Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

When Judaism Changed the Sabbath: A Lesson in Leadership

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Foolish consistency is clinging to a viewpoint when all evidence points to the contrary. It is refusing to change when change is the only approach that makes sense. We see a beautiful historical illustration of this truth in a study of the Jewish Sabbath in America.

Radical Reform

Beginning in the 1870s, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler–the seminal philosopher of Reform Judaism and soon-to-be President of its rabbinical seminary–initiated a radical change. He began holding his synagogue’s primary worship service on Sunday. While maintaining Saturday as Judaism’s “historical Sabbath”, he designated Sunday as the primary day of communal worship. The service included a liturgy, choral music and sermon/lecture.

Kohler rooted his change in Jewish history, contending that he was following rabbinic tradition. Near the start of the Common Era, he noted, Jewish communities read Torah on Monday and Thursday, the market days when most Jews would already be in town.

The Sunday service followed this precedent in also meeting an economic need. By gathering for worship on Sunday, rabbis would acknowledge the many immigrant Jews who had to work and their businesses open on Saturday.

In predicting its impact, Kohler did not mince words. It would, he insisted, “prevent people from becoming altogether estranged from Judaism.”

Mea Culpa!

In a stunning mea culpa, he wrote “ having for eighteen years been one of the chief advocates and promoters of the Sunday Service, often standing forth in its defence single-handed against a multitude of assailants, I consider it not merely my privilege but my duty to state publicly that I have found sufficient reasons to change my views.”

His reasoning was straightforward. The Sunday service lacked the spirituality of the traditional Sabbath. Famous lecturers would draw big crowds, but few engaged in the rest and study that made the Sabbath sacred.

A New World

Kohler had also lost a great deal of confidence in his belief that antisemitism was declining. Whereas his early sermons and lectures predicted the world’s embrace of “Israel’s pure monotheistic truth and broad humanitarian ethics,” he now lamented that “the world still hates the Jew.”

Kohler refered specifically to the rise of pogroms in Eastern Europe and growing hostility toward Jews among the German intellectual establishment. He also lamented continued social antisemitism in the United States, pointing out that “No Jew Need Apply is still the able of clubhouses and summer resorts.” Kohler’s tone of the 1890s differed significantly from that of the 1880s.

Kohler also became more circumspect about the wisdom of rapid change. He describes the danger of a “perilous drift” in which traditions are changed simply for the sake of convenience. The only legitimate reasons for radical change, he argued, were ethical demands and demonstrated effectiveness in strengthening religious life.

Adaptive Leadership

Kaufman Kohler’s change of heart is not only an exploration of the meaning of the Sabbath and a window into late nineteenth century Jewish life. It is an exercise in adaptive leadership.

Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz distinguishes between technical and adaptive leadership. Technical leadership addresses challenges with simple solutions. Adaptive leadership addresses more complex challenges that involve the way we think and define the problem.

Kohler’s initial response–moving the primary worship service to Sunday–was a technical solution to an adaptive challenge. The challenge was strengthening Jewish life. The technical solution was changing the primary day of worship.

True Progress

Over time, however, Kohler revised his conception of the challenge. No technical solution would solve the evolving challenge of building Jewish life in the transformative new context of America. A new understanding of Reform Judaism was needed.

As Kohler himself put it, “True progress lies not in abolishing but in improving the ceremonies of religion, and in making such innovation as tend to strengthen the loyalty and reverential piety of the people.”

Kohler recognized that transformative leadership is not solely about embracing what is new. It also renews what is old. Looking to the future, it reflects upon what has worked and guided the past, and envisions a way in which they can provide a foundation for the future.

The Secret of Silence

Every Jewish worship service has space for silent prayer. Yet, many of us find it difficult to pray and reflect in such moments. We tend to feel most comfortable when either speaking or listening. “Judaism,” said Elie Wiesel, “has its times of silence. But we never talk about them.” 

Perhaps it would be wise to do so. In a culture where information enters our consciousness at a startling pace, taking time for and appreciating silence can renew and refresh us. Silence can help us discern the music amidst the noise.

Here are some tips for letting silence work its magic:

1. Close your eyes: The visual landscape naturally draws our attention. We can redirect that attention inward, clearing our mind and letting us appreciate the silence more fully.

It is no accident that a tradition developed in Jewish worship to close our eyes during the saying of our most important prayer, the Shema. Focus turns to sound rather than sight.

2. Listen to the silence: An article recently appeared in the New York Times about a famous musical piece by John Cage. Entitled 4’33, it consists of no sound. A group of musicians walk up to their instruments and sit down quietly for four minutes and thirty three seconds.

The thinking behind the piece is that any sound constitutes music. The audience is meant to listen to the sounds around them without the distraction of the instruments. We each hear something different, and the environment creates its own music.

3. Breathe: The Hebrew word for breath–Neshima–also means soul. Breathing can open up the channel between our mind and heart. When we hear our breath, we hear what is inside of us.

4. Make the most of the subsequent moments: Silence can magnify the audible. After a few moments of silence, words can feel more piercing. Our minds and our hearts open wider. The subsequent moments can lift up our hearts and make the entire worship service more lasting and meaningful.

5. Read a short passage: Words shape our thoughts. During a moment of silence, the right words can direct our minds upward and inward. In our Reform Jewish prayerbook, an anonmymous passage always tugs at my heart: “Pray as if everything depends on God. Act as if everything depends on you.”

A Rabbi Reflects on Ramadan

Jews and Muslim share a remarkable history. Medieval Jewish scholars read Aristotle and Plato in the Arabic translation. The masterpiece of Jewish philosophy–Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed–was written in Arabic.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed the deterioraton of that relationship. While Jewish-Christian relations have never been better, Jewish-Muslim dialogue consistently falters.

What We Share

Focusing on shared religious values is one way we can improve them. The month of Ramadan is an ideal opportunity. The parallels between the traditions and teachings of Ramadan and the message of the High Holy Days are striking. Consider the following:

1. Fasting: During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. On the Jewish Day of Atonement–Yom Kippur–Jews undertake a 25-hour fast.

What is the purpose of fasting? To focus our minds on matters of the spirit.

Too often we live purely in the physical and material world. As the poet Wordsworth put it, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Fasting helps us avoid that trap. It reminds to look at the higher purpose of our existence. What do we live for? What is most important to us?

2. Mercy: A traditional practice of Ramadan is to ask El Raham (the God of Mercy) to open the gates of rahim, or “mercy.” On Yom Kippur, Jews implore and refer to God as El Molei Rachamim, the God of mercy.

While both faiths emphasize God’s attribute of justice–that is, the idea that God asks us to do good and reject evil and provides reward and punishment for doing so–both also conceive of a God who accepts and forgives our missteps. The great Jewish commentator Rashi suggested that God’s greatness consists of balancing justice and mercy (Din and Rachamim).

3. Law: Judaism and Islam share a core religious concept: the centrality of a system of law. In Judaism it is known as Halakhah, which means “the way.” In Islam it is known as shari’a, which also means “way.”

This concept finds concrete expression in Ramadan and in the Days of Awe. Each has a set of positive and negative commandments. Their goal is to concretize sacred concepts in daily life. Or, to use the elegant phrase of Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, both faiths seek to translate the poetry of heaven into the prose of everyday life.


Stop, In The Name Of God!

In 1903 philosopher W.E.B. DuBois said the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. The problem of the 21st century may well be the problem of the religion line.

The two are interconnected and feed off each other. This truth came into sharp focus last week in a Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee, where a white supremicist opened fire and killed six people at prayer.

I am from Milwaukee, so this act felt especially painful. That it came in the wake of the Colorado shootings only compounded my pain and frustration. While both shootings stem out of hatred and anger, the Sikh temple massacre carries a tragic resonance for people of faith. Adherents of a religion of peace became the target of murderous hate.

This is not an isolated incident. Just a few weeks ago, five Jews in Bulgaria were murdered for who they were and what they believed. Last month fifty Christians were burned alive in Nigeria while seeking safe haven in a pastor’s home. In Burma the Muslim minority has been increasingly targeted for rape and murder. Is there anything we can do?

A Single Garment of Destiny

Yes. We can recognize that people of every faith are tied together in a single garment of destiny.
When one group is targeted, we are all victims. People of one faith should be the most outspoken when adherents of another are attacked.

In America we have our problems. Yet, our founding fathers were extraordinary insightful and forward-thinking. They guaranteed freedom of religious expression in the First Amendment, and thereby assured that religions could flourish in freedom.

As democracy begins to take root in the Arab world, we need to share that vision. Fewer messages are more important and more urgent.

As my friend Pastor John Buchanan said, “There is one God: not a Jewish God, a Christian God, a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu God, but one God who created all of us, loves all of us, and is with all of us, always and forever.”

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