that that is certainly where I could use more encouragement this year.

I’ve spent the past few months thinking about the question of why we keep, or strive to keep, halacha? Rabbis and philosophers have given many answers to this very question over the course of our history. The opinions range from the gemara in Berachot 33b that the mitzvot are simply God’s decrees that we must follow without trying to understand, to the Ramban and other Kabbalists’ beliefs that our observance of mitzvot has a direct impact on God and fulfills God’s needs. Others try to find an explicit meaning in each mitzvah, to justify our observance of it. My original intent was to find one perfect answer that would shed a new light on observance. But then I realized that that’s not realistic, because we all need different ways of understanding it in order to inspire us. Each explanation has its place and the person to whom it speaks. I know that I appreciate the discipline of halachic observance, and believe that for me part of living an observant life means that I observe halacha because it is the right thing to do, and not because each mitzvah necessarily explicitly imbues my life with meaning. But there are certainly the times when we need the meaning in order to feel inspired to continue to do what we do. And it certainly help motivate us to think that when we are kashering our meat pot after we accidentally made a dairy dish in it we are not just engaging in arbitrary actions but are actually satisfying God’s need for fulfillment in this world. We all relate to our observance differently, and therefore need a variety of approaches to help us connect and build meaning in our lives.

But while I personally am inclined to the explanation that observance cultivates discipline, I also need moments of inspiration as well. For me that recent moment was the Friday night tisch at the Chassidus Shabbos. On paper, this moment should not have been that profound - an Orthodox synagogue welcomed a chassidic choir into our community. On paper, we are pretty similar - we would both be labeled orthodox, albeit with different prefixes. But as we know, the communities we hail from are very different, almost to the point of not having anything to do with each other. To me, sitting at a table with seven Hasidim with payos, singing and telling divrei Torah and eating kugel, felt like a transformative moment. We had all come together to find spiritual inspiration, and joy. In a year that felt all about divisions, and about my Orthodox world shrinking and becoming more fractured, at that moment it felt like so much of the negativity had been redeemed. No one was worried about the height of the mechitzas, about whether men and women could sit together, or whether the food was kosher enough. It was the reminder that I really needed after this year, that it is possible to transcend communal divides and find and celebrate our commonalities and remember that ultimately, at the end of the day we are all one people.

About eight hours of Yom Kippur today remains. Eight hours left of working on ourselves and figuring out how to become better people this coming year. I know that I am going to spend this time reflecting on how I can view my religious practice less through the lens of burden, and more through the lens of joy. Of how I can capture the inspiration that I felt that Friday night, just two weeks ago, and carry it with me forward into my religious observance and remind me of the reasons that I love to be an Orthodox Jew.

As Rabbi Herzfeld noted in his Shabbos shuva drasha last week, the first thing we are supposed to do after Yom Kippur is to build our sukkah. We immediately move on to our next holiday. Building the sukkah is the first example of hiddur mitzvah, or glorifying a mitzvah, that the gemara in Shabbos offers us. As he noted, this is a surprising example, as there is no mitzvah to build a sukkah - just to sit in one. He solicited different thoughts as to why they then included building a sukkah as the prime example, and many different opinions were given. I wanted to suggest another - Sukkot is called zeman simchateinu, or our time of rejoicing. After a time of serious holidays and self reflection, we immediately transition into one of joy, and one whose ritual performance of the holiday are the main examples of hidur mitzvah. I don’t think this is a coincidence; Joy allows us to transcend feeling like a mitzvah is just an obligation, and when we see religious observance as being joyous, we will rush to put our heart and souls into it and glorify it as much as possible - even if the action isn’t actually an obligation. And so as we enter musaf, my wish for all of us is that we merit to have a wonderful year and that we continue to find the moments that remind us of the joy of living a Jewish life, and that religious observance is a privilege, and not a burden. Gmar chatima tova.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780