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Rabbi Joey & Rachael Duke’s Drash, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

September 16, 2015


By Rabbi Joey Wolf and Rachael Duke

Every year, I get ready for Rosh Hashana by doing some reading.  I look at a sacred text. This year I picked up David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a heavy read – now I have tendonitis in both wrists. The future world he imagines is one that has conceded to a lot to forces we often despair about. Whereas we divvy up time, we set our calendars, in terms like BCE (“Before the Common Era”), AD (“Anno Domini”), the makers of David Foster Wallace’s imaginary world live in SD – “Subsidized Time.” The rights to Time, like today’s big sports venues, have been bought up. His characters are all needy and obsessive in one way or another. Political rhetoric and the stream of industrial waste run right alongside one another. How people are pacified and entertained plays a role in the story too.

Sound familiar? All of us are living with the worry that in various ways we are enabling a world to come undone.

Well, in the face of that, I want to welcome you all here tonight, Erev Rosh Hashana 5776. In Hebrew, it’s Taf Shin Ayin Vav, and if we play with the letters, it spells Ta’a’su – You will Do. The Hebrew verb la’asot implies not only doing, but engagement, embodiment, enactment. We’re called upon to act in the world – a world whose rivers turn yellow with the runoff of mines, whose seas turn red with the blood of refugees, whose corporate coffers are green while the wages of the middle class and the world’s impoverished plummet. We say Black Lives Matter, but we’re not sure where to attack the system that oppresses them. We say that the Earth matters, but we can’t agree on common sense thorough-going changes that might abate carbon pollution. We say that college matters, but we are pricing it out of range, and we’re retrofitting schools to prepare the youth of today for a world of artificial intelligence and cultural illiteracy. Roads and bridges and jobs matter too, but we figure someone else should pick up the tab for them.

As a rabbi, I want to tell you that your Jewish identities matter, but will you believe me? Maybe if I put it in these terms:

Many centuries ago, the Jewish spiritual masters saw all of civilization falling down around them. Jerusalem was burning – it was the scene of bloodshed. They worried they hadn’t done enough to avert the catastrophe – and they threw up their hands in despair. Their hopelessness is described in Tractate Ta’anit of the Talmud:

“When the Temple was about to be destroyed, the young priests assembled in bands with the keys of the Temple in their hands, and went up to the roof of the Temple, and said before God:  ‘Master of the Universe, seeing that we have not been worthy to be faithful treasurers, let the keys be given back to you.’  …

“V’z’rakum k’la’pay ma’alah”

“And they threw them heavenwards.”

Thirty-five years ago, it could be said that many Jews here in America did just this – they threw the keys up in the air.

And then there was this band of “once young” Jews here in Havurah, who held on and organized an alternative. I think it’s fair to say that back in 1978 the original group that gathered felt ill at ease with Jewish Subsidized Time. By the time I arrived nine years later, the Havurah phenomenon was thriving and I think in many ways the principles that defined us then still resonate today, though we are much larger and the world’s challenges are even more complicated. Being Jewish has a whole new set of resonances. I’d like to look at the keys that are jingling, that I think we’re still holding in our hands today.

First of all, let’s look around this room on Erev Rosh Hashana. We rent this place for the High Holidays and no one needs to pay admission (we were one of the first groups around the country, but no longer the only ones to do this). Still, we certainly hope you’ll support us if you can in this endeavor. Most of you don’t come originally from Portland, that’s an important fact, reflecting the migratory realities of today’s mobile society. Many of you are members; but we don’t differentiate, in terms of who gets to celebrate the New Year! We welcome you! Some of you, I can predict, will join Havurah down the road and others will discover community elsewhere. Whatever you do, embody your Jewish identity, enact it! It’s your turn. It’s Taf Ayin Sin Vav – 5776Ta’a’su. You be DOERS and MAKERS!

So here is what the Havurah project is all about, back then and now. Our first principle, thank God, no longer an anomaly in Jewish life, is that we are inclusive. And when it comes to sexual orientation, we want to make it clear that we’re doing our best to be queer friendly. When I composed my list, I felt like not singling out this principle, because the whole liberal Jewish world – not just us – is waking up to it. But then I realized, of course, that there is so much more work to be done – to crack open the seams of a straight Jewish idiom, a protective shield around heterosexual language and ritual and philosophy. In Havurah, I believe that as far back as the early years – 35 years ago – this seed was being planted and the sapling is only beginning to grow up out of the soil. May we grow into discovering the myriad ways we express ourselves in terms of gender, at the interstices of desire and culture and spirituality.

Now I’d like to reflect on eight special principles that uniquely charge this group. Remember that story in the Talmud: we have the keys in our hands and could just as easily toss them up in the air. I have asked Rachael Duke, someone who speaks with a powerful voice, to join me – she’s one of Havurah’s many producers. I’ll look to the past; Rachael will speak with an eye to the future.

1. The first principle is that we are not clergy-centered. We don’t put rabbis on a pedestal; we rabbis do not possess magic wands. I have often said that a rabbi should begin by getting out of the way and creating space for you to discover what you can do uniquely in Jewish life. I’ve made it a point to be a spare generator. You bring your own power sources, your great ideas. A rabbi’s job is to pair what you bring with a rich wisdom tradition. How’s that?!

RACHAEL:  We do see clergy leadership differently. We want our rabbi to be there and to know the congregation, but not to tell us what to do.  What does it mean to struggle at work, at home, in the world as a Jew? We want to know how to root ourselves in this tradition and find the context we need to step forward and take responsibility. So that we can also be leaders, here and in our lives.

2. Principle number two …  I have often said that being Jewish is a political matter. It’s great to go on a spiritual journey, but you’d better stay engaged with other people while you do it. The “other people” can be members of your shul, beyond your immediate family and close friends – or they can be the citizens with whom you share concerns for the metropolitan Portland area, such as healthcare, the rights of the undocumented, the homeless, the plight of young people growing up and learning in schools that are overcrowded and inflexibly structured, those denied reproductive rights. Or they can be people of color or indigenous people, who are left out of the economic pie, who suffer from the plague of mass incarceration, whose lives we discover, belatedly, matter.

Increasingly, the other people who Jews should be engaged with are the Palestinians, the people of Gaza, the hoodwinked, the dispossessed in Israel. It must be said that even though we have had a love affair with Israel, gone there repeatedly over the years, built deep and lasting relationships with our friends and family across the political spectrum, listened to their stories that speak to our hearts – for the past four decades the arc of leadership in Israel has disappointed us, even outraged us with political regimes that are rhetorically incendiary at best and lethally aggressive at worst.

Principle number two is informed by members of J-Street and Jewish Voice for Peace who say that the days of genuflecting in the presence of the vocal, moneyed mainstream are over. It’s done. Havurah members are unintimidated by the accusations of self-hate and treason from other members of the Jewish community that get hurled at us. We reason that we may, in fact, demonstrate our love for Israel by applying a critique of a brand of politics that colludes with settlers, land thieves, and inciters of violence. In Havurah, the idea that all human beings are made in God’s image guides the work we do – period!

RACHAEL: All of us here have so many ways that we do or can engage in this work. The active commitment that Havurah has to Tikkun Olam, with open eyes to the world around us, is core to who we are. This year Havurah’s Tikkun Olam Committee continues to work to end family homelessness but has expanded our opportunity to do so. We still gather donations for the Goose Hollow Shelter, this is important, but we now are able to more actively support the family shelter as volunteers  fulfilling a number of different roles. The shelter relies on volunteers to support the program so that staff can successfully move families into permanent housing and support the families during that transition.  This is an amazing opportunity to connect with others who live here in our town. And the crisis of homelessness, in particular, speaks to us because in our own narrative we have also been homeless, vulnerable, wandering without a place to rest and grow deep roots.

Tikkun Olam in so many ways is important to us as individuals and as community. There are many opportunities to repair the world.  And while not all congregations embrace Tikkun Olam as pivotal to their identity, here at Havurah we insist on weaving it through so much of what we do together.

More information on the Goose Hollow Family Shelter is on the Tikkun Olam table by the fourth floor stairs.

3. Principle number three … This is really, really important …. Our operating assumption is that all Jews should be spiritually awake. Most of us here are agnostics in one form or another, who are anything but comfortable with God-language. So why should I say that Jews must be spiritually awake? Here’s why:  we live with the daily miraculous revelations of neuroscience and evolutionary biology, all of which point to being and becoming – as the product of algorithmic (read: arbitrary) forces inherent to genetics. A century ago, we put God on the shelf and became wrapped up in discovering the Self, but at this point, even the Self has come into question in terms of its autonomous hold on reality! If God and our Selves are figments of the imagination, what’s left – our nervous systems? So, to say the least, we are beleaguered by doubts about sounding hypocritical and inauthentic when it comes to prayer.

Here’s the dilemma: in Havurah, in terms of the way that we make religious expression happen, we are reluctant to cede prayer leadership to people who “pose” as religious in our steads. So this forces us to dig deeper and look at what are essentially Kabbalistic insights. So we begin to understand that To Pray is to be cognizant of one’s lone voice resonating in an alienating and often incapacitating world. God, say the Kabbalists, is the Void, The Freaking Scary Empty Universe, where all your prior safety nets, your artifices, are thrown overboard. That’s when you can begin to really be real. So you can have a theology which posits that there’s no God out there like a satellite in space to whom you can transmit a message and from whom you are unlikely to receive one in response – and yet in the face of that theology, you can still offer a plea (in a forest, on a seashore, in your living room, even in a shul!) to be heard, to reverberate … and to listen carefully (to your heartbeat, to your thoughts, to the silence) … This is our theme during these holidays – King Solomon’s lev shomeah – that odd biblical phrase about “the heart that can hear,” that opens up the quiet space, to seek attunement, to discern what otherwise gets missed …  So we say that in Havurah we honor Jews who want to get serious about their capacity for deep prayer. Spirituality means deep and thorough-going connection and a core fierce honesty about it at the same time!

RACHAEL:  Lev Shomeah- I think about what Leonard Cohen calls “The Broken Halleluyah.” At the end of August I was driving past Detroit Lake, normally full of greens and blues, but instead fire burnt and cracked mud where much the lake should be. Awe inspiring and terrifying. I do not want my heart to be unaffected by what is happening in the world; we want to connect to what is real. Sometimes I want that to be a quiet time for myself, and sometimes this Broken Halleluyah calls for community, to listen deeply with others. To be less alone.

4. A fourth principle that differentiates us from other Jewish gatherings – we run a cooperative called Shabbat School. We’re certainly no strangers to the fact that adults have to work hard, when it comes to teaching. Early on, we created a signature paradigm for the way we set up a school, by opposing a pediatric brand of Judaism. We don’t send our kids off to so-called “professional” teachers and give them the message that proxies can somehow explain our own commitment to something time-honored and even profound to them, while we get lost. We don’t sign off as adults– preferring to get our kids through bar or bat mitzvah and that’s it. It’s up to us to explain ourselves directly, and this puts us on the spot. If it doesn’t work for us, how will we be able to be understood by the kids? Teaching is modeling via exposure, heart-to-heart opening up between the generations.

RACHAEL: Many of us who have sat down with Deborah and learned the curriculum that we would be teaching our kids had to come to terms with the fact that maybe we didn’t know so much. That there would be a moment when a child would ask us something we didn’t have the answer to. That we had to connect to the other parents to make this meaningful. And that maybe there would be times when we would barely be one step ahead of our kids. Or not even one step ahead. Really, just like everything else about parenting and that heart pounding heart-to-heart opening up.

5. I want to speak about music – our fifth principle – which is harder than it may seem. This summer Lisa and I attended the opening performance of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain in Santa Fe. Although I really enjoyed it, it was hard, because I think we come to expect from music that it be a series of songs with a beginning and an end. This all reinforces the sense that we’re audiences along for a ride – a ride that generates a plot and then resolves it. But music isn’t only about that. For one thing, it should integrate the listener with the fluctuations of his or her own internal and often non-linear story, to really work. And when it comes to sacred music, leaders have to be strong conductors (in both senses of the word, as keepers of the rhythm and as “conduits”) when they lend encouragement in exploring new terrain, at the same time that they need to get out of the way too. In Havurah, when our skilled musicians move together with the larger assembly – as opposed to presenting it  as a fait accompli – we can be amazing. Over the years, we are at our best – in song!

RACHAEL:  When we saw the aurora borealis this past year in Iceland, I thought that it was as much a dance to music as it was magnetically charged solar particles. Music is all around us and how we participate in it is part of what defines us as a people and as a community.  Music is what helps to define Havurah in the world and amplifies us to the universe.

6. Number six … We are openly interfaith. Okay, let’s be more explicit about it. There are plenty of Jewish places that “claim” to be “open” to interfaith partners, families, constellations. But what I’d like to say is that long before I arrived, I received it as Torah from this group that everyone not only counts, but counts equally – in terms of ideas, imagination, even leadership, as long as they want to! I myself have officiated at the marriage of Jews to folks who are not Jewish for close to 30 years, and the reason is that we now live in a globally connected world – in which all ethnicities and races are combining/pooling/merging their talents, their stories, their energy. We need to face the fact that the old paradigm of hermetic separation is an obsolete one. What’s more, I have seen plenty of the kids of these marriages cultivate their own thoroughly Jewish practices. It begins with us. We hold the keys.

RACHAEL: My husband is not Jewish so this is us. But we have created our own Jewish home and our own traditions – some of them are fun and silly, like fried chicken on Hanukah to accommodate my husband’s southern upbringing. Some of them are expansive, that is including my husband’s family in our Jewish celebrations and life rituals. Some of them are deep, so that my husband will light the Shabbat candles even if I am not home. And some of them are unknown. My husband’s family heritage, not just Scotch/Irish/Northern European but also a hefty part Cherokee, are alive in our children. Their own traditions will reach and connect them to this world in ways that are different from my own. My own hope is that their Jewish identity will be key in creating and sustaining those traditions.

