Yom Kippur Sermon 2014
I would like to continue our discussion from last week about the factors that may help make it a challenge for many of us to connect to Judaism as a religious tradition and to tend to gravitate to more ethnic or cultural forms of Jewish identity. As I mentioned last week, I think it is worthwhile to look at larger societal factors that may be contributing to the disconnect that we may often feel. Tonight, I would like to talk about how our current understanding (or perhaps misunderstanding) of our own vulnerability may be helping to make it difficult for us to connect to our religion, or at least be less motivated to seek it out.
Part of the reason that we see people from a variety of religious traditions approach religion differently than people in the past may have to do with a change in how people view themselves and the risks they face. In my talks last week, I mentioned the philosopher Charles Taylor and his book The Secular Age. Taylor suggests that our ancestors felt more vulnerable then we do. They saw themselves as impacted by unseen forces from the outside world including curses, blessings, possessions, and grace. It was part of their seeing the world as more “enchanted,” full of such hidden powers as spirits. People also thought that sacred objects could have their own power. Think of the ark at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The way Spielberg and Lucas arrange the scene, it seems like the Ark has its own power. When it is opened at the end of the movie, many people get their faces melted. Not really a nice power in that case, face melting, but the point is clear, the ark has its own power.
Essentially, our ancestors felt that they were in some sense…porous and were affected by these forces. This feeling led them to a greater sense of vulnerability. Turning to religion was a helpful answer to this vulnerability. How else were you going to get by in this dangerous world while being surrounded by such great unseen threats?
However, over time, we came to see ourselves as less fragile. We started to believe that sacred objects only had power because, through our own thoughts, we were giving them power. They had power because we thought they had it. Things did not have inherent meaning, only the meaning we assigned them in our own thinking. We started to focus more on our minds and our internal thoughts. We came to think of ourselves, even unconsciously, as what Taylor calls “buffered selves” -selves that were more independent and more separate from the outside world. As these buffered selves, we started to feel more secure from the threats that worried our ancestors.
And feeling less fragile, we lost some of our impulse to seek out God. The world that our ancestors believed in was a more chaotic, dangerous place. We could argue that, in retrospect, perhaps some of these dangers were not part of reality. However, our ancestors experienced them as real threats. They were motivated to seek out God. They wanted God’s help in getting through this difficult, hard world.
On some level, we all know that greater vulnerability is connected to a greater desire to find God and seek out religion. Where do we say there are no atheists? Foxholes. I would say that we often turn to religion when we feel a lack of control. In a foxhole, you cannot determine much of what happens to you. Without this control, we seek out someone that we hope can influence the situation for us, and often that someone is God. The same impulse arises in other situations when we feel we are lacking the agency to control what will come next.
It is possible to see this desire for control in a well-known part of the High Holiday liturgy. We have been talking about the prayer U-netanah Tokef at the synagogue the past several weeks. We will be reciting it later in the service. You know this one. It is the one that talks about who will live and who will die, who will be strangled and who will drown. A number of people really do not particularly like this prayer, especially its talk of God as a judge and all the ways people will come to their end. However, we can wonder what emotions it is supposed to express? It is about the fact that we are facing the start of a new year, and in many ways, we do not know what is going to happen, particularly to us. So we turn to God and say that we can modulate the severity of God’s decree through repentance, tzedakah, and prayer. We acknowledge that we are vulnerable. Then, we suggest some of the ways that we can at least cope with this vulnerability,
I would argue that other parts of our tradition speak to this need to deal with an unknown future. Bar and bat mitzvahs, for example. What are they about? Looking past the parties and the dresses, we explain that they are about children becoming responsible for their own actions, particularly in relation to the mitzvot. But, besides the expense, what are they about for the parents? I have heard many speeches by parents at these events. And I have come to believe that they serve as a way that parents can acknowledge that they cannot determine every aspect of who their children will become. They can do their best to give their children a solid education and environment for growing up. But, ultimately, they cannot forever control what choices their children will make. Furthermore, they cannot always influence how the world and other people will treat their children. This theme often comes up when parents speak about the hopes they have for the children’s future lives.
But really, the occasions when we experience and perhaps acknowledge these types of feelings of vulnerability occur relatively infrequently. The High Holidays only come once a year, and it is easy get lost in all the Hebrew, the pomp and circumstance, the nice clothing, the food, and even all the standing up and down. Our children are only bar or bat mitzvahed once. We generally walk around feeling rather secure, particularly in a place like Des Moines.
Let’s be honest, at this point in history, it is fairly easy to live as a Jewish person in Des Moines. Anti-Semitism has become socially unacceptable. Rarely, do we hear someone call us a derogatory name or deny us a job based on our religious background. Many of us have done well financially and have been able to provide for our households. We do hear of anti-Semitism in Europe and other places in the world. We definitely worry for the safety of our homeland. But these threats still can feel relatively distant, particularly if we do not have family living in either place. Also, we have excellent institutions like the Jewish Federation that allow us to take practical steps to work on these issues.
More significantly, no one really likes to feel vulnerable. It is really uncomfortable. And we will find ways, even unconsciously, to avoid these feelings. In our society, we find more and more ways to distract ourselves: movies, videogames, drugs, etc. Sometimes these distractions are good for us, and sometimes they are incredibly hurtful. But many of them can be used to keep us from experiencing difficult emotions, including feelings of vulnerability.
My best way to show that people avoid and block out these feelings is that I have the same conversation with different members of the congregation every once in a while. Someone will tell me that they have no real reason to give to the synagogue any longer. They mention that all of their kids have been bar/bat mitzvah and married. They are not planning any more lifecycle events and can go visit their children and attend services with them. And in this conversation, I am not able to say what is on my mind. Probably the worst pitch for supporting the synagogue. I always want to ask if they are forgetting about one more lifecycle event. One more. The one they don’t want to plan, for themselves or their spouses. They may really want our support and presence for that one, even more than for bar mitzvahs or baby namings. And, in that time, they may really care if the building has been well- maintained, if a capable staff is in place, and if the congregation has resources to do its sacred work.
A synagogue is a really interesting place to work. After awhile, you realize that most people, even active members, do not see much of what you do. In particular, the question can arise of what does the staff does when we are not conducting Shabbat or holiday services. Well, we spend much time preparing for those things. We also offer education, particularly to bar/bat mitzvah students. But we also spend time working with people who are feeling a strong sense of vulnerability in their daily lives. This work may involve visiting the hospital to see a person stricken with an ailment that they did not expect. Or counseling someone who has recently ended a relationship. Or helping a family plan the details of a funeral. Visiting someone in a senior citizen facility that is only starting to deal with the fact that age is impacting on physical activities that were so easy to do in the past.
To be honest, this kind work affects a person. It becomes harder to avoid seeing how vulnerable we truly are, even when we may not usually acknowledge it. You spend time in places that many people prefer to avoid. Places of vulnerability: hospitals, assisted-living facilities, funeral homes, even jails. And this affects how you see the world. It can also make you more grateful though. It can make you better appreciate the resources that exist within our tradition, including prayer, texts, and rituals that can help us deal with our own vulnerability.
Overall, people tend to reach out and grasp onto religion and belief in God more when they feel vulnerable. There has been a general shift in how Western culture views the world. It has come to see it as a less threatening place, lacking the spirits and other disembodied forces that worried our ancestors. Therefore, interest in religious belief goes down.
We Jews, practically, on the ground in Des Moines, feel less under threat and less vulnerable in general. And this lack of threat is progress. Perhaps, also, this sense of security helps explain why some of us feel less of a draw to religious ritual or education. It is not that we have no interest in things Jewish. We enjoy Jewish culture, history, and cooking. This ethnic Judaism generally satisfies our needs. What do we need to delve into the hardships and frustrations of Jewish ritual or prayer? Why would we want to limit ourselves in what we eat and do when no one is going to force us to do so? Why should we struggle with the foreign language of Hebrew and what seem to be antiquated concepts in the texts? What’s the point? As we talked about last week, we have the option of believing that we can be good people without linking our morality to a supreme being or a God. We can be good humanists who occasionally dip into our heritage to reconnect to our roots.
But what if there is a problem with this way of viewing the world? Perhaps, it does not accurately reflect how the world really works. Maybe more vulnerability remains than we first think or want to admit. And maybe, we still have less control than we like to recognize. At times, this lack of control crashes in, and without a sense of religion, we do not know what to do. It is a harder experience.
As I mentioned, today is one of those days that can make us aware of our vulnerability. Who will live and who will die. But everyday, our tradition calls out to us to help bring us comfort, faith, and hope to help us cope and thrive in this unpredictable world. I wish you less vulnerability in this upcoming year. And I hope you know that, if it does arise, your religion and our community are here for you, not hidden away, but waiting for you to reconnect to it and the Source of All.