While walking in Central Park one day, Morris Cohen approaches another man and says to him, “Sam Kaplan, just look at you. You’ve had a face lift, muscle-building injections and all new teeth put into your mouth. Your nose used to be crooked, but now it’s straight. Your hair used to be snow white, but now it’s jet black.
The man protests and says, “I beg your pardon, sir, my name isn’t Sam Kaplan, it’s Hal Levy.
Cohen then smiles sheepishly, looks into the man’s eyes and says, “I can’t believe it, Sam, you even changed your name!”
It’s the last Jewish New Year of the 20th Century, and one thing that we all know for sure, change is coming. We may not know exactly what it will bring, whether a Y2K disaster or merely the continual explosion of technological advances that the last decade has given us; but change there will be. So for the past few months I’ve been asking myself, what have we learned from the past millennia of Jewish civilization and what do we have to look forward to in the next.
Most of the time we are just too close to the things that are really important to us to be able to see them for what they are. It happens in relationships, it happens in our work, and it happens with the philosophies that guide our lives as well. They are just too close to us to appreciate.
How many of us never realized what patriotic Americans we were, until the first time we traveled to a foreign country and suddenly appreciated like never before the freedoms, abundance and remarkable opportunity that we take for granted here everyday. So I’m not surprised that it took the Irish Catholic writer Thomas Cahill to remind us of the extraordinary blessings that Jewish civilization has given to the world. Cahill wrote, “Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings…the role of the Jews – the inventors of Western civilization – is singular: there is simply no one else remotely like them.”
Cahill reminds us that we introduced an entire set of new attitudes that revolutionized humanity’s perceptions of the universe and itself: the idea of a cosmos regulated by universal law; the concept of time as linear rather than cyclical; the belief in the equality of all people before divine and human law; the accompanying notion of democracy; and the logical conclusion of all this – the faith in human betterment, in humankind’s ability to change and improve the world rather than merely endure it.
In Cahill’s words: “The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words – new, adventure, surprise, unique, individual, person, vocation, history, future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope and justice – are the gifts of the Jews.” But to me, of all the gifts we have brought to the world, perhaps the most important is still:
THE IDEA OF ETHICAL MONOTHEISM – that the world is not a multi-verse, but a uni-verse; that above the fragmentation and diversity and differences that we perceive all around there is a common creative power that all of life is part of. That there are fundamental ethical and moral laws in the universe that all human beings are subject to – that’s why the oldest and most important statement of belief in all of Jewish life is the SHEMA.
Adonai Ehad – one common source of life and death, one common standard of morality for all people – and that’s what we really mean by one God.
Just imagine what life was like before Judaism. Except for the nobility, most people had no rights at all. Like animals, they were herded and moved about under the lash of the overseer. Like animals, they were breeding stock for the kings and nobles. Like animals, they worked from dawn til dusk, all day, every day.
And then our ancestors came along and had the Hutzpah to declare that every human being has within tzelem elohim – the divine breath of life – that every human being is a sacred being. Cahill declares “There is no way of exaggerating how strange a thought this was…those who first thought these thoughts must have been shaken to their roots.”
And the consequences were equally momentous – now the faith of the individual mattered; now the hopes, thoughts, dreams of the individual mattered. For the first time in human history in fact, each individual human being mattered. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan once wrote that “The background of an individual who relives his people’s past and lives in anticipation of his people’s future is infinitely vaster and fuller of human experiences than that of the individual whose horizon is limited to the immediate.”
So after reliving these remarkable gifts that we gave to the world so long ago, now what? Are we done? Is our job over? Remember Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening?” It’s final stanza is among the most famous and profoundly evocative passages every written:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
What is left for us to do is to fulfill the promises of Jewish civilization – our commitment to social justice; our passion for championing the rights of the poor and the orphan, the homeless and the hungry that grew naturally out of our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.
You know, Robert Frost was once asked what promises he had in mind, and he answered “Oh, promises to ourselves and promises to our ancestors.”
That’s us. That’s why we are here today – to renew our promises to ourselves and our promises to our ancestors. That is the main purpose of our High Holydays every year.
But this year is special. This year we stand on the cusp of a new century and a new millennium. And so we can’t help but wonder what challenges we will be facing in the century ahead? What kind of Judaism will be worth preserving in the next millennium? As far back as 1934, it was Mordecai Kaplan who said that “No civilization, culture, economy, or religion that is content to drift aimlessly has the slightest chance of surviving.”
