Bad Jews. Talkin' 'bout the Bad Jews.

Sermon for Congregation Ner Shalom. Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5772.

Tonight, in the traditional spirit of the Day of Judgment, I am going to skip the niceties and talk about Bad Jews. Don't look around, there might be one sitting right next to you. But so that our evening won't be completely bleak I will try to make up for it by working around to the always stimulating topic of City Planning.

Let me start out with a confession.

Um, not mine. Yours. I'd like to ask all the Bad Jews in the room to raise their hands. If you've ever felt like a Bad Jew raise your hand. If you've ever told someone you were a Bad Jew, raise your hand.

I knew there would be a lot. I knew this because ever since I've had this particular post, people constantly tell me they're bad Jews. Many. And the count is rising.

Now let's get more subtle. Finish this sentence for me. I'm a bad Jew because _______________.

What can I say?

Shame on you. Shame on you all.

Bad Jews. Bad, Bad Jews.

So what do your answers have in common? It feels like there is some standard as to what constitutes a Good Jew. It involves a set of knowledge, observances, beliefs. A good Jew goes to synagogue. Keeps the Sabbath. Reads Hebrew. Believes in God in a particular way.

So then who exactly is the good Jew that you're comparing yourself with? Your parents? Grandparents? The Chasidim up the road?

Most people who tell me they're a Bad Jew recite a litany of things they don't do. It is true that ours is a tradition full of observances. Actions. Rituals. Candles we light, foods we eat or don't eat, things we say or do at specific times.

But strict adherence to a prescribed list of "does" and "don'ts" is not Judaism's only path, and maybe Judaism's great failure is not having let you on that little secret during the two hours a week we once had you in Hebrew School. Yes, there are acts, but there are values bigger than those acts.

A couple thousand years ago, Rabbi Shimon the Tzadik said some famous words: al shloshah devarim haolam omed. The world's existence - eternity's existence - depends upon three things: Torah, Avodah and G'milut Chasadim. That is, Torah, Worship and Acts of Kindness. But those English words are a very narrow translation.

Torah is our Torah, for sure, this scroll and the stories and laws it in it. But it is more. It is the act of learning and teaching, exploring received wisdom and giving birth to the new. It is that love of learning - even secular learning - that remains so prominent among Jews.

Avodah is not just worship, not just recitation of Hebrew prayers. It is moving through life with devotion, with awe, with gratitude, like so many people in this room have learned to do through their exploration of other traditions.

And g'milut chasadim are not just Boy Scout-style good deeds but all of our right actions, our acts of kindness and justice, our real-life engagement with the world in ways that build it, repair it, make it better, fairer, safer, kinder.

Torah, Avodah, G'milut Chasadim. Head, Heart, Hands. The world requires of us, eternity requires of us, our tradition requires of us, the best of our heads, hearts and hands. Regardless of whether what you do takes place in the Jewish world or not; regardless of whether what you do was just invented by you; regardless of whether you know a Hebrew word for it.

Judaism as we know it is the product not just of thousands of years of tradition, but of thousands of years of deviation and innovation. We have a long tradition of inventing it as we go along. Torah itself was an invention; the reading of a shared narrative took the place of animal sacrifice at just the right moment, changing Judaism forever. The Talmud invented the idea of authority coming not directly from God or king but from a process of lively and perhaps divinely inspired debate. Moses Maimonides, known as the Rambam, reinvented how we understand God and the Cosmos so that it could harmonize with the observations of science. And the Kabbalists re-reinvented how we understand God and the Cosmos so that it could harmonize with the deep stirrings of our hearts.

Judaism evolves. It recreates itself in every generation. We in 2011 do not live lives that permit strict observance of all the mitzvot. Can't be done. Our values have changed, our style has changed, and that's not a bad thing. Our evolving perception of who we are and what our purpose is in this mess of a universe can't anymore be easily expressed through a traditional Jewish life. In other words, traditional Judaism might no longer be the answer to the questions we Jews are asking, to the questions we are living.

Now this is where I'd like to pause and at last discuss our promised topic: City Planning. Last month I was in New York City and took a brilliant blue afternoon to walk on the High Line. Now, who here has been on the High Line in New York? Let me explain it.

Manhattan is famous for its subway. An intricate network of trains running underground. But there used to be a line, called the High Line, that was an elevated train, like the El in Chicago. In time, the train stopped running, its usefulness to city and citizens eroded, leaving miles of elevated track abandoned and unrequited. The tracks were fenced off as weeds started to sprout between the rails. To some, the fossilized skeleton of the High Line was an eyesore. To others it was an adventure, a wild place for young people to hop fences, get a view and hang out.

