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Sermon: June 31, 2015 – Rabbi Jordan Helfman – We are in the month of Av – a month of sadness for the Jewish people, but this Shabbat we just heard these words of Isaiah: Nachamu, Nachamu Ami. Comfort! Comfort my people! Rabbi Marmur once told me after one of my first sermons, “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the world until I came to shul this Shabbat.” So instead of the problems with the world, I’ve decided –this day after Tu’ B’av -that we should instead talk about something nice and easy – Modern Romance.
Talking about Tu B’av – yesterday’s – place in the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel said:
There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments which they borrowed in order not to put to shame any one who had none. The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, young man, lift up thine eyes and see what thou choosest for thyself. Do not set thine eyes on beauty but set thine eyes on [good] family. Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the lord, she shall be praised. And it further says, give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates. [Soncino Translation]
We are in the month of Av – a month of sadness for the Jewish people, but this Shabbat we just heard these words of Isaiah: Nachamu, Nachamu Ami. Comfort! Comfort my people! Rabbi Marmur once told me after one of my first sermons, “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the world until I came to shul this Shabbat.” So instead of the problems with the world, I’ve decided –this day after Tu’ B’av -that we should instead talk about something nice and easy – Modern Romance.
“I Googled my date,” one woman says on an online forum, and collected in the recently published book “Modern Romance”. She continues with a google hit: “According to a weekly synagogue newsletter, he and his wife were hosting a Torah class for children the same day as our date.”
Oh, Modern Romance. Keeping things nice and easy for us on this Shabbat Nachamu, this Shabbat of comfort.
So, keeping it on ‘easy- street’ let’s switch over to some really simple Hebrew from our parasha. Help me translate:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu.. Adonai Echad.
And now lets go to the next paragraph from our Torah portion:
Ve’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha, b’chol l’vav’cha, b’chol nafshecha u’v’chol meodecha.
Back to Modern Romance. The book is by Aziz Ansari, best known for his stand-up comedy and his role in Parks and Recreation, who wrote with a sociologist, Eric Klinenberg. Before I read this part of an interview about the book, we’re going to continue with the congregational participation for a bit. Think back to your first wife, or husband. Where did they grow up, and how far was it from where you grew up? OK, hold that in your mind. This is from a recent interview with Aziz Ansari:
Whenever I tell people my parents had an arranged marriage they say, wow that sounds crazy. Well if you look at the history in the United States back in the day, someone was like, you know, this guy that lives near me and he’s nice and seems like he could provide for me? A lot of the women we spoke to in retirement homes, the way they spoke about their lives they were like, well what was I going to do? You know? I was living with my parents. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t have my own career. I could just get married to this dude and then I could just go on with my life and finally become an adult.
To me the craziest statistic in the book, the craziest one that blows my mind the most, is in 1967 there was this study they did where they found seventy-six percent of women said they would marry someone that they are not romantically in love with. And now, just the idea that like now we have all these options of what to do with our lives and our goal of who we want to find is not like “oh a decent person to settle down with and start a family with.” It’s “no, we’re trying to find the love of our lives. We’re trying to find this amazing, elusive thing.” That just wasn’t a thing people had the luxury to look for. http://freakonomics.com/2015/07/22/aziz-ansari-needs-another-toothbrush-full-transcript/
Ansari and Klinenberg interviewed elderly Americans in a retirement centre. Fourteen out of thirty-six elderly Americans said they married someone within walking distance of their childhood home.
Ansari, discussing a study of people from the ninteenthirties in Philadelphia says:
One out of twelve people will marry someone in the same building. One out of three it was like within a five-block radius. Eighty-something percent, it was the same city.. You just think about it now and it’s like, no one marries someone from the same city. You, meet people throughout your whole life that are from different parts of the world. You go to college. And that change was something that was actually a bigger change than the technology or anything. Just overall change in what used to be called the “companionate” marriage to the “soul mate” marriage. http://freakonomics.com/2015/07/22/aziz-ansari-needs-another-toothbrush-full-transcript/
The change from the “companionate” marriage to the “soul mate” marriage. “Ve’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha” And thou shalt love thy lord thy god with all thy heart. With all thy soul, with all they might.”
Now – take a self-check here. Not about your relationship with your spouse – let’s not play with fire. Rather: Is your love of Judaism, a “companionate” marriage” or a “soul mate marriage?”
It is easy. It is what I grew up with. Because if I don’t love a Jew(ish God) my bubby would kill me.
