Sunday, March 30, 2008

10 Taboo Topics for the High Holidays

The Jewish Week, October 3, 2003

Ah, summer's here: a time for relaxation and renewal. But for rabbis there is always a dark tunnel looming at the end of our summer sunlight.

At least this year, mercifully, the High Holidays don't actually commence until September 24. Last summer, with the holidays beginning on Labor Day weekend, rabbis could be seen with notepads on the beach, scribbling sermons while ducking the waves. This year, there is plenty of time to select topics and develop themes. And fortunately there are some decisions that are easy to make -- which brings me to the List.

You probably can recall that time in the recent past when your rabbi gave a High Holidays sermon almost identical to the one given by your cousin Ethel's rabbi in Saskatchewan. Everything was the same -- right down to that wretched joke about ten minutes in, the one with the punch line, "That's why they call us Lord and Taylor." Well guess what: We're all reading the same sermon prep materials, either in books we buy at conventions or pamphlets disseminated by various rabbinical and philanthropic organizations. We're also reading the same Torah, Commentaries and Talmud, and it would be pretty strange if our messages had nothing in common.

But what's more interesting is the way we also choose not to speak about certain subjects, without a single prompt from the outside. This index of unmentionables is never sent, it is simply understood, as if handed down in some unspoken Jungian manner from generation to generation. We never discuss the List among ourselves. We just know.

So here, as a public service and without further ado, is Hammerman's Top Ten List of sermon topics you will almost never hear on the High Holidays.

10) Aliyah -- as a serious option all American Jews should reflect upon regularly.
9) White collar crime, especially tax evasion, as a serious breach of the Torah's moral code.
8) What other movements offer that ours doesn't.
7) Fur coats (especially if it's in the '30s on Kol Nidre eve).
6) Words like "commandment," "duty," and "obligation."
5) The Messiah (Lubavitch congregations excepted).
4) How leaders are chosen in Jewish life.
3) The fact that our religion is not better, nor truer, than any other world religion.
2) The drastic measures that need to be taken to increase Jewish literacy.
1) Why so many good pulpit rabbis burn out so fast.

The List can be tailored to suit the taboos of each congregation. A rabbi at a gay-lesbian synagogue, for instance, would be highly unlikely to extol the Christian Coalition for its support of Zionism, and a congregation that is identifiably right-wing on Israeli matters is unlikely to hear accolades about the P.L.O. And we always tiptoe around things that Judaism might consider of ultimate significance and sanctity, but Jewish Americanism considers in bad taste, including bodily functions and sexuality, frank discussion of death and the need to smash idols and question assumptions.

Face it. The High Holidays were P.C. long before political correctness was invented. As each community defines its values, each rabbi is expected never to question them, whatever they may be, or risk family security, professional advancement, everything. Yet the sermon has to sound challenging, or the rabbi is perceived as a leader who refuses to lead. The artistry, then, is to take a pro-choice congregation and motivate it toward being more pro-choice, or to discuss the tax evasion of others without coming too close to home, and to make all that sound like leadership. The goal is to be enlightening, informative and erudite. But the waves one makes can't be any more threatening than the ones the rabbi dodged at low tide in August, or else.

Yet without true questioning of one's presuppositions, there can be no authentic soul searching and ultimately, no teshuvah. Rav Kook wrote in "The Lights of Penitence," "As long as a person is being driven by the bad habits surrounding him, he is not so sensitive to his sins." Breaking bad habits can be excruciating; ask any former smoker or recovering alcoholic. If the goal really is for teshuvah to occur, then the holidays must be, by definition, uncomfortable. The sermons can't just sound challenging, they've got to shake, rattle and roll.

Complicating matters, another role of the rabbi, especially on the Holidays, is to provide comfort. After a year on life's roller coaster, Jews see the High Holidays as a marker in time, a chance to regenerate one's connection to self, family and community. That regeneration is also part of the process of teshuvah. So what's a rabbi to do?

Here's an Elul exercise I recommend for everyone -- not just rabbis. Choose a quiet pre-Holidays setting, a weeknight class, or a Shabbat or Selichot service. Then ask what your congregation's Top Ten Taboo List would include. What are the sacred cows that no leader of your group would dare challenge without great risk?

Then challenge them.

If the discussion maintains the tone prescribed by our tradition: respectful, inquisitive and without rancor or slander, you will find the experience liberating. Many of our sacred cows will stand up to the scrutiny, and this effort will only serve to intensify our commitment to them. But some taboos just might crumble under the pressure of our questioning. Either way, the group will be strengthened, and the Holidays will fulfill their promise as a time of community-building.

As I negotiate the tides of Cape Cod this month, then return to reflect and write, I'll be cruising the frontier between solid ground and murky waters, ever-questioning whether to duck waves or make them. But through it all I'll remember that my job is not to create controversy for its own sake, but to destroy castles in the sand. For with each smashed idol, the path to the true God will become less cluttered, and true teshuvah all the more possible.

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