Sample Sermon 1
Ways of Finding Meaning as 21st Century Conservative Jews
Jeffrey Abraham, Rabbinic Intern
(BEFORE GIVING THIS SERMON, PLEASE MAKE SURE TO MEET WITH YOUR RABBI AND GO OVER THE CONCEPTS WITH HIM/HER)
Every day, we read in the newspaper or see on the news issues surrounding the environment and the crisis we are in. As a 21st Century Jew, I have been concerned for the future, both as a member of the shul and for my family. I want my children and grandchildren to find a place in the Synagogue now and in the future. Today, I would like to offer one possible solution so that we can create a positive message for our children and the community at large right here at our shul.
I have found a Psalm that can help guide us, giving emphasis on our responsibility to the environment.
Psalm 115:16 says "The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to mankind or all of humanity." On the surface, this is not a supportive environmental text.
But Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Bible commentator understood this differently. He said, "The ignorant have compared humanity's rule over the earth with God's rule over the heavens. This is not right, for God rules over everything. The meaning of but the earth He gave over to humanity is that humanity is God's officer [or steward -- pakeed] over the earth and must do everything according to God's word." In other words, humanity is not free to do what it wants with God's creation. We are here to act as the stewards of creation on God's behalf and that means taking care of it, not wasting or abusing it.
Ibn Ezra understood that we are gifts from god and we need to be stewards of the land.
It is time for our community to step forward and take some action!
(POINT TO THE NER TAMID, ETERNAL LIGHT!)
Do you know what this is? It is the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light! Did you know that 30% of that bulb is harvested by oil energy from the Middle East?
The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs is taking an initial step with their new Shomrei Ha'AREtz, "Stewards of the Land" Program. The Shomrei Ha'aretz Program was created in conjunction with a little known ceremony called Birkat Hachamah, "The Blessing of the Sun." Birkat Hachamah takes place once every 28 years. The next ceremony of the sun will take place on April 7-8, 2009. In conjunction with this holiday, and our initiative to help the environment, It has been suggested that we construct a symbol that demonstrates both the importance of energy renewal and the role the Jewish community can play in using energy wisely.
The Rabbi and I have met and we would like to utilize our Men's club to conduct an energy audit for the synagogue and present the synagogue Board as well as the Rabbi with the results. While the Solar Ner Tamid is a symbolic statement, if we can implement energy conservation technologies, we will transform the symbolic into the actual. Moreover, I hope that we, lead by the Men's Club, can make a difference for the community at large, by developing an environmental program with other community-based organizations (such as United Way).
There is a midrash (Rabbinic commentary on the Bible) which Jewish environmentalists are fond of quoting: "When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: "Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it (le-takien)." (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13) The same word le-takein, to repair, also appears in the Aleinu prayer in which we ask that the world be soon perfected under the sovereignty of God (le-takein 'olam be-malkhut Shaddai). Tikkun 'olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world, has become a major theme in modern Jewish social justice theology. In our ignorance and our greed, we have damaged the world and silenced many of the voices of the choir of Creation.
It's time to do God's work and fix it. There is no one else to repair it but us!
Aspects of this sermon were taken from http://www.coejl.org
Sample Sermon 2
By Rabbi Ehud Bandel
Our people are justly proud of the individual accomplishments our fellow Jews have achieved in every area of society. The number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, literature, and economics far outweigh statistically the number of our people in the world's population. The number of noted Jewish thinkers, writers, journalists, and philanthropists are legion. Areas such as the entertainment industry are dominated by Jews; a favorite activity of our people is the ''Did you know that (insert name of famous personality) is Jewish?'' game. Indeed, of the three men who, it can be argued, founded the way modern man understands our world, our universe, and ourselves-Darwin, Einstein, and Freud-two were Jews.
Even in a field where we do not overwhelmingly excel, such as sports, we have our Jewish heroes. Interestingly, though, if you ask a Jewish person to tell you what first comes to mind concerning the great pitcher Sandy Koufax, odds are that what will be mentioned is not what Koufax did, but what he didn't do-pitch on Yom Kippur during the World Series. To this day, many people attending several different synagogues on that Yom Kippur are convinced that they saw Koufax at services, traveling from shul to shul like a contemporary Elijah. In fact, Koufax chose to stay alone in his hotel room. But Koufax's decision remains more meaningful and impressive to many Jewish fans than any of his no-hitters.
