Presentations from
previous NAORRR
 2013, 2012, and 2011

Come Let Us Reason Together 
Rabbi Seymour Prystowsky, Ph.D 
Shabbat Shalom everybody.

All of us as rabbis take the Torah narrative seriously, but very few of us take it literally. We recognize that the five books of Moses are evolutionary documents, representing the Jewish People's ongoing search for the Divine Presence. The texts, therefore, tell us more about our quest for God than about God's demands of us. When we explore the text of the Pentateuch, we see history, mythos, poetry, allegory, laws, customs, and folklore - hardly an objective description of what actually occurred. 

In this week's Torah portion, we read that, in the middle of the night, God strikes down all the non-Hebrew first-born in the land of Egypt – a major intervention of God on behalf of the Israelites, initiating their Exodus from Egypt. 

And in this week's Haftarah portion, the omnipotent, good God says to the children of Israel, "Have no fear my servant Jacob, for I am with you. I will make an end to all the nations among whom I have banished you." 

One can see in these chapters the special, personal, covenantal relationship between God and God's people. God is the God of Israel, and acts on its behalf. Biblical scholarship tells us, however, that the texts represent the views of our ancestors, i.e., they tell us more about what could happen and ideally should happen, than about what did happen. In other words, the Torah and Haftarah portions tell us more about our ancestors' idea of what God's role in history was, than about God's actual historical factually accurate intervention in the lives of our people and their enemies. 

Keeping this in mind, my goal for this Shabbat morning is to face the fact that our ancestors' beliefs about God and prayer were very different from ours. And since that is obviously true for many of us, we should be expressing ourselves via our prayer book very differently. I have shared my concern - some would say my obsession - with this issue, on our rabbinic internet and at a NAORR forum last year. Simply stated: I want change, major change, rational change, in our view of God, which should be reflected in our Reform siddurim and machzorim. Unfortunately, as I just pointed out, our current liturgy is not very different from the concepts of God in this week's Torah and Haftarah portions. And I find that troublesome! I am seeking a rational approach to our theology and am especially concerned with how it manifests itself in our liturgy. I truly believe that a rational approach would better elicit from us a sense of awe and even a sense of the divine. 

Let me provide a framework for my thoughts. Many modern Jewish creative thinkers, like Martin Suber, Arthur Cohen, Yeshaiyahu Leibovitch, Richard Rubenstein, Mordecai Kaplan, Yitz Greenberg, Harold Schulweis, and Arthur Green, have suggested that humankind, through its cruelty and indifference, is itself responsible for the evils of the world; that men and women, if they are to be held accountable, must have freedom of will - that we are not puppets whose strings are pulled by an outside force, nor is our life predestined by a supernatural deity. 

This emphasis on the freedom of will of each individual means that God's intercession is limited. We are governed by natural law and it cannot be suspended by God or humans, regardless of the wishes of either. God is not a cosmic bellhop and cannot be made into one; not by ritual and not by prayer. And Maimonides, almost 1000 years ago expressed the same idea. 

As my teacher Dr. Henry Sionimsky, z”l, often said, [in Yiddish] 
"Udder villen, vill er yah, obber kenen ken er nisht; udder kenen ken er yah, obber villen vill er nisht." 

(Either God wants to intervene but God is not able to; or God is able to intervene, but God does not want to).

Many of us believe the former - God is not able to. Regardless of what view we have of God - Creator, Power, Idea, or Ideal - the Shoah has pushed us up against the wall more than any other issue of innocent suffering. 

I cannot bring myself to say what Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, an Orthodox rabbi said: ... " during the Holocaust God chose in His mystery to hide himself. We do not summon God to the bar of history ... it is our task to believe that a God who is omnipotent and benevolent must have a good reason." 

I'm sorry Rabbi Wurzburger, but our prophets and sages often brought God before the bar of history and justice. And when I hear that over a million children were gassed and burned by the Nazis, the answer that God must have had a good reason for not having intervened is unacceptable. Besides; the fact remains, that whatever the reason with prayer or without prayer - God did not intervene. 

After the Sho'ah, Arthur Cohen wrote, "The question ... is not how can God abide evil in the world, but how can God be affirmed meaningfully in a world where evil enjoys such dominion (The Tremendum p. 34)." So, he concludes that the God who emerges is not the God of traditional theology, which strongly suggests that God cannot any longer be the God of traditional liturgy - the God of our traditional prayer book. And I daresay, that this God cannot be the God of our Reform Prayer books, either. 

Many of us, rabbis and congregants alike, like Arthur Cohen, cannot any longer affirm that God intervenes in our lives to alter the course of human events. That has serious implications for our liturgy. 

That means that all the prayers that petition God to intercede in our lives, and all the prayers that express our gratitude to God for God's active participation in our lives, and that all the prayers that refer to God as אל רחום וחנון, (a God of compassion and mercy) - all of these prayers in our siddur and machzor which are the views of our Traditionall Orthodox ancestors whose ideas of God were different from ours, expressed many of our ancestors' beliefs. The problem is that those prayers, for many of us, do not express our beliefs. 

Today we have a situation where the Reform movement's official siddur- Mishkan T'filah - reflects some changes from the traditional siddur, by providing alternative poetic readings that are quite humanistic, but the main thrust has been to preserve the prayers that address a personal God who responds - an approach that I believe is inconsistent with Reform and Reconstructionist theology. Instead of reading and chanting prayers that address our God (Eloheinu), the one we have come to affirm; in our current services, we continue also to address the God of our ancestors (Elohei Avoteinu). 

On the High Holy Days, when the cantor chanted, "Who shall live and who shall die?", our great grandparents and certainly those before them, shook in their seats, fearful of God's decree. Their prayers were directed not to themselves for greater awareness,( which is the way many of us view prayer,} but to a God in heaven, in the hope that God will intervene and grant them good health and length of days. And when our traditional ancestors prayed the words מחיה המתים, " who revives the dead," they meant just that. 

It was not some ambiguous or metaphoric phrase suggesting something like the rebirth of the flowers after a cold and stormy winter. 

Our prayers, like our rituals, should reflect our belief in the reality of the world's orderliness, which is the greatest miracle. But this is not the religious service that many of us have created. 

Today's worship service is structurally and textually geared toward worshipping a God who is an omnipotent, compassionate, intervening deity who listens and hears our petitions, our praises, and our thanks, and responds to them. This encourages the belief in miracles, not as the incredible reality we experience, but as God's supernatural acts of intervention.

How can a young widow who just lost her husband in an automobile accident say with integrity the words of the 23rd psalm - "my cup runneth over" and "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." That is not what she feels as she mourns the death of her spouse. And please don't tell me that this is just poetry. The tragedy in her life makes it almost impossible for her to accept "my cup runneth over" as poetry, and even more so to accept "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." It is not reasonable to expect her to utter those words, and it is not right to ask her to say them. 

The Jewish journey, to behold the Divine presence, began with the sacrificial system, which at the time was considered authentic Judaism. After the destruction of the second Temple, as all of us know, the rabbis introduced the second stage in our religious development - communal prayer addressed to a supernatural intervening deity - what we have had for the past 2000 years. I am suggesting that this current practice give way to stage 3 - a gathering of Jewish people on weekdays, Shabbat, Festivals, and High Holy Days to study, sing, reflect, meditate, chant and recite prayers and mantras, that give hope, a sense of community and especially a sense of the Divine. This service should, inspire, educate, comfort and unite us as a people - a service that does not seek intervention from a personal God but rather emphasizes the responsibilities and potential of humankind. Arthur Cohen stated it eloquently (p. 98): "Man - not God - renders the filament of the Divine incandescent or burns it out." 

Our service, therefore, should consist of praying words and singing songs that do not compromise our integrity, so that, to paraphrase Rabbi Naomi Levy in her book, To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith, a power can be ignited within us -- a force, an energy that can provide courage and especially hope that will strengthen us as we attend our new services. 

I stress hope, because living without hope is living in despair. And despair is a cardinal sin in Judaism. It is to succumb to the darkness that threatens us. Our belief is that tomorrow can be better than today, and that we can bring it about, not by petitioning God to intervene, but by energizing ourselves to work together to achieve our goal. For it is our belief that God needs us to act; that God wants us to act; that God depends upon us to act. We are the agents of the Divine. God works through us. 

The new service to which I have alluded; of what would it consist? Certainly prayers like the 'Sh'ma' and the 'Kaddish', which would be mantras; not literal expressions of what we desire, but a bond with the traditional and the familiar. They provide a linkage with the past. 

But a linkage with the past does no mean that we need 1 ½ to 2 hours of repetitious, petitionary prayers. We could have a few prayers in Hebrew and English that could, would and should be taken literally, while some, could, would and should be taken poetically. To give a few examples of the type of prayers that our services might include, I cite two, in English, that focus on our potential as humankind leading us to an awareness of the Divine. 

The first one, with which most of you are probably familiar, is by Rabbi Jack Reimer

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To end war; 
For we know that You have made the world in such a way That we must find our own path to peace 
Within ourselves and with our neighbor. 
We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To end starvation; 
For You have already given us the resources With which to feed the entire world, 
If we would only use them wisely. 
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, 
To root out prejudice; 
For You have already given us eyes 
With which to see the good in all,
 If we would only use them rightly. 
Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God, 
For strength, determination, and willpower, 
To do instead of just to pray, 
To become instead of merely to wish. 
For Your sake and for ours, Speedily and soon, 
That our land may be safe, 
And that our lives may be blessed. 
  - Jack Reimer 

This second prayer by Rabbi Morris Adler is absolutely inspiring! 

Prayer is not an escape from duty. It is no substitute for the deed. Prayer seeks the power to do wisely, to act generously, to live helpfully. It helps to reinforce the act, rather than to replace it. 
Prayer is the search for silence amidst the noise of life ... 
Prayer takes us beyond the self. 
Joining our little self to the selfhood of humanity, it gives our wishes the freedom to grow large and broad and inclusive. 
Our prayers are answered, not when we are given what we ask, But when we are challenged to be what we can be. 
(National Jewish Monthly, July 1958 pg. 7) 
Interspersed among the prose and poetry, songs and niggunim will be sung almost continuously, since music soothes the heart and uplifts our spirits. 

I would certainly recommend that in every service, there be a rabbinic message that involves congregational participation. Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam - the study of Torah - takes precedence over all. 

I don't have the exact formula for this new construct, but I believe it is imperative that all of us participate in the dialogue that will attempt to create these new services. This can be a uniquely spiritual adventure during which we can truly "Sing unto the Lord a new song". 

I want to remind all of my colleagues that Mordecai Kaplan expressed it beautifully when he wrote that for the Siddur to evoke religious meaning for the modern Jew the liturgy had to be intellectually honest. " .... even if that meant changing the ideals of ancient doctrine". He and his co-editors of his 1945 prayer book pointed out the following in the introduction: " ... unless we eliminate from the traditional text statements of belief that are untenable, and of desires which we do not or should not cherish, we mislead the simple and alienate the sophisticated". 

