Standing Proudly in the Centre ~ Vayishlah ~ 16 Kislev 5780 / 14 December 2020
Dec 14th 2019

From Friday through Tuesday, I was in Boston, though I could have been in any large hotel anywhere in the world. I was there as a delegate at the 20/20 Judaism conference, a collaboration between the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly. My participation served two purposes.

I was there to learn and bring back to Beth Tzedec skills and best practices, explore new ideas in workshops, participate in plenaries and do a little informal schmoozing. I was also there because I sit on the Executive of the Rabbinical Assembly, and we had a series of meetings peppered throughout the Convention.

Our synagogue president, Debbie Rothstein, Norman and Jackie Kahn and one of our twenty-somethings, Alex Rose, were all present for Shabbat. Rabbi Wernick and Randy joined us by Sunday morning.

There were a number of highlights.

1.  On Friday night, we enjoyed new melodies at Shabbat Sovev, an innovative initiative from Temple Beth Am in LA that lifts up the Kabbalat Shabbat service. It is an example of what Shabbat on the Floor can be. Some of the melodies were so beautiful that I have been humming them since last Shabbat.

2.  On Sunday night, we were treated to a concert by Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble. The concert continued way past the time it was supposed to end because everyone, musicians and fans, were enamoured and in the zone.

3.  We learned from Bari Weiss, a product of the Conservative movement, author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism and columnist at the New York Times, who outlined ten ideas for radical thinking about the Jewish future. They included being prideful, the notion that Jewish lives matter too and, if any of you can make it happen, free Jewish education.

4.  We were exposed to true collaboration. 1400 Conservative Jews gathered together – rabbis and lay people and synagogue professionals.

The organizers of the convention did something that is rarely done. They saved the best for last. The final speaker at the Tuesday morning plenary was my colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of IKAR in LA.  Rabbi Wernick mentioned her in his contribution to our weekly Beth Tzedec email. I encourage you to listen to her TED Talk.

Rabbi Brous shared with us a lens through which many people, although I hope not most of us, look at religion today.

She explained that many people look at religion as being binary, of having two poles.

They are on one end Extremism and, on the other end, Routinism.

Extremism is similar to fanaticism. It is the holding of extreme religious views which is often tied to politics. It is nearly always a form of radical fundamentalism. Very few of us are fond of extremism.

Examples of extremism include:

·  The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG): an Islamist terrorist organization that seeks to establish an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

·  Golden Dawn: a neo-Nazi party that came third in Greece’s January 2015 elections. Many of Golden Dawn’s government leaders are currently on trial in Athens on charges of establishing a criminal organization.

·  Jemaah Islamiyah (JI): a jihadist group in Southeast Asia that seeks to establish a caliphate in the region through violent means.

·  Jobbik: a neo-Nazi, neo-fascist political party in Hungary that combines militant ethno-nationalism with anti-Semitism and anti-Roma racism.

·  The Muslim Brotherhood: a transnational Sunni Islamist movement that seeks to implement sharia (Islamic law) under a global caliphate. They are scary and have way more power and influence than you might think.

And of course, we know about the KKK. The Ku Klux Klan is the oldest and most notorious hate group in the United States. Today, the KKK is no longer a single, cohesive organization. It has instead splintered into at least four main offshoots and dozens of smaller factions, giving them more opportunities than ever to spread hate.

Falling under the extremist banner are white supremacists, small horrible sects of Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists and black supremacists too. I only learned about black supremacists and the militant wing of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement this week. I had never heard of this extremist group before.

In their literature, the Southern Poverty Law Center includes the following:

“Around the country, thousands of men and women have joined black supremacist groups on the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement, a black nationalist theology that dates back to the 19th century. Its doctrine asserts that African Americans are God's true chosen people because they, not the people known to the world today as Jews, are the real descendants of the Hebrews of the Bible.

“Although most Hebrew Israelites are neither explicitly racist nor anti-Semitic and do not advocate violence, there is a rising extremist sector within the Hebrew Israelite movement whose adherents believe that Jews are devilish impostors and who openly condemn whites as evil personified, deserving only death or slavery.”

These extremist Black Hebrew Israelites can be found on street corners literally shouting their doctrine, which can include Holocaust denial, misogyny and anti-LGBTQ invectives, at passersby. I am not sure if there are any here in Toronto, but according to the CBC, they have made their way to Winnipeg.

