Rosh HaShanah 5783: Identity and Kehillah

I. Individuality: just another word for nothing left to lose

I’ve never done the Hineni prayer which is only for those who lead the prayers during the Days of Awe; it always seemed arrogant to hold myself apart from our community in that way. We all stand before Truth and Eternity equally. 

Yet it’s also true that I’m the rabbi and you’re not – and seriously, that role is precious to me. I feel the responsibility and try to bear it with care. It’s a significant and important part of my identity.

It’s identity I want to talk about with you tonight, and about who each of us is, we individual identities that are part of this community – to which we belong, which belongs to us, is made up of us, yet is also beyond any one of us….

First I want to invoke our context. Some of you have heard me talk about the Third Era of Jewish life. In a nutshell, this concept posits that the Jewish people have lived in two distinct eras already (the Biblical and the Rabbinic) and that we are now in transition to a Third Era. Because we are living through the transition, we cannot know what the Third Era will eventually look like for us; but the Jewish people is not disappearing by any means. We are in the process of re-birthing ourselves into a new world.

What distinguishes our dawning Third Era is a new idea: that of autonomy and individualism. The sense of oneself as self-determining is only a few hundred years old and only applies to the philosophy of human beings who lived within the context of a Western European society. It was the backlash against a controlling European Church and absolute monarchies that led to Kant asserting that each of us is actually, and must be, self-governing. 

If you think about it, it’s a bedrock assumption that many of us never question. The certainty that each of us determines our own life is as solid as the fact that the sun rises in the morning. Or that when I was growing up in Central Florida it would rain every day in the summertime at the same time, 4pm. There would be a downpour and then the sun would come out.

It doesn’t do that anymore. And, well, how self-determining are we, after all? How many aspects of your life feel beyond your control on the eve of this new Jewish year of 5783?

Physically and spiritually, we are not random particles buzzing about in the universe; we do live in patterns that are human. There’s a finer point here, and it’s about free will, our capacity for choice within the larger forces that do shape our fate and are beyond our power to change. 

We are part of structures within which we make choices. As one philosopher put it,

“One may learn from others one’s moral obligations, but only in the sense that a mathematician learns from other mathematicians.” I think this is a brilliant metaphor for how we live our lives: mathematicians don’t invent the axioms within which they work, they just apply them as they go where curiosity and imagination lead.

We may say it, we may even believe that “no one is the boss of me”, but we do so in the face of wildly contradictory evidence: “the boss of me” is often felt as by any one of us as a responsibility to a family, a job, or a community. So there’s a contradiction here.

And here’s our problem: as the self-determining individuals that we think we are, we are hundreds of years cut off from the community that could help us parse it meaningfully. 

In other words, I can’t figure myself out unless sooner or later I can turn to you to ask you if I’m making sense.

II. Attachment disorder

How does the individual find a way into belonging to meaningful community – to the end of being radically alone?

Here’s where Judaism has a real advantage: we literally pray heteronomy. (That’s not a gender term! It means the opposite of autonomy – i.e. commanded by something Other.) 

What we mean by this is that Jewish spiritual culture does not expect you to create your own identity and be your only guide; for us, you are supposed to get a study partner, find a teacher, and live in obligation to that which gave you life and keeps you alive. 

Judaism is, in other words, counter-culture to the modernity which is, nevertheless, reshaping it. Those of us who were raised in autonomy cannot easily become heteronomous, although it does happen. The rest of us wander, looking for a safe space to rest from the exhaustion of maintaining our selves, alone and disconnected. The self was not meant to carry its own weight.

This word heteronomous, the opposite of autonomous, is so Jewish an idea that if you look it up at the Merriam-Webster dictionary website, the first example is Jewish. The website presents a newspaper quote from a contemporary Jewish leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who states:

Torah m’Sinai is a form of heteronomous law, a structure of law that operates independent of any individual or group.” You can join it, but you can’t personalize it, since it exists beyond you. (It’s not “Sheila-ism” as academics of boomer sociology call the penchant of believing that one can be one’s own god, and pick and choose what rituals “work” for the individual.)

When you are seeking to belong that which is beyond you, how do you begin? When you are new to community, how do you catch the wave? I remember when a lovely and very thoughtful older woman was considering becoming a member of our congregational family. After meeting with me – more than once – to carefully consider the whole idea of belonging, she took the leap and joined up! And not long after she came back to me: “Rabbi, I’m a member now. How do I do it?”

This is where it’s appropriate to be an individual, and vitally important to have a sense of yourself within a group. In an intentional Jewish community, the entry is really in answering a simple question. 