Our new and revised prayers can inspire the best within all of us. I don't know if this new approach will attract more of our people into the synagogue, it mayor it may not. But, at least, in the process of creating a service which expresses our true beliefs, we will have been faithful to our conscience, to our intellect, to our history and to the integrity still alive in our movement and in Judaism at large. 

Let me conclude with a quote of my beloved teacher Dr. Henry Slonimsky, who, in his essay Prayer, summed it all up: 

"To act out of love and to be willing to bear the suffering which the good and true man must inevitably bear in a world like ours, in a world which is only partly divine and which must be won for God through the efforts of man - that is the deepest utterance of the rabbis and the culminating idea of Jewish religiosity and of Jewish prayer". 

Rabbi Edward Zerin

 Ani M’malay Ha-makom. I am honored not just by NAORRR. I am also honored that I stand in the place belonging to a dear colleague and precious friend, Benno, whose room was just opposite mine in the HUC Dorm in Cincinnati. It is both a sadness and a privilege to be the substitute. 

I also bring you greetings from Herman and Lotte Schaalman with whom I spoke again just before coming to this conference. You may know that recently Herman suffered a stroke and that Lotte fell and broke her hip. Herman and I have shared our respective theologies. In many ways we agree. Our differences may be summarized in the way each of us prefers two different vocalizations of the same four Hebrew letters: Hay, Nun, Nun, Yod. His preference is the name of his book Hineini, Here I Am. I prefer Hi-n-ni, I Volunteer. I am confident all of us wish that Herman and Lotte were here with us and that they have a speedy refuah shlemah.

This brings me to the story of Joseph and I choose a text from last week’s Torah portion: Vayigash. 

Va-yigash aylav Yehudah va’yomer. Adoni shaal et avadav, hayash lachem av oh ach? Then Judah went up to him (Joseph) and said…My lord asked his servants ‘Have you a father or another brother? Genesis 44: 18-19.   

As soon as I say that sentence, I hear my Yiddish commentator protesting: Fun vanen gefint sich az Yosef hawt gefregt vegen zain tateh un bruder?  Where is it found that Joseph asked concerning his father and brother? Such nit. Es gefint sich nit. Don’t look. It doesn’t exist.

Nowhere did Joseph ask that question. In an earlier Torah portion, even though Joseph recognized his brothers, he kept it a secret and instead accused them with being spies, m’raglim atem. It was the brothers who volunteered, “We are twelve, and our youngest brother is with his father.” Joseph himself never asked the question.

When the brothers returned home, their father asked them, “Why did you tell him?” And they replied, “Because he asked.”  But nowhere in the Torah did Joseph ask his brothers about his father Jacob and his brother Benjamin.

Today, like the ten brothers I have chosen to volunteer information about a very personal subject, namely how I let God into my life. However, unlike the brothers I do so without being under duress. I also am aware that you have never asked me for my story. Why do I want to tell you? Nearing the age of 92, I believe that I may have something to suggest for your consideration. I am not inferring that it will necessarily be better than the stories that many of you may want to tell. I like the title to Rabbi Brad Hirschfield’s book: You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right. 

I must confess that for most of my rabbinic career I was involved in God-talk but had difficulty with God-experience. My sermons were mostly about the Jewish people, their history and destiny. The new born State of Israel was constantly on my lips. Social justice and the ethics of personal conduct became the burden of my messages. 

Only after 28 years when I left the congregational rabbinate did I give up God-talk and begin my adventure in God-experience. There were four phases in the transition, and in each I sought to express myself in poetry.

The first phase was characterized by rebelliousness. I was a Jew, and yet the God whom my people worshiped was an enigma to me.

In a distant land flows a river,
And in this river is a bend.
With steadied hand and studied eye,
Schooled by daily tide and sudden storm,
The ferryman ferries his passengers
Back and forth from shore to shore
But never ‘round the bend.
But once his hire
Be destined ‘round the bend,
The ferryman, though sailing the same river
And returning now and then to familiar shore,
May not want to sail again the charted course
He sailed so many times before.

The second phase was characterized by exploration, a yearning to examine new facets of thinking and being.

In 1968, I received a fellowship in Philosophy of Science at Boston University, with classes to be attended at Brandeis University and Harvard. I entered the program thinking that through science I would discover the elusive answers that all along I had been seeking in theology.

Studying with Karl Popper, one of the world’s seminal philosophers and then a visiting professor at Brandeis, I learned that science is not a system of certain, or well-established statements, that the decisive factor in a scientific theory is falsification not and verification. 

In a private interview which he asked me not to publish until after his death, he said: “The task of the scientist is to err and err and err but less and less and less, and if we want to ascertain facts we have again and again to try to err…” He called his major work Conjectures and Refutations.

Still not satisfied, I continued to press him. I told him the story of the Chasid who stopped in the middle of his prayer and refused to continue until he knew who “I” am and who “You”—meaning God—are. Like the Chasid I wanted to know how I could proceed without proof and what if I died before I knew how?

His reply left an indelible imprint: “You have to act. For acting you have to believe in certain things, even if sometimes they are not true. In order to act you have to accept. Afterwards, perhaps, you can revise your beliefs, although you may not really have enough time.”

Suddenly I realized that I had clothed my rabbinic career with the mantle of certainty, namely to prove what is not provable. 

I could tell my people about God. I could teach them ritual practices using God-talk. The one thing I was not able to do, because I was not accustomed to do so in my own life, was to facilitate their search for a personal God.

In the summer of 1973, I sent Karl Popper a poem which summarized my intellectual dilemma as I understood it at that time. He called it a psalm.

It is not that we know that God is not,
Or that God is but is eclipsed.
We believe that God is
And can know him not.
It is faith not disbelief 
That involves us in our dilemma.

For mortals, the meaning that God holds 
Can be only what we profess it to be,
That we can have no truth of his existence,
Of His being, of His demands
Other than the assumptions
That we ourselves affirm. 

Nor can we know whether our universe
is with purpose or is accidental.
We can believe that beauty and good
Are the virtues for our way of life,
But the reality of our inspiration
is ours only to wonder.

Though our thoughts may express
In manner fervent and sincere
What we want God to be,
It may be that we abide in paradox, 
And a reality we can never know
Comes to test their truth.. 

In the third transitional phase I came face to face with my search for meaning. If as I described in my poem to Karl Popper that “it is we who lend meaning to existence” how then do I interpret God, realizing that no matter what I might believe it still would have to be stamped with the mark of uncertainty? 

It was during my career as a psychotherapist that I found the kind of God that I could let into my life. 

I learned of the work of Dr. Irwin Yalom, Professor of Psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He advanced the existential concept of Ultimate Concerns, the four givens of our lives, which involve core tensions with elements of both certainty and uncertainty. 

Here I was able to find on the existential or the phenomenological human plane what I could not find in the scientific cosmological level of Popper’s epistemology. 

The first Ultimate Concern is Death. The core tension is between the given certainty that one day I will die and the uncertainties involved with my wish to live. 

The second Ultimate Concern is Freedom. The core tension is between the given certainty that I live a world with no inherent design and the uncertainties connected with the wish to structure the world as I will.

The third Ultimate Concern is Isolaton. The core tension is the unbridgeable gap between the given certainty that I enter life alone and depart from it alone and the uncertainties of my wish for contact, for protection, my wish to be part of a larger whole. 

The fourth Ultimate Concern is Meaning. If I must die, if I must form my own world, if I am alone in an indifferent meaningless universe, then what meaning does my life have? The core conflict stems from the uncertainties involved with my being a meaning-seeking creature and the given certainty of a world that has no meaning.

My God is the God of the Certainties and Uncertainties of the core tensions inherent in the existential Ultimate Concerns of Death, Freedom, Isolation and Meaning.

Before I could make this God of the Certainties and Uncertainties my God, however, I had to undergo a fourth phase, the phase of permission.  Until I did, Yalom’s Ultimate Concerns remained only a fascinating intellectual concept, the same as my original God-talk. 

Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk once asked his disciples: “Where is God?” They answered: “Everywhere”. “No,” he replied. “God dwells wherever you let God in.” Permission refers to the process of removing the roadblocks and letting God in.

First, I had to let myself back into my own life. In psychological terms, I had to deal with the “shadow” or the “dark side.” I did this as part of my training to be a psychotherapist.  

I did not necessarily like everything I saw. I came face to face with “mythologies” which I had pushed back from my awareness, and I recognized “scripts” which, as a precocious little boy, I had formed to protect myself from forces which I believed were threatening me from the outside. 

From a Jewish point of view, I had to deal with the “sitra achra,” the “other side” and also to wrestle with the tensions between the “Yetzer Hara” and the “Yetzer Tov,” the evil and good intentions, which fought to control what I notice, think and feel, with what I want and what I actually do. Whether from a psychological or a Jewish point of view, there were many anguished moments, as I struggled to let God into my life.


To be, to gush, to grow
To break out the boundaries
To span the widening sky
To live the life I want.

Torn, tossed betwixt and between,
somewhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Where am I? May I, and can I?
And if so, do I want, and will I?

Existence is. It is now and here,
The life I live, the self who I am,
Healed, only to be torn,
Torn, hungering to be healed.
I also had to let my parents emotionally back into my life. I had to bring to a close my unfinished business carried over from my family of origin centering on issues of authority, especially as they were expressed in terms of defiant independence and compliant dependence.

Only now was I ready to let God into my life. 

Who or what kind of a God do I let into my life today?

First, I call God “God.” 

Second, I continue to draw insights and inspiration from the ancient writ and the hallowed customs of my Judaism. 

My God, however, no longer is the God the certainties of Biblical revelation—Eleh Ha-Dvarim asher dibayr Adonai el Mosheh—or the God of the certainties of Biblical reward and punishment—If you obey the Lord your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments…All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect…But if you do not obey the Lord your God…all these curses shall come upon you and take effect. 

Instead, my God is a God involving existential Certainty. 

My God tells me where the buck stops: I will die, I live in a groundless and meaningless world and that I enter and leave this world alone. 

My God also is a God involving existential Uncertainty. 

My God no longer is involved in my personal salvation. As such, my God is not the God of a large part of the Prayer Book to which my people turn in their Uncertainties--Avinu Malkenu, chanaynu v’anaynu ki any banu maasim, aseh immanu tzedakah v’chesed v’hoshiaynu. 

In psychological terms, so much of the prayer book makes of the one who prays a one-down victim looking for a one-up rescuer.

Instead of crying out to God for help, I speak to myself about my personal existence: How I face mortal fears while being aware that I will die. How I take on responsibilities for my life while being aware that I live in a groundless and meaningless world.. How I make contact and establish relationships with others while being aware that an unbridgeable gap exists between us.

When I address my core tensions with their Certainties and their Uncertainties, I experience a spiritual moment. 

When I bring structure and meaning and develop relationships in my life, in keeping with Karl Popper’s concept of conjectures and refutations--that they may be only tentative and subject to constant testing in which I may err and err, I experience spiritual moments. 

When I continue to write midrashim—my memoirs--that reflect my Jewish tradition as well as views of the arts and sciences of our time, I experience spiritual moments.

Is my God a personal God? Yes! 

My spiritual moments are the ways in which I personalize the God that I let in, and when I bring the spiritual moments of all four Ultimate Concerns together, I experience an overarching sense of Kedushah..