There is an ambivalence we feel about what are the qualities that make a Jewish hero in our society. Is it a man who makes millions in business, or a woman who wins an Academy Award for acting, or a doctor who develops a life-saving vaccine? Or is it a person who, instead of going to law school, chooses to teach Hebrew to youngsters, or chooses to enter communal work to help Jewish elderly, or chooses to study Talmud many hours each week?
We have all heard the joke about the Jewish parents who are deeply upset because their son wishes to study for the Rabbinate-"what kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?"-We laugh, but we understand our ambiguous feelings about what is important to us as Jews. We are fully members of our contemporary American life, yet we still celebrate the bar- and bat-mitzvah of our children by having them literally called to the Torah, our holy scroll and centerpiece of our faith. Our children may excel in their secular studies and hobbies, yet the high point of their bar-and bat-mitzvah is their chanting the ancient words from holy scrolls of Torah and Haftarah, reciting the ancient blessings, and sharing their thoughts about these words before their proud family and congregation.
For many Jews, it has been a long time since they have put on tefillin, or studied the words written on the scrolls inside a mezuzah, or chanted "their" Haftarah, but they feel a visceral connection to our holy scrolls. We believe that many Jews today are looking for ways of getting back in touch with Jewish learning. The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs has been a leader in developing programs to teach our people "hands-on" skills to participate in our age-old traditions.
DISCUSS HERE WHAT YOUR MEN'S CLUB IS DOING OR PROPOSES TO DO WITH SCROLLS, SUCH AS THE PROGRAMS AVAILABLE IN THE MEN'S CLUB SHABBAT BOOKLET. Our Men's Club stands ready to help our congregants continue to extend our ancient use of our holy scrolls into our time.
Sample Sermon 3
FJMC Men's Club Shabbat - Shabbat HaHodesh Or Hadash Al Tzion Ta'Ir - Zionism
By Rabbi Robert Golub
This morning's Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that take place during the weeks from before Purim until the eve of Passover. As opposed to the regular custom of calling the Shabbat after the regular Torah reading for the day, this morning's service, as well as the other special Shabbatot of this period, are named after the reading in a second Torah scroll from which we read the Maftir or additional portion.
Today is known as Shabbat HaHodesh. Since this is the last Shabbat of the month of Adar, we will be announcing the coming of the new month of Nisan with a special blessing known as Birkat HaHodesh. However, unlike the announcement of the other months of the year, we add a special maftir reading from a second Sefer Torah, from which we read from Exodus Chapter 12, verses 1 and following, wherein God gives the following instruction to Moses and the Children of Israel: "HAHODESH HAZEH LACHEM ROSH HODASHIM, RISHON HU LACHEM LEHODSHAY HASHANAH: This month shall be unto you the beginning of months, it shall be the first month of the months of the year to you." What month is to be the first month - the month of Nisan. Why should Nisan enjoy this distinction of being the first month of the Hebrew calendar according to the Torah? Because it was during Nisan that the children of Israel were liberated from slavery and redeemed from Egypt and turned from an "erev rav", a ragamuffin mass of slaves to a new free people. It was in the month of Nisan that the descendants of the Patriarchs, the children of Israel, became the Jewish People.
What does it mean to be part of a people, the Jewish People? Certainly, the characteristics that define peoplehood include, among others, a common language, a common culture, a common history, etc. Throughout the ages, we Jews have shared these common characteristics and throughout this time, as a result, we have been considered resident aliens in the countries in which we lived. But 200 years ago, there was a move within the Jewish world, and particularly among Jews in Western Europe, to downplay their national identity as Jews, to go from being members of the Jewish People to Frenchmen or Germans of the Mosaic faith. There were many reasons for this shift in identity, but sadly, this new definition of what is a Jew did not save European Jewry from the rise of antisemitism in the latter decades of the 19th century.
