Shanah tova, everyone. It’s great to see everyone here together this evening.
Since there are so many people here, I will use this opportunity to give a brief overview of the most recent steps the rabbi search committee has taken:
- Following the advice from the congregational meeting, we added Mabelly Tuchsznajder, Marty Finestone, and Ernie Ginsler to the search committee and we’ve been enriched by their joining us
- We still have four candidates. We have interviewed three and are interviewing the fourth on Wednesday.
- After the fourth interview, we will meet as a committee and decide next steps
- We will keep everyone up to date. Things were slower in the last couple of weeks because of High Holidays.
I had some trouble with writer’s block for this talk, but two different recent events inspired me just in the nick of time.
- The first event was conversations with rabbi candidates. All four of our current candidates originate from the US and a couple brought up a reputation that we have in Reform Jewish circles of being “more conservative” than our US counterparts, whatever that means.
- The second event was Rabbi Lori’s teaching on Sunday last week about how we adopt or don’t adopt new technology as part of Jewish practice.
Both of these led me to meditate on the topic of conservatism. Not in the sense of political parties or policies – this is not the time or place for that. And, not in the sense of another sect of Judaism. I’m talking more about personalities, habits, and how we relate to tradition.
What both of these discussions brought up is the question of how people handle change. As people, we tend to like our habits and our traditions. Change can be scary or threatening. Most of us, most of the time, would prefer that things go along much as they have. It’s comfortable and predictable. Continuity of externalities allows us to calmly and deliberately plan our lives, careers, and families. Even if we don’t like the status quo, it’s the devil we know and we can plan in that context with confidence that we can maintain or improve our own lives if we make sound decisions and work hard. But, when everything is changing around us, we don’t know what will happen. Sure there is the chance things will get better, but there is also a chance things will get worse. And, worse than that, the external changes may thwart our most considered plans and our hardest labor. Psychologists have proven that humans put more weight on potential loss than an equal amount of potential gain. So, external changes in our lives tend to make us feel very insecure.
Which brings us back to the word “conservative”. The derivation of the word is to conserve or to maintain or preserve. This can mean politics, morals, ethics, and economics – again, not the topic of a synagogue talk. It can also mean the environment, as in “conservation” – also not our topic today. It can also simply mean our day to day behaviors, our relationships, and our communities. And, that last aspect is what I’m interested in as synagogue president.
A lot of people equate conserving with never changing. If external circumstances never changed, then sure, conserving would mean eternal personal consistency. But, when external circumstances change, conserving means something different entirely. Let’s illustrate that by contrasting it with two different psychologies and applying those ways of thinking to a situation we all face here – how we work through Rabbi Lori moving on to a new position.
One psychology is reactionary. It says that nothing should ever change and any changes that have happened, usually from an imagined utopian past, need to be reversed as speedily as possible. Applied to the current situation, this would lead to a dark outcome, as reactionary thought almost always does – chaining Rabbi Lori to the bima and never letting her go. She’s been our rabbi, so she must always be. Since freezing time is impossible, people with reactionary psychology can never be satisfied.
Another psychology is radical. It is the mindset that will throw out the baby with the bathwater. In this situation, a radical way of thinking would be, “It hurts to have the rabbi leave and all rabbis will eventually leave us, so let’s not have a rabbi.” I think we can all agree that this would be an overreaction and that we would lose so much from that. Since ending evil and suffering is impossible, radicals can also never be satisfied.
The middle psychology, the one that gives us a real chance for happiness, is conservative. It acknowledges external changes and then asks, what are the central principles that we seek to preserve and how do we need to change in order to maintain what we cherish most in this new world? That is the approach we are taking here at the temple. We’re searching for a new rabbi. And once we find the new rabbi, there will be changes. It will be a different person with a different background with a different focus in their teaching, a different personality, and a different bedside manner. While a good rabbi will strive to adjust their approach to who we are, we will also have to do the work to meet them partway.
So, in this situation, as in many others, conservative doesn’t mean never changing. Not changing is not a realistic option. It’s about choosing peripheral changes that conserve our core principle – that we are a rabbi led congregation. In this case, it means that we have to do the hard work of searching for a new rabbi, taking a calculated risk to hire the person we feel best suits us, giving them the time and space to adjust to us, and having the patience to understand and adjust to them. Conserving is hard work.
The good news is that as Jews, we’ve had a lot of practice at doing this conservation work and succeeding. Look at our history.
- Like I talked about last year, our historical beginning was after the Bronze Age collapse, about 3200 years ago, in the time of the judges. The Israelite religion was distributed and egalitarian with shrines on many hilltops.
- Then we became a kingdom and kings love to centralize power and leave monuments behind. So, we became a temple based religion with all observance in Jerusalem with mass pilgrimages to one holy place.
- Then we survived Babylonian exile without access to Jerusalem. We did this by starting the process of canonizing the Torah which the exiled priests could use to anchor our people.
