Real and Enduring

Rabbi Ariana gave the following sermon on June 29 on the occasion of her installation.

Shabbat shalom! It is an amazing thing, the view from here. Let’s do this again soon!

First of all. My deep and enduring thanks to our installation committee, who worked for months to plan this beautiful weekend. Harriette, Michele, Liz, Miriam, Evan, Aimee, Jon, Joseph, Danny, Sarah R, Ever, Noah, thank you for your planning, creativity, and secrecy. We have all been blessed by your offering of sweat and emails and 8am conference calls (!) and belief in our shul, and in me. Thank you.

To my teachers, especially Rabbi Linda, and all the others who have traveled from Philadelphia to be here--Rabbi Jacob Staub, Reverend Marvin Marsh and Terry Marsh, and those who are cheering Hinenu on from afar--Rabbi Vivie Mayer, Rabbi Liz Bolton, Rabbi Marjorie Berman, Rabbi Elisa Goldberg. 

Thank you to my dearest hevrutot, my classmates, and collaborators Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, erev Ravim Eli DeWitt and Nora Woods, for seeing Hinenu on from the earliest tears and google doc seeds to these moments. 

Thank you to all the KT’ers and Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of Kol Tzedek, our sibling/parent shul in Philadelphia! Thank you to my new colleagues in Baltimore, Pastor Emily Scott, Seminarian Atticus Zavaletta, Brother Merrick Moses,  Pastor Ken Brown aka Analysis, Kerry Lessard, Zainab Charudry, and those who have traveled including Rev Kentina Washington-Leapheart, Rev Naomi Washington-Leapheart, Rabbi Joseph Berman and our friends at the New Synagogue Project in DC. Thank you to the Friends of Homewood meeting for sharing your home and community with us!

I am grateful to my beloved family, on whose shoulders I stand, who taught me to show my devotion to people and text through arguing and singing. My parents, Alex and Linda Katz, my siblings Mendel and Shannon Katz-Dean + faraway Duncan Wilkinson. To my godparents, Andