A Sermon On Sharing Our Passions
By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb (Yom Kippur 2014)
I have a confession to make.
Sometimes I act like the rabbi I think I should be instead of the rabbi I really am.
We often put on professional masks or professional airs, perhaps. We dress and act differently in our places of work than we do in our homes. We withhold parts of ourselves when engaged with our business partners or our clients.
In many professions this makes sense. We don’t want our doctors and lawyers to show up in yoga pants; We need our professionals to act...well…professional, so that we can have confidence in their abilities. We’re not usually interested in their private lives. We just want to know that they can do the job we are paying them for.
But for rabbis it’s a little different. Rabbis are in the business of truth. Rabbis have to be professional of course, but rabbis also have to be real. We are in the business of religious truths and the truth of life’s experiences, but we need to be truthful about ourselves as well. And sometimes I get so wrapped up in being professional that I sweep some of my personal truths under the rug. While I definitely shouldn’t show up here in yoga pants, I also shouldn’t be someone who pretends that she wouldn’t much rather be in them most of the time.
Yom Kippur is a day when we bare our souls. We traditionally strip ourselves of vanities - makeup, jewelry, expensive clothing. We wear white to remind ourselves that at the end of our lives it is only the white-shroud we will take with us to our graves. None of the surface things really matter. None of the material wealth. None of the professional masks and airs.
I am not a rabbi on Yom Kippur. I am a person, standing before her God, baring her soul, and hoping to escape judgement. Not your judgement, but God’s. And really, Yom Kippur shouldn’t be the only day where I prioritize truth over professionalism. I need to be more honest with all of you more of the time. I need to lead from a place of passion - my passions, not the ones I think I am expected to have.
So I wanted to share with you, on this Day of Judgement, on this Day of Truths, what I am most passionate about and why.
But when I sat down to write this sermon, I discovered that sharing my passions with you is easier said than done. In generating a list of passions I might speak about I ended up with a list of interests that left me wondering if it was list of what I really wanted to share, or a list of what I thought I should be sharing - which is case in point. To talk about shopping and TV, both of which I love, but neither of which are true passions, would be relatable, but could also seem shallow. Talking about God, Torah and Israel would be meaningful but predictable.
So what’s a rabbi to do?
When I started my blog last year, I did so as part of this same struggle. The blog is called Pitbulls, Pearls & Pontification: (un)expected musings from one rabbinic gal. The “un” in “unexpected” is in brackets - a hint of the paradox - how to blog in a way that is both expected and unexpected; that is rabbinically meaningful and appropriate but also authentically me?
The first post on my blog was a poem. In the poem, I describe myself as someone who wears pearls as an outward expression of my rabbinic self and also as a way to hide some of the parts of me that I’m not confident about or that don’t feel “rabbinic” enough to share.
Too often, we suppress our true selves instead of revealing them. The motives to do so are endless: money, professionalism, peer-pressure, even a desire to please our families or be who they think we are.
My brother and I are in the stage of life right now where we sometimes have difficulty seeing each other as adults. I imagine this is something lots of siblings go through. We grow up together and witness every moment of each other’s childhood development and teen angst, but then we go off to our separate colleges and careers and we miss out on much of our siblings’ most critical growth and development. I sometimes suspect that my brother still looks at me and sees the 19 year old that I was when we last lived under the same roof. To be fair, I probably do the same. And of course, when we treat each other as teenagers, we end up acting like teenagers, reinforcing what the other imposes on us and brings out in us.
Rabbis fall prey to this dynamic with those outside their families as well. We sometimes feel an expectation to know everything so we make up great answers, and call them midrash, because we are afraid to admit that we might not know.
Speaking of Midrash! There’s a midrashic tale about a guy named Zusya, who spends his whole life trying to be a great tzadik, a great righteous person. He worries that when he arrives at the Gates of Heaven they will ask him, “Zusya! Why were you not more like Moses?” But when he gets there, that’s not what they ask him. Instead, they proclaim, “Why were you not more like Zusya?!?”