To take the first step into belonging, you have to ask yourself: which mitzvah do you want to do? Because Jewish community is primarily about fulfilling the mitzvot that define a shul: beit midrash, a “place of study,” beit tefilah, a “place of prayer” and beit knesset, a place to come together, get caught up, share a meal.

It’s rather like a symphony, where each one of us is an instrument with our own personal sound. Once everyone is situated within their identity – your strength, and your interest – and learning how to move in harmony with everyone else, we make beautiful music together. Shir Tikvah means song, after all – song of hope.

The question of that harmony with others becomes key to finding our place. 

III. “Safe space” v “brave space” 

The ongoing challenge of the balance of self and other (the Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas: the Other commands me) why is is so hard for some of us to become part of the community? Why do some of us leave at the drop of a hat, as if it’s only about us and our comfort?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I have an idea I’d like to consider with you. What if community is the ultimate mirror of the individual, projected outward and reflected back atcha? What if that’s what can be so difficult about it? The balance of self and community is not just a myriad of other selves, the community becomes a sort of Self.

I’ve watched that reality play out in real time over the years at our shul. In 2002 15 people got together and mutually covenanted to create a new Jewish congregation in Portland. I was privileged to be invited to be their Rabbi.

When we began to grow and to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the early 21st century, some of our founders were surprised by the way the community was growing. Some were discomfited, fought against it, and then finally left. Others embraced the unexpected with delight, or at least with equanimity, and grew spiritually in ways they never would have expected.

What was the difference between them? 

We are taught that HaShem is present in Jewish spiritual community. It’s true that when we pray together, we affect each other in our shared experience in ways that do not happen when we are alone. 

But let’s push it a little farther, following the lead of the mystics, who always push for the next level of wondering:

If each of us reflects the image of the Holy as individuals, then our spiritual community must also be reflecting…something. Is it possible that our community also reflects back to us as a mirror does? And tells us something about ourselves, maybe sometimes something we’re not ready to accept?

In the construction of the mishkan in the wilderness, the Torah recounts that the women who served at the entrance to the Tent collectively used their mirrors for the creation of a large open vessel for water, in which we were to immerse hands and feet before entering the Holy place. Is there something about the reflection we saw in the water in which we immersed that was a necessary gaze into a mirror, into our soul? 

Perhaps it is sometimes difficult to be in community because it offers us a mirror into our selves, our individuality, that is not always easy to see.

When you’re alone you can become convinced of your path. Only when you’re immersed in community together with us can your spiritual identity be challenged, questioned, polished, enhanced, and supported.

Safe Space v Brave Space 

III.  In Jewish tradition, finding one’s place within community is an obligation if you are truly to live a meaningful life.

Thus “Voluntary” membership in a spiritual community is not a choice for one whose sense of identity is Jewish, but a vital act for supporting that identity.

I recently realized that my Fitbit is a really good analogy for what I’m trying to say here. I got a Fitbit to become familiar with my heart rate as a measurement of fitness. (Of course the first email I got was an invitation to join the Fitbit community.) And over time I saw that the daily use of the Fitbit becomes a structure that can hold a day together: how many steps now? How many now? Is the sense of satisfaction at the end of the day when you hit your goal because of that goal, or because there was an awareness you could carry with you all day long that knitted the disparate parts of your experiences together into one neat readout?

Here is how the novelist Howard Jacobson puts it:

Without obligation and repetition he was as chaff in the wind. If religion meant anything he could understand, it was this: doing again what had worked when you did it the last time, doing it because you believed you had to, remonstrating against the random, refusing to be tossed about the universe as though the universe had no use for you. That was the beginning and the end of religious devotion to him, anyway. Not what you owed to a god but what you owed to the idea that you weren’t arbitrary or accidental. And whatever you did more than three times a week, at the same time and with the same reverence, was another blow struck against the haphazard.

The regular practice of a mitzvah doesn’t just make you a good Jew; over time it carries the promise of helping you to become a coherent Self.

  1. The community within which you carry out your practice will benefit (Hevra Kadisha, Yad l’Yad, Tefilah, Tikkun Olam)
  1. you will find a new sense of strength to get through your days (if only because you’ll be distracted!).

I know a woman whose son was diagnosed with a chronic incurable disease. She is at her best when she’s working on helping someone else, or taking care of some problem; it gives her strength to be reminded that though she feels helpless to “fix” her son, she really can bring relief to other situations. One by one, each mitzvah builds a rock of stability. Holding on to it, we can best stay afloat in all the chaos of our lives.

A mitzvah is not a good deed, but it can make you a good person.

One mitzvah is not going to save the world, but one regular mitzvah can sustain you and, over time, become your Rock.

No mitzvah will stave off death, but any mitzvah can help you find meaning in every day of your life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: