September 26, 2012: Yom Kippur Morning: Holiness and Wholeness

I would like to open with a story, or, rather, an image. Two years ago, on our way back to Santa Fe from Colorado, my partner and I stopped at Ghost Ranch, the summer home of artist Georgia O’Keefe, and walked the labyrinth. You start at the entrance, and, tracing a series of interlocking spirals, you walk toward the center. You cannot get lost; there is only one way. Billowing cumulus sweep across the deep blue sky set against sandstone cliffs. The gentle breeze stirs a set of wind chimes nearby. The sweet fragrance of yellow sage fills the air. The line from a poem comes to mind: “You do not have to walk … for a hundred miles through the desert… You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” (Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”) O’Keefe never owned Ghost Ranch, and, in fact, she was alarmed when it sold as a conference center in the 1950s. After awhile, however, she realized that she did not have to own her surroundings in order to adopt them. She once said about the mountains: “God told me that if I painted them, then they were mine.”

There are two ways to live. We can direct our energies toward the future, constantly creating, building, amassing, accumulating, improving, progressing toward a goal. Or we can imbibe deeply the draught of human experience, engage joyfully in every activity, and make every human interaction count for good. The wisdom of the sages admonishes: “do not say: ‘when I have time, I will [perform this Mitzvah], for perchance there will never come a time.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

In classical Judaism, the great divine process of Redemption is associated with the end of time. The ultimate triumph of humankind is the coming of the Mashiach and the repair of the world. However, there’s another Jewish way to view Redemption, not perennially deferred to a far-off utopian ideal, but rooted in present reality. By experiencing the richness of a full life endowed with religious values—through prayer, through study, in the cycle of the days of rest and the rhythm of the holy days that form the sacred calendar, in the practice of the commandments and deeds of lovingkindness—one can endow every fleeting moment with the dimension of eternity. As the great Jewish phenomenologist Franz Rosenzweig once wrote: “I do not seek salvation through reunification with my Father in Heaven someday, because I already live with Him today.”

It is through holiness, qedushsah, that we bring salvation into present reality. Or, to put it conversely, it is through qedushah that we eleveate ourselves toward heaven. The Holiness Code of Leviticus opens with: Kedoshim tiheyu, ki kadosh ani, Adonai Eloheichem. “Holy you shall be, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) In his book of Jewish vocabulary, Rabbi Green remarks that qadosh “is the single attribute that properly belongs to God alone. We can be compassionate based upon our own value system, or because of good upbringing, or through empathy with victims of oppression. Similarly, we may be just, powerful, or good. But we cannot be holy except in relation to God.” (These Are the Words, p. 129)

I agree with Rabbi Green, and I would go a step further. Just as holiness is godliness projected into the human world, godliness is holiness projected into the spiritual realm. I subscribe to predicate theology, as advanced by the Reconstructionist theologian Harold Schulweis. God is not a Subject, to whom we ascribe certain qualities, such as compassionate, just, or good. Rather, God is a Predicate encapsulating a set of human virtues, such as compassion, justice, and goodness. The crucial shift in orientation makes all the difference. For Rabbi Schulweis, it’s more important to believe in godliness than to believe in God. For instance, I’m not sure I believe that there’s a Being up there who “uplifts the fallen, heals the sick, and loosens the bonds of the oppressed,” as the liturgy expresses it. However, I do believe that the act of uplifting the fallen, the act of healing the sick, and the act of loosening the bonds of the oppressed are divine. Every time you pick up the phone and call your ailing friend to ask after her wellbeing, you draw divinity down into the world. In predicate theology, God is a container for the noblest deeds and loftiest values of humankind, that is to say, God is a rubric for holiness.

I contend that the key to congregational success is to build a holy community, by which I mean, caring for one another, making a positive impact upon the world, and engaging fully in communal life. Twenty years ago, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman spearheaded the Synagogue 2000 initiative, designed to revitalize American Jewish communities for the twenty-first century. Hoffman surveyed hundreds of congregations. At first glance, they did not seem to be in trouble. Membership, finances, and programs were stable overall, even strengthening somewhat. Underneath the surface, however, Hoffman discovered widespread disengagement, apathy, and skepticism, together with a deep hunger for intellectual stimulation, spiritual renewal, and fellowship. Things were chugging along with no real sense of purpose. In Hoffman’s mind, the missing element was holiness.

