August 22, 2019

Collective Wisdom

From personal to political, low-key to bombastic, a sampling of the Jewish wisdom rabbis will be imparting during the High Holy Days was on display Aug. 22 at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

The Board of Rabbis of Southern California (a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles) sponsors a High Holy Days Sermon Seminar every year, and the latest session allowed novices and veterans alike to take in colleagues’ ideas and styles.

Rabbi Gary Johnson of Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills took the personal approach, using the story of a crisis in his family as an illustration for the Biblical text that juxtaposes blessing and curse. Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who leads Young Israel of Century City, directed his rhetorical gaze heavenward, describing Rosh Hashanah as “coronation night” for God and asking how we as Jews crown God.

While the vice-presidential nomination of Sen. Joseph Lieberman came up only in passing, some rabbis did draw on contemporary culture and issues in their talks. Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah Congregation in Woodland Hills used the political aspects of the latest Harry Potter novel – the elves who organize to fight their status as slaves, the villains’ obsession with racial purity – as a jumping-off place for a high-powered litany of the social and economic justice issues with which Jews should be concerned.

Jacobs warned that many Jews were becoming so self-absorbed in their spiritual quests that they ignore the larger world and fail to develop empathy with people unlike themselves. He called on rabbis to help promote the connection between tikkun ishi (the healing of one’s self) with tikkun olam (the healing of the world). “We must temper self-interest with duty and mitzvah,” he said. “Prosperity is not enough.”Rabbi Harold Schulweis also invoked a recent bestseller, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” as he lamented “the profound disconnection between yiddishkayt and Judaism” embodied by the militantly secular Morrie Schwartz. “The synagogue has to reach out to Morrie’s children and grandchildren to renew the connection,” he said.

Rabbi Hillel Cohn, who is retiring from Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino next spring after 38 years, will bring back some of his classic sermons for this year’s High Holy Days, including one in which he took as his text Bob Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” when it was first popular in the early ’60s.But he prepared a new holiday sermon as well, using the recent cracking of the genetic code as a symbol of how fast technology and science are changing our world. Referring to the arrangement of the GTAC amino acids on our DNA as “a new book of life,” he wondered whether the image in the holiday liturgy of the sefer chayim, the book of life, will still resonate for young Jews when the reading of books becomes obsolete. He also proposed a spiritual code in which GTAC stands for God, action, Torah, and community.Meanwhile, Rabbi J.B. Sacks-Rosen of Congregation Shaarei Tefilah in Arcadia, Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Hillel chaplain at the Claremont Colleges, and Johanna Hershenson, associate rabbi at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo, developed the Yom Kippur theme of forgiveness in heavily text-based presentations.

The session was the first official event for Rabbi Mark S. Diamond in his new job as executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis. Just before lunch, which was sponsored by the local office of State of Israel Bonds, the board honored Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark with several informal tributes to his service as “interim acting temporary executive vice president” during the months before Diamond took office.

Students, newly ordained rabbis, and veterans of up to 50 years in the rabbinate filled the room, eager to gain new insights and inspirations.

“I always get some nugget, either a text or some spin that gets me going on my own,” said Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles.

“It’s one thing I shlep down for every year,” said Cheryl Rosenstein, longtime rabbi of Temple Beth El in Bakersfield. “Plus anything with Harold Schulweis on the docket is worth it.”

One of the pithiest presentations came from Rabbi Daniel Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. Rather than delivering a sermon, he told of a Rosh Hashanah early in his career when, shortly before it was time to give his talk, he looked at his note cards only to realize that they were completely mixed up and he couldn’t even read his own handwriting.

Too panicked to deliver his drash, Shevitz said, he tried to calm himself by returning to the machzor and its prayers. “The machzor spoke to me forcefully,” he said, “and repeated only one word over and over again: HaMelech, HaMelech, HaMelech (‘The King’). Suddenly I understood the machzor’s message. It was saying, ‘You know why you can’t speak? It’s because you think you’re in charge. Surprise: You’re not in charge.’

“As soon as I knew that, I was able to speak,” Shevitz told his colleagues. “That’s what we must teach our congregations: to remember Who’s in charge.”