May 17, 2022 -

Give Me Yavneh

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Rosh Hashanah, 2021.

Give Me Yavneh

Old Rabbi Cohen retires to a nursing home, and a new young rabbi is employed by the community. On her first Shabbat in her new post, they are about to start reading from the Torah when a huge, heated argument breaks out over whether you should stand or sit during the reading of the Ten Commandments.

The following day, the traumatized young rabbi goes to visit her predecessor and asks him, “Rabbi Cohen, I need your advice. What is the custom of our community when we read the Ten Commandments?”

Rabbi Cohen replies, “Why do you ask?”

“Well, because yesterday we read the Torah portion containing that important section, and half of the community sat, while half of the community stood, and the ones who were sitting were yelling and screaming at the ones who were standing and the ones who were standing were yelling and screaming at the ones sitting!”

“Ah,” replied Rabbi Cohen, “now that’s our custom.”[1]

One year ago, I stood at this very podium, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, believing with every fiber of my being that last year would be the final year to endure a pandemic that has had lasting effects beyond our expectations. My clergy colleagues and I have prayed that worshipping virtually would NOT become a new custom!

Like last year, I once again imagine seeing you in those seats over in the corner there, settled in on the side of this aisle, and ready for worship right here in front of the Bimah. But, we are here, and you are there…in your homes…watching worship once again virtually in what we hope will not become the “new normal.” Even so, we see you and we continue to pray for you, for your health, and well-being.

In the spirit of these Days of Awe, I invite you to remain introspective, reflective, and open to possibility in imagining what this moment in time might mean for you…what this time might mean for us!

***

At its best, the passage of time – even the challenging moments – affords us the ability to let history instruct us on how we might take the next step.

When learning about Jewish history, the one touchpoint from which everything since flows is the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem.

One way we memorialize this seminal event in Jewish life is with the smashing of the glass at a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony – a reminder that even in a moment of greatest joy…we must keep in mind that the storms of life surround us.

At the time of the temple, Jews publicly expressed their Judaism and their devotion to God through sacrifice at the temple. The temple was not only the center of worship, however. Commerce, culture, and social connections all flourished in its physical environs. The temple, then, embodied the living, authentic Judaism of its time.

The sacking of the temple –and therefore of Jewish life as they knew it– was cataclysmic for our people.

It was feared that the Jewish people would cease to exist. Yearning for Jerusalem became prominent in scripture, in our prayer books and in our hearts.

***

We learn from our rabbinic tradition that, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, there was one particular sage among the Jews, a product of temple life, who was able to look past the despair of his people to envision the future of Judaism.

It was not yet known, but Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai put into motion the next iteration of Judaism for two millennia to come, setting the paradigm of Jewish living that we still follow today!

According to the Talmud, when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, in a desperate and perilous move, Rabbi Yochanan hatched a plan to be secretly whisked away through the Roman garrison by his fellow rabbis. In the legend, after his escape R’ Yochanan is given time to meet with the great Vespasian, the Roman Caesar. R’ Yochanan predicts to an unbelieving Vespasian that he will soon rise above his station to be crowned emperor. When his prediction proves to be true, the charmed Roman ruler permits him one request.

That exchange is recorded in the Talmud[2], and R’ Yochanan’s reply went something like this:

Ten Li Yavneh, “Give me Yavneh.  I ask for Yavneh, an insignificant city, an orchard, along the coast.  But it is not the city that is important,” Yochanan continued, “With Jerusalem about to be destroyed, we need a new place to reconvene the center of Jewish life.  I ask for the safety of the scholars and teachers, allow us to set up a court, to create a new center of Jewish life and learning. All I need from you…is the small city of Yavneh.”[3] 

My colleague, Rabbi Sarah Bassin, wrote:

Yochanan found himself in a world yoked by conventional wisdom and moral cowardice.  He chose to break out of the familiar and step into the unknown. He chose chutzpah.[4]

Perhaps R’ Yochanan knew something that few others had considered: that the temple as they knew it would not be rebuilt. Its time had passed.

Instead, Rabbi Yochanan had a broader understanding about what it meant to rebuild, and to reimagine the future. As it happened, Yochanan launched an extraordinarily rich and robust iteration of Judaism, based not on offering sacrifices in only one place, but on learning, teaching, and lively debate wherever Jews may live.

This iteration resulted in the codification of the Mishnah and Talmud, and continued to unfold into the Diaspora and the renewal of what was believed to have been lost: a living and breathing Judaism that birthed unparalleled intellects and savants, along with provocative thinkers who deconstructed and reconstructed a sprawling faith tradition.

2000 years later, I think a lot about the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, of Rabbi Yochanan, about rabbinic Judaism, and Jewish continuity in the diaspora. It is remarkable that we as a people have survived, and I think the story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is particularly instructive to us in this world moment.

When you turn back the pages of history, Jewish survival has been dependent on our ability to adapt and adjust to circumstances that challenged the status quo and how we have understood our lives. After all, memory is an essential aspect of Judaism. But we must not be held captive to it.

***

During the pandemic I gained an appreciation for my family on a whole new level. Having my kids at home has given me renewed perspective on what is important. I was reminded that the closer we are drawn to our loved ones, the harder it is to let them go.

One evening, just a few weeks ago, one of my kids was heading back to college the next day. I half-jokingly told him that I didn’t want him to leave…and I followed that up with “…and I know that you MUST leave”. We both smiled knowing full well that I could share these two sentiments in the very same breath – and still mean them both!

In that moment, my heart knew that he is better for leaving, but it always hurts to let go of someone you love. He will only thrive, though, because he is learning to create something bigger and better than he could ever achieve by forever living in the safe, familiar environment of his childhood. I’d like to think that our home has been a small sanctuary for our kids, but they are now moving ahead in their lives, opening up new opportunities, while using their past as a foundation upon which to build. This is their way of looking to the future and seeking their own “Yavneh”.

We can use the same thinking today. The pandemic has us wanting to go back to the way things were before its onset, and for good reason—many of us miss our previous life, and the people in them.

We certainly feel the pain of that loss, but history repeatedly teaches us that we must leverage its lessons to look ahead, even as we are holding on to precious memories. In the face of our darkest days, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, challenges us to ask the question, “How shall I live my life differently because this has happened?”[5]

I bet each of you watching and listening tonight can remember a time when you carried painful memories with you, and you learned to adjust and adapt to a new chapter and a new version of you. You learned with grit and chutzpah that how it was is not how it will always be. Perhaps it was your Yavneh moment of painful clarity that the journey ahead will look much different than how it was.

The same is true with our Judaism, and the days ahead at Fairmount Temple. Our beautiful temple may still be standing, but in this moment we must look for additional ways to sustain Jewish living today. As we look to the future, we must demonstrate the grit and chutzpah to remain relevant and compelling while leaving some things in the past. “What might that look like”, I asked myself?

Here are four areas that demand our attention:

  1. Radical Outreach: It is wonderful to be together in person, but what this pandemic has taught us is that we can “gather” in many ways (as evidenced by tonight’s service). We must let go of the notion that being a congregation only means sharing the same physical space. Moving forward, it must be both/and.
  • Reconsider “Membership”: Our temple must build membership in a way that encourages engagement and connection, not exclusivity. How might we lower the barriers of whom we consider to be part of our community and engender a greater sense of belonging? How might we collaborate with our sister congregations and institutions in town to grow affiliation together?
  • Honor Differences: Diversity and inclusion cannot be sermon content alone. We must examine our temple’s policies, behaviors and language that alienates members of our community who identify as LGBT+, and those who do not conform to gender and heteronormative standards of the past.
  • Say Goodbye to Tevye: Recent surveys have shown that 12-15% of the Jewish community are Jews of color[6]. Yet our communities still largely project an “Ashke-normative” posture. We are more than 100 years removed from the fictional town of Anateyvka, as portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof. Let us embrace a more modern cultural representation of who we are today.

The impact of the pandemic has taught us that Jewish life can live and thrive outside of these temple walls. Perhaps our biggest hurdle is choosing to let go of the fear of losing the past, and insisting on creating a new future.

Friends, this is my 20th year serving as your rabbi, and I can confidently say that the state of our temple is stronger than it has ever been, with clergy, staff and lay leadership who are ready to take Jewish life in Cleveland to the next level. We need your grit and your chutzpah to join us as co-creators.

The story of Rav Yochanan is remarkable not just because he changed the course of Jewish history – it’s remarkable because the community allowed itself to be open to change. His story is not just of one man daring to be bold. It’s the story of a community willing to both look inward and to embrace the future with creativity and excitement, ready to say “Give me Yavneh.”  

May we all strive to turn the page as we embrace this new season, and pray that it is one of health, love and purpose!


[1] https://momentmag.com/jokes/

[2] Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56b

[3] https://www.chicagosinai.org/worship/sermons/our-yavneh

[4] https://tebh.org/ordination-speech2018-yavneh/

[5] https://rabbisacks.org/letters-to-the-next-generation-reflections-on-yom-kippur/

[6] https://jewsofcolorfieldbuilding.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Counting-Inconsistencies-052119.pdf