When I interviewed to become the rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester just over two years ago, I quickly learned that ours is not a synagogue used to listening passively to a sermon. I'd been asked to deliver a short d'var Torah to the search committee, so I dutifully constructed a 10-minute presentation.
The unspoken evaluation of my performance — suspended in the silence after my conclusion — was quickly given form when one of my interviewers said that my presentation was "frontal."
"Frontal" is an educational term meaning that I had spent too much time addressing the committee, and no time inviting their participation or responding to their thoughts. Happily, I did better at a second interview.
I have not given a "frontal" Shabbat-morning sermon since that time. Instead, each week,I select a passage from the Torah portion, and two or three other texts that help support a specific reading of the passage. This way — through a process of discussion and study — we pause weekly to learn Torah together.
I've discovered that communal learning gives content to our commitment to and love for Torah; it fosters participation in our prayer services; and it provides me with an opportunity to learn from my congregants.
But most of all, interspersing prayer and study fosters the two-way communication with God so well-captured by the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Louis Finkelstein, z''l, who coined the aphorism: "When I pray, I speak to God, and when I study, God speaks to me."
Room for Discussion
Nevertheless, guests — particularly non-Jewish ones — are not always comfortable with this idea.
A student who was observing our service as part of a class once remarked, "Rabbi, your congregants disagreed with you. We would never publicly disagree with the minister in our church." I smiled and responded, "Well, that's how we learn. We disagree with each other."
In other words, Judaism is not a fundamentalist religion that requires us to accept the interpretations of God's revelation that were handed down to us from our rabbis. Quite the contrary: Judaism is a religion that demands that we come to our own understandings of God's words, and that we hone and perfect them by bringing our various understandings of text into dialog with each other, reproducing the process of interchange canonized in the central text of rabbinic Judaism — the Talmud.
This week, we read in Parshat Ki Tavo that this is the way God intended it.
At the end of his life, Moses marks the transition from the era of direct revelation — in which the Almighty spoke to Moses face to face — to our era — in which we discover God's presence in the texts of our tradition — when he tells the Jewish people: "You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes. Yet the Lord did not give you mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until this day."
Until that day, we experienced the signs and wonders without comprehension.
But from that day forward, we have relied upon our understanding of those events to comprehend the will of God.
Rabbi Eric Rosin is the religious leader of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.