In the late 1990s, two guys got an idea: to turn the High Line into a park. Initially frowned on, they slowly won over converts, until the idea had the momentum of a train, gathering passengers, donors, politicians, and gardeners as it went. And so there I stood on the High Line - a garden, sixteen blocks long and thirty feet above the ground, with grass and trees and herbs and flowers and fountains and benches and food vendors and street musicians. It has become one of New York's most popular and beautiful destinations. It was crowded with people smiling, holding hands, kissing, just being happy.

What a success! I walked the length of it to the uptown end, where it is fenced and locked and the tracks ahead are still disheveled and unattended. People stood at the chain link fence looking forward, imagining what this next segment will look like as time moves on. I did not perceive anyone wishing that the train were back.

So let's hit the emergency brake and come back to the question of you Bad Jews. What I learned from the High Line that day is that different times have different needs. The test of our Judaism isn't going to be how to keep people on the train. It will be how we can take the tracks, built over time with great skill and care, and turn them into a garden.

It is too late for us to stay on the train. We've been off the train for decades, maybe centuries. Or maybe there never was a train. Just these sturdy tracks that we've been moving along. It is too late for us to stay on the train and there is no shame in that. There is only shame in our declining to make a garden.

And Bad Jews are capable of making a garden. Bad Jews always have. Every innovation in our history has been some Bad Jew or other. Whether it was Maimonides's rationalism or Mendelsohn's Reform Judaism or the Baal Shem Tov's Chasidism. Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi were all outsiders, at the beginning.

Bad Jews rule. King David couldn't manage to keep the commandments, yet he was devoted to God, and beauty and poetry poured out with each breath. Queen Esther, non-observant, passed as a gentile -- a shiksa -- until her people needed her and she stepped in heroically.

    I have seen Bad Jews cure disease.

         And I have seen Bad Jews discover the origins of the universe.

    I have seen Bad Jews write literature to carry the mind aloft.

         And I have seen Bad Jews make music to make the angels cry.

    I have seen Bad Jews hit grand slam home runs.

         And I have seen Bad Jews deliver perfectly timed punchlines.

    I have seen Bad Jews engage in incredible acts of devotion,

         in selfless acts of bravery,

         in tireless acts of justice,

         in mind-numbing feats of community organizing.

(Maimonides: Bad Jew)

I have seen the cavalcade of Bernsteins and Einsteins and Feinsteins. The Marxes - both Karl and Groucho. The Emmas - both Lazarus and Goldman. Bad Jews all. But all standing right there on the rusty tracks with us planting seeds in this new garden of ours.

Might we fail? Might our new ways of being Jewish, of doing Jewish, end up with no Jews at all? Of course we fear that. That has been the alarm sounded at every crossroads in Jewish history. And maybe this time the scoffers' direst predictions will come true. Our descendants will cease being Jewish and only the descendants of the Ultra-Orthodox will be. But if that's so, I can assure you they will not remain unevolving. Their grandchildren will want their freedom; the girls will want to be rabbis and leaders; the gay kids will keep turning up gay; until finally, in a couple generations, they will invent their own Reform or Reconstructionist or Renewal Judaism, suiting their times, and looking like a garden. And they will draw inspiration and wisdom from our efforts.

(Emma Goldman: Bad Jew)

But buck up, Bad Jews. That future is not a given by any means. We are still cultivating our garden, and you are equal to the task. Being citizens of the bigger world is what you were meant for. You are Hebrews - ivrim - made to move across boundaries. And you are Israel - Yisrael - meant not to follow like sheep but to struggle with God and everything else you've ever held holy. And, lastly, you are Jews, the people of Judah - Yehudah - embodiers of gratitude, whose ambition, whose thrill of discovery, whose delight in learning and dreaming and doing good works are embedded within an awareness, a mindfulness, a gratefulness for this life that we are given, for the engineering behind us and and the garden before us, and for the seeds and the watering cans in our hands.

(Mordecai Kaplan: Bad Jew)

Buck up, Bad Jews. Take your place in this world, wherever, whatever that place is. But this I ask of you. Take that place, unashamed, and call it Jewish. Teach your children your values, and call it Jewish. Do your good work, and call it Jewish. Feel some awe and some gratitude every day, whether or not you use or even know the words modeh ani, and call it Jewish. Make your ripples on into eternity, and call it Jewish.

It is a new year. So resolve to be the beautiful Jews you are (even you non-Jews), without the Bad Jew apology, without the Bad Jew shame. Activate fully and proudly the yiddishe kop, yiddishe hartz, and yiddishe hent that were given you. And may you be blessing for all of us.

Shanah tovah.

I am indebted to Rabbi Eli Cohen for his insights about the Shloshah D'varim and about the names of Israel, and to Adam Birnbaum for introducing me to the High Line.