Midrash actually is one of my passions. The idea that Torah leaves space for us to insert our own ideas and interpretations; The idea that even Torah doesn’t have all the answers; that some ideas are yet to be revealed; that some thoughts are yet to be “thunk”. The idea that ancient texts and new interpretations can live side by side and bring meaning to one another. Amazing.
But Midrash didn’t make it onto my original list of passions to share with you. I was worried it might sound too ‘rabbinic’. I was worried I might end up with a list of passions that were inseparable from Judaism. Except that that’s who I am. There isn’t much that I love that I don’t view through a Jewish lens. And the fact that I can view everything that I love through a Jewish lens is part of what makes Judaism one of my passions in and of itself.
I do love to shop and I do love to watch TV but my real passions come out when I start to talk about being an ethical consumer - about infusing my day-to-day life with my Jewish values. Shopping and TV are actually the things that I hate to love. They can bring out both the best and worst in us. They make us care more than we should about what others think of us, and about what society tells us we need to wear and own. But they also challenge us to be our best selves; to balance pleasure and indulgence with fiscal responsibility; to make choices about what and where we buy that are in line with the values we espouse. Being an ethical consumer means trying to balance commerce and conscience; entertainment and ethics. It means choosing products that aren’t harmful to the environment, and programs that aren’t overly voyeuristic, and that don’t promote or exploit the worst of humanity and human relationships.
It’s hard for me to separate my passion for ethical consumerism and for other kinds of social justice from my passion for Judaism and Jewish teachings. You could definitely say that I have an overdeveloped sense of justice though. I find unfairness to be really intolerable. I think inequality of any kind is outdated, I get angry when people don’t follow the rules, and when I experience rudeness, it makes me cry.
This makes me terribly ill-suited to drive in Massachusetts, but it does make me pretty well-suited for the rabbinate.
And I don’t know whether I am inherently concerned about others, and about the planet, and about justice and equality, or if I internalized those values because I grew up in a Jewish home and community that promoted them. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, and I don’t know that it matters. Either way, my passion for social justice has become deeply rooted in my Jewishness, in the values of Torah, and in the fierce rhetoric of the movement of Reform Judaism.
In an age of diminishing denominational affiliation within the Jewish world, it is becoming more and more rare to hear people express a passion for the Jewish denomination to which they belong. In fact, many Reform Jews, I suspect, don’t really know why they are Reform Jews, or what distinguishes Reform Judaism from other movements.
Sadly, for many members of Reform Judaism, it was simply the easiest choice, or, even sadder, the one that required the least of them. But being a Reform Jew was once something to be incredibly proud of, and I’d argue that it still is, when practiced with knowledge, commitment and intent. I, certainly, am very proud to be a Reform Jew because the Reform Movement has kept Judaism alive, vibrant, and relevant throughout the ages of modernism and postmodernity by enabling the Jewish people to introduce innovation while still preserving our traditions, to embrace diversity while still asserting commonality, and to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt.
Reform Judaism balances faith and scholarship, encourages choice-through-knowledge, and prioritizes social justice and meaningful living above just about everything else. The Reform Movement has played a critical role in American history and continues to be a key-player in any fight for human or civil rights in this country. In the Jewish world, we were the first to promote gender equality in Judaism; the first to allow women to read from the Torah, wear a Tallis, and become rabbis; the first to welcome and ordain members of the LGBTQ community; and to create welcoming environments and meaningful roles for members of our communities who are not Jewish but who are a part of Jewish families. If it weren’t for Reform Judaism, I wouldn’t be able to be a rabbi; I wouldn’t have been able to question God when I needed to; and I wouldn’t be able to explore both religious and scientific explanations for why things are the way they are.
This is another place where my interests and my Judaism overlap - in the intersection of Judaism and science; spirituality and metaphysics. I delight in the spaces where tradition and academia come together; I love learning about what they have to say to one another and to see how they have informed one another throughout the ages. Judaism has been radically influenced by philosophy, reason, science, archeology, literary scholarship, musicology, technology, and just about any other human studies you can think of. I love to trace that evolution and to teach about it.