In brief, my God is the God of an up-dated version of the rabbinical tradition that says: Ha-kawl Tzafui v’Ha-reshut netunah, “All is foreseen yet freewill is given.”

There are limitations and opportunities, and I am responsible to choose.

I let God in.
Will God come in?
If I let God in,
God is here,
         Whether or not.

That brings me back to my Torah portion.  Va-yigash Yehudah.  My Hebrew name is Yehudah. I trust that I have given you some insight into my God so that you can reach out to me.

And lest I forget to tell you: I have been a Yankee fan since 1929 and seen Babe Ruth play, and if you want to know about existential certainty and existential uncertainty, the New York Yankees is a good place to start.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Herman Schaalman

My presentation to you tonight is, in part, an act of confession; for something happened to me earlier last year in late spring or early summer for which I was totally unprepared and which, therefore, puzzled me.
A short four-word phrase from the Kol Nidre liturgy kept pounding my memory, and when I could not silence it, I gave in and started to examine it more closely. Quickly I found that it was a quote from Torah, the book of Bemidbar, taken from that catastrophic story of the twelve scouts who had been sent to examine the Land of Promise. Their majority opinion so upset and frightened our ancestors that they rebelled and panicked to the point that God in unrestrained fury decided to kill this unworthy community, make an end to the Jews. The reason it did not happen then was that the man Moses interceded for especially in the presence of the Egyptians, was in jeopardy, and, in an indescribable moment, God yielded to Moses’ entreaty and proclaimed: “solachti kidvorecha.” “I forgive because of your words.” 
It is this phrase in its original Hebrew that has intruded into my life so insistently. And God said, “I forgive because of your words.” I had always understood and accepted these words and the haunting melody to which they were chanted as the Divine promise that if I only spoke the right words, in the right intent and intensity, I would be forgiven and atonement, the purpose of the great day, would be promised and achieved.
What a shock it was that the liturgy was not talking about me and my words, but about Moses’ daring intercession on behalf of an otherwise doomed people. Our ancestors and hence we, survived and exist, not because God who decreed after all that all male adults had to die in the desert and would never be allowed to enter the Land as punishment for their lack of trust. We are Jews today because the man Moses managed to change God’s mind so that a remnant survived. It was a most shocking discovery that the desert would be an unattended cemetery for over 600,000 Jewish males. This whole story is a most severe test of credulity and of the understanding of that man Moses’ relation to his newly found God. It is an unrelieved paradox.
But there is more. Come with me to the Massecht Sota of the Babylonian Talmud. There we read “Tonu Rabbanon” “Our Rabbinic Masters Taught;” “mishemetu Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.” Ever since Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the three last prophets died…” Nistalka ruach hakodesh miyisrael “the holy spirit was removed from Israel.” The three died about 5,000 BCE, so, according to our mastersthere could be no longer any prophet in Israel. God has not spoken to a Jew now for 2,500 years!
This statement was so paradoxical and shocking that some of our rabbinic ancestors could not live with it and, therefore, invented a substitute, an alternative, the “bat kol,” a sort of heavenly voice which from time to time would convey a divine word. And though the “bat kol” device has no biblical root, it functioned occasionally. Until…come with me to Baba Metzia in the Babylonian Talmud to the well-known dispute between four rabbis as to whether an oven built in the “aknai” shape could be used on Pesach.
Rabbi Eliezer, the giant in his generation on such halachic matters approved it. But Rabbis Jehoshua, Jeremiah, and Nathan disapproved. So fruitless and indecisive was this dispute that Rabbi Eliezer, using his known unusual powers, invoked three miracles including a tree, a brook, and a dilapidated wall to reinforce his decision. Each time Rabbi Jehoshua, speaking for the majority, dismissed miracles as incompetent in deciding a halachic dispute. Rabbi Eliezer, so we may assume, in total exasperation, called for a “bat kol,” a divine voice to back him up. And, surely, a “bat kol” came forth and reminded Rabbi Jehoshua and colleagues that in such matters of halacha, Rabbi Eliezer was always right. On hearing this divine endorsement of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Jehoshua leapt to his feet and declared categorically: “Lo bashamayim hee!” “It is not in Heaven. We don’t listen to “voices from heaven.” Far as Rabbi Jehoshua noted, “the Torah was given to us on Sinai.” It is our human Torah not subject to divine interference.
And there is more: After this dispute Rabbi Nathan went to the market and there, to no one’s surprise, encountered the immortal prophet Elijah. He asked him whether he had been with God during this dispute. And Elijah asserted he had been there. Now Rabbi Nathan wanted to know what God’s reaction was. Elijah said to Rabbi Nathan, “God had smiled and declared “nitzchuni bonay, nitzchuni bonay!” “My children have defeated Me. My children have defeated Me!” This story is virtually beyond belief. It is paradoxical to the nth degree.
Once such a story becomes imbedded in a people’s or tradition’s marrow, it does its own work. About a thousand years later the bulk of Jewry was confronted with a most vigorous and effective religion and culture. Islam had begun to unfold its creative powers and genius. And masters of the intellect such as Avarroes, Ibn Sina and Alfarabi had so changed the world by their artistic and bold new ideas, insights and teachings. Jews were perplexed, astounded, upset to such a degree that the great Jewish master of that time Maimonides finds it necessary to write what has become the most profound and influential book of theology and philosophy of Jewish life to this day. In his “More Nebuchim” he tackles first the host of linguistic problems in the biblical vocabulary but is soon driven to acknowledge that language itself is the problem, that this ultimate achievement of human identity is finally incapable of making valid statements about God: “Glory to Him Who is such that when intellects contemplate His essence their apprehension turns into incapacity.” Language, man’s chief triumph, fails in the most important vexing moment. It is only via negativa—by way of negation—that we can make usable true statements about God.
And just see how this works. Take the twelfth of the thirteen statements of which Rambam wrote, “ani ma’amin,” “I believe,” “b’emunah shelamah,” “with total belief,” “beviat hamashiach ani ma’amin.” In the coming of the Messiah I believe;” “v’af al pi,” “and even so,” “sh’yitmama’eh ani ma’amin, “and even though he is delayed, I believe.” Even if the Messiah will never come, I believe in his coming. And this paradox is burned into our souls when we know, as has been attested repeatedly, that thousands, tens of thousands of our kin, our sisters and brothers, our mothers and fathers, our children when herded into the death chambers during the Shoah, chanted these words about the always delayed coming of the Messiah in whose coming they still believed until the doors were sealed and the Cyclon B would begin its grisly work. 
And that brings me to Paul Celan, the sole survivor of a Chernowitz family who becomes the most admired, most quoted and taught poet in the German language in the post-World War II and post-Shoah world, the voice of young Germany as it struggles to find itself. I should have been alerted much earlier when I learned about his name. It was not originally Celan. His parents had named him Anshel, but he could no longer bear its sound, its origin. So he tears it apart, into two syllables and rearranges them. The result: Celan. Anshel had been his proper name, bestowed upon him by loving parents. Celan becomes his patronym. And then he picks for his personal name, Paul, the unmistakable echo of that ancient giant who created the lasting alternative to Judaism.
He pours his unstillable pain and explosive fury into German poetry. Listen just to a tiny snippet of his most famous poem, “Todesfuge,” “the Death Fugue.” “Schwarze Milch, wir drinken sie am Morgen, wir drinken sie am Mittag.” “Black milk we drink it in the morning, we drink it at noon.”
When I first heard it I was overwhelmed by the boldness of the image, the enormous power of these words. Only much later, really only now do I hear and understand them differently. “Schwarze Milch,” black milk, indeed! Paradox of paradoxes. The words take us to the limit of language, to the very frontier of insanity.
Celan writes and writes, but soon the German language can no longer contain the onslaught of his feelings. He has to destroy the German language, make his own words and sounds that no one can understand and share, perhaps not even he, himself. The poet has lost his language. He can no longer be the German poet and so, at forty-nine years of age, he drowns himself in Paris, in the Seine. His voice is stilled. The paradox of his being had finished him off.
And so, this is my God, a God whose name I can spell: “Yod Heh Vav Heh,” but never pronounce. The God who for two thousand years has been unnamable, unpronounceable, nameless, the un-speakable God. This is my God, here in my very high age as always beckoning, but never attained; here in nearing the end my God, mysterious, infinitely fascinating, but never owned; never owned perhaps, just perhaps, the God of some of my students; hopefully, the God of my children, and theirs, of theirs, of theirs…
Rabbi Herman Schaalman
January, 2011

Manhattan Beach, CA
Rabbi Hillel Cohn

When the Program committee for this convention, headed so ably by Dick Steinbrink, began to formulate the program it was aware of the custom of the past few years of asking one of the members of the class being honored on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their ordination to be the preacher at the Shabbat morning service. I rather brazenly offered my name up for consideration and the result is my being your darshan this morning. Any of us who have been accorded the honor of being invited to deliver a sermon at a service of the CCAR or of NAORRR have, I am sure, had the same experience I have had. We have been taken back to the days when it was our turn to deliver the sermon at HUC. Today’s students refer to it as their “Senior Sermon.” In our day it was given either in our fourth or fifth year, depending on the number of students and the number of Shabbat services scheduled for the year. As an early student of the California School which only offered the first and second year it was also given in our second year. Whenever it was, the feelings were the same: FEAR! Even the most self-confident among us was anxious about being judged by our teachers and our peers. It was truly a ‘Trial by Fire.” We prepared for that sermon with far more diligence and care than any other sermon - even those “trial sermons” that used to be part of the interview process for rabbinic positions.

My predecessor in San Bernardino, Norman Feldheym, often told me and others of HIS experience in delivering the sermon at the HUC Chapel. It was somewhere in 1933 or 1934. The professor of homiletics was Israel Bettan. Norman, who really was a fine and fiery preacher, delivered what he thought was a rather good sermon, one filled with a perfect balance of wit - of which he was a master - and wisdom - which he did not lack and delivered with fiery passion. After the service he sought out Dr. Bettan for what he expected and hoped would be a compliment. Bettan said: “Vell, Feldheym - it vasn’t bad... it vasn’t good... it vas lousy!”

The only thing that even approaches the anxiety of preaching to colleagues is what happened to me a number of years ago. I reconnected with my very favorite high school teacher, maybe even my favorite teacher of all. She had a rather notable career. She taught English at what was then the premier high school here in Los Angeles: Fairfax High. At that time Fairfax’s student body was at least 95% Jewish. Mrs. Eisenberg - we never called her anything but that - was one of two teachers in the LA School system in the mid 1950’s to be fired. Her crime? She refused to sign the now infamous “loyalty oath.” She would not succumb to the assaults on freedom and liberty by signing the oath. It was nobody’s business what her political affiliations were. Her students, myself included, came to her defense. And I was the student who actually appeared before the LA Board of Education speaking on her behalf. At any rate, many years later my sister, who had also been a student of Mrs. Eisenberg, connected with her and Mrs. Eisenberg, then rather elderly, told my sister that she had saved some of the compositions and papers that some of her students had written and that among them were a couple things I had written while her student in the 10th grade. She gave them to my sister to give to me. I was moved by the fact that my revered teacher had thought enough of things I had done to save them and wanted to thank her. So I began to write a rather standard polite letter of thanks. I believe I wrote and rewrote that letter a dozen times because I wanted to be absolutely certain that it did not contain even the slightest error in spelling, grammar or punctuation. After all - she was my teacher and I was anxious - no I, was terrified - that I might give her cause to correct me.

