We are all Franz Rosensweigs
A Sermon for Yom Kippur Eve
By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation
Columbia, Maryland 21044
My friends, I would like to do something a little different tonight. I would like to tell you a story. Not just any story, a Yom Kippur story. And not just any Yom Kippur story. It is a story I know and have told you in the past but I heard it again recently in a different way from my friend and teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner, so I want to share with you his version and commentary of this story. In his telling, it is a story not only about someone we may or may not know but also about someone we absolutely do know. It starts out as a story about a young man whose life was changed when he came to synagogue on Yom Kippur in Germany in 1913.
The young man’s name was Franz Rosensweig. Today we know him as one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century. But in the fall of 1913, he was on the verge of converting to Christianity. He grew up in a nominally Jewish home but, like so many of the intellectual Jewish families of early twentieth century Germany, there was very little that was Jewish about it. Nothing Jewish happened within his home, though his family annually attended High Holy Day services at their local Reform Temple. Rosensweig had nothing against Judaism; it just didn’t seem to matter to anyone he knew.
Then he went to college in Berlin. For the first time he met deeply religious Christians and began to envy them. They knew who they were and what they stood for. They had a guide and a source of inspiration they could turn to when they were troubled. Young Rosensweig was impressed by the degree to which these very religious Christians were at peace with themselves. He contrasted their deeply rooted faith with the shallow pretense, inconsistency, and hypocrisy he saw at home. He resolved to become a Christian. He decided he would go to services one last time that Yom Kippur to say goodbye to his Jewish past...
He told his parents and they were shocked. They asked him, “What can we do to make it easier, more convenient, more interesting for you?” And he told them they did not understand at all, and that he was going to do what he had to do. “Not in our shul, you won’t,” they said.
So Rosensweig returned to Berlin. There he found a small, traditional shul down the street from his lodgings. He went in there for Kol Nidre services, fully intending to make it his farewell to Judaism. But when he came out three hours later, he was a changed man. He found something in Judaism he never knew was there before. Suddenly – as he wrote to his cousin afterwards – it was no longer necessary, indeed, it was no longer possible for him to change his faith.
Rosensweig went on to become active in the circle of Jewish intellectuals around Martin Buber and write a book on his philosophy of Judaism that we still read and learn from today.
What happened that night in Berlin to change this man’s life so dramatically? What happened to make him see his Jewishness in a totally new light, to plant the conviction that Judiasm was not only worth holding onto, but was worth devoting his life to? I cannot believe it was merely the text of the service, which was conducted in a language he did not understand. I cannot believe that this university student, a PhD in philosophy, heard a sermon more eloquent or intellectually stimulating than what he had heard in previous years at his parents’ Temple. I cannot believe the building was so impressive or the choir so good, or the ushering so efficient that it changed his life. What, then, did he find there that he had never known before?
For the first time in his life, Rosensweig saw a community of Jews who cared about their religious tradition.
He had never seen that before – not in his home, not among his relatives, not at the impressive Temple his parents took him to three times a year, not among the other Jewish students at university. These people in this shul were not strangers to what they were doing. They were not an audience, going to synagogue in September the way they might go to a concert in December. They had an intensity, a sense of spiritual engagement which he had sensed and envied when he saw it among the devoted Christian students he knew. He had never known that Jews were capable of this. And although he had not known it, that was what he had been missing and seeking.
What had been his objections to Judaism, objections that brought him close to renouncing it? It wasn’t that Judaism didn’t make sense, but that it didn’t matter. It didn’t seem to transform or deepen the people who took hold of it.
I don’t know if at any time during his wavering flirtation with Christianity, he ever sat down with a rabbi or some other learned Jew who tried to explain Judaism to him. Maybe the learned authority tried to show him what a reasonable and intelligent religion Judaism is, how it harmonized with the latest scientific findings much more easily than did Christianity.
And maybe Rosensweig answered, “That’s all very interesting…but I am not impressed by the fact that Judaism makes sense. If I want something that makes sense, if I want something intellectually profound and impressive, I know where to find it. I majored in philosophy in college. That is not what I want from my religion. I am glad to hear that Judaism is not unreasonable, and that it does not offend logic. But don’t you understand? That isn’t enough! I want my religion to excite me, to move me. I want it to give me the courage to face darkness and illness, the strength to survive tragedy, the confidence and clarity to overcome doubt, the compassion to feel someone else’s pain as if it were my own. And you sit there and tell me, ‘Well, maybe the sea didn’t split; they walked across a sandbar at low tide.’ That is perfectly fine, but it is not worth investing my life in.”
