Return to Previous Page
Rabbi Jack Moline Website
Home | Profile | Works | Links
The Divided Soul
Yom Kippur, 5771/2010
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end!...Jack Moline

Yom Kippur, 5771/2010 * * * The Divided Soul * * * ©Rabbi Jack Moline

I could not decide how to begin this morning's message to you. Those of you who have been around for a while know that I have sometimes used the device of beginning different sermons with the same introduction. Today I am going to switch that around. I am going to begin the same sermon with different introductions.

The first sermon is called "The Native Immigrant."

I have watched with some sense of bewilderment the debate over immigration reform in this country. Lest you worry about a political harangue, let me acknowledge and move on from this statement: we have a problem in the country and it needs to be fixed. That's all I want to say about the politics.

My bewilderment comes as I look at the clumsy attempt in the State of Arizona to deal with a genuine dilemma. They can't tell who is in and who is out, and it has all sorts of ramifications for social services, taxes, employment and law enforcement. And so the good people of Arizona have affirmed by majority action a complicated law designed to identify immigrants who are there under illegal and even dubious circumstances.

The civil rights part of me is troubled by the law, but the immigrant part of me, the last vestige of my adult self that remembers grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and assorted hangers-on in my family who arrived here with little more than hope and broken English, feels a dissonance. Yes, yes, they came here legally to the best of our knowledge. Yes, yes, they were avoiding persecution and depravation. But however they got to the United States, however they made their living (not all of my relatives legally, if you must know), they never lost a sense of gratitude for it. They never lost the sense that they arrived somewhere that was better than where they left, and that however difficult that transition was, they were indebted to the open arms of the society that accepted them.

Some of my family – probably some of yours, and certainly a lot of people entirely unrelated to any of us – immigrated to the United States and then within the United States. That is to say, the people in Arizona who voted for the restrictive immigration law are themselves immigrants to Arizona. Yes, yes, legally. Yes, yes, for positive reasons. But they arrived to a place entirely alien to the heritage of parents and grandparents.

On the other hand, the illegals who are crossing the border into Arizona are mostly native to the land. The difference between the Arizona desert and the Mexican desert is a fence that people put up. We sometimes get confused looking at maps that show us borders; we have the impression that they are organic, that you can stand in one place that is colored yellow and see a brightly demarcated difference with the adjacent orange land.

When those newcomers arrive in the cities that other immigrants have built – Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Tucson – they are native immigrants. That is to say, a place that by all rights should be familiar is alien. A place that by all rights they should be able to call home is not. A place where the language, the customs, the culture, the music should be second nature is as foreign to them as, well, Berditchev, Warsaw or Minsk.

End of first introduction.

The second sermon is called "Childhood's End."

It is the conceit of every generation that they live at a unique time in history. In spite of George Santayana's now-cliché observation about repeating history, the most you will get as a consensus from any generation is that things may be the way they were, but even more so. In fact, President Eisenhower once said, famously, "Things are more like they are today than they have ever been before."

But mostly, Jews and non-Jews, Americans and the rest of humanity, insist that we live in special times. And it causes people to vacillate between competing inclinations. On the one hand, they see a time of opportunity. Old presumptions will give way to new ideas; old structures will give way to new forms; the status quo will give way to a new paradigm. On the other hand, they see a time of despair. Because of change, things will never again be what they used to be. All of the comforts of the past will evaporate. Things that worked just find for our parents and grandparents will be changed for no good reason.

People waver between hope and loss, and as they stand on the indistinct boundary between the two, they are alternately exhilarated and depressed. We are like the baby who is on the brink of becoming a toddler, standing unsteadily, desperate to take that first step, but reaching for the nearest outstretched arms of mom or dad to catch us when we do.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote a classic piece of science-fiction more than a generation ago that was called "Childhood's End." It's a great book and stands the test of time. The premise, just to give it away, is that it is time for humanity to take its next evolutionary step, and a race of aliens sends emissaries to Earth to assist in the process. The book takes place over a period of a hundred years, about the time we currently allot to adolescence, and is all about standing on that gray line between leaving home and arriving home.

The fact is that the conceit of every generation is true. There is no time that is like any other time. Every generation – every day, for goodness sake – is attached by an indissoluble umbilical cord to what came before, and yet the combination of influences ranging from environmental to political are so numerous that every generation, every day – every moment, for goodness sake – is fraught with potential that the past can never recapture.

That is reason to rejoice, and it is reason to be very, very afraid. Like the late George Carlin's contrast between football and baseball, the goal of one team is to march forward and conquer new territory, and the goal of the other team is to go home, we're going home!

Some people are so attached to the notion of tomorrow that they pay no attention to where they have been. And other people are so attached to the notion of yesterday that they are constantly trying to recreate it. And because most of us are swaying like that toddler, we often are seduced by the person who makes the best case for one or the other.

My contention is that such a choice is not only a false choice, it is a betrayal of our mandate as Jews.

End of second introduction.

The third sermon is called "The Divided Soul."

There are probably no more than a handful of people in this room who do not know the name of Rabbi Harold Kushner. From the time that his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People was published in the early 1980s to today, thirty years later, he has been the premier interpreter of the richness of Jewish life to Jews and non-Jews alike.

Among the many deep privileges of being a Conservative rabbi of my generation is the chance to know Rabbi Kushner personally. He is the most unassuming man you can imagine, who nonetheless will regularly come out with a blindingly brilliant insight in simple conversation. He is also someone who never sought a large pulpit nor attempted to parlay his public recognition into a personal empire. Instead, he is quietly generous with both his wisdom and his wealth.

Last May, he addressed the Rabbinical Assembly convention on the subject of the divided soul. He began by describing his time at the Jewish Theological Seminary, details warmly received by those who attended rabbinical school, but irrelevant to most of you. Where he arrived, not surprisingly, was at the tension that existed between the teachings and disciples of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and the teachings and disciples of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, both of exceptionally blessed memory. Rabbi Kushner said he and many of his classmates arrived at JTS knowing what Jews did, but not why they did it. They yearned for the kind of synthesis that would integrate the reason of Kaplan and the passion of Heschel.

For a brief moment, in a brief life, they found it in the person of Rabbi Milton Steinberg. Now is not the time to give you his biography, but instead to talk about how you might encounter this remarkable man. He left behind one completed novel among his books and writings when he died at age 46 in 1950. The book is named As a Driven Leaf, and it is a fictionalized biography of Elisha ben Avuyeh, a rabbi who stood between the dynamic rabbinic culture and the lush Hellenistic culture of the first century of the Common Era, 2000 years ago.

Rabbi Kushner notes that early in the book, Elisha's dying father Avuyeh, a man who rejected entirely the world of Jewish life to immerse himself in the universalism of Greek culture, nonetheless calls his son to his bedside to give him a blessing. He says to him, "I hope you will be whole-hearted, not torn in two." Without giving away anything that isn't obvious, I can tell you that Elisha was indeed torn in two. The dilemma his dying father placed before him defined his life.

I recommend that you read, or reread, . It is magnificent on many levels. It is also heart-breaking. Your heart breaks for Elisha because his is a divided soul. He could not live with the tension between the passion of his Jewish home and the reason of his Greek home. He had to choose one.

I don't need to clobber you with the reason Rabbi Kushner finds Rabbi Steinberg to be the one to try to hold fast to both Rabbi Kaplan and Rabbi Heschel. Today, sixty years after Steinberg, almost forty years after Heschel, almost thirty years after Kaplan, souls are still divided. The divided soul may work as an image for Jews in a global community, or for Jews in twenty-first century America, or for Jews who try to live a life of religious integrity in a secular world, but those matters writ large are far beyond me today.

The divided soul I am concerned about is in this room. It is here with me on the bimah in the very place I stand. It is looking back at me from every seat in the Cohen Sanctuary and the Lainoff Auditorium.

End of third introduction.

The rest of this talk is on a topic that will make you groan. It is about what it means to be a Conservative Jew. You are as sick of this topic as I am, but we are going to take a run at it together for a simple reason. We are Conservative Jews, and I worry that we don't know what that means.

The awakening I had over the past year, crystallized by Rabbi Kushner's remarks and those of Rabbi David Wolpe at the same convention session, is that it doesn't matter how many times I explain the positive-historical school of Jewish thought, no matter how I translate Wissenschaft der Judentums, no matter what rationale I give for the observance of halakhah, two things won't change except in small detail – your life and your affiliation. If Shabbat and kashrut and study and music and all the things we encourage are a part of your life, they will continue to be. Some few of you will overhaul your pattern of observance at my suggestion, and some others will abandon that pattern, but it will not change whether you consider yourself a Jew, and most likely whether you consider yourself a Conservative Jew. If you belong to this congregation it is because you are committed to it and what it means to you, whatever that is, and my insistence that it is because in your private moments you acknowledge the process of tradition and change that we have claimed as our own, then I am only fooling myself. Almost all of you will change your affiliation when you move, when you no longer see a practical need for the services we provide to you or your children or when someone on or off the pulpit makes you feel neglected.

You do not belong to this congregation because you support the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly or United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. If you support the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs or Women's League for Conservative Judaism, it is the effect, not the cause of your membership here.

All of the explanations I can give you of why you ought to be a Conservative Jew are mere guesses, most of them constructed by people smarter than I. Except for a genuinely tiny number of you, you are Conservative Jews in spite of those explanations, not because of them. It's not to say we don't have better reasons than the bill for your dues, but it is to say that if we have an ideology, it is either incoherent or irrelevant to most people just like you.

Rabbi Wolpe tells us we need a bumper sticker, a slogan that expresses what we stand for. I know what you are thinking – bumper stickers are frivolous, simplistic. "Honk if you love Solomon Schechter," "Conservative Jews do it positive-historically," "I (heart) Wissenschaft" are indeed ridiculous. You would need a convoy of SUVs following behind to explain the meaning.

But some slogans, he says, are not foolish at all. "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" worked well for the French Revolution. "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" summed up the essence of the American republic. "What is hateful to you, do not unto others" turned a taunt from a skeptic into a triumph for Hillel.

I have no such slogan for you, but I want you to think of one for me. And here is what I hope you will use to figure it out.

First of all, we are native immigrants, all of us. We walk into a place that we have been told is our home – this place – ours by heritage, ours by birthright or by choice, and we are strangers. We do not speak the language. We need a manual or oral instructions to know when to stand and when to sit. As if we live in Arizona, we need identification to get in or someone threatens to call the authorities.

Is it that the synagogue has become to us as Phoenix has become to Mexicans – an artifice constructed in place of what should be? Is it because we have constructed an oasis of the past in the midst of those who have built the future, and neglected to remain fluent in the language and cultural that once was?

Rabbi Simon Greenberg, of blessed memory, said to Rabbi Wolpe when he was a student – many years after I was a student, by the way – "Your major task as a rabbi…" -- think for a moment about the end of the sentence – "Your major task as a rabbi is to explain America to your congregants."

Can you imagine? I mean no disrespect to the memory of Rabbi Greenberg, a giant in the history of American Judaism. But what exactly do you need me to explain to you about America? Your grandparents, your great-grandparents, the ones who built this Conservative Movement, came to shul for their rabbis to explain baseball and Christians and driving to shul and the New Deal. Rabbi Greenberg's generation did a great job if that was their task. You not only understand America, you do America better than most other Americans.

And then you come here and you are back in steerage on the boat to an unfamiliar place. If our kind of Judaism has any worth to you, it must help you cast off a sense of being alien in your own home and give your proud and firm identity a means of native expression.

Second, we have reached childhood's end. There is no more pretending that things can be the way they were. We have been forced into evolving by the world around us that did not ask our permission or give sanction to our yearning for yesterday. Maybe it is the conceit of every generation that it lives in unique times, but the fact is we do, like every generation before us and, truth be told, like no other generation before us.

The children we will welcome to the bimah as b'nai mitzvah this coming year will have no meaningful memory of September 11, 2001. They have grown up in a world of color-coded alerts and security lines. The couples who will welcome children into our world this year have lived their lives with human beings in outer space. Those who are younger than 40 never knew a world with John or Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or a war in Vietnam. If you are my age, you know the greatest generation as Mom and Dad, not as the people who saved the world. And that group of precious individuals who can bear first-hand witness to the destruction of European Jewry has dwindled to the relative few.

As a people, as individuals, these events and hundreds of others like them have changed our world. Far be it from me to suggest that the obligations and expectations of our sacred tradition are not worth preserving, but they must not be preserved at the expense of the integrity of seeking to do God's will. When Saul's kingship gave way to David, the plans for a Temple gave new expression to the old Tabernacle from the wilderness. With exile and destruction, and return and renewal, the calendar and the way of Jewish life embraced additions and subtractions. The dispersal of our people to the four corners of the earth provided opportunities for local riffs on ancient practices – and sometimes the adoption of completely new traditions, like the bar mitzvah ceremony or the Chassidic niggun or the klezmer band.

Can we ignore the paradigm shift in our lives after the murder of our grandparents and babies and the dismantling of a thousand years of vitality in Europe, the dissipation of the oldest Jewish community outside of Israel in Persia, or the great blessing unparalleled in two millennia, our return to being a free people in our own land?

If Maimonides could take the Aristotelian thought of his host culture and find a way to craft a new understanding of Torah, if Baruch Spinoza could look at the emerging science of his times and mount an outrageous critique of traditional thought that could not be ignored nor forgotten, if the pious rabbis of Breslau, Satmer and Lubavitch could imitate the way the dread gentile population dressed themselves and make those clothes a virtual requirement for a pious Jewish life, then why do we have compunctions about integrating the blessings of American society into our tradition, rather than futilely attempting to hold them at bay?

What do we so undervalue that we seek to draw the lines of Torah and community to exclude them? As Rabbi Kushner asked us, have you ever been moved to an insight by a television program or a piece of popular music? Has a sporting event or a movie ever provoked you to feelings you would not otherwise experience? Has a novel or a piece of oratory or an historical moment ever helped you understand some universal truth about the human condition, not only the Jewish condition?

I am certain that there were times that such questions were heresy and some communities still where television and novels and even Heschel and Kaplan are strange and forbidden. It has always been this way. And there has always been a faction of liberalizers, revisers and reformers rejected by the Hasmoneans and the Sadducees and the pietists and the Misnagdim and the chief rabbis whose insistence on following the treacherous path of change somehow produced a Judaism that outlasted the objectors.

We have made a raft of mistakes as a Conservative Jewish community. Against the mandate of tradition, we have allowed people to drive to shul on Shabbat, taken down the barriers between men and women, ordained women as rabbis and cantors, accepted eating dairy meals in non-kosher restaurants, permitted the sharing of worship facilities with Christians, invited non-Jews to address us from our pulpits, affirmed the desirability of two loving adults of the same sex to live in sacred union. Can you imagine your Judaism without those things? Can you imagine this community without those things?

Our mistake is not that we made those decisions. Our mistake is that we somehow doubted that they were made with integrity, in the best way we knew how to preserve and further sanctify what we inherited from the past.

And I want to add with a bravado I am sure to regret, both publicly and privately, but it is the truth: we have not given ourselves permission to do more. Childhood continually ends. We become adults when we live our lives as adults.

Third of all we are divided souls. What does it mean to live our lives as adults, as adult American Jews, as adult Conservative Jews?

Perhaps it is easier to start with what it does not mean. It does not mean denying part of who we are.

The farther to the right you go in any religious community, and certainly our own, the higher the walls are between the past and the present. Few of us aspire to disappear into the pious and unyielding communities in enclaves protected from cell phones, internet and nightly news. But some of us harbor a sense that the less connected with the trappings of modern life a Jew can be, the more authentic he or she is. We have a sense of rightful admiration of the Orthodox community, but a secret shame that we are not them.

The farther to the left you go in any religious community, and certainly our own, the higher the walls are between the present and the past. Few of us in this room aspire to blend into the mainstream of America with no vestige of our Jewishness on display except, perhaps, a surname and a taste for cold cuts. But some of us harbor an embarrassment about our attachments to the demands of our tradition, as if our commitments are an inconvenience to real Americans and a disabling trait that identifies us as hopeless different.

We have developed in Jewish life an exquisite sense of havdalah, of the ability to distinguish one thing from another. I spoke very briefly on the night of S'lichot about the blessing that we say at the end of Shabbat, praising God who distinguishes between the holy and the ordinary, between light and dark, between Israel and the other nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation. It is indeed important to know the differences between things, ideas, realms and communities in the world. But do we claim to live only in Shabbat, and not the other six days? Is our time in the daylight important but the darkness of night expendable? Do the qualities that distinguish the People Israel exclude them from membership in the nations of the world? Would we make such a claim about the Japanese or the Kurds or the Hindus?

In Rabbi Steinberg's novel, Elisha forces himself to choose one part of his divided soul. It makes him profoundly miserable to the end of his days. Because he could not live with a divided soul, he could not live. Rabbi Kushner affirmed to us, and I agree, that it is the inescapable fate of a Conservative Jew to live with a divided soul – fully Jewish, fully American – and therefore to live a life that can be uncomfortable, unruly and sometimes unmanageable. It is not a curse. It is a blessing. The only curse befalls the divided soul who insists on denying one half or the other.

There is a seductive attraction in living on the margins. The attraction of being on the right or on the left is that a fining has taken place – the dross that pollutes the homogeneity, the sameness has been taken away. There is no one and nothing to question the purity of commitment. It is safe.

The disadvantage of living close to the margins is that the only thing you can reach is the side. Only from the middle, only from a central position in life, in faith, in reason can your reach extend in every direction, every sacred direction.

Only by embracing the divided soul, by agreeing to live fully as Jews and fully as Americans with all the conflict that entails can we enhance each world we love, each world which we are grateful to inhabit and count among our most profound of blessings.

Listen, the dilemma of the native immigrant is a dilemma of the relationship between a person and others. The dilemma of childhood's end is a dilemma of the relationship between a person and eternity. The dilemma of the divided soul is a dilemma of the relationship between a person and herself, between a person and himself.

The Judaism that brings you to this room is not about Wissenschaft. It is not about academic institutions or organizational structure. It is not about becoming experts in Jewish law or proponents of Jewish reform.

It is about relationships. It is about the relationship with people, with God and with yourself. We have been terrible about articulating it, and only slightly better about implementing it in a formal way, but when it comes down to it, Conservative Judaism has had it right from the beginning.

It is about the person to your right and your left, the God that guides us and the wealth of struggle within. It is about how we sanctify those relationships – the covenant we enter to be faithful to them – and the promise to maintain them against all challenges and against all odds.

May you reach the end of this day sealed in the Book of Life. And when you do, emerging pure and renewed into the everyday world that awaits you beyond these walls, please devote some reflection to the relationships that we celebrate. And if you can distill our mission to a few words, you will have my deepest gratitude. And if not, you will still have my deepest love.

Home | Profile | Works | Links

Comments or Questions? Email