Erev Rosh HaShana 5781 / 2020 – Innovation Will Save Us

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

While there may be people sitting in the congregation this evening, the majority of you are sitting in your homes, hopefully in a comfortable place, with a desktop, or laptop or tablet or phone to stream High Holy Day services.  A year ago, this would have been unthinkable.  Had someone told us that, in the near future, worship and study would be held on-line, most would have dismissed it as something from the 60’s cartoon the Jetsons, or Star Trek.  But here we are, harnessing and molding technology to meet our needs and marshalling all of our collective creativity to make this work.  Within two weeks of the shut-down, colleagues of mine in the rabbinic community began to question on-line how we would run services.  Soon some wondered what would happen if we had to do High Holy Day services on-line. Within days, hundreds of rabbis from all denominations debated Jewish law, best practices, health guidelines, technology, equipment.  We shared information on the best microphones, cameras, computer operating systems, we pondered how to deal with the limitations such as no communal singing, the difference in visual perspectives, and coping with the technophobes who couldn’t wouldn’t or didn’t want to or weren’t able to “get on line.” Congregation Shirat HaYam’s President, Darren Sukonick and Ritual Chairs, Susan Bloom and Jared Smith quickly got on board to try out ways to stream services.  The first couple were a bit rocky, but soon we got the hang of it, and enlisted the professional help and guidance of a team from Nantucket’s Public Television station NCTV18.  And even if one day in the not too distant future we will be able return to services and classes in person, things will never be as they were.  There will always be a need for the use of technology to bring our far-flung community together (even though we were never able to do it before).

And we are shocked by this, but we should reflect on our history as this moment is not unique to our people.  Events, and people came upon the scene that transformed our community, our religious practice and our faith.

Twenty-three years and ten days ago, September 28, 1997 after Steve Jobs returned to Apple and brought along my best friend Jon Rubinstein, and Avie Tavanian, they created the iMac and mounted a campaign to sell it, called “Think Different:” “Here’s to the crazy ones,” actor Richard Dreyfuss read over a series of photos of people like Einstein, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Picasso and others “The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers — the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” If we look closely at the history of our people, we see that it is the ones who saw things differently that helped us navigate into a new era.  I will lift up three of them tonight, though there are dozens more from which I could have chosen. One from 2 millenia ago and two who just died in the past month – yet their impress has transformed Judaism, and our community with forever be different because of them.

In the year 70 CE, it became clear to the Jews living under Roman oppression in Jerusalem that the Romans would attack and lay siege to the city.  The majority of the Jews were ready to take up arms and take on the Romans. They justified it by saying twice before we were able to push back (the story is recounted in Avot de Rabbi Nathan) and defeat them  One of the heads of the rabbinic community, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai warned the people that if they took up arms, the Romans would destroy the city and the Holy Temple with it.  He tried to encourage them to put down their arms.  When it became clear that a war would soon start, he turned to his students Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Yehoshua be Hananiah and told them to build a coffin for him.  He got into the coffin and told his students to go to the guards at the gates of the city and tell the Roman guards that they had to buy their dead outside of the city.  When they got out of the walled city he found the Roman general Vespasian and told him that he had a sign that Vespasian would one day be named the Caesar and would rule over the whole Roman Empire.   Vespasian asked Yochanan what he could do for him, and he asked that he and students be permitted to go north to Yavneh and continue to teach.  It was in Yavneh that Yochanan ben Zakkai established the academy system to train the next generation of teachers of Torah.  The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and sacked the Temple.  And Yochanan, along with his student Gamliel began the transition from worship though sacrifices to worship through prayer and study.  Without Yochanan ben Zakkai we would never have been able to transition from a Temple centered faith based upon the sacrificial cult to the rabbinic tradition we now follow.

Forty days ago, the Jewish world lost another titan of learning, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z”l.  Born in Jerusalem in 1937, his father was a devoted communist, rejecting the religious tradition of the generations of rabbis before him.  Adin discovered his Judaism as a teen and became a baal teshuva through Chabad leading to rabbinic studies, while at the same time pursuing his studies of mathematics, physics and chemistry at Hebrew University.  It was in 1965 that he began a project that has transformed modern Jewish study – he began translating and commenting on the Talmud in Hebrew, and later added Russian, English and other languages.  For centuries the study of Talmud was the domain of scholars who read the text in its original Aramaic.  By beginning to translate and explain the eccentricities of the text into Hebrew, and then English, the Talmud was opened up to a wide swath of people who wanted to enter into serious Jewish study.  Steinsaltz was also instrumental in founding several pluralistic yeshivot including Pardes, in Jerusalem.  There are 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud which takes 7 years and five months to read at a page a day.  In 1923 on Rosh HaShana a small group of scholars began the Daf Yomi – The Daily Page.  The would be a celebration at the conclusion (Shiyyum Shas) and then the cycle would begin again.  This past January, the 14th cycle began – and there are myriads (including me) who study a page of Talmud a day.  Steinsaltz’s Talmud made it easier for so many to learn. Steinsaltz democratized Jewish study – and if we weather the current crisis which causes Jewish institutions to question their own survival, it will be Jewish study that saves us, just like it did almost 2000 years ago.

A day after the passing of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the Jewish world lost another giant, my teacher, Rabbi Manuel Gold.  With an Orthodox upbringing, rabbinic studies at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, doctoral studies at Columbia and years of service to the Reform Jewish community, Manny was an iconoclastic thinker.  For Manny there was always a line of logic in the magic, superstition and cultic practices of our faith. Rabbi Manuel Gold was an idol-smasher, just like the Midrash about Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s idol shop. But the idols that Rabbi Gold smashed were long-held beliefs about the origins of Jewish practice and beliefs that we have held on to uncritically. Why did we celebrate 8 nights of Hanuka? It wasn’t the little jar of oil.  What were the Urim and Tumim that Moses used to make decisions?  They were the ancient version of the Magic 8 Ball. What was the meaning of Kol Nidrei? Manny forced one to wrestle in the struggle for meaning — and that is the ultimate act of Jewish engagement. And as we move forward to our new Jewish reality of Jewish life through live stream, and redefining the word and meaning of community, it will take iconoclastic thinking to dream our future and set the path for our survival and growth.

When I think about the countless hours the leaders of this congregation put into dreaming up a meaningful High Holiday experience for our community, and the countless hours that rabbis, cantors, educators, leaders have poured into meeting the immediate challenge and the long-term aftermath and changes that our new reality demands, I am heartened that many are inspired by the idol-breakers, the change agents, the brave souls who helped our people respond to the threats that have been a constant challenge throughout our history.  With that inspiration we will re-form and re-commit to a vibrant Jewish community and life, that a year ago would have seemed impossible.

Kayn yehi ratzon!

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