It was against this backdrop, in response to the cries of "Death to the Jews" that arose from the Parisian mob in the wake of the trial and false conviction of Colonel Alfred Dreyfus for espionage against France that a foreign journalist from Vienna covering the trial wrote the following words: "We are one people--One People. We have honestly striven everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. It has not been permitted to us. . . We are one people--our enemies have made us one . . . Distress binds us together and thus united, we suddenly discover our strength." More than 100 years ago, in February 1896, Theodore Herzl penned these words in the treatise he called "Der Judenstaat," the Jewish State, reminding the Jews that however much they might want to set aside their national identity, they could not erase it completely, for indeed they are a people, one people. Because of the refusal of the nations of the world to assimilate and accept this Jewish minority, despite their far-reaching attempts to remake themselves into a Western European-style religious movement, "emancipation" proved to be a cruel illusion. A new solution was needed: a Jewish homeland, which would serve both as a place of refuge for Jews in distress to solve the problem of the Jews on the one hand, and as a reviving energizing force for a new style of Judaism on the other.
Following the publication of this pamphlet, Herzl went on to convene a public gathering of Jewish leadership to endorse his plan for the creation of a Jewish State. This gathering, which took place 18 months later in the city of Basle, Switzerland, in August 1897, is known as the First Zionist Congress. 240 delegates from all over the world joined together in Basle, establishing the World Zionist Movement as the vehicle for advancing Herzl's vision. When the Congress was all over, Herzl entered into his diaries: "Today I founded the Jewish State."
This was certainly an audacious claim to make. Anyone hearing Herzl speak these words in 1897 would have thought him crazy. The Jews of that day had no territory to call their own, no backers among the world powers of the day for the idea of a Jewish state, no common daily language, they were powerless. But what his detractors didn't comprehend is that Herzl had the power of an idea, the idea of Jewish Peoplehood, the idea of Jewish Statehood to carry his plan forward. It was the power of Zionism, the idea of the unity of the Jewish people with its center in the land of Israel, together with the organizational and financial strength provided by the new institutions created by the Congress, the Zionist Movement and the Jewish Agency, that converted a seemingly vain claim in 1897 into a reality within 50 years.
Today, the State of Israel is completing its 57th year of statehood, but the message of Zionism, the Zionist Movement and the Jewish Agency, the vehicle created by the Zionist Movement to carry out its plans, are still relevant. We Jews are One People, wherever we live, with a profound sense of mutual responsibility towards each other and towards the Land and State of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem, which stand at the center of our identity. It is Zionism that impels us to cry whenever any Jew is harmed for being a Jew, whether at the hands of a suicide bomber in Israel or an anti-Semite in the streets of Paris. It is Zionism that pushes us to work to free Jews still locked away in Ethiopia or the former Soviet Union. It is Zionism that rouses us to lobby our government to support the State of Israel in its efforts for security and peace.
We Conservative Jews don't have to be convinced of the message of Zionism, for it has been an essential element of our understanding of Judaism since our founding in the middle of the 19th century. Our founding fathers, Zechariah Frankel, Solomon Schechter, Mordecai Kaplan and others, defined Jewish peoplehood, the revival of the Hebrew language, and the centrality of Israel, as core values of Judaism. Conservative Movement institutions have stood in the State of Israel since its first days, including the Shocken Institute, Neve Schechter and the World Council of Synagogues congregation in downtown Jerusalem. Similarly, our youth programs, USY and Ramah, have been bringing hundreds of teenagers to Israel on summer programs for decades. Moreover, in the State of Israel today, there are more than 50 Conservative/Masorti synagogues, an active youth movement called NOAM, a public school network identified with our values and a network of Masorti summer day and overnight camps.
These values underlie Conservative Judaism. But we also have a visible public connection with Zionism, the Zionist Movement and the Jewish Agency. This connection is provided us by MERCAZ, our Conservative Movement's Zionist organization. Founded 25 years ago, MERCAZ means "center" in Hebrew, to proclaim the centrality of Israel to the Conservative Movement. It is also an acronym for "Movement to Reaffirm Conservative Zionism, bringing our values of tradition and change, of religious pluralism and of support for all legitimate forms of Jewish religious practice to the Zionist cause.
