A Roadmap for 21st-Century Judaism

Rosh Hashanah offers us much time for personal reflection, for cheshbon hanefesh – the accounting of our souls. Every year at this time, we dive into the depths of ourselves. This year, while we’re in touch with our most authentic selves & reflecting on our lives, I want us to do chesbon hanefesh of our communities to contemplate how our individuality makes up our community. 

So as we enter Rosh Hashanah, I want you to consider this question:
If we are all part of the tribe, the nation, the civilization, that calls itself the Jewish people - what is it that unifies us? What are the central aspects of being Jewish that every person in your community could find in common with each other? What do you all draw on from our tradition to make our lives more meaningful, rich, and fulfilling?

An insightful teacher, Avraham Infeld, also wondered what unified the Jewish people. He comically asked, “Do you remember E.T.? That little wonderful something from out of space, who comes to earth, and after everything he sees, he phones home and reports? I [wonder], what is it that E.T reports on after meeting Jews? Who are they? What are they? Why are they so different? How can they all be one and yet be so different?”

In an attempt to answer that question, he came up with a metaphor he calls the Five Legged Table. “A table with five legs,” he says, “is sturdy & strong. But there are tables meant for five legs that stand on four, some even stand on three. But on two legs they topple over, on one they aren’t a table at all.”


This Five Legged Table is a symbol of our Jewish identity, and dedicating ourselves to at least three of these five legs - so that we all have at least one in common - is my challenge for you for the new year. Now Mr. Infeld has his own five legs, but I want to use his metaphor to talk about the man I believe to be the most consequential Jewish thinker of our time: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

As a Jew, Rabbi Heschel is my exemplar. Without him, I wouldn’t be a rabbi. He practiced a Judaism that was both deeply rooted and innately relevant, a Judaism that kept him focused on what was important in life and inspired him to do his part in seeking redemption for our world. Rabbi Heschel’s teachings are all over our siddur/prayer book. Pictures of him with  Dr. Martin Luther King are found in temples all across the world and continue to inspire our social action work. He was an interfaith ambassador, a fierce Vietnam critic, and a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. And while doing all of that, he wrote more than 20 books that compose, what I believe, are a roadmap for a meaningful, 21st-century Jewish identity. In other words, a five-legged table. So I tried to boil it down to 5 essential elements of Judaism.


So let’s start with the most obvious leg of Rabbi Heschel’s table: Spiritual Activism. It’s what he’s most famous for, and frankly, it’s a significant aspect of modern Reform Judaism. Rabbi Heschel was born into a Hasidic dynasty in Poland, toyed with Yiddishkeit in Vilna, spiritually resisted the Nazis in Berlin, escaped the Nazis to Cincinnati where he was faculty for a Reform seminary, and ultimately landed at a Conservative seminary in New York. At the other side of his incredible journey, he realized that much of his religious inspiration came from the prophets.

In a 1973 essay, he writes: 

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible. -Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 224-225

That’s why Rabbi Heschel was in Selma marching with Dr. King - because he believed that embodying the moral advocates of our tradition was a spiritual imperative. So much so, that when he came home from that march, he said, "I felt my legs were praying." That anecdote has been central to my Jewish identity for years. It led me as a teenager to march for the victims of genocide in Darfur, and it drove me this year as a proud rabbi, to take our teens to the March for our Lives in DC against Gun Violence. 

Leg 2: Finding a modern understanding of God. 
Rabbi Heschel taught:

The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally, to imagine that God spoke to [Moses] on a long-distance telephone. Yet most of us succumb to such fancy,” he writes, “forgetting that the cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal-mindedness. -God in Search of Man, p. 178

Last year, I wrote about dispelling the concept of God being a man in the sky. And I return to that this year because, for over 1000 years, Jews haven’t believed in that God – and Rabbi Heschel didn’t either. He wrestled with God and offers us this attempt at redefinition:

The grandeur or mystery of being is not a particular puzzle to the mind, as, for example, the cause of volcanic eruptions…Grandeur or mystery is something with which we are confronted everywhere and at all times. Even the very act of thinking baffles our thinking…[and] the grandeur of nature is only the beginning. Beyond the grandeur is God. -God in Search of Man, p. 47
“Do you know, he asks, that among [the 7 billion] faces in this world, no two faces are alike? -1972 Interview with Carl Stern

That surprise, that curiosity, that awe, is what Rabbi Heschel calls Radical Amazement, and it is a cornerstone of my belief in God. 