So it is today. Among you are my classmates but also my teachers and mentors and all of you are my colleagues and the spouses, partners or significant others of my colleagues. And I daresay that as critical as my rabbinic colleagues might be, they are surpassed by you, their spouses. This IS a tough congregation to preach to.

So what shall I talk about this Shabbat morning? I have never considered myself to be a “textual” preacher. It was my practice, as I am sure it was the practice of many of you, to deliver “text-based” sermons only at those services at which Torah was read - for me it was Shabbat morning but not all the time. I usually wove something of the parashat ha-shavua into a message to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah but when there was no Bar or Bat Mitzvah my sermon on a Shabbat morning or a holiday was not usually based on a text from the weekly sidra. Today, as I get around to other congregations I find that, for a variety of reasons, sermons based on the parashat ha-shavua are the rule rather than the exception at any service.

All too often textual sermons are based on a few words usually taken out of context. Our Christian colleagues excel at that. 

But - if there needs to be a text this morning let it be the two words that begin this weeks sidra, the two words that begin the book of Exodus: אלה שמות. And I will do just what many of our Christian colleagues do. I will ignore the context and just base what I am saying on those two words - and even those words I will use quite liberally.

These are the names. And as I have been thinking about being part of the group that this year marks the 50th anniversary of our ordination, I cannot help but think of names - names of our teachers and mentors, those whose names are signed at the bottom of our S’michas as well as others, names of our classmates, names of the books we read, names of the texts we were supposed to have mastered. And I especially think of the names or titles that we have borne over these 50 years in addition to that which was bestowed on us by Nelson Glueck when he ordained us as Rabbis in Israel. Over the years my classmates have added to that noble and honored title - the one which Dr. Glueck admonished us to “cherish” along with the Torah he placed in our hands - other titles:

Military Chaplain including ranks of Lieutenant, Captain, Lieutenant Commander and others. Prison Chaplain. Hospital Chaplain. Director of Placement. Professor. Author. Therapist. Free-Lance Officiant. Founder. Director of Programs. Consultant. Cantor. Educator. Senior Rabbi. one who went on to get a medical degree and one who became an attorney. So we also had a Doctor. Lawyer. But No Indian Chief.

And in recent years some of us have added the title Emeritus.

The class of 1963 is as good an example as any of the variety of rabbinic experiences that exist. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that we have done well. We are forever indebted to our teachers at HUC who shared their wisdom with us and who, even at times, had the temerity to treat us as adults. Whenever I look at the signatures on my S’micha I think of what I gained from each of them. Of the nineteen faculty members in Cincinnati fifte haveen gone to the ישיבה של מעלה and only four are still alive. Of the 27 members of the Cincinnati class of 1963 eight have gone to the ישיבה של מעלה and of the seven members of the New York school class of 1963 three have joined them. זכרונם לברכה - their memories are a blessing.

The additional name that almost all of us bear today is “Retired” though just as the title “rabbi” has come to mean different things for us so the title “retired” means different things to us. For some it is total separation from the rabbinate; for others it is retirement from congregational or institutional responsibility but hardly retirement from the rabbinate, be it life-cycle officiation, part-time leadership of congregations, part-time teaching or some other work.

Let me propose this morning that we, in the spirit of our teachers who taught us about the legitimacy of emendation, emend the word “retired” to “rewired.” It is not an idea that I can claim as my own. A few months ago I was browsing in a store while Rita was engaged in one of her favorite pre-retiremeht and post-retirement activities - shopping, I was drawn to a book about retirement and in that book, 65 Things to do When You Retire, there are some important lessons for all of us and a lesson that some of us have already learned through experience. As we also heard Thursday night from Danny Roberts, “retirement often requires a major psychological adjustment on the same level as the death of a loved one or a bitter divorce.” And that while “retirement is supposed to be a glorious time of freedom from stress and the normal demands of life... this can also be a dangerous time for many people because they become susceptible to making life-altering mistakes in order to alleviate stress, such as selling their house and moving to a new location, buying a second home, making poor investments, getting a divorce, or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.” We may sit back and glibly say “but not us” but we might also respond על אחת כמה וכמה, “how much the more so with us.” The insight that especially struck me was this: “Many who had encountered the greatest difficulty (with retirement) had had very successful careers and suffered from ACHIEVEMENT ADDICTION. During their careers, they received a great deal of positive rewards (monetary and emotional - for us certainly the latter, not the former) because they were very good at their jobs. Over the years, they began to need this positive feedback as an essential part of their existence... In effect, a large part of their identities were job-related. They defined themselves by WHAT they did, not WHO they were as people. So for them, retirement represented a subconscious loss of their sense of self.”

Painfully true - even if just a bit of it is true.

But the thing that really struck me was what Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners have created - the concept of REWIRING. They first wrote about this in 2002 in their book Rewire - 5 Steps to Fulfilling Work that Fuels Your Passion, Suits Your Personality, and Fills Your Pocket.” And then in 2007 they came out with a second edition. Their basic premise is that we need to think in these terms: “you retire from... and you rewire to...” “Rewiring is about taking the energy normally given to traditional work and rerouting it into new activities - but the key is to select activities that will fulfill you, not just keep you busy or fill your time.” They are quick to point out that “There is a big difference between being fulfilled and just being busy. The rewiring process is both mental and physical, and includes attitudes and actions. A key factor for a successful rewiring is to be open to seeing yourself and opportunities in a whole new way.” Those authors, admittedly a bit too pop-psychology for me, conclude with a promise by saying, “By learning the rewiring process, you’ll create a lifeline to fulfillment and fun for the rest of your life.”