Or is your love of Judaism – what brought you here today – a soul-mate match. You’ve taken your time, flirted with ethical humanism – flirted with orthodoxy – flirted with eastern meditation, and then came back home to love Judaism and the Jewish God-idea. Or maybe you were born into another ‘city on the road of religions’ and you fell in love with the Jewish God through your own path, or through meeting a Jew.. And, by the way, some would say meeting another Jew IS meeting Judaism: the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the reason this phrase starts with Ve’ahavta as does “love your neighbor as yourself” is because the best way to Love God is to Love your Jewish fellow. And the Maggid of Mezrich laments that we don’t kiss the Torah the way we kiss our fellow Jews.
And you shall love the Eternal your God. Modern Romance.
Maybe the shift from companionate love to soul mate love is partially responsible for the decline in religious affiliation today in progressive religions. Our wandering has expanded from when we leave the loving homes that supported us until we create a new loving relationship and begin to observe “and you shall teach them to your children.”
And in Modern Romance, the Jewish heart wanders. Instead of saying “ah, this is convenient for me” almost as quickly as our congregants flip through Jdate pages or swipe their thumb to the left in J-swipe, our minds find momentary comfort in rationalism alone – in moralism without religion, in ethics beyond God. And, now… many Jews are still single, later and later, making it harder and harder when the time comes to have children to teach it to.
So.. for comfort, let’s turn to imagine what Judaism looks like as a soulmate marriage. In the poetic words of Bachia Ibn Pekudah’s Duties of the Heart “What does the love of God consist of? The soul’s complete surrender of its own accord to the Creator in order to cleave to His supernal light.. then it will become completely reoccupied with His service and have no place for any other thought, sending forth not even one of the limbs of its body on any other service but to drawn by His will, loosening the tongue but to make mention of Him out of love of Him and longing for Him.” [Translation from Nechama Leibowitz – Studies In Deuteronomy (Devarim)]
Maimonides’s Sefer haMitzvot makes this more concrete: It is said, “And you shall love the Lord your God” , the question arises, how one is to manifest his love for the Lord? Scripture therefore states: And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.” For through this you will learn and come to know He who spoke and the world came into being.”
Maimonides explains that through science and philosophy we can draw near to God – to truly explore and get to know our soulmate.
He then explains “that this commandment also embodies the obligation that we should call upon all mankind to serve Him, and to have faith in Him, Just as in the case of someone you love you recount his praises, enlarging on them and calling up other people to love him too, so it is that on attaining true love of Him and on coming closer to a true understanding of his Essence, that you will undoubtedly call upon the foolish and the ignorant to seek a knowledge of the truth that you have already acquired. In the words of sifre, “ And you shall of the Lord your God” implying you should make Him beloved by man as Abraham your father did, as it is stated, “and the souls they had gotten in Haran.” In other words, just as Abraham, being a lover of the Lord, out of the strength of his convictions and of his great love for Him, called upon mankind to believe in Him, so you are to love Him to the extent that you will call other men to him.” [Translation from Nechama Leibowitz – Studies In Deuteronomy (Devarim)]
And – what is the duty of those that truly Love God, are in a soulmate marriage with God? The teacher Nachama Leibovitch links this Maimonides passage to a section in the Talmud, which makes it clear that Loving God’s name means living the best Jewish life, to inspire others to follow.
One of the problems with Modern Romance, according to Ansari and Klinenberg, is that we are drowning in choice. When our 20s and 30s look for companionship, there is a thick market out there of individuals who also have not yet settled. And so, too, we know that today, the market of thought and tradition is thick. The religions of Secularism, Atheism and Agnosticism are just as strong as Eastern Meditation, Crossfit or Yoga or Careerism, or, for some, the religion of our non-Jewish partner, and can’t we just combine everything? And if we have settled on loving the Jewish God – is it the God of Chabad or Aish, who teaches us simple, Torah True Judaism, or Beth Tzedec where my parents belonged teaching of the Conservative Jewish God, or of the God of the cultural Jew who samples that treif culinary masterpiece.
We have lost much in our move from loving God out of convenience. It was easier to be Jewish out of convenience. To settle.
But now, but now, for our children and our children’s children, we are in the world transitioning into modernity. The world of Fiddler on the Roof, of Tevyeh turning and asking, “Golda, do you love me?”
When we say these words “ve’ahavta et Adonai eloheicha” let’s think about if our Judaism can make this shift to soulmate love. Can we model a Jewish life so that others follow? Can we be in love enough with our own interpretation of the Jewish God that we ask others to come along? We’ve been in this relationship of convenience so many years, and when we next say “ve’ahavta et Adonai” let us hear God ask us, in the voice of Tevyeh, “Golda, do you, love me?”