Address to the First Congregational UCC of Santa Rosa, September 18, 2016.
Rev. David wanted me to start by telling you about me and my background. So here goes. My name is Reb Irwin Keller, and I am a Jew. Not just any Jew, as if any Jew is any Jew, but a particular flavor of Jew. I am one who remains actively connected to our tradition. My life is shaped by Judaism's customs and rhythms. I have access to many but not nearly all of Judaism's many complicated and interacting layers – its spiritual layers, its textual layers, its ethnic layers and its historical, legal, political, mystical and musical layers. I am also a progressive Jew, a queer Jew, an imaginative Jew.
I grew up Jewish, with Jewish parents – my father from a German Jewish family and my mother from Eastern European stock which, by the standards of the day, was almost an intermarriage. I began learning Hebrew at age 9. Unlike others of many faiths, I was not traumatized by my religion as a child. I had kind teachers, filled with spark and curiosity. I attended a Reform synagogue, quite egalitarian for its time, so I didn't have to wrestle with the exclusionary patriarchal elements of Judaism until I was older, in college, and beginning to mix with Jews of very different backgrounds.
I studied in Israel as an undergraduate. I went on to study Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in grad school while teaching Hebrew school on the side. I had wanted to be a rabbi since third grade. But when my peers were applying to seminary, when I would've been applying to seminary, no rabbinical school in America or anywhere else would accept openly gay students. I had just come out and it seemed a matter of important moral principle and spiritual integrity not to go back into the closet in order to somehow serve God or my people better. So my life took other turns – fascinating turns as you might know (and if you don't, Rev. David can give you details over drinks) – until I ended up in Sonoma County, serving as a rabbi without official ordination but at the pleasure of my congregation. And now at a somewhat advanced age, I am at last attending rabbinical school in order to bring it all full circle.
Now as the first speaker in this interfaith series, as the person charged with being Judaism's spokesmodel, I was puzzled where to even begin. But David sent me an excerpt from Romans (8:22ff) that he shared with you in his sermon last week. And it moved me, and I thought maybe we had a chance to be in dialogue over the spirit of this verse. Because we tend, in my experience, we religious kind of people, to sometimes be rather similar to each other on a spirit level. It's just that our spiritual longings and interests find their way into different machinery.
So let me remind you of the verse of Romans. It goes like this:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
This is a beautiful capsule. It speaks to the suffering we so often feel in these bodies and on this Earth. It imagines our personal suffering to be a facet or a microcosm of a greater suffering. All of Creation suffers together. But wait, Paul goes on to say, this is like labor pains – it will get worse, and then there will be the joy of new birth. If all of Creation is suffering, all of Creation is also about to be a mother, the mother of a hopefully brighter future.
The theme of human suffering being a reflex of something bigger speaks to me, particularly at this time of year. Because we are in the Hebrew month of Elul. This is a penitential month, as we engage in acts of contrition and apology leading up to our new year. It is a period when we are aware of our broken hearts – the way living this life has broken our hearts again and again. We cannot live on this planet without our hearts being shattered. We call this in Yiddish, one of our Old Country languages, tzebrokhnkayt. This quality of brokenness that also has sweetness and wisdom to it. Even when we heal we carry the wisdom of brokenness with us, just as the Children of Israel in the desert carried in the holy ark not only the Tablets of the Covenant but also the Tablets of the Covenant that Moses shattered when he came down the mountain. We each carry our shattered pieces with us.
In the Jewish tradition, tzebrokhnkayt, brokenness is not something in need of quick fixing; it is honored.
I will tell you a story about this. It is a famous tale about Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov. He was the founder of Chasidism in the 1700s. And while you might think of Chasidim that you have seen in New York or in movies as being very conservative and rigorous about the old ways, sort of the Amish of Jewish people, in the Baal Shem Tov's day they were revolutionary. They turned the European Jewish world upside down because they valued the spiritual dimension of every Jew's life – not just the scholars, not just the wealthy or powerful. They were a populist movement that brought the common people – illiterate Jews, poor Jews – into a worldview where their relationship with God was as important as anybody's and could be expressed as fully through joyous song as it could through rigorous study. They were a kind of Occupy Judaism movement.
So in this story, it was coming on Rosh Hashanah, the new year, as it is now. The Ba'al Shem Tov, already a famous rebbe, a teacher and mystic, asked a rabbi named Zev Kitsis to be the Ba'al Tekiah for the New Year's service. The Ba'al Tekiah is the person who sounds the shofar, the ram's horn, on that day. The custom of blowing a ram's horn is an old one, dating to biblical times. And every Jew is commanded hear the shofar. Its blasts are meant to crack open our hearts and the vault of heaven; to usher our prayers to the Throne of Glory, to awaken in us a desire to return to being the best we we can be.
