The Faith of a Heretic ~ Rosh Hashanah 5779 ~ 10 September 2018
Sep 28th 2018

What beliefs sustain you? What commitments guide you through life? What is so important that you would makes sacrifices for them?  I invite you to reflect on these questions today.

As you do, I have a confession to make.  This past year, I became a heretic. Heresy, which comes from a Greek word which meant “choice," came to mean a freely chosen opinion at variance with an established doctrine. Tomorrow, I’ll speak in this service and in the Parallel service about memories we have shared over 25 years. Today, I’d like to talk about the faith of a heretic.

Last year, the son of a friend wrote an essay for the New York Times titled "Saying a prayer I don’t believe.  

… despite my theological ambivalence, I am turning somersaults to say Kaddish [for my father].… One night I took a red-eye flight back from the West Coast so I could attend an early-morning minyan near Newark Airport.… Another time, I found a minyan in Orlando where …. the only languages spoken were Hebrew and French. There is a minyan in San Francisco that meets every afternoon in a Trolley car, and another in Manhattan that meets on Track 42 at Grand Central Terminal. 

Why does Jay do this? He identifies with an observant community and finds this connection meaningful. Is this simply what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “religious behaviourism”? Or is this something else, what Peter Berger identified as a “signal of transcendence” — something that links him to the transcendent—to a people and a covenant that extends beyond time and place?

Muslims and Christians stress correct belief. They have had serious conflicts over issues of faith. The Western Church split from Eastern Christianity over doctrine. The Reformation was about differences that Protesting Christians had with the Roman Church. The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia lies partially in the schism between Shi’ite and Sunn’i Islam.

Biblical faith is primarily loyalty to the God of Abraham who brought us out of Egypt. Rabbinic faith is also relational, “belief in” a singular God. Jews did not originally have what is called propositional faith, “belief that,” but we did develop creeds when challenged from the outside world—by early Christianity, philosophical Islam, or modern secularism.

During Musaf, we shall recite a piyyut-poem which may have been a response to early Christian doctrinal statements. The refrain is: “וְכֹל מַאֲמִינִים שֶׁהוּאאֵל אֱמוּנָה  — We all believe that God is faithful, just, knowing, and more”  But what if you don’t believe this?

A number of years ago, the sociologist Peter Berger argued that in a radically pluralist world, believers are faced with a heretical imperative: the necessity of choosing their own religious path. We may choose a fundamentalist orthodoxy, reject religious life altogether, or seek a path that tries to hold intellectual flexibility and spiritual fidelity in a dynamic tension.

More recently, the work of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known as Rav Shagar, has opened up new avenues of thought within Orthodox Judaism. Rather than reject post-modern thought with its emphasis on multiple narratives and a lack of a single, defining and all-encompassing truth, Rav Shagar celebrates the virtues of living in a world where there are multiple narratives. He does not have to justify his personal Judaism, since it exists in a world of choices. Each person must choose a personal life path and seek one’s own answers. Freedom gives us responsibility for our life decisions. We may choose fidelity to mitzvot, a rejection of them or a synthetic blend of tradition and modernity.

I have often found it helpful to see Judaism as involving 3 Bs: believing, behaving and belonging. Ideas, actions and connections. Theology. Mitzvah, Community. These Bs form a strong and sustainable three fold-cord. But in a world where there is no singular truth, we may only hold on to partial strands.

This past year I was attacked as a heretic for violating each of the Bs. The Talmud teaches מלאו אתה שומע הן. From a negative, you can learn something positive. The criticisms made me think about the beliefs that have guided me over the years, what I think is significant and sustainable for Jewish life, and what I have tried to share with you as your rabbi.

B- Belonging. Last January, I criticized Israeli policy arguing that the Israeli government could do more to accept and resettle African migrants as asylum seekers and refugees. I was attacked for hypocrisy—I pretended to support Israel, but really was aligned with BDS supporters and Muslim extremists.

My advocacy for Israel in Parliament and with other faith leaders was irrelevant. What mattered was that I had the temerity to criticize an Israeli policy and, by doing so, was giving aid and comfort to those who would attack Israel. I was pleasantly surprised when the Canadian Ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons, praised my efforts on behalf of a Canadian proposal for shared international responsibility for resettlement.