And I love to wonder about how Judaism will be changed by what we discover and create in the future. I am a big believer in the power of energy and I believe that our energy lives on after our physical bodies die (we call this energy our soul). I also believe that our soul-energy can be felt and experienced by those still living in the physical world. I believe that we stay connected to the people we care about even after we die, and I believe that we are reunited with the soul-energy of people we love when our soul-energy is all that is left of us.
I believe there is a lot we don’t yet understand about energy, from a scientific standpoint, but religions, including Judaism, have had a lot to say about energy for millennia, and I am excited to see whether science will catch up to religion or whether religion will have to adapt to or incorporate whatever science ultimately reveals. I am excited when I think about learning and teaching these things as they unfold; about being a rabbi in an age where timeless questions might conceivably find new or clearer answers, and where timeless answers might find new or clearer support.
My beliefs about energy and soul, and my questions about the metaphysical world, are rooted not just in thought but also in experience. Both the questions and the beliefs are deeply comforting to me. And they make me even more passionate about being a member of a faith tradition that allows for such questioning and beliefs. And whether I became passionate about energy because my Jewish interests led me to explore ideas of the afterlife, or whether I fell deeper in love with Judaism because it enabled me to explore energy and the afterlife within the context and textual history of the religion I was already committed to, matters far less than what I plan to do with that passion now that I have it.
And what I plan to do, is to share it. More often than I’ve been doing. More openly than I’ve been doing. More fearlessly than I’ve been doing. I’m excited about that. I hope you’re excited about it too.
I also want to get better at sharing my passions for music, God, and prayer. I could speak about each of these individually, but for me they are very much inseparable. I couldn’t say exactly which of them first led me to the others but I love God best through prayer and I pray best through music.
Prayer connects us to community, and connects our energy to the energy of others and the energy that connects us all. It connects us to those that came before us. Prayer can be the gateway to exploring Jewish Thought, the Hebrew language, and our sacred texts. I believe there is power in prayer. I believe that by allowing us to express our hopes and fears, and to ask the hard questions of God and of ourselves, prayer enables us to find the answers we are seeking, and empowers us to take up the actions we are awaiting. And I also believe that the energy we put into prayer makes a difference in ways we don’t yet understand,
Different people pray best in different ways. Some pray best with others, and some on their own; some pray best in the woods, by the sea, under the stars, or in the desert. I can pray just about anywhere, but I love prayer best when I’m singing and when I’m moving - when every muscle and breath is engaged; when the harmonies that surround me and the swaying of my own body carry me away so that I am momentarily outside of myself and connected to something much bigger. Prayer can transport us, transform us and inspire us. So can music, which is probably why I often see them as one and the same, and why I am so passionate about both.
But these are just some of my passions. I am also fiercely passionate about family, friends, animals, Canada, Israel...
I hope to share more about all of these passions with you in the coming years, not because I love talking about myself, but because I am hoping to stir your passions as well.
There is a famous, and somewhat awkward story from Talmud, in which Rav Kahana hides under his teacher’s bed and listens as Rav Shemaya, his teacher, talks to his wife and is intimate with her. When the teacher discovers Rav Kahana’s presence, he is understandably angry, and demands that Rav Kahana leave. Rav Kahana refuses, and declares that “this too is Torah”.
There are parts of my life that would not be appropriate to share with you; doing so would be unprofessional.
But Rav Kahana’s point is that we learn from how our teachers live their lives, just as we learn from the texts with which they present us.
Just as in the Yiddish song where when the Rebbe dances, the Chassidim dance, and when the Rebbe drinks, the Chassidim drink, and when the Rebbe laughs, the Chassidim laugh - I hope that by sharing my passions with you I have inspired you to reconnect with the things you are passionate about, and encouraged you to bring your passions out into the open if you’re not already doing so, for others to see and be inspired by. And I hope you will share them with me as well.
This is the Day of Judgement, the Day of Truth. We cannot be truthful with God if we are not truthful with ourselves; if we do not know what things drive us and motivate us; if we do not act on our passions and share them with others in ways that elevate our relationships and help us to really know, authentically, one another.
As we pass through the Gates of Judgement this day, may we do so with a renewed commitment to live a life of passion; a life of meaning; and a life of truth.
Kein Yehi Ratzon. (May it be God’s Will)