Our real challenge is to not drift aimlessly, but to plan consciously the kind of Judaism that together we will evolve to meet the demands and changes of the next millennium.
So before I conclude, here are my predictions of ten future trends that I believe will help determine whether Jewish life in general and synagogue life in particular will be a meaningful force in your life in the years ahead.
I. INCREASED FRAGMENTATION OF SOCIETY
Home offices, work stations, WebTV, continued disconnection from other people will LEAD TO intensified need for COMMUNITY. SO THIS YEAR: HAVUROT – (turn down tab on JLI form OR CALL THE OFFICE, SHELLY ROSENBERG.
II. INCREASED GLOBALIZATION OF THE WORLD ECONOMY
Shrinking borders, rise in international corporations & corporate mergers, the EURO, increased exposure to other cultures, languages and countries will LEAD TO an increased desire for UNIQUENESS. – discovering what it is that is uniquely valuable, worth emulating and celebrating in Jewish life. (JLI PLEDGE CARD)
III. INCREASED AGING OF THE POPULATION
Percentage of Jewish population that is older will grow, LEADING TO increased need for synagogue to become center for LIFELONG LEARNING, Jewish elderhostels, need for both Jewish preschools and Jewish “postschools.” (JLI Pledge Card , for the 1st time day classes as well as evening)
IV. INCREASED PACE OF TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE
Greater pace of change in medicine, electronics, communications, manufacturing will LEAD TO increased desire for grounding our lives in something ancient like Jewish texts, Jewish traditions, customs and culture. (This year come to weekly Torah study, monthly Torah & Bagels to learn Jewish texts on Business Ethics, Medical Ethics and more)
V. RAPID INCREASE IN GENERAL NON-WHITE POPULATION
Continual reduction of the percentage of Jews in the overall non-white world population will LEAD TO a greater realization of the Need To Get Along. Focus on Klal Yisrael – bring different factions in Jewish life together – stop seeing stereotypes.(I study with Zushe ) (Reconservadox).
VI. INCREASED BREAKDOWN OF TRADITIONAL SOCIAL BARRIERS
As society continues to become more tolerant, less prejudiced with fewer and fewer barriers for Jews it will LEAD TO continual rise in INTERFAITH RELATIONSHIPS AND MARRIAGE (if 2% in USA now, 98% chance of meeting non-Jews). So need for openness; conversion; and programs of inclusion. (This year – Post Conversion Conversations)
VII. INCREASED INFORMATION OVERLOAD
The information explosion is already practically drowning us in a sea of useless information (like living in the world’s largest library). This will LEAD TO increased need for INTIMATE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS. We aren’t a community – we are a “community of communities.” This year we will begin identifying specific interest groups within the synagogue and inviting you to programs tailored to your particular interests.
VIII. INCREASE OF WOMEN IN ALL LEVELS OF WORK FORCE
More and more women entering the workforce means marrying later and delayed childbearing which will LEAD TO increased need for Jewish places for OLDER SINGLES TO MEET, JEWISH DAYCARE CENTERS, increasingly SOPHISTICATED EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION and more FLEXIBILITY IN GENDER ROLES. ((One of the reasons we were so intent on bringing Rabbi Lewart to be our second rabbi)
IX. INCREASED RELIANCE ON BIOMEDICAL INNOVATIONS
Rapid development of medical breakthroughs, surgical procedures, bionic body parts, virtual surgeries, transplants, cloning and infertility treatments and techniques will LEAD TO a need to redefine WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN, a need for roots and a sense of transcendance – DEEPER SEARCH FOR SPIRITUALITY and a certainty that life has meaning.
X. INCREASED ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERN
Global warming, cancer epidemic, global pollution of oceans, death of rainforests LEADING TO need for experiences that allow us to feel that what we do matters; This year a refocus on our TIKUN OLAM task forces – numerous MITZVAH OPPORTUNITIES to help us remember that what we say matters, what we do matters and who we are matters.
What all this means, is that for Judaism to thrive and this synagogue to truly provide a place where you can discover what gives meaning and purpose to life it must be a place that lives up to its name – Kehillat Israel – a place for discovering what community is really all about.
A few years ago, at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash but with a desire to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry.
The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back, every one of them. One girl with Downs Syndrome bent down, kissed him, and said : “This will make it better.”
Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Now that is what being part of a community is really all about. No indeed our job isn’t done. It’s to grab hold of one another, give each other a kiss and say “This will make it better,” then link arms and walk together into the next millennium.