Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio Yom Kippur 2022

Willow, my daughter, turned to me and said: “what’s in a MacDonalds Big Mac?” Quick as a wink I recited: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” the ingredients of a MacDonalds Big Mac. How do I know this? It was the late 1970s and my brother and I were competing to see who could recite the ingredients of the Big Mac the fastest and in so doing complete what today would have been called the #bigmacchallenge. I am not sure why we did it, there were no prizes, no rewards, just the challenge issued by MacDonalds to recite the formula as fast as possible. How many people here, like me, have that formula embedded in their brain, taking up valuable space that could be used for other things? What about the Louis the fly song? Mortein’s most famous jingle. Or the Nike slogan, voted as one of the best advertising campaigns in history, three words, “Just Do It.” The incredible power of advertising to make something desired, trendy, to help us know that we need something in our lives, that we should seek it out, buy it, have it, own it. It will bring happiness, satisfaction, it will change our lives for the better. All the things I would argue Judaism and religion can bring into our lives, but the second I suggest it, I hear everyone switching off. We are spiritual, not religious. We have a spiritual yearning but will not seek a home in our religious traditions because they are staid, stuck, have nothing to say in our modern world, they are tied to strict rules and traditions and conformity with things we can’t abide. Religion peddles in miracles and stories which counter science and beggar belief. And really, what do what a bunch of people in the desert, who probably did not even exist, have to teach us in our world today? I believe that there is a deep need for religion, for Judaism and its values and teachings but we have a PR problem.

As a result, I see communities and congregations bending over backwards to attract people, to show religion as relevant for today by speaking in hashtags, trying to talk the language of the trendy: tying ourselves into pretzel shaped knots to try and connect with a modern sensibility. Kanye West has his Sunday Service, he insists it’s not church. He has a range of religious service clothing, marketed to the young and trendy, he even has Jesus sneakers with a little water in the soles so that everyone can feel like Jesus, walking on water. I kid you not, and they are available for the mere price of 7 instalments of $316US. And you thought synagogue membership was expensive! Maybe it’s time for a Saturday Service at the Synagogue, with Shabbat sandals, complete with emergency chicken soup and keneidlach built in. We are trying to compete in a world of marketing and merchandise and what happens is we end up looking ridiculous. Like when I used the term “slay” in front of my daughter the other day, she rolled her eyes and told me I must never, ever under any circumstances use that word again. I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice when we try and make Judaism cool, to try and join the PR machine and sell it to our people. Instead, we need to return to the heart of what it is, what it means for us and for our world. To strip away all the extraneous dressing, the trendy sneakers and clothes, the hastags and cool words and touch a little eternity, to link and connect with the deep teachings, the guidance and comfort, the nurturing, inspiring beauty of the timeless truths of what it is to live a religious life, because our world needs it, we need it, now more than ever. We have in our hands the most precious of jewels, but we cannot see its beauty because it is in the depths of the baggage that we carry when it comes to faith, religion and dare I say it, God. These words have become laden with meanings which are not true to their essence, they have been hijacked by others and it is time for us to reclaim them, to understand how they can guide us and help us with the challenges of our world and our lives which are difficult and complicated and where we need Judaism more than ever.

There is an epidemic of loneliness. We are siloing ourselves into small compartments and separating from one another and when we do, our society has become so polarised that there are less and less opportunities for us to meet and connect with people who disagree with us. The Pew Report said that in 2020 80% of Americans did not have any friends who held different political views.[1] Where we used to discuss and debate opinions with our families, friends and others around the shabbat table, that is happening less and less. Our internet feeds are bursting with articles and opinions that the algorithm feeds us, which align with our own. Even our Netflix and streaming services feed us material which is the same as what we are already watching. The opportunity for hearing and listening to others is becoming less and less.

But our Jewish community gives us a place where we come together with people across the spectrum of politics and religious practice. We hear the uncomfortable, we are challenged to work out what we believe, where we fit. We are called upon to engage in respectful dialogue with others, to listen and hear, to ask the big and important questions about who we are, why we are here our meaning and purpose. We are called upon to sit and dwell in the uncertainty, the discomfort, to meet and interact with others in all the messiness that entails.