Leg 3: Using that modern understanding of God to find meaning in Prayer.

Rabbi Heschel taught: 

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow, and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. -Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 262-263

Prayer is a tool – a regular check-in – that reminds us to be grateful, to be humble, to live in radical amazement, to care for the vulnerable, to remember, to reflect on our past week and set goals for the next, to meditate, to heal, to be in community. None of us are perfect, despite what your mother may have told you. Prayer helps us find balance in an imbalanced world, and deal with all life throws at us. Every year at this season, we note where we want to improve. Prayer is our tradition’s technology to help you reach that goal, to be a better you, so that you can do your part in healing the world.

Leg 4: Memory.

What are we without our story, without our history, our collective narrative? As Rabbi Heschel teaches: 

To us [Jews], recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past. To us, the essence of faith is memory. To believe is to remember.
-Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 334

And that makes sense - because I know many who question a belief in God. However, we don’t question our belief in memory or our stories. Memory is perhaps the most powerful driving factor in our Jewish lives. It takes us back to family traditions we had as children, to the food your mom used to make, stories of Hebrew School rebellion. In truth, memory makes up a lot of the meat on the proverbial religious bone. We come to shul or fast on Yom Kippur or exhaustively follow the recipe for certain family dishes because they conjure memories of years past, and beloved people who are no longer with us.


"You might ask," Tevvye famously says, “How did these traditions start? I'll tell you – I don't know! But it's a tradition.” Tradition said in another way, is memory. Our collective stories, our family histories, our communal narratives, our memory.

Leg 5: Palaces in Time.

I wrote about this last year, and I continue to teach about the concept regularly. Every moment of the Jewish calendar – every Shabbat, every holiday, every baby naming and b’nei mitzvah and wedding and funeral – they are all palaces in time. As Rabbi Heschel reminds us:

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. -The Sabbath, p. 8

It is not a religion of place because we do not have to be in any specific location to pray or celebrate or experience ritual. Instead, our focus is on building palaces in time. Palaces in which our phones are down, our email is silenced, our focus purely on our loved ones, our time devoted to laughing and singing and sanctifying time together. Rabbi Heschel defines these Palaces in Time as periods

...where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. The Sabbath, p. 3

So Leg 1: Spiritual Activism & heeding the call of our prophets. Leg 2: Finding a modern understanding of God and living lives in radical amazement. Leg 3: using prayer to achieve your goals and live a balanced life. Leg 4: Memory. Our collective narrative, our family histories, our traditions. Leg 5: Palaces in Time and dedicating our time to being, instead of having.

So now, on this Rosh Hashanah, sitting before you is a five-legged table from Ikea. There are 5 table legs, the table top, those little wooden pegs that you’re bound to lose one of, some bolts and screws, a wrench. The only thing you don’t have are the instructions - typical. You have to figure out how to make your table stand on your own. What are the three or four or five legs that hold up your table –your Jewish identity– and how do you craft them into your own unique piece of art while maintaining unity with your community?


As we enter into this new year, 5779, try to draw up a blueprint for your table and if you're so inclined, send it to me! How might you craft Rabbi Heschel’s five legs into a beautiful table of unique Jewish identity? And how, during this moment of communal cheshbon hanefesh, can we become more unified without being completely uniform?

To a sweet new year of personal craftsmanship and communal architecture - L’shana tova u’metukah!


Alex KressComment