Maybe his father or mother sat down with him before that fateful Yom Kippur night and tried to talk him out of it, saying to him, “Couldn’t you remain Jewish for our sakes, even if there isn’t anything to it? We are asking so little of you. We are talking about such a small Judiasm, it would be no hardship. We are not asking you to observe anything, to do anything, even to believe anything Jewish. We are just asking you to be,”
And he might well have answered, “That is exactly the problem. Why should I take seriously a religion which asks so little of me, a religion with no content, only a label, when I can find a religion which thinks enough of me and takes me seriously enough to ask for my soul. I want to be guided, I want to have great demands made of me, and you offer me a diluted diet of ‘be a nice person and come back next year’”
I know Rosensweig. He is like the young woman who visited me this summer after spending time in India. She was entranced with what she found there. She, and so many young people, hunger for meaningful religion, for transcendent experiences and great causes, for a faith and practice that changes how people act in very personal and communal ways, things they find lacking in a Judaism that asks so little of them and us.
Franz Rosensweig took life seriously. He could not see the point of a religion that did not ask to be taken seriously. Yet all around him, he saw Jews who said, ‘What I like about Judaism is that you do not have to be any more Jewish than you want to be, and I do not want to be very Jewish at all.”
We almost lost him to Christianity except that one day, by accident, or by God’s plan, he stumbled into a little shul and found Jews he had never known about before. Jews for whom Judiasm was more than a label; it was a great demand, the ruling passion of their lives. And he became one of them. He did not become orthodox. He became a very original, unorthodox, unconventional thinker, liberal in some ways, and demanding more of himself than the orthodox do in other ways. He became a Jew who cared, a Jew who traced himself back to Mount Sinai and who allowed that fact to shape much of his life.
Rosensweig’s experience in that Berlin synagogue teaches us something very important: Judaism is not primarily an idea; it is primarily a religious community. It is not one person at a time contemplating God; it is people interacting with each other in God’s service, treating each other humanly, sharing and striving for something transcendent together. Judaism is not the sum total of Jewish belief. Judaism is the Jewish people living in relationship with God and living Jewish belief. What ultimately “converted” Rosenweig back to Judaism (if I can use that term) was the impact of the Jewish community – real people turned on by the reality of their Jewishness.
Remember, Rosenswieg was a philosopher by profession. He took ideas seriously. He probed and argued ideas. But ultimately, he had to discover that a person’s life is not shaped only by ideas. It is shaped by the other people he meets. Ideas, however profound or important, are abstract until a person makes them real by living them. Even God is only an idea until people make God real in this world by doing godly things and basing their actions on what God stands for.
As an example, Rosensweig as a young man had read about the idea of the Sabbath but had never been terribly impressed by it. He had never seen anyone really experiencing the Sabbath. After his return to Judaism, he saw Shabbat live, the idea translated into action, and he was overwhelmed.
That is the story. Why have I told it to you on this holiest day of the year? For several reasons. I wanted you to know that it is possible for a person’s whole life to change in one day. If not one’s whole life, then at least the direction of one’s life, to keep on growing and developing in a new direction. That is what Teshuvah, repentence, means. It does not mean merely regretting or apologizing. It certainly does not mean groveling. It means “turning”, giving oneself a new direction, a new orientation. Rosensweig would later speak of “the ladder of observance.” How do you make yourself more of a Jew? How do you bring Judaism significantly into your life? The same way you climb a ladder, not in great leaps but in one step at a time, higher and higher.
I have told you this story also because I am continually telling myself this story. Whenever I get up to conduct a service, I say to myself, “What if there is a Franz Rosensweig here today? What if there is a bright, thoughtful young person who wants to give Judaism one more chance before she gives up? One more chance to show that Judaism is not as vapid, mindless, or superficial as she has always seen it to be? How is she going to react? What is she going to go away with?”
I realize it is not enough for me to know this story. You have to know it too. For it is not up to me alone. Franz Rosensweig was not saved by a good sermon, a series of original modern prayers, or a persuasive intellectual argument. He was saved for Judaism by the life-giving encounter with a congregation of Jews who brought Judaism to life and made it real and powerful. And that is where you come in, except you probably feel miscast. Perhaps you would feel more comfortable playing the role of Rosensweig than playing the impassioned congregation. That is exactly the problem. We are all Rosensweig, we and our children. We have read about Judaism. We have heard about Judaism. We may know a few intensely Jewish individuals. But we may never have seen a real live Jewish community.
We know what it is like to come to services and be part of the audience, to admire the Bnai Mitzvah students, to follow the page numbers and English readings, to wait politely for the end. But do we know what it is like to be part of a congregation and not just an audience, a congregation that is really praying, responding, celebrating, so you forget that you are an isolated individual and become one part of a great organism in the presence of God? No wonder we have such a distorted idea of the value of congregational worship!
Some of us may have grown up in homes that were filled with a sense of Jewishness 24 hours a day. Yiddish, davening, kosher meals, blessing before and after eating, paying attention to news articles about Israel or to Jewish names in the press. Something Jewish was happening all the time. Will any of our children have that experience? At best, there will be isolated moments of Jewishness, once or twice a week, maybe only once or twice a year, like in the home in which Franz Rosensweig was raised.
Can we blame our children for thinking Judaism is an occasional garment to dust off and wear only for special occasions?
We send them to religious or day school to learn about Judaism, and when that does not turn them into Jews, we blame the teacher, we blame the curriculum, we blame the synagogue, we blame ourselves and our kids. But we never realize where the fault really lies.
Books alone do not make good Jews out of children. Assemblies and special programs cannot do it by themselves. What shapes children into Jews? The thing that shaped Franz Rosenswieg: a vibrant Jewish community for them to emulate, grow into and become part of. There simply is no such Jewish community around here today. There are a lot of Jews coming together, but there is no sense of community passionately serving God and caring for each other.
My friends, it is the eve of Yom Kippur. It is the time to re-enact the drama of Franz Rosensweig, the most important, most relevant Yom Kippur story I know. The only trouble is that there are so many of us qualified to play the part of Rosensweig and so few of us prepared to play the part of the committed Jewish community that wins him back. How do we change that ratio?
How can we create a Jewish community out of a lot of well-meaning, well-intentioned, but unconnected individual Jews? I think one key is Rosensweig’s ladder of observance. You get yourself a new direction, a new orientation, and then progress one step at a time. And since we are all starting from about the same point, if we all move in the same direction, we become a community. Then we are no longer Rosensweigs, lonely, searching individuals. We are the Jewish people on the move, doing Jewish things together.
I do not think a synagogue can “convert” people, because a synagogue is just a building. You need a congregation to “convert” people, and I am not sure we have that yet. But the synagogue building can offer a meeting place, a place for people in search to come together, to try to find each other. And that too may be a start.
If we could have a nucleus of people saying, “Skin deep Judaism never did anything for me; I would like to find out if soul-deep Judaism is any different,” if they could do this as a group, strengthening and reinforcing each other, and minimizing the self-consciousness that is always part of doing something new, we might just do it. We might see history repeat itself. If you would like to find this soul deep Judaism, let others know, and let me know in person at shul or by email at [email protected], and perhaps we can find it together.
There is a story told about how when the Jews were in danger, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, would go to a certain spot in the forest, There he would light a fire, sing a certain melody, and his prayers would be answered.
After his death, in a time of danger, his disciple found the place in the forest and lit the fire but no longer remembered the melody. Yet it was sufficient, for God is merciful, and his prayers were answered. His disciple, who no longer knew even the place in the forest prayed to God, “Lord of the Universe, your people are in trouble. Yet, I no longer know the melody, or how to light the fire or even the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. Please let that be enough.”
This is our predicament. We do not have the song or the fire or the place that saved Franz Rosensweig for Judaism. We can only do what we can do: tell the story and hope it will be enough. We can pray that the same miracle that saved Franz Rosensweig for Judaism on this very night so long ago, can happen for us again. May we make it so, and let us say, Amen.