Blowing the shofar is therefore a very great responsibility, and Rabbi Kitsis took it very seriously. He studied all the lore about the new year and the shofar blasts and their secret meanings. He studied mystical kavanot – things to meditate on and have filling one's thoughts at the moment of blowing the horn, in order to open the gates and lift the congregation up to the highest possible level. He was diligent and determined and wrote all those intentions, those formulas, down on a piece of paper that he put in his breast pocket, with the intention of looking at them just before the Baal Shem Tov called for the shofar blasts. And as that moment approached he reached into his pocket but there was no piece of paper. He couldn't find it. It was nowhere on his person. He realized he couldn't remember a single word of the mystical formulas he'd written down. In that moment of realization and despair, the Baal Shem Tov called out, tekiah!
Reb Kitzes stood there, hesitating a moment. And then in his despair he blew all of the blasts of the shofar. Tekiah. Shevarim-Teruah. Tekiah Gedolah. He finished and stood there, crushed, tears streaming down his face.
The Baal Shem Tov came over to him, tears on his face too. Reb Kitzes began to apologize for failing at his task. But the Baal Shem Tov interrupted, "No, you don't understand. You didn't fail. You see, God's palace has many doors. And each door has its own unique key. But there is one key that opens every door: the axe. And the axe is the broken heart. You played the shofar with your broken heart and every door of God's palace burst open. And all of our prayers ascended and entered."
It's a good story. About how real we feel when we are brokenhearted, sometimes the most real we ever feel. And how close to God, how in dialog we can be, in those moments of suffering, in the moments when we groan.
I also want to address Paul's thought about our individual suffering being part of a greater suffering. So here is another teaching, also from the Baal Shem Tov.
You see, according to our tradition, when we went into exile, where we still consider ourselves to be, either poetically or literally, and we left behind the ruins of our Temple in Jerusalem, which had been our direct phone line to the Divine, we feared we were leaving God behind. But no, in our exile we have been accompanied by the Shekhinah, by God's presence, the part of God that dwells in and around and among us. The immanent God. This might be something like the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit, although in Judaism, we understand the Shekhinah to be a feminine principle. Half Holy Spirit, half Mary, she is with us in exile, and she cries with our suffering.
Of course I do not have to explain to a room full of Christians about the power of having a God who suffers. The Baal Shem Tov also makes the Shekhinah's suffering personal. He explains that when we are in pain, our pain is an indicator of something that is hurting, something that is lacking, in the Shekhinah. Something God needs. And we are equipped and obligated to provide it. So when we pray, we don't pray for our headaches to be healed, suggests the Baal Shem Tov. We pray that the Shekhinah may be healed. It is our job to heal her, and we are healed in the process.
The suffering Shekhinah may not be exactly the same as the groaning Creation described by Paul. But the Shekhinah is also the world as we know it. It is God as evidenced, as evinced, through this realm. So when we are praying for and trying to heal the Shekhinah, we are healing this world.
And if it is true that our suffering – and the Shekhinah's – are labor pains, and we are heading to a kind of rebirth, then we are not only the mothers of it but the midwives too. And I find this thought to be strangely hopeful.
This is the season of our tzebrokhnkayt, of our brokenheartedness. And just because we honor our broken hearts does not mean that we don't also pray for healing: that our hearts should be healed, and the heart of this world, too. We pray for this, remembering the words of Psalm 147 that Rev. David just spoke:
הָרוֹפֵא לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב וּמְחַבֵּשׁ לְעַצְּבוֹתָם
מוֹנֶה מִסְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִים לְכֻלָּם שֵׁמוֹת יִקְרָא:
Healer of the broken hearted, binder of our wounds,
You are the counter of uncountable stars,
And You call each one by name.
Adonai, Yah, God who knows the infinite stars by their names, You also know each of us, by our names and by our hearts. Heal us and our brokenness, so we may heal you and yours as well.
I am grateful to Reverend David Parks-Ramage for the invitation, the inspiration and the friendship, and to the lovely people at the First Congregational UCC in Santa Rosa for making me so welcome. I am also grateful to my friend and colleague Shir Yaakov Feit, whose beautiful song, "Broken Hearted", based on these verses from Psalm 147, was running through my head all weekend and led me to write this. Listen to (and vote for!) the song here.