September 17, 2012: Living Up to Our Name: Beth Shalom (Rosh Hashanah Morning)


Last night, I challenged us to focus on personal fundamentals: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Rosh Hashanah serves as an annual wake-up call to transcend the details of our mundane routines and fulfill the ultimate purpose of our lives as individuals. Now, what about the life of our community? This morning, I would like to focus on the fundamental bond that ties us together as a congregation.

A venerable synagogue somewhere in the Midwest hired a new Rabbi. At his first service, half the congregants stood up for the Shema, and half remained sitting. The seated ones began yelling at the others to sit down, and they yelled back to stand up. The unfortunate Rabbi, though learned and experienced, didn’t know what to do. Finally, both factions agreed for him to consult a trusted congregant by the name of Mr. Belthkowitz, one of the original founders of the temple. Surely, if anyone could, he would remember the original way of doing things. So, the new Rabbi went to see the wise, old member, taking representatives of both positions with him. Said one to the esteemed Mr. Belthkowitz: “isn’t it true that we stand for the Shema?” Joe scratched his head, and replied slowly: “No, I don’t remember that tradition.” Said another: “well, don’t we sit for the Shema?” Joe looked at her, thought long and hard, and said: “Sorry, I don’t remember that tradition either.” Exasperated, the Rabbi exclaimed: “But the congregation is up in arms, yelling about whether they should sit or stand.” The old timer stood up suddenly: “now that I remember!” (This House We Build, pp. 77-78)

I’m happy to report that we here refrain from confronting each other with the same gusto. Nevertheless, our congregation is distinguished by the unusual diversity, enthusiasm and outspokenness of its members. More than our denominational variety, we collectively bring to our community a breathtaking assortment of different passions, including adult learning, child education, support for Israel, support for human rights, social action, greening, interfaith work, meditation, and others. What lies beneath our heterogeneity? As the authors ask in the opening line of the book This House We Build: Lessons for Healthy Synagogues, “what do we exist to be?”

The answer is embedded in our name: Beth Shalom. When I asked Lana Eisenberg, who co-authored the publication “There Are Jews in Southern Indiana,” for the backstory behind the designation, she noted the irony that the Board voted to change “Bloomington Jewish Community” to “Beth Shalom” in the wake of an internal split in the congregation, during which several prominent, longstanding members walked off in bitter dispute. “The name was more aspirational, than real,” she explains. That was thirty years ago.

Shalom does not exactly mean peace, as it is usually translated. The word “peace” in English denotes the absence of conflict. The definitions in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary include: “freedom from civil disturbance” and “a pact or agreement between people or governments to end hostilities.” The opposite of “peace” is “war.” “Peace” comes from the Latin word pax, calling to mind the Pax Romana, one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of nations. The Roman Empire achieved this peace by imposing security and order upon other countries, through military conquest and the enslavement of peoples throughout the known world. Thus, in English, peace entails conformity, even when it is achieved by means of domination and subjugation.

In Hebrew, Shalom has entirely different connotations from those of the English word “peace.” Shalom conveys the images of wholeness, perfection, and contentment. The noun is related to the adjective shaleim, which means “full” or “complete.” The opposite of shalom is not “war” but “incompleteness” or “fragmentation.” In Hebrew, shalom does not imply the absence of strife. Rather, it points to the transcendence of struggle, the integration of differences within the entire collective, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Shalom is achieved not by forcing compliance but by allowing divergence.

The Talmud sets forth the principle of darchei shalom, “the ways of shalom,” in a remarkable passage that discusses with Jewish relations with Gentiles. “Our masters taught: for the sake of darchei shalom, we support the poor, we visit the sick, and we bury the dead of the goyim along with Israel.” (bGittn 61a) Bear in mind the sociopolitical context of the directive. By this point in history, the Jewish people lived dispersed among the Gentile populace, with whom they shared nothing in common and sustained strained relations at best. Nevertheless, the Rabbinic sages instructed them to care to care for the humanitarian needs of their Gentile neighbors, all for the sake of darchei shalom. Not derech shalom; darchei shalom. To my mind, derech shalom, “the way of peace,” implies a single path that we all must consent to follow. Darchei shalom, “the ways of peace” advocated by the Rabbis, imply multiple paths, multiple directions, and multiple perspectives.