We can all do some serious rewiring. Be we rabbis or rabbis spouses, we can see ourselves differently, different from when we were actively involved as full-time rabbis. Let me suggest some things we might do in addition to the things we have been doing - some of us rather successfully.

For sure we are using our time to spend more time with our families or to pursue hobbies or to travel or to do the things that are on our bucket lists. כן ירבו - may these continue. And even as some of us find that we are spending more time than we would like with our doctors and dealing with the variety of ailments that our aging has brought us - may these not totally consume us to the point of not being able to do the other things. 
But I think we can and should do some rabbinical “rewiring.”

We can be “rabbis-at-large” which means doing what we set out to do 50, 60 or 70 years ago when we decided to become rabbis. That is: to lead and serve the Jewish People, to teach. 

We can share with our younger colleagues, who have many new challenges facing them, some of the wealth of resources we have amassed over the years, the “tricks of the trade” that we have all used. We have readings, poetry and prose, that we have found and appropriated over the years and which have served as inspiring sparks for talks to couples under the chuppah or for eulogies or for other things. The exclamation of Kohelet that אין חדש תחת השמש, “there is nothing new under the sun” means for us that we have experienced almost anything our younger colleagues will encounter and they could benefit from the resources we willingly share with them. We can do so on RavKav or HUCAlum or some other way.

Many of us during our active rabbinates led our congregations to create Mitzvah days. And we welcomed the idea of having B’nai Mitzvah engage in Mitzvah projects. Part of our rabbinic “rewiring” might well be to be part of a Mitzvah Corps. It could be a project coordinated by NAORRR or it might be something we choose to do individually or maybe with some colleagues who live near us. There is a need for rabbis with our experiences and our talents and our perspectives and our passions to serve our people where they are under-served.

We can rewire ourselves to serve the Jewish People by making ourselves available to women and men living in small isolated communities who are desperately searching for someone to guide them in their exploration of Judaism and to move them towards the moment of affirming their choice to be Jews. A year or two ago I offered to do this as an experiment through the Small Congregations department of the URJ. I was put in touch with a woman who had no way to attend an Introduction to Judaism class or meet with a rabbi one-on-one on a regular basis. So we began a study period on Skype. We skyped together for over a year and just a few months ago, right before Rosh Hashanah, she and her Israeli fiancee met with me in person in Los Angeles and she appeared before a Bet Din and immersed in the Mikvah and we welcomed her into the Jewish People. Now all she needs to do is satisfy the Israeli bureaucracy and complete the process of being an עולה whose Jewish status is accepted requirements, AND to satisfy the all too rigid requirements, as I judt found out a day or two ago on RavKav of our reform colleagues in Israel. Many of us can do the same sort of thing and in so doing we can reap the reward of great satisfaction and contribute to the well-being of the Jewish People. 

While many of our younger colleagues are, regrettably, detached from meaningful interfaith activities because of their new-found Jewish chauvinism we, who have by and large been heavily immersed in interfaith activities and who understand the importance of such activities and who have been quite successful in creating bridges between Jews and non-Jews, can be involved in promoting better interfaith relations on a variety of levels and especially with the communities from which we Jews have been isolated such as the Islamic community. 

We can rewire ourselves to serve small communities and their congregations - even if but once or twice a year by visiting them, teaching a class, leading a service, shmoozing with them. Why should Chabad and their emisssaries be the only group that reaches out to Jews in distant places. We have an approach to Jewish life that is worth sharing. 

Congregations with extremely limited budgets could be told that we are available to be their “Scholars-in-Residence” for a day or two with no excessive honorariums being sought. And if the term “Scholar” seems a bit pretentious we could be “Rabbis-In-Residence.” We could do that as individuals or as teams. We all have something to offer. And besides - doing that can be lots of fun.

We can rewire ourselves to use talents that we brought to our rabbinic work and that were honed and perfected over the years to children in schools and libraries as we volunteer to read to them.

Freed from the pressures of the active rabbinate and from the pettiness, of too much of congregational or institutional life, we can advocate positions on issues of social justice or Israel that, for whatever reason, we might have felt intimidated to advocate when our lives were lived at the mercy of boards of trustees. In our retirement we are managed solely by ourselves.

We can rewire ourselves to be of greater service to the institutions of our movement by cultivating donors, by advising and mentoring rabbinic students.

Of all the things I learned when I was a student at HUC in Cincinnati, one of the things that has always stayed with me was what I learned when Bob Kahn, עליו השלום, came to deliver what were then called the Alumni Lectures. In his extraordinary way of communicating he taught in one of those lectures that the term רבי needs to be understood best as an acronym of רועה בני ישראל, “shepherd of the children of Israel.” I have always thought of my rabbinic work as that of being a shepherd - at times shepherd of a rather unruly flock. And so have you. We can rewire ourselves to be shepherds in other ways and bring blessing, direction and sustenance to our People.

And rewiring is not just for rabbis. It is for our spouses and significant others. There is so much we can do with our lives. 

The two authors who developed the concept of “rewiring” as an alternative to “retiring” see the rewired life as one that is “ balanced between work, play, family, community, and self, and includes a good dose of meaning and purpose.”

אלה שמות - these are the names. We bear many names. Let us include among them that we are creatively and proudly Rewired.

Amen v’Amen.