Here’s how Rabbi Hoffman discusses the concept: “There are two kinds of religious communities—market communities and holy communities. Most American synagogues today are market communities. A member pays her dues and expects that, in return, she will receive X number of tickets to the High Holiday services, religious schooling for her child, a Bat Mitzvah for her teenager, and so on. The worth of a holy community, on the other hand, is measured not by the cash value of its programs and services, nor even by the size of its membership, but by the sum total of the holy acts and relationships that it engenders. Holy acts and holy relationships are pursued for their own sake, not for utilitarian benefits, although benefits may accrue anyway. A synagogue that tries to become a holy community, rather than a market community, will not worry about the size of its membership—but it will find its membership increasing anyway, since people are naturally attracted to the sacred.”

Let me give a specific example of communal holiness. One benefit of participating in synagogue life is the opportunity to receive care from the community when we are ill. In a discussion on illness, the Talmud asks rhetorically: “do human beings have the right to subvert God’s will by caring for one whose disease comes from heaven?” and then answers: “it is not only permitted to heal, it is a Mitzvah, an obligation, to heal.” Furthermore, the obligation to care for the ailing rests equally upon the Rabbi as he discharges his pastoral duties, as well as upon all members of the community. It’s not simply that a person visits another while she is sick in the hope and expectation that she will return the favor someday; it’s that he is visiting her in order to fulfill his own spiritual need. Thus, there are actually two needs associated with illness. People need to heal, but people also need to be healers. A synagogue that functions as a holy community will satisfy both needs. We do, not just through the efforts of our volunteer Mitzvah Mavvens in their formal capacity but through the way we all join to support each other in times of crisis—as I have already come to appreciate in the several months since my arrival.

For another example, let me turn to the realm of Jewish education. People hope and expect to gain knowledge and intellectual satisfaction from synagogue classes and lectures. However, Torah entails more than passive participation; Torah demands active engagement. Torah comes alive only when the student brings all her life experience to bear upon it. My Rabbinic ordination document contains the declaration: “he did not stop his exertions until he created his own Torah out of his studies.” The phrase alludes to a beautiful Rabbinic exegesis of a verse in Psalms: “God’s Torah is his delight, and he meditates upon his Torah day and night.” The Talmud comments: when a person starts out learning, it is called “God’s Torah,” but in the end, it is called “his Torah,” meaning the learner’s own Torah.

The Talmudic view of Torah study corroborates the findings of the American social scientist Eduard Lindeman. Lindeman wrote: “The resource of highest value in adult education is the learner’s experience. If education is life, then life is also education… Aspiring adults who desire to keep their minds fresh and vigorous … dig down into the reservoirs of their experience before resorting to texts, and are led in the discussion by teachers who are also searchers after wisdom and not oracles.” (Adult Education, pp. 6-7) A synagogue that functions as a holy community will not stop its exertions until its members, clergy and laity alike, become teachers and students to each other. We do, not just through the diversity of our formal adult education programming, which I intend to expand, including the Beit Midrash, the Sunday Night Forum, the Gathering, the Book Club, etc., but through the general eagerness of all members to share with each other the perspectives forged from our unique life experiences, regardless of background and religious orientation.

My highest vision for Beth Shalom is that we be a holy community. I don’t necessarily mean a uniformly religiously observant community. I don’t mean a community centered on God. I mean a community centered on godliness, that is, the container of human virtues of compassion, justice, goodness, reverence, and integrity. I envision a Beth Shalom whose worth is measured not by the size of its membership and the monetary value of its assets, nor even by the richness of its programs and the diversity of its offerings, but by the degree to which it fosters sacred acts and sacred relationships of mutual caring and interdependent learning that connect us one to another. Holiness is not a perennially deferred utopian ideal, but rooted in present reality. Holiness does not depend upon growth and progress. We are a holy community today, whenever we instill integrity, compassion, and reverence into what we already do.

In his book Who Dies?, Stephen Levine offers two measures of a person’s worth. The Western mind views life as a line that extends from one point to another—we are born, we pass certain milestones along the way, and then we die. In contrast, the Native American views life as a circle. The circle itself may expand as we progress through life, but at any given moment it is boundless and complete. Therefore, the Native American wakes up in the morning and says: “today is a good day to die”—not with morbidity, but with the serenity that comes from knowing that there is nothing more he needs in order to be whole. Now, I’m not saying that it’s always wrong to strive for achievements and only right to bask in the fullness of experience. Our tradition, in fact, prescribes a balance between doing and being, between the workweek and Shabbat. It’s just that only Shabbat is called holy. And only holiness can breed wholeness.

These are my blessings on Yom Kippur: “holy you shall be,” and may this community be holy. May we care for one another, may we make a positive impact upon the world, and may we engage life fully in every moment. May we be filled to overflowing in the New Year with sacred deeds and sacred relationships. May God grant us happiness on our journeys—the happiness that comes from wholeness, holiness, and peace.