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High Holy Days 5779
Rabbi Oren Steinitz's Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

Shannah Tovah!

Several months ago – some of you may remember I briefly discussed it during a Friday night sermon – a British colleague sent me a story from a Christian satirical website called The Babylon Bee. The ‘fake news’ article tells of the Michelson family, which shockingly discovered that “… after 12 years of steadily taking their daughter Janie to church every Sunday they didn’t have a more pressing sporting commitment—which was at least once every three months—she no longer demonstrates the strong quarterly commitment to the faith they raised her with, now that she is college-aged.”

The Michelsons simply do not understand their daughter’s lack of interest in her family’s faith tradition. “Almost every single time there was a rained-out game, or a break between school and club team seasons, we had Janie in church,” they said. “It was obviously a priority in our family.”

Pastors, priests and rabbis all enthusiastically – and bitterly – shared this funny story. This is a situation which all of us encounter on a regular basis – people want their children to carry on their heritage, but they do very little to keep these traditions themselves. Parents send their children to Hebrew school, but seldom come to services. When I was leading the Junior Congregation in a large synagogue in Calgary, it was the norm rather than the exception for parents to drop their kids off on Saturday mornings, while the parents went on to run errands or play golf. B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies are seen as the children’s “graduation from Judaism” – just do a good job and you will not have to come to synagogue ever again. The message sent to the students is clear – Jewish practice is for kids. It is juvenile. It is simply something you grow out of – like singing nursery rhymes; something you enjoy as a child and which will evoke a nostalgic, warm fuzzy feeling when you encounter it as an adult, so you wish to pass it on to your own children.

Why does this happen? How come most of us treat our Jewish heritage as harmless folklore rather than a serious spiritual practice, and at the same time feel so strongly about our next generations staying true to that heritage? How come Jewish education is seen as a low-priority after-school activity, that hopefully can fit into our children’s schedule between soccer practice and piano lessons, and at the same time we feel betrayed when our children show so little interest in their heritage? Furthermore, often times it seems that the only thing that scares Jewish parents more than their children abandoning Judaism altogether, is the possibility of them actually deciding to take it seriously. How are we simultaneously so proud of our Judaism and so unenthusiastic about Jewish practice? An old, bad joke tells of a son who complains to his father that ever since he married his recently-converted wife, it seems like all they do is go from one synagogue activity to the other – from services to Shabbat dinners to adult education… “See!” the father replies “I told you not to marry a gentile…”


There are many possible explanations to this phenomenon. One commonly quoted rationale is that “people are just not religious anymore.” I am very skeptical of this explanation. I do believe that people became severely allergic to the word “religion,” and for very good reason. When we think of “religion,” our thoughts immediately turn to fundamentalism. Over the last several decades, adherents of radical, ultra-conservative versions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism have been very successful in convincing most of us that religion and progress are contradicting terms. The more you reject liberal values, they claim, the more religious you are. If the self-appointed representatives of the world’s religions take pride in their zealotry, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, it is no wonder that many of us want nothing to do with religion!

There is only one problem with this perception. It has no factual basis. As an American Reform rabbi told me when I was a 21 year-old non-observant Israeli, “the Haredim – the Ultra-Orthodox – did a great job convincing you Israelis that you are not Jewish. Why do you give them this satisfaction?” Classical Judaism was groundbreaking in its concern for social justice and its uncompromising commitment to protecting society’s most marginalized members. Only two weeks ago we read [at least I hope we read it here. I was still in Israel…] in Parashat Ki-Tavo “Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and all the People shall say Amen.” The Torah, the Prophets, the Mishna, the Talmud are all full of laws and regulations concerning the protection of the sick and the weak and the old, laws that were radically innovative in their times. So, once the rest of the world finally adopts the values that we have been upholding for centuries, suddenly social justice becomes a liberal fad? All of a sudden, the liberal-Jewish commitment to Tikkun Olam, to repairing the world, is simply – as Orthodox writer Jonathan Neuman recently wrote – a corruption of true Judaism? Sorry, I’m not buying it. A commitment to ethics, morality and kindness can – and should – come hand in hand with a deep commitment to Judaism. It has been in the past, and there is no reason that it cannot right now, just because in order to protect their uniqueness, the fundamentalists claim it is a heresy.


Fundamentalist beliefs are not the only reason religion gets a bad reputation. Many times, when people say they are not “religious,” they mean that they reject dogmatic teachings, or that they do not observe religious law. This is particularly true with regards to Judaism, which emphasizes practice over theology. I used to explain to my non-Jewish students that it is highly unlikely that you will walk into a synagogue and someone will ask you about your belief in God or lack of it. It is far more plausible that someone will ask if you keep kosher or whether or not you drive on Shabbat. Some people feel that since they have no interest in traditional observance, then Judaism has nothing to offer them other than the occasional corned beef sandwich. Once again, I’m not buying it. Even though Halakha, or Jewish Law, is a central part of our tradition, Judaism contains so much more than endless lists of rules regarding what to do in the extremely-likely case of a non-kosher meatball falling into a kosher pot of milk (the answer depends on whether the meatball or the milk were hot, just in case you were wondering…). Many forget how rich the tradition is, and would never even think to turn to Judaism when seeking intellectual, philosophical or spiritual content.

Spiritual. Yes. I just said the S word.

The number of people who define themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious is ever rising, but I still have not found one person that managed to explain to me what that term actually means. It is almost too easy to be cynical about this trend. I once read an article by a Methodist minister who said that those who claim to be spiritual but not religious are essentially people “who find ancient traditions boring, but themselves fascinating.” While I can definitely understand where she was coming from, I think this is also indicative of people still searching for something beyond the mundane, but are not finding it in the faith traditions they grew up in.

But did they actually give them a fair shot?

I imagine many of you have said in the past something along the lines of “services don’t do anything for me,” or “when I come to shul on the High Holidays I do it because I feel obligated, not because I want to.” In fact, most of us never really grew up with the radical idea that you can get anything out of a service, or any type of Jewish practice, so it never occurred to us to look for it. It is not that I’m claiming that Jewish practice cannot, or should not be made more meaningful. Far from it. I spend a significant portion of my time trying to make Judaism more accessible. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that if you walk out of a service and you are the same person you were when you came in, the service was a failure. However, the idea that you can attend a service once every blue moon and miraculously feel transformed, is akin to the idea that you can go to the gym once every three month and magically lose weight. Just like playing a sport, playing an instrument, meditating, or partaking in any other discipline, spiritual practice requires, well, practice!


The High Holidays are a time for Heshbon Nefesh – self-examination and reflection. When we are looking at our own relationship to Judaism, let us look not only at how we are doing, but also at where we would like to be next year. If our current practice is meaningful, let’s see if we can improve on it even further. If it is not meaningful – why? What are we doing wrong, and are we truly giving it a fair try? I am immensely proud of the spiritual growth we have made as a community in the last three years. We have more and more people engaged not only in our fantastic social events but with services, Talmud classes and other adult education opportunities. We have more and more people taking on the commitment to learn more, and grow as Jews, but we can always do better. If we are serious when we say that that Judaism is important to us – let’s put not only our money, but our time, where our mouth is.

Shannah Tovah!


Shabbat Service Schedule:

Friday Evening Service - 7:30PM

Saturday Morning Service - 9:30AM

1008 W. Water St. Elmira, NY 14905
1008 W. Water St. Elmira, NY 14905
Phone: 607-732-7410 / 607-734-7735
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