- Then, under the Persians, the Greeks, a brief period of independence, and again under the Roman Republic and early empire, we became temple based again.
- Finally, for 2000 years after the destruction of the temple, we shifted again to a more distributed religion, this time led by rabbis instead of priests, and anchored by a fully canonized Tanach, and additional works such as the Talmud.
- And, most recently, we’ve once again been able to return to Israel, but not Davidic Israel or Hashmonean Israel, but something else entirely that also requires us to compromise with modern realities.
That is a lot of change through the ages. But, that change all served to preserve the core values of the Israelites who started it all. Monotheism, certain holidays and festivals, ways of eating, and most importantly the core ethical practices of how we treat one another and help one another. Today, most of us don’t farm and don’t own fields whose corners can be gleaned, but we have commandments to charity. We help each other in the community when people are hungry or sick. We make shiva calls when people have died. We don’t look aside from the widow and the orphan. We resist the temptation to put a stumbling block before the blind even when it would profit us to do so. And, remarkably, we’ve even preserved text and language throughout the millennia. Scholars tell us that one of the two oldest parts of the Tanach is the song of Deborah. With all that’s changed and all we’ve written over 3200 years, we still have an original founding song of joy and triumph right in the middle of our holy text.
But imagine if the Israelites or Jews through history embraced reactionary thinking and said that nothing could ever change. We’d have died out. Or imagine if they fell into radical thinking and abandoned everything. We’d have just melted into the surrounding populace and disappeared.
I do think that Jews and Canadians are conservative and I mean that in the best sense of the word, and again, completely apolitically. In that spirit, this year I’d ask us to think about what that means to us and our plans as a temple.
- What are our enduring principles?
- What changes are happening around us?
- What do we need to change in order to be able to preserve our enduring principles in the face of the changes around us?
Given the search for the rabbi, I’ve had to listen to the congregation and put together what seems to be the consensus around our principles. Here is what I have now (and if folks disagree or think I missed anything, please reach out after Yom Kippur)
- We are a Jewish spiritual group. We are not just a social club that happens to be made up of Jewish families. We seek to learn more about Judaism and to put it into practice in our daily lives.
- We are a loving community. We are here for each other and take care of one another.
- We are inclusive. Anyone who embraces Judaism and their families, whether fully Jewish or mixed, are welcome here and will be treated with love and respect. This inclusiveness spans national origin, race, native language, whether we were born Jewish or chose Judaism, level of observance, age, family structure, sexuality, or gender identity. Our Jewish values and our humanity define us, none of those other characteristics that some cynically use to divide us from one another.
- As a side note about accepting change in order to conserve our values and strengthen our community, just think about how many us would not have been welcome in even the most liberal congregations just a generation or two ago.
- We congregate. It’s in the word congregation, isn’t it? For that we need a home, a building that is maintained and that we are secure in.
- We value our lay leadership. We respect the learning and wisdom of our neighbors and their contributions to keeping ritual alive. We would have this respect even if we could afford a full time rabbi and cantor.
- We are rabbi led. Even with strong lay leadership, we are awed by just how much there is to Judaism and how much wisdom has been accumulated over the millenia. We acknowledge the need to have a guide that has dedicated themselves to learning and teaching Judaism.
Those are the principles I feel we need to conserve. But, we know that there are challenges that come from external changes that make us have to figure out how to best conserve our values in a dynamic world.
- Demographics change
- Society changes
- Antisemitism waxes and wanes
- A new generation’s feelings towards joining religious institutions change
- Attitudes towards how much to give and to who change
- Personal finances change along with the broader economy
- Real estate and building costs change
- The availability and expectations of clergy members change
In closing, I’d like to leave you with a challenge. Tonight, you are all board members. I ask you to meditate on what is eternal for us, what we need to preserve and conserve. I ask you to further think about what is changing around us. Consider how those changes either make it easier or harder to continue who we are. Then, the hardest part. I ask you all to think about what changes we might make to preserve who we are.
- Do we need to change how we do membership?
- Do we need to change how we do dues?
- Do we need to change how we maintain our shared home?
- Do we need to change our external relationships
- To other synagogues?
- To unaffiliated Jews?
- To the church?
- To the community as a whole?
In short, what do we need to do differently tomorrow so that we can maintain the essence of who we are today?
Given the sad event of Rabbi Lori moving on, it’s an ideal time for our community to think critically about our future. If we get it right, if we embrace discomfort, if we make the right changes in terms of all the responsibilities and relationships we have, we can conserve and preserve our essence and put the temple on a sustainable path for decades.
And then, of course, many of us and our children and grandchildren will sit here 20 years from now and listen to some other president give this same talk in response to changes in their world that we couldn’t have possibly anticipated here and now.
Thank you for being a part of Temple Shalom. Each of you brings something special to the community. I’m grateful for you all.
Shanah tova and g’mar chatima tova