Kol Nidre – 5778

Kol Nidre 5778

September 29, 2017


One of the most important Jewish philosophers of the modern era experienced an epiphany on this night of Kol Nidre.  Franz Rosenzweig had been raised in a non-observant, Jewish-in-name-only, family in late 19th century Germany.  By young adulthood, under the influence of cousins and collegiate friends, Rosenzweig had decided to convert to Christianity.  This was the trend among many young, assimilated, intellectual Jews of his day.  Becoming Christian was considered an entry ticket into the upper echelons of society, both intellectual and social.  

Before becoming a Christian, however, Rosenzweig felt he should return to the synagogue on Kol Nidre.  He wanted to go back to his roots and symbolically emerge from there to his newly chosen faith.  A remarkable thing happened that Kol Nidre eve.  Attending services in an Orthodox shul in Berlin, Rosenzweig had some kind of mystical experience that convinced him that his true home was within Judaism, and that he should immerse in Jewish life. He never looked back.  

This Kol Nidre moment propelled him into greater and greater Jewish observance throughout his life, which was cut short at age 42 by ALS.  From that You Kippur eve forward, Rosenzweig wrote almost exclusively about Judaism.  His magnum opus, The Start of Redemption, is, still today, one of the most important works of Jewish philosophy.  

Rosenzweig’s turn toward Christianity came to a head when his parents expressed their horror that his cousin was converting to Christianity. Rosenzweig responded with a spirited defense of his cousin, who shared Rosenzweig’s interest in philosophy and was part of Rosenzweig’s intellectual circle.  Rosenzweig wrote:  “Because I am hungry, must I… go on being hungry. On principle?… Can being non-religious on principle satisfy a religious need? … If I am given the choice of an empty purse or a handful of money, must I choose the purse, again on principle?” (Franz Rosenzweig, Briefe, ed. by Edith Rosenzweig, 1935, cited in Nahum Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig his Life and Thought, 1961, p. 159) For Rosenweig, his parents’ Judaism was an “empty purse,” something that said “Judaism” on the outside, but that had nothing of substance within.

I tell you this story tonight not because I expect each of us to be transported by a mystical reawakening this Kol Nidre eve.  Instead it is the decision Rosenzweig made that night to live as a Jew that I wish to address.  Perhaps this Kol Nidre eve can serve as an impetus for us as well–for all of us– to embrace the role we have as adults to choose compelling, joyous Jewish observance for ourselves and, by modeling it, to influence the next generation to seek it out as well.

As we sit together this Kol Nidre eve surrounded by so many fellow Jews, we are aware of a phenomenon that is not unique to Judaism, but undeniably true in the Jewish world:  Many of us who are here tonight are seldom seen in these pews, even in this building, the rest of the year.   Setting aside the location of our congregation and the geographical challenge it presents to many (which, I am aware, does keep people from coming as often as they would like), many of us fail to engage in Jewish experiences the rest of the year, even those we need not leave our home to observe.  If we are honest with ourselves, even the most actively Jewish among us have to admit that Judaism occupies a very small place in our day to day, week to week, lives.  

This is not meant to be a judgmental statement.   It is just a fact of the American Jewish experience with which we must contend.   It is very hard to put Judaism at the center of our lives when we are immersed in a society that constantly invites us to place our priorities elsewhere.  

So often I hear parents and grandparents decrying the fact that their children or grandchildren are not as interested in or involved in Jewish life as they would hope.  They express the worry that, when children leave home, they will not stay true to their Jewish roots.  That is a real concern to many of us. So, if we would like to see more observance and connection, the question is: Short of a Rosenzweig-like epiphany this Kol Nidre eve, is there something –anything–we can do to influence this trajectory?  

A single Renoir painting that I saw hanging in a museum may hold one answer to this conundrum.  I never took Art History so I am not expert on the style of Renoir, but when I recently spied this particular painting from a distance, I was drawn to it and knew instinctively that it was a Renoir.  You see, in my home, growing up, a print of Renoir’s “Mother and Child” hung on the stairway.  I passed it every day, and by osmosis, I suppose, the intense colors and unique brushstrokes of Renoir’s style became etched into my memory. This is what we want for the next generation of Jews:  For them to be drawn to Judaism instinctively because it has already become part and parcel of who they are.  And each one of us, parents, grandparents, even friends and community members, has the ability to make this kind of imprint on the souls of the next generation, l’dor vador.

What we pass on l’dor vador can be something negative as well.  Franz Rosenzweig learned and absorbed his parents’ brand of Judaism, or lack of Jewishness, by osmosis, l’dor vador.  He ultimately rejected his parents’ approach.  But, it is the exceptional person who takes a different course from that in which s/he was immersed in the womb of the home and extended family environment.   

I want to put in one caveat here:  By Jewish environment, I do not mean “surrounded by Jews.”  For it is very possible to be surrounded by Jewish family, friends, neighbors, stores, and signs, even to live in Israel, for that matter, and have no Jewish water in which to swim.  We are all familiar with American suburbs where there is such a high percentage of Jews that public schools close on the Jewish holidays and there is a Jewish bakery or deli on every corner.   Many who are here this evening grew up in such places.  Those who move to this area often miss that world.  But, I often find that those who grew up in places that have nicknames like Minneapolis’ St. Jewish Park or Milwaukee’s Lox Point and Bagelside or Chicago’s Little Israel, did not necessarily imbibe a way to live as a Jew along with the label Jew.  

No matter where we live, we want to be sure not to give an “empty purse” of Judaism to those closest to us.  If we send the message:  “We’re Jewish, but we rarely, if ever, do anything Jewish that is joyful or compelling or meaningful,” it is very likely that the next generation will not choose to engage in Jewish life.  Why would they?

For example if we say or, in a subliminal way, give the message to our children:  “You have to go to Religious School and learn Hebrew and have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, because that’s what Jews do or because it will make the grandparents happy” we are providing an “empty purse.”  And if we add, as parents sometimes do:  “You don’t have to like it.  I sure didn’t, but I still went,” how can we be disappointed when they beg to stop going?  In addition, many families prioritize other activities as more important and insist that they can’t ever be missed because there are — consequences.  Jewish activities are almost always the ones that get dropped if there is a conflict.  If this is the model we establish, how can we expect the children to give Judaism priority when they make their own life choices as adults?

As the Renoir moment taught me, we absorb values, ideas and attitudes toward life experiences by being exposed much more than by being sat down and taught.  Adults need to model positive actions and attitudes in order to expect a positive outcome in the next generation.  And, let’s not forget, it can make our own lives richer to take on more Jewish practice as well.

Grandparents can be as much a part of this increased observance and modeling of Judaism as parents.  In fact, it is a grandparent-grandchild relationship that, for me, best exemplifies attachment by loving exposure.  As many of you know, Brad’s father passed away several months ago.  When we sat down to share memories about Mel, one of things that our son, Jonathan, shared about his relationship with his grandfather was how, as a young child, he loved to spend time with Gramp in his basement workshop where he created all kinds of things.  Jonathan remembered that, as a child, he wanted to grow up to be just like Gramp.  

This story has nothing to do with Jewish influence, but it gets at that imprint we can have on the next generation without consciously teaching.   There may have been specific skills that Mel taught Jonathan in the workshop, but I think what Jonathan really learned from his grandfather, just by spending time with him, was the passion that his grandfather had for his creative work.  Jonathan could see that Mel LOVED what he did; that it gave him a reason to get up in the morning; that it made his life more full.  This is the kind of joy in Judaism that we need find for ourselves:  A LOVE of Judaism that we then model and share with the next generation.  

In her book, The Special Mission of Grandparents, Margaret Hall wrote:    “We should choose to grandparent in some of the same ways that we choose to do other things we care about.  We can be just as creative, strong, and imaginative in our grandparenting as we are in our work and leisure activities.” (p. 9).   In this way, says Hall, “grandparents…strengthen their families and help to improve their communities.”  (p. 21)

Each parent, grandparent or special adult friend to a Jewish young person, will find his or her own way to bring joyous Jewish experiences to his/her own life that s/he can then model to others.  First , we need to identify those passions for ourselves. Perhaps we will find them through synagogue involvement or perhaps we will learn from other Jews, whether from personal relationships, books, or sources online.  Goodness knows there is a wealth of information, advice, how-to videos and more at reformjudaism.org and many other websites.  The point is to develop Jewish things that we love to do and then to be intentional about doing them with the young Jews in our orbit.  

In this way, the younger generation will observe and absorb how we find joy, fulfillment and meaning in hosting a Shabbat dinner, attending Torah study, listening to Jewish music, cooking great Jewish recipes, having a meal in a Sukkah, making Jewish crafts, praying with a community in the synagogue, attending a Jewish retreat, practicing Tikkun Olam with a Jewish community, and the list goes on.  In this way, each one of us, parent or grandparent or older Jewish friend, can help to bridge the gaps that we see on the horizon in the younger generation’s Jewish identity and involvement.

Fortunately for us, in our day, we don’t need to be Christian to have an entry ticket into the parts of society we wish to join.   There is no barring of the door to anything in our world because we are Jews.  But, if we want to pass on Judaism as a way of life,  our best hope is to be among those who make a conscious choice to give the next generation good examples that will teach them, by osmosis, many reasons to choose to be an actor in Jewish life. In the Sh’ma prayer, we are taught “v’shinantam l’vanecha,” you shall teach them diligently to your children.”  You shall teach them.  Each one of us is enjoined to teach Jewish children, not merely to send them off and have them taught by others.

For Rosenzweig, these Days of Awe became the “ten days of return” to Judaism. (Jewish Virtual Library)  We can make this turn as well for ourselves first, and then through example, for the next generation, l’dor vador.  It’s not too late.