Over the years, I have attempted to articulate a moderate and humanistic Zionism that is strongly supportive of Israel while recognizing—as the billboards at Ben Gurion airport state—that Zionism is an infinite aspiration for a better Israeli society. I’m fortunate that you have provided a platform for my perspective and have accepted my challenging you to understand the complexities of Israeli life. My interfaith educational missions in the Holy Land—and there will be another in March—have been intended to both embrace and wrestle with Israel.

The shrillness and the tenor of many e-mails that circulate through cyber-space reveal a high level of anxiety within our community. We are justifiably concerned for the safety and security of Israel and of Jewish life. This past summer I volunteered, but wasn’t needed, to go on kite watching duty near Gaza. The IDF actions in Syria reflect a serious reality. There are dangerous anti-semites in Europe, America and Canada.

There is sharp disagreement with Israel from within our own community. But disagreement need not lead to dismissal.  When we hear disturbing criticism from people such as Michael Chabon, or organizations such as Breaking the Silence, we should seek ways to discuss the issues. The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who identifies BDS as a strategic threat, wants to engage critics in debate, not ban them.  On Yom Kippur afternoon, we’ll have a discussion about how to have respectful disagreements.

B- Believing. You know that the Western Wall complex has four sections: a male area, a female area, a neutral plaza and the egalitarian Azarat Yisrael area. Occasionally, to demonstrate support for Women of the Wall, I have davened in the neutral plaza of the Kotel as they gather in the female section. Last winter, Randy Spiegel was with me. This summer, a younger cousin came along.

Wearing tallit and tefillin, standing in the plaza area which is not restricted by gender, I attempt to pray. Children, teens and adults shriek, blow whistles, and harass me, accusing me of violating their beliefs. I was called “Reformi”—which is now a worse accusation than being of another religious tradition—and identified as a kofer—a heretic who denies the truth of Torah.  A number of years ago, when men and women of the Masorti movement gathered in the neutral plaza during the 9th of Av, we were pelted with plastic bags filled with human refuse and called kofrim. Thankfully, we now have a regular prayer space near Robinson’s Arch, in the Azarat Yisrael—the section for all Israel. But my by beliefs about gender and prayer make me a heretic.

After the Women of the Wall concluded their Shaẖarit and Hallel, after they read from a piece of parchment (because they aren’t allowed to bring a Torah scroll to their minyan),  I went to finish my prayers in the men’s section. Two Italian Catholic men asked me to photograph them. There was no identity issue about bringing their prayers to this sacred site. I continued to daven and was asked to assist a group of Nigerian pentecostalist Christians. Dressed in multi-coloured robes—very different from the Men in Black—these pilgrims were not bothered or attacked. Unlike Masorti Jews, unlike Women of the Wall, these male visitors could come and go. They were not a threat to the religious hegemony of the Kotel. 

What makes me a heretic? I freely choose my Jewish beliefs, accepting and modifying traditional theology. Conservative Judaism teaches that the Torah is a divine-human partnership. Touched by human hands and hearts, the Torah is not immaculate. Conservative Judaism believes that Jewish law and practice is the best pathway to God, but recognizes and respects other spiritual paths.

In a post-modern world, lack of religious certainty can encourage spiritual humility.  Although we share traditional prayers and a general commitment to Jewish law with more observant Jews, we operate with a different belief system. That is what makes me—and possible many of you—a heretic.

B. Behaving. As many of you know, I sit as a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards which identifies and articulates the general framework of halakhah for Conservative Judaism. I’m a traditional Conservative Jew, with an openness that enables  our secular Israeli relatives to feel at ease.

But I have been put into the camp of the heretics. Last year, I submitted  documentation regarding the Jewish identity of a young man who wanted to marry in Israel.  My testimony  was rejected by the Orthodox Beit Din of Toronto because I use a microphone on Shabbat and daven in a congregation with mixed seating. My Shabbat observance is considered to be deficient.

I have been privileged over the past four years at be invited to an annual pre-Tisha b’Av gathering convened at Beit Hanasi, the Residence of the President of Israel to convey a message of mutual respect. This summer, something unusual happened. At 5.30 on the morning of our program, my Masorti colleague Rabbi Dubi Hayyoun was taken by police for questioning about a marriage he had performed.

It was the first time a non-Orthodox rabbi had been formally accused of violating Israeli marriage laws and was on all the national news. I and others stood in support of Rabbi Hayyoun, whose decision was subsequently validated by another rabbinic court. For our support, we were accused of undermining Jewish law and contributing to the erosion of Judaism in the State of Israel.

The Jerusalem Pride parade takes place every summer. Josette and I have joined thousands in this annual event which passes the Fuchsberg Centre for Conservative Judaism. Some people carry signs or wear T-shirts that say, “The human is created in the image of God” or “Love your neighbour as yourself.” By Toronto standards, the parade is pretty tame. Still, I faced protesters who accused me of subverting the sanctity of Torah and contributing to the demise of Israel and the Jewish people.

As with other rabbinic colleagues, Conservative rabbis seek to encourage more conscious Jewish observance and a willingness to sacrifice for God and mitzvot. We know that it is challenging to take time away from work on Shabbat or yom tov. We realize that maintaining a kosher diet is limiting. But we believe that these and other mitzvot — over many years— have the capacity to add character and holiness to our lives.  What then is my heresy?  We accept the idea of historical development and know that, over time, halakhah has often found ways to adapt to new technology, changed circumstances, and different ways of conceptualizing the universe.

So let’s say that I have the faith of a heretic. The three Bs—belief, belonging and behaviour—are pathways to a substantive and sustainable spiritual life. But I deny that there is only one way to believe, belong or behave.

The prophet  Isaiah tells us,

הַבִּ֙יטוּ֙ אֶל־צ֣וּר חֻצַּבְתֶּ֔ם וְאֶל־מַקֶּ֥בֶת בּ֖וֹר נֻקַּרְתֶּֽם׃

הַבִּ֙יטוּ֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֣ם אֲבִיכֶ֔ם וְאֶל־שָׂרָ֖ה תְּחוֹלֶלְכֶ֑ם,

כִּי־אֶחָ֣ד קְרָאתִ֔יו וַאֲבָרְכֵ֖הוּ וְאַרְבֵּֽהוּ׃

Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn; Look to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who gave you birth. (51.1-2)

What characterized Avraham and Sarah? A willingness to risk everything for their principles and beliefs.

A well-known midrashic story imagines Avraham’s miraculous deliverance from a fiery furnace, into which he was cast because of a refusal to acknowledge multiple gods. What are your red lines? What are your core commitments? What would you refuse to do because of your moral and religious code of behaviour?

The Torah describes Avraham as Ivri, from the root which means across. This might mean that Avraham came from across the river Euphrates. But a midrash says that Avraham was willing to stand across from the beliefs of his time. What do you truly believe in? What beliefs sustain you? What would you stand against?

According to a rabbinic tradition, when Avram and Sarai left Haran

ויקח אברם את שרי אשתו ואת לוט בן אחיו ואת כל רכושםאשררכשו ואתהנפש אשר עשו בחרן ~~ Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran;

They took with them more than movable property. They brought their “peeps.”  A midrash suggests that those who had become part of Avram and Sarah’s community also came to Canaan. Who accompanies you on your life journey? Who is your community? Can you articulate your values and commitments to yourself, to your family, to your friends and colleagues at work?

We form our lives with the three Bs. But constantly interact with others who may not share our belief, behaviour of sense of belonging—or may disagree with them. Here too, we can learn from Avraham and Sarah. The Torah tells us of Avraham arguing with God, seeking to save the lives of the residents of Sodom. Even though their pattern of life was antithetical to the values of ẖesed and mishpat that characterized Avraham and Sarah, he maintained concern for them. As difficult as it may be, can we also do this? Can I still have a relationship with those who consider me a heretic?

Surveys tell us that Jews of no religion have increased from less than 5 percent 30 years ago to over 35 percent today. They are Jew-ish lite. They are neither active, nor contributors. They may have some  pride in their heritage, but are not engaged in our community. They rarely convert out, but don’t have the glue to enable their children to connect. Whatever their beliefs, we want them to be part of our community.

Rav Shagar teaches that because we can no longer speak with absolute certainty, the element of doubt should leads us to be more tolerant and accepting of difference and disagreement, even as we choose the paths that we find best for us.

Heresies, freely chosen, define us. I’ve been willing to stand up for beliefs, behaviours and belonging and have shared them with you for a quarter century. As we go forward, what will define your personal path?

Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative (Doubleday, 1980).

Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Rav Shagar), Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age (Maggid, 2017)