Most Americans rue the political polarization that currently paralyzes the federal government, a division that—as I mentioned last night—briefly melted away in the aftermath of 9/11. The relatively recent red/blue divide pales in comparison with the legendary long-lasting conflict, spanning generations, between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. One particularly acrimonious battle over a point of law raged for three years, until finally a heavenly voice issued forth: “these and these are both the words of the living God, but the law follows the House of Hillel.” The Talmudic text continues: “if both parties spoke the words of the living God, why did the House of Hillel merit that the law should follow them? Because they would teach the words of their opponents, the House of Shammai, as well as their own words, and, not only that, they would give Shammai’s position preeminence over their own.” (bEruvim 13b)

How many Republicans tune into liberal talk shows? How many Democrats listen to conservative arguments with an open mind and heart? We tend to preach to the choir. More accurately, we select preachers who confirm what we think we already know. Commenting on Hillel’s practice of advancing Shammai’s argument before his own, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes: “One of the most important days in the life of a religious person is the day he meets a person of a different religion, or of a different denomination within his own religion… After such an encounter, it becomes less easy to… construct superficial and unfair stereotypes of those who disagree with him.” (Hillel, pp. 120-121) In their book The Leader’s Legacy, leadership experts Kouzes and Posner add: “We can’t afford to surround ourselves with yes-people. People willing to voice their disagreements … will see issues that we don’t see—perhaps never even thought about—and may even come up with a better solution than our own.” (p. 69)

Another Talmudic aphorism concerning Hillel and Shammai amplifies and extends the principles for constructive engagement. “Any argument for the sake of heaven is destined to endure; any argument not for the sake of heaven is not destined to endure. What is an argument for the sake of heaven? This is the one between Hillel and Shammai. What is an argument not for the sake of heaven? This is the one of Korach and his company.” The contrasting case of Korach refers to the notorious rebellion against Moses recorded in the Torah: “[Korach…] gathered against Moses and Aaron, and said to them: ‘All the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?’” (Numbers 16:2-3) The example of Korach’s controversy as an improper one is puzzling, because on the face of it, Korach is simply repeating the same claim that God makes elsewhere in the Torah: “You shall be to me… a holy people.” (Exodus 19:6) Quite literally, Korach’s words are divrei Elohim chayyim, “the words of the living God,” and yet, his argument is not lesheim shamayim, not for the sake of Heaven. Apparently, even words that speak the truth can nevertheless end up as pernicious.

The powerful phrase lesheim shamayim, “for the sake of heaven,” suggests the additional consideration of holiness in our discussion about communal interaction. Rabbi Telushkin defines holiness as the elevation of commonplace activities into the realm of godliness. Jewish law pervades and regulates all aspects of our lives, such as how we eat, how we engage in sexual relations, and how we deal with each other in business. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The mitzvot give us the opportunity to perceive the infinite even as we perform the finite.” (¨Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, page 51) What would it mean to bring heightened consciousness to how we argue with each other? Korach’s transgression lay not in the content of his argument, but in its formulation. As the great Biblical commentator Rashi puts it: “Korach took himself to one side in order to split off from the community.” (Rashi on Numbers 16:1) On the other hand, Hillel and Shammai never lost sight of their roles as leaders designated to serve and represent the entire people in service to God. Lesheim shamayim, arguing “for the sake of heaven,” entails situating the dialogue in the larger context of community, society, and divinity. As Kouzes and Posner put it, in a secular context: “we often find that our most explosive disagreements erupt over style, not substance… In a difficult and tense situation, the first and most important thing is to reinforced the same shared purpose and goals.” (pp. 66, 68)

What is our shared purpose? What do we exist to be? Beth Shalom exists for the same reason that synagogues have coalesced throughout history, and for the same reason the House of Hillel and House of Shammai engaged in spirited debates for generations: to come together as Jews to serve God and to serve the community. In the words of our own mission statement: “Congregation Beth shalom provides a unifying Jewish focus for its diverse membership.” The principle of darchei shalom, “the ways of peace,” teaches that even if we don’t always see eye to eye, we must still join to support each other in sickness and health, in sorrow and celebration, in life and death. The principle of eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayyim, “these and these are both the words of the living God,” teaches that each one of us expresses a piece of the truth, and true shalom—wholeness, completeness—must encompass them all. Finally, the principle of lesheim shamayim, “an argument for the sake of heaven,” teaches that the holiness of our interactions is determined not just by the truth of our discourse but by the motives of our engagement.

May we build together in the coming year a congregation that continues to celebrate its diversity, that continues to honor the contribution of every member as “the words of the living God,” and that continues to keep its eye on the prize, our unity and vitality as a Jewish community. May we continue to embody our name, Beth Shalom, not as an aspiration, but as reality.