I learned about them this week because police identified one of the suspects who murdered Mindel Ferencz, Moshe Deutsch and Douglas Miguel Rodriguez in the shooting at JC Kosher Supermarket in Jersey City, as a person who was once a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Black supremacists are examples of people who align with the pole of Extremism.

We know about Extremism. We read about it in the news nearly every day, all over the world. To us, their lifestyle is cringe-worthy. Not enticing, enriching or spiritually moving.

Simply put, they are bad people.

For Rabbi Brous, people who find themselves at the other end of the spectrum live a life of Routinism, a term coined by the rabbi. She describes Routinism as the absence of aliveness. Also, not enticing, enriching or spiritually moving.

According to her theory, we here this morning, who come to a Conservative shul on Shabbat morning, whether we walked, drove or took the TTC, are in the minority, as we are somewhere in the middle of the two poles. Personally, I value being in the centre, but let me get there in a bit.

For too many people, rituals have become rote and empty of meaning.  They become dull, oppressive and insipid. I am not sure whether we need to blame this on the internet or cell phones or iPads, but maybe we do.

We all know people who engage in Judaism because of Routinism. It is because of you, their parents or grandparents, that they might still engage in ritual. But too many today cannot relate to their grandparents’ Judaism-maybe they like the food.

For scores of them it is old, boring and not exciting. These are the Jews who are turning into the “nones”. Just 4% of Canadians said they had no religion in 1971. The number spiked to 12% in 1991 and 17% in 2001. Nearly a quarter of Canadians today say they have no religious affiliation. These are the people who complain the seder is too long, that shul doesn’t speak to them and that the words of the siddur are antiquated. Their Jewish education journey stopped somewhere along their path of life. Was it Grade 6? Grade 8? The end of CHAT? Whatever is causing it, Rabbi Brous said that those who live a life of religious Routinism have a life that is absent of soul and spirit.

They end up walking away.

We can’t fall prey to these two poles of Extremism and Routinism. Neither is good for the Jews. 

That is not what it means to be Jewish. To be Jewish is to live a vibrant life and to wrestle.

The story of Jacob’s wrestling match with an unnamed adversary, alone at night, is one of the most enigmatic in the entire Torah.

Genesis 32: “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for dawn is breaking.’

But he answered, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ Said the other, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘Jacob.’ Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’”

To be the people Israel, named after this event in Genesis 32, we are supposed to stay somewhere in the centre and wrestle and grapple and ask new questions and find deeper meaning.

There is excitement in the middle because we have the space to make what is old new again.

We can sing new melodies to old words.

We can reclaim ancient rituals – like mikvah immersion at other milestones, or reclaiming mediation as a Jewish practice.

Women can don tallitot and tefillin, have aliyot and read from the Torah.

There is space for all of this in the middle.

We can approach the words of Torah anew, depending on who we are and how we relate to the world around us.

The rabbi with the coolest name ever, Ben Bag Bag, famously said:  “Turn it over and over. Delve into the Torah and delve into it again, always trying to uncover more and understand deeper. Wrestle with it. Because everything is in it.”

But this Mishnah (5:21 or 26) has a little bit more that we don’t usually quote:

“Learn Torah forever, even as you grow old and get worn out. Never move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.”

There is nothing better that you can have. There ain’t nothing better.

How fortunate are we to be in the vibrant center, a centre that is alive.

The poles of Extremism and Routinism have lost reason and rationality. One side is off the charts irrational and the other side doesn’t care enough. Both poles have perverted religion.

As centrists, those who do  not  align with a far side, we are obligated to respond to the challenges of our world, which is a world in turmoil. And we do that by asking questions and by sometimes stepping out of our comfort zones. When we struggle, we usually come out the other end more fortified, stronger and more authentic.

I sat through a lot of sessions at the USCJ/RA convention and I even taught at one. But the strongest message I took home with me is that we need to keep ourselves relevant, and not fall away to the side of Routinsim. Relevancy will look different for different people here.  For some it will be Shabbat on the Floor, for others it will social justice experiences, and for others, it will be mindful meditation rooted in Jewish texts.

From all accounts the middle is under siege, with too many people being pulled to the sides. Our job, all of us, is to keep the center relevant, authentic and true. Don’t fall into the rut of Routinism. Be real and hold the centre up high with pride. Let’s wrestle together and strengthen our core.

Shabbat shalom.