We have forgotten how to debate, argue and discuss in ways which honour the other and not demonise them. In a brilliant essay entitled: “Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy” Walid Aly and Scott Stephens demonstrate how we are losing the ability to argue with one another on the plane of ideas and instead are treating each other with contempt. We demonise the person making the argument, we cancel them. They say: “instead of our opponents being … mistaken, unwise, naïve…animated by a different hierarchy of values…distinct from but nonetheless commensurate with our own… we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our opponents are… bigoted, toxic, dangerous… fundamentally dishonest- in a word, inferior in every way that matters…they are reduced to tribal avatars.”[2] This, they suggest is destroying the very foundation of democracy which relies not on just differences of opinion but also the openness and willingness to listen to the other, to be open to having your mind changed by an argument, or at least to have an exchange of ideas, and not merely be shouted at by statements made without any nuance.

Yet, this is a fundamental teaching in Judaism. We have always dwelled in the place of debate and discussion, interaction and engagement. We are taught that every passage of Torah has 70 different interpretations and it is for us to uncover them by turning it and turning it like a jewel to see and discover all the possible understandings. There is no one truth, no single path. Two of the greatest rabbis of our tradition, Hillel and Shammai were in constant opposition. Of the two, Hillel was lauded because he always gave preference to the arguments of others, he listened and heard, and even though he often disagreed, he did so with respect and honour for the human being in opposition.

Even God in our tradition is open to hearing the argument of others and models graciousness in defeat. In the well-known debate about the kashrut of an oven, Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with all of his colleagues. He calls on signs from God to prove that he is correct. Three miracles and even the voice of God and Eliezer’s detractors will not be swayed. They counter with God’s own words “The Torah is not in the heavens” You God, have given us the Torah, it is now for us to interpret it and this is what we have decided. In response God laughed saying “my children have defeated me!” These debates and arguments according to our tradition, are arguments for the sake of heaven. They are a model for discourse and disagreement. We do not need to “other” the person with whom we disagree, we do not need to label them, to attack their integrity or their person, rather we debate ideas and we find room and space to listen and hear, removing the polarisation.

But this can only happen when we hear the voice of our tradition which calls on us to see the human being, to argue for the sake of heaven, to understand and know one another. Part of our feelings of isolation and loneliness stem from the fact that we do not feel valued, seen or heard. Our voice is lost in the vast cacophony of sound, Judaism reminds us that we are important, each one of us is significant and needed, we are unique individuals but also part of a greater unity and one-ness.

These last years of Covid have reminded us of our lack of control over the vicissitudes of life, it has laid into stark relief what we all know in our hearts but refuse to believe. We want to control our world, to have everything be neat and ordered. We santise our lives, we are told we should be happy all the time that we can manipulate our environment to be whatever we want it to be. I have recently heard that we are even turning away from watching the news bulletins because it is upsetting and makes us feel out of control, so we put our head in the sand and avoid anything which makes us feel bad.

But then life happens, we recognise most things are out of our control and we are pushed off centre. We want answers but believe that religion with its certainty, dogma and pat responses cannot possibly provide what we need. But faith is actually the opposite of strict rules and simple answers. It calls on us to dwell in the uncertainty, to understand that we don’t have the answers but it reminds us to ask the questions, to grapple together with finding meaning, a reason for being, hope in the future. It challenges our assumptions, calls on us to feel discomfort, something we don’t like to do.

And the Torah is a radical document, at the forefront of change. It introduced the idea of all people being created equal and free. Unlike the prevailing wisdom of the time, that some are slaves, others are kings, you are born into a life of privilege or degradation, that we should surrender to fate. Judaism spoke loudly and challenged, it said all people are equally worthy, all people have the spark of holiness, none is more privileged than another by reason of birth. And the prophets were iconoclasts, agitating for change, calling for justice, speaking truth to power. Today, when we feel life is so out of our control, when it seems there is nothing we can do, we are called to lift our eyes, to look and see, to listen and make change. We are reminded that we are powerful and together we can make a difference. And we do not have to do it all and we don’t have to do it alone. Lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor, you do not have to complete the task, ve lo ata bein chorin lehibatel mimena, but neither are we free to walk away from it. But the burden is not carried alone, and that is the power of community, of being part of something greater than ourselves.

So why are we not turning to religion for the answers? Why, when presented with the question: “are you a person of faith?” “What is your religion?” More and more people answer, “I am not religious, I am spiritual.” We know there is a deep human need for connection to spirit, but we don’t know where and how to find it.

