KOL NIDRE Explanation and Sermon:
On Kol Nidrei night this year we did something a little different as a community. After taking the Torahs out for the central prayer and after having placed them back in the ark, we took them out again. This time we did so to pass around to anyone who wanted to hold them; anyone, regardless of gender, age, or even faith.
For over forty years in Liberal Jewish America, we have conducted wedding ceremonies for couples where only one participant is Jewish. We have opened up Jewish status to including members whose father is Jewish and not their mother. We have transliterated the Hebrew, explained the rituals, and created self-help guides to Jewish life. We have made Judaism as accessible and open as possible.
There is only one area we have not budged; that we have held the same line on the bima (podium) our ancestors drew generations ago, the line that puts an off limit sign in front of the ark, that judges those that are not officially Jewish if they get too near to the scrolls.
Someone who is not officially Jewish in the Jewish community should not be considered impure. Moreover, as Maimonides, the great 12th Century theologian teaches in the Mishneh Torah, “a Torah cannot contract impurity” no matter who is holding it.
These “strangers in our midst” have been active, dues paying members of our Liberal Jewish community. They have raised Jewish children and they have watched those children grow up into adults. And, yet, through this whole experience, they have never felt at home in synagogue sanctuary. They have not felt home because we have not allowed them to feel at home.
As our Torahs made their way through our sanctuary I watched the faces of the people gathered there. I saw a 91-year-old in a wheel chair in tears because it was the first time she ever held the Torah. I saw the mother in a multi-family pass the Torah to her grade school aged children. I saw our synagogue president hand the Torah to his non-Jewish wife with tears streaming down her face and his. One woman came up to me afterward and said when the Torah was placed in her arms she was afraid of dropping it. Then as she began to cry she worried that the tears might damage the scroll.
That is the magic of Torah. That is the magic of our tradition. By restricting our ritual life to only those who check “Jewish” in their identity box we are doing a great in service to an increasingly greater percentage of our community. It is about time we recognize this and change.
I know not everyone will agree with my remarks. I know some of you were taken aback by the implications of the change. You should know that a synagogue policy has still yet to be determined. I invite you to be part of this process. I look forward to the conversation that lies ahead.
A good, sweet year for all of us.
Here is the sermon itself:
Holding on to Torah Together as One Community
To hold the Torah, as we did at the beginning of our Kol Nidrei service, is to hold the weight of our tradition handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai.
• It is to hold hundreds of generations of knowledge given to us, meticulously, fastidiously, from one person, one community to the next.
• It is to hold what took a scribe a year to write, one letter at a time, not being allowed to make even make one mistake along the way.
• It is to hold what is most important in Judaism in your arms at one time.
Torah is the way we physically demonstrate the love between God and the Jewish people, between ourselves and our ancestors. However, it is not easy to hold the Torah.
• It is not easy because a Torah is often quite heavy, sometimes upwards of twenty-five pounds or more.
• It is not easy because it has an awkward shape that never seems to rest comfortably in our arms.
• It is not easy because we put limitations on when we can carry the Torah, who can hold the Torah, and how they should hold it.
• It is not easy because we are always reminded that if the Torah drops a punishment is placed on the individual and community, perhaps requiring a fast of forty or more days.
• It is not easy because we are told that the sweat from our fingertips or the strength of our hands can damage the parchment.
• It is not easy because we have been told over and over to beware.
As a community we put limitations on the carrying and handling of our sacred text, just as God instructed our people thousands of years before not to climb Mount Sinai as Moses was receiving the law. Thunder and Lightning formed barricades to entrance like the angels who guarded our return to the Garden of Eden, swords in their hands threatening anyone who dared come near.
Tonight I would like to offer an amendment to those parameters, a new way to think of these scrolls that we keep stored away in our Holy Ark. For some this might be a radical change, for others it has already been true for some time. Before I explain further, let me see by show of hands how many of us gathered here have actually held a Torah.
Just as I thought, only about half of you have actually held one of our scrolls. This is a loss, because holding a Torah is our way of feeling part of the Jewish people. Like a baby resting in our arms, the Torah is a physical embodiment of everything Judaism teaches us. It is a testament of our duty to lishinantan livanechah, to transfer it to the next generation, just like we ourselves received it, just as generations prior have received it in the past.
L’Dor Va’Dor, from generation to generation, is the fundamental way we make Torah an Eitz Chayim, a Tree of Life, one that is open “to all who hold fast to it, for all of its supporters are happy.”
During the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony we make these words literal – lining up the generations, and passing the Torah from grandparents, to parents, to children. This is a beautiful embodiment of the way Torah was transferred from Moses on Mount Sinai, to Joshua, to the Prophets, to the Priests, to the Rabbis, all the way to us today. It is the one part of our Bar or Bat Mitzvah service that brings tears to the families eyes as they see a physical enactment of what their family had been doing for generations.
There is just one problem. Most families today are not just made up of Jewish participants.Indeed, nearly thirty percent of the people in our community do not have an exclusively Jewish heritage. Among families with religious school aged children, this percentage is even higher.
For over forty years, we in the liberal world have broken down the barriers of exclusion.
• We have conducted wedding ceremonies for couples where only one participant is Jewish.
• We have opened up Jewish status to including members whose father is Jewish and not their mother.
• We have transliterated the Hebrew, explained the rituals, and created self-help guides to Jewish life.
• We have made Judaism as accessible and open as possible.
There is only one area we have not budged; that we have held the same line on the bima our ancestors drew generations ago, the line that puts an off limit sign in front of the ark, that judges those that are not officially Jewish if they get too near to the scrolls.
Today, in Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish communities, we are much nicer about this line than ever before, but a line never the less exists. And, this is the line I would us to remove tonight.
With your permission, I am going to go over to the ark and take out our Torahs. I will need the previous Torah holders to come forward. And, ask that anyone who would like to feel the weight of Torah in your arms to come forward and stand in the aisles of the sanctuary. Normally, we stand whenever the Torah is taken out, but as this is a teaching moment, I give you permission to sit.
And, I am going to invite Cantor Frank to come forward and sing the song she normally sings when we make this transfer during the Bar or Bat Mitzvah service. Let us collectively, without judgment, feel the scroll in our arms, feel the scroll in our hearts.
Cantor Sings – L’Dor V’Dor by Josh Nelson
We are gifts and we are blessings, we are history in song
We are hope and we are healing, we are learning to be strong
We are words and we are stories, we are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom, not the first and not the last
L’dor vador nagid godlecha
(From generation to generation, we will tell of Your greatness)
L’dor vador… we protect this chain
From generation to generation
L’dor vador, these lips will praise Your name
Looking back on the journey that we carry in our heart
From the shadow of the mountain to the waters that would part
We are blessed and we are holy, we are children of Your way
And the words that bring us meaning, we will have the strength to say
Of course, my talk tonight is not only about who can handle the Torah scrolls. It is about a larger question about who is part of our community. You who are gathered here on this most auspicious day, who have helped to generously support our institution, who may be brand new or have been part of our legacy congregations for generations, are all part of the Shir Shalom family. Whether you are Jewish or not, whether you know the difference between an Alef and a Bet, or understand even the basics of Jewish tradition – we value you. I value you. And, I thank you.
To all of our participants of different faith backgrounds, or perhaps no faith background at all (I would invite you to rise, but I don’t want to embarrass you): never think that you are any less apart of this community than anyone else. My door is always open to you. Our doors are always open to you. Without judgment, or questioning, you are welcome here.
At the end of the Torah, Moses gathers the people to accept God’s covenant. The barriers to Mount Sinai are taken down, and no one is prevented from standing under the holy mountain, no one is restricted from accepting the yoke of Torah.
Moses declares: “you are standing today, all of you, before Adonai, your God, the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel.”
But Moses does not stop there, he continues, “your small children, your women, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the woodchoppers to the water drawers.”
Not only were women and children included, a radical concept at that time, but even more radically, strangers were as well. Moses goes out of his way to even include the woodchoppers and the water-drawers, the two segments of ancient society who needed to go outside of the camp to fulfill their duties. But, Moses goes even further still, declaring, that “not with you alone do I seal this covenant – with those standing with us today before God – but also with those not standing with us today,”
The rabbis tell us that, this sacred covenant, best represented by the Torah scroll, was given directly not only to our ancestors, but to us as well. We are the ones “not standing” with Moses on that day.
We, who are gathered here tonight, from the woodchoppers to the water-drawers, are the ones who will ensure that these Torahs and the tradition that goes with them, get transferred L’Dor Va’Dor, from generation to generation.
Torah is too important to be cut off from a whole segment of our community. In order to preserve this tradition we have been handed down, all of us need to be part of it. All of us need to know what it means to hold, to love Torah. All of us need to feel the weight of that responsibility in our arms.
Let me conclude with a reminder of the true weight of our responsibility, a reminder that now sits outside of our sanctuary. This reminder came to Western New York in the 1990s, from the literal trash heaps of history, discarded by the Nazis as they rampaged through Europe. Burned and torn beyond repair, it was likely left for dead in an attic or storage facility somewhere in Germany. Formerly from the Czech Republic, this Torah written in the late 19th Century was one of over fifteen hundred scrolls that were once part of a vibrant Jewish culture in that region. At one time it was loved and protected, treated with the respect one pays to a human being, likely read on a weekly basis at some small shtiebel somewhere in Bohemia. For decades after the war it languished until heroic men and women rescued it and sent word throughout the Jewish world that they were looking for homes for these scrolls.
Dave Feld, an aerospace engineer, Zichrono L’vrachah, may his memory be for a blessing, and his family answered the call, carrying the Torah himself to the former Temple Sinai building. Later, five years ago during our merger, the Torah was carried here where it was placed on the wall outside of my office.
We made a promise to protect this scroll, but one night, teenagers were running through the hallway and the case where it was held was hit and knocked over, the fragile scroll split in half.
You can imagine the horror when we found it the next day. To hold the two halves of the scroll in my hands felt like Moses picking up the shards of the Ten Commandments after they had been broken.
Since that time, there has been a hole in our community. The plaques detailing the Torah’s journey to Buffalo still remained, but the Torah itself was kept in our back office. Over the winter a scribe came and sowed the two halves together. And, a week before the High Holy Days, a cabinet was made and the Torah placed carefully, lovingly into its new home where, just as before it is open to the Song of the Sea, where Moses’ announced to the world, “Who is like you among the heavenly powers, Adonai! Who is like you, mighty in holiness, too awesome for praise. Doer of wonders.”
“Etz Chayim Hi L’Machazikim Ba, V’Tomkeha M’Ushar,” “It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it, and all of its supporters are happy.”
The Torah is indeed a Tree of Life in our community. Let us hold fast to it because it is our obligation, it is our honor.
An easy and meaningful fast and a Happy and joyful New Year.