The way Conservative Judaism influences the Zionist Movement, its agenda and the priorities of the Jewish Agency's $300 million annual budget, is through the lobbying efforts that MERCAZ expends on behalf of our Movement, efforts whose effectiveness is directly linked to the size of the membership rolls in our Movement's Zionist organization. Like the statement purportedly made about the Pope and "his battalions", the Zionist political strength of our Movement is measured by the number of Conservative Jews who belong to our Movement's Zionist organization. And herein lies the problem: 1 million Conservative Jews in the United States and Canada have supported Zionism from the very outset, yet less than 5% of Conservative Jews 18 years and older bother to join MERCAZ USA or MERCAZ Canada, the Zionist arm of our Movement, in their annual membership campaign. We believe in Zionism but we don't carry out the basic requirements of Zionism, to pay our half-shekel and join a Zionist organization.
Today, our Men's Club and men's clubs throughout North America are taking upon themselves the commitment to double the number of Conservative Jews who are MERCAZ members.
Sample Sermon 4
Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Department of Talmud
By Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz
(This sermon was written in the fall of 2003 and adapted for use with the author's permission in 2004/05 for The Masorti Foundation and The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs.)
I have been to Israel several times during the past two years, and I have seen the pain and suffering that are daily conditions in Israel. Israelis, more than most other people, can feel what Americans have gone through since 9/11, because they have been experiencing similar pain, loss, anger, and fear for a long time. The impact of the intafada on the economy is horrifying. Anyone who has walked down Rehov Yoel Solomon in Jersalem, once a bustling center of restaurants and cafes, now finds a quieter street, with few restaurants open for business, for limited hours during the day. The most famous shopping, eating and hanging-out area of Jerusalem, is largely empty, few stores remain open and many hotels have closed.
The army is calling up reservists for a longer period of time, up to 42 days per year, which is disrupting family and community life, while affecting employers and wage earners. Parents do not let their children play outside, and teenagers are severely restricted in where they can go and what they can do. One five-year old asked his father whether the suicide bombers would be taking a vacation during the summer, so that kids could have a good time during their vacation. While Israelis usually have a strong opinion about any and all political, military, and economic problems, most do not see a viable solution to the current situation, and so many are experiencing anxiety and depression. The only relief I noticed to this pervasive feeling of anxiety, isolation, and doom was when Israelis noticed American tourists coming during these most difficult times. English signs in stores greet and thank the "brave American tourists" who have come to Israel.
But with all this, Israel has not lost its hope or its sense of mission. While Israelis are anxious, lonely, and in serious danger, they do NOT believe that their very existence is at stake. Summing up the feelings of most Israelis, Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, spoke to members of the Conservative rabbinate in a tele-conference call last year. He said, "We will persevere, and we will win this war. It will cost lives, and it will hurt the economy, but Israel has prevailed in the past, Jews have prevailed in the past, and we will prevail in the future." He then added, "Just make sure that the next generation of American Jews know WHO they are and feel CONNECTED to Israel. Either bring them yourselves, or send them to visit."
Danny Ayalon has presented us with a serious challenge. The citizens of Israel are doing what they must do to survive. And WE must do whatever WE can do, to help them. We must show our support by visiting Israel, by defending her right to exist in peace, by challenging inaccurate, biased, and unfair reports about historical facts and contemporary myths. We must buy Israeli products, boycott those European countries and companies that have imposed sanctions on Israel, make our voices heard to political representatives and members of government, and find ways to let the average Israeli know that he/she is NOT alone. The external dangers and threats to Israel are very real, and we must do our share to help Israel face her external enemies. Of this there is no doubt. But less clear to most American Jews are the internal dangers that plague Israeli society, and that run the risk of being overlooked or forgotten, due to the military and economic crises that she faces now.
The most dangerous of these is the growing antagonism and in some cases hatred, that defines the relationship between the "religious" and "secular" populations in Israel. One Israeli described the situation to me as follows: "We resent the Palestinians and we distrust many of the Israeli Arabs, but we really hate the haredim - the ultra-Orthodox - whose growing influence is impacting our lives, and whose religious standards are being shoved down our throats." To me, this is the most frightening, dangerous, and hopeless expression of what Israeli society and the Jewish People are facing. On the one hand, we have a community of Jews who insist on their own religious convictions controlling the daily lives of all Jewish Israeli citizens; on the other hand, we have a community of Jews who want less and less to do with Jewish tradition and practice. In both cases, the extremism of one group pushes the other group further away.
In 1949, Arthur Koestler published a book entitled Promise and Fulfilment, 1917-1949. In it, he predicted that within a generation or two, a Hebrew identity and culture would emerge in Israel that would be foreign to the Jewish experience. Thirty years earlier, an American sociologist, Thorsten Veblen, predicted that if the Zionist state came into being, the ingathered people would withdraw into themselves, and would concentrate exclusively on their own particularistic heritage - on "studies of a Talmudic nature."
Whose prediction was correct? It depends on which camp you are in, because each camp sees one of these predictions as reality.
What governs the current relationship between these two camps is what is known as the "status quo" - a compromise that was reached between Ben Gurion and representatives of the religious community when Israel's independence was first established. Each side - the religious and the secular - believed that the rival camp represented a passing phenomenon. Each side chose to hold out, expecting that with time, they would gain more power and support. But for each of them, the other did not disappear. In fact, each camp has become more numerous and more extreme in its position and its demands. Groups who were not originally involved in setting the "status quo" - groups such as the ultra-Orthodox and Jews from Arab countries - joined the political fray. In addition, the arrival of large numbers of Russians and Ethiopians, and the growing number of Conservative and Reform Jews, have also altered the nature of the population, and have rendered the "status quo" unfair and unworkable.
The situation has become so polarized and extreme, that we see ultra-Orthodox stoning secular Jews who choose to drive or shop on Shabbat, and we see secular Jews traveling to Cyprus, Japan, and even Egypt, to avoid having to be married according to the dictates of the Orthodox rabbinate.
As enlightened, religious Jews and committed Zionists, we should be as worried about the spiritual nature of the Jewish State as we are about its security. Lest you think I exaggerate the problem, this concern is shared by many Israeli leaders.
Avraham Burg, Knesset member and former Knesset Speaker, met with the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary last year, and, with a sense of urgency, elaborated on the spiritual vacuum at the heart of Israeli society. Burg noted that all the old myths that had nurtured the Zionist revolution were dead and religious fanaticism must not take their place. Israel would not "make it" without a new strong and reasonable vision. He pointed out that OUR movement had been Zionist long before Herzl's time, and long before our Orthodox and Reform compatriots had embraced Zionism. We had never downplayed or denied the national dimension of Judaism or the centrality of Zion. Our ideology contained precisely the mix of tradition and modernity that might fill the spiritual void that currently endangers the Israeli will to endure.
At the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Aharon Barak, the Chief Justice of Israel's Supreme Court, addressed the unique character of Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic. This concept had been articulated in Israel's first fundamental law, adopted in 1992, dealing with the dignity and freedom of the individual, a statement of principles anchored in the "values of the State of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state." There is hardly a consensus in Israel on whether the state should accord parity to its Jewish and democratic legacies. And while most of us do not have easy answers to the difficult issue of how one balances democracy and Jewish life, a significant number of Israelis are not even bothered by the dilemma. They are prepared to choose one over the other - sometimes out of conviction, and sometimes out of a resentment that is the outgrowth of coerciveness and lack of choice.
As vital as it is for us to contribute to Israel's economy and security, it is equally urgent that we contribute to the quality of her society and the preservation of her values as a democratic Jewish state. We DO have something to offer Israeli society, and we must make our contributions loudly and clearly. We must speak on behalf of those who do not yet realize that religious diversity and pluralism are not a threat to Israel's welfare, but rather, will enhance Israeli society and allow it to realize its full potential.
Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, asked the following question: "Can Judaism stop living in its Biblical self-enclosed language of monotheism, and really begin to live in dialogue with the world?" The Bible does not give us a model for that. But the history of Jewish law does show us how Jewish law worked in tandem with civil law and leadership. It is possible to be democratic, pluralistic, and involved with the outside world while maintaining halakhah and a uniquely Jewish way of life. The experience of the American and European diaspora has proven that.
Now more than ever, normative and centrist religious movements must show the Israelis that halakhah can change and people of different points of view can learn to live together without compromising their own values. Adjustments must be made, and persuasion must take the place of coercion or abandonment. To do so, one must recognize that times have changed and that assumptions and long-held beliefs are not engraved in stone.
There are a few small groups in Israel who are slowly making progress toward this goal. Our own Masorti Movement, on a daily basis, in its synagogues, summer camps, classes for Russians and Ethiopians, in the army, and in dialogues with segments of the community, presents a living example of how one can be Jewish and democratic. In a fairly new trend, those who call themselves secularists are studying sacred texts so that they can "reclaim these texts for themselves and join the ongoing conversation of Jewish thought and Jewish peoplehood."
These are rays of light, flames of hope that must be fanned and spread. And WE must be part of that effort. We must visit Israel and demonstrate that we are committed Jews who embrace a democratic way of life. We must support those institutions in Israel that are actively involved in filling the spiritual vacuum that Avram Burg refers to. And we must withhold support from those institutions and individuals who embrace one extreme or the other. We must show that the fundamental law in the State of Israel, anchored in the values of Judaism and democracy, is a viable and preferable approach that can enhance the quality of life of the majority of Jews in Israel.
This is the challenge for us as American Jews. Let us accept the challenge that these difficult times place upon us, and let us commit ourselves to protecting and securing Israel - not only the geographic entity but the soul and spirit of the State of Israel as well.
Suggested Reading I
Jerusalem of Gold
By Naomi Shemer (1930 - 2004 ), "First Lady of Israeli Song," who composed this song at the request of Jerusalem's then mayor Teddy Kollek, before the Six-Day War. After Jerusalem was reunited, she added the last two stanzas.
Suggested Reading II
A Prayer for Love, Compassion and Tolerance
By Rabbi Jack Moline, Agudas Achim, Alexandria, VA
Ideally it is read while the candles are still glowing on Friday night or at Havdalah services. It can also be read (with less dramatic effect) on Shabbat morning.
Dear God, just as the Shabbat candles illuminate the darkness with their golden glow so may our hearts be infused with love, compassion and tolerance.
Let the candles glow for Conservative Jews, among whom we include ourselves, who preserve the balance between tradition and today as we strive for deeper understanding of our covenant with God.
Let the candles glow for Masorti Jews in the land of Israel who toil against considerable resistance in ceaseless effort to introduce traditional Jewish values and practices to secular Israelis and to new "olim."
Let the candles glow for Reform Jews, whose devotion to social justice keeps alive the prophetic call, and who are unafraid to explore new ways to reach to God and each other.
Let the candles glow for modern Orthodox Jews, who live a life of commitment to Torah and halakhah in contemporary society, showing us a path of possibilities.
Let the candles glow for Zionist Jews in every land, whose devotion to our people for 100 years has brought into existence a miracle our ancestors only imagined.
Let the candles glow for cultural Jews who, by their commitments, preserve the joys of Yiddish, the romance of Ladino, the literature of Hebrew, the music and poetry and humor and art of a thousand Jewish communities.
Let the candles glow for philanthropic Jews who nurture the world with their generosity as they fund day schools and universities, synagogues and hospitals, free loan societies and cultural arts.
Let the candles glow for the Jews who are meshugah Badavar, devoted beyond measure to the causes we must consider: disabilities, renewal, inclusiveness, environment, hunger, housing, civil rights, and Jewish defense.
Let the candles glow for Jews who seek to create a Jewish home, a link across generations and a link to others who preserve our tradition.
Let the candles glow for every one of us, single or married, old or young, religious or secular, enthusiastic or ambivalent, Jewish by birth or by choice, for the essential contribution we each bring which makes our people whole and which testifies to the many reflections of God's image in which we were created.