7. Number seven. It’s about money. The Jewish community, in its quest to rise out of immigrant status 100 years ago, took us on a long ride we are familiar with – the building of cathedral-like buildings with huge overheads, the flight to the suburbs, the quest for prestige and the saintly status of philanthropy. Making money and using money for good causes is nothing to be ashamed of – in fact, according to tradition, it’s a cause for great joy when we have the capacity to build noble endeavors. But we all know that privileged status that was bestowed upon a select minority with money brought about a decimation of spiritual power and honesty. So Havurah early on decided that we would prevent big money from buying up the rights to the rites. This acted as a disincentive to Jews who saw affiliation as a means to status. (If you haven’t noticed this fact yet, Havurah is not the place you want to join, in order to be a social climber in this town.) On the other hand, in fact, we need to admit that we have a good deal of work to do to welcome the largesse that could accomplish the broadening of our mission – in terms of prayer, politics and ideas. Today, we realize that we owe it to ourselves to build on what we’ve accomplished; to raise  the bucks to build our program in a way that is ambitious and thoroughly creative! We can and need to do it – with taste, inclusivity, and dignity!

RACHAEL:  Yes, money is awkward. And necessary. An expression of how opportunities can be systematically denied, and an opportunity to fix some of what is wrong. My husband, John Duke, who raises money to operate the clinic and other programs at Outside In, has been known to mutter “no margin, no mission” in his sleep. Resources can help us to do the work we want to do with the values that we hold.

8. Rachael: Lastly, but of course, firstly, in Havurah we cannot build a community around the “consumers” of Jewish life – of people who sit in pews and treat Jewish practice as if it’s a spectator sport. God knows, we certainly have enough spectator sports – in the arena and in front of a screen – these days.  Joey:  No, you want to be a member here? Then expect to co-produce Jewish life together with us. And if you say you are ill-equipped, come in with comfortable clothes, bring your yoga mats, your singing voices, your splendid array of talents, your patience and goodwill, and your political activism – and we’ll study together, we’ll work on the issues that confront us, we’ll stand up for the planet together in an age of unspeakable climate change and peril, we’ll confront old and poisonous ideas that require us to defeat them, and we’ll build a community that is responsive to beauty, pluralism and democracy, and the deep mystery of being. In the year Ta’a’su, 5776, be a producer! Grab those keys out of the air that back in Talmudic days the priests threw away in despair!

Only a few weeks ago, I saw an item on Facebook. (Yes, every once in a while I read Facebook…) It was contributed by a rabbi I have worked with on Jewish human rights issues from time to time, an east coast rabbi whom I admire. For the past few years, he has been the rabbi at a Conservative Movement flagship synagogue in the Boston, called Mishkan Tefilla.

Mishkan Tefilla bought land for a large modern cathedral-style edifice and a huge parking lot adjacent to a nature conservancy back in 1958, in Newton. Newton, Massachusetts was the original prestigious suburban Jewish address in the Boston area – and Mishkan Tefilla was where you gussied up your Jewish ceremonial show a generation ago. It was a place for jet-setters, and yet they had one of the finest of that era’s Conservative rabbis. He was warm and erudite.

Getting back to what my colleague wrote on Facebook four weeks ago, the congregation decided to sell its splashy modernist building and parking lot. Not only that, but he explained that they did not as yet have a plan moving forward. Instead of the once 1000+ member families, the congregation had dwindled to less than 300 households – and had trouble paying its bills. His announcement read like this:  “This is a complex time for Non-Orthodox Temples all over America … Judaism has changed. Forty or fifty years ago, the temple was the center of Jewish life. People prayed, socialized, and gathered at their shuls as a regular part of their lives. Now people experience Judaism in so many diverse exciting ways … There is also still a need for the temple. The place does not need to be as big as it was in the past.” That was it.

When I read his remarks, I could not help but feel that history was repeating itself. Jews facing the future – leaders unresolved. Doors bolted closed, keys in hand.

“V’z’rakum k’la’pay ma’a’lah”

“The whole thing thrown up in the air.”

There are, of course, other thriving synagogues in the Boston area and all around the country, whose doors are still open. But no one should doubt that the landscape has changed dramatically, when we think in terms of what cements us to one another the way we are bonded tonight in this rented space! We are no longer monolithic, and as Rachael and I have explained, we coalesce around principles unique to this human era. But we know that what can unite us is ACTION, imagination, moral wisdom, and truthfulness. Our spirituality is undeniable, despite two secular generations who were all but lobotomized. As Jews, we must be change agents in a world that is changing rapidly, but that’s not enough. We can’t afford to throw the keys up in the air, because it’s our own efforts to keep things alive and intentional that will make every difference in a world that drowns out love and beauty and intelligence. Rachael: So won’t you join us in making Jewish life! Be a part of this big, exciting, expansive happening. Joey:  Be alive to being Jewish in the world, right now, tonight, this year and next year.  L’shana tova tikatevu.


Sun, August 9 2020 19 Av 5780