David Tacey used to teach a university course in spirituality and it was always over-subscribed with young people, many averse to religion and God. He noticed that many of them had significant challenges in their young lives, were dealing with anxiety, depression, had siblings who had lost their lives to accidents, drugs, parents who were ill, others who had separated. Almost all of the students had a need, a craving, were searching, because, he argues, spirituality is a human instinct and it is just the last 100 years we have tried to live without it. He says that he finds his student body spiritually starved and intellectually ill-equipped to approach the transcendent meaning and questions in their lives.[3] As we have moved away from formal religious communities, he argues, we have lost the language, the ability, to have those bigger conversations about meaning, purpose, life itself. [4]

David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech to Kenyon College argued that there are no atheists, that all humans worship something. He says: “Everybody worships, the only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some kind of god or spiritual type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”[5] For some, it is power, for others it is wealth or beauty or intellect but the trap is that if we worship any of these, we will always end up wanting, we will never be powerful enough or wealthy enough, or beautiful enough or smart enough, but, he argues, our unconscious default setting is to turn to these false idols rather than our religious communities.[6] It is here that we can find something to worship which is bigger than ourselves. Where we can we touch and link with something beyond the rational, beyond the here and now, to realise what is important, and discover where we sit in the vast cosmic universe. That is what can bring us comfort, strength and satisfaction. And there is something incredibly powerful about our voices being joined with those thousands of years before us, that we can have conversations about meaning and life which are not new, but ever evolving.

In our divided world, we need to be reminded of our common humanity. We group ourselves together based on difference, we constantly express the ways that others do not understand us, we have sectionalised society into so many small parts that sometimes we forget that there is more which unites us than divides us. We need to see ourselves in the face of the other in order to bring empathy, compassion and love into our encounters, into our disagreements and our celebrations. Judaism constantly reinforces our oneness, Judaism’s central teaching, shema, states that there is a connection and link between us. God created one human being in the garden of Eden, “male and female God created them” and we all descend from that human. The midrash asks “God is God, why not create a world full of people? Why create one singular human?” they answer that it is to teach us that we all come from the same source, no-one is better than another, no-one is greater, we are all one.

And that sense of the sacredness of all humanity is lost not only in our daily interactions but on the political stage as well. Dr. Rachel Kohn in her incredible book of essays about religion, from her decades of research and writing on this subject, says that when we outsource moral responsibility to third parties and governments, they have proven incapable of enacting the laws to deliver the common good.[7] Our political systems are driven by elections and the voracious 24 hour news cycle and the larger questions get lost in the noise of what declarations, moral posturing and no opportunity for discussion and dialogue.[8] We have created a separation between politics and the big questions of morality and justice, of hope and dreaming, and as a result we have a barrage of policies and statements about the now, divorced from any of the bigger ideas and long term vision for ourselves and our world.

Rachel Kohn argues that a culture of healthy religion is the antidote to the problems of no religion at all.[9] We need to return religion to the public square, to find a way to be in discussion and dialogue with one another and to bring the values and shared vision of our religious and faith traditions back into the conversation.

It is time for us to reverse the last 100 years of pushing religion away and to find its beauty again, to be inspired by its timeless teachings.

It’s time for us to come home to our community.

It’s time for us to see the humanity in others, to be in the messiness of relationships where we disagree, where we feel discomfort.

It is time for us to hear the voices of those around us and learn again to listen deeply.

It’s time for us to be with each other in pain and struggle, happiness and joy.

It’s time to use the strength and courage that comes from knowing we are loved and seen and heard, to go out and do good.

It’s time for us to invite moral questions back into our conversations and find meaning, not just for ourselves but for our society.

It is time to be inspired and find our reason for being, our place in this vast universe. 

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we read, “adam yesodo meafar ve sofo le afar” “we humans are mortal, dust is our origin and dust is our end, we are a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, dust on the wind, a dream that flies away” but we are challenged to be more than mere dust on the wind, we are called to make meaning of our time, to elevate our brief journey on earth by listening to the call of our spirits to connect with something greater than ourselves, and then join together in sacred community to dream and hope and shape an everlasting good. May we take that journey of the spirit together with Judaism and its eternal teachings as our guide.

Gamar Chatima Tova.

[1] “Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy” Walid Aly and Scott Stephens, The Quarterly Essay 87

[2] “Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy” Walid Aly and Scott Stephens, Quarterly Essay

[3] Dr. Rachael Kohn “The Other Side of the Story: Essays on Jews, Christians, Cults, Women, Atheists and Artists” pg. 262

[4] David Tacey lecture discussing “Beyond Literal Belief”

[5] David Foster Wallace commencement address “This is Water”

[6] ibid

[7] Dr. Rachael Kohn “The Other Side of the Story: Essays on Jews, Christians, Cults, Women, Atheists and Artists” pg. 218-219

[8] “Why is everyone so angry about everything all the time?” Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens

[9] Dr Rachael Kohn, “The Other Side of the Story: Essays on Jews, Christians, Cults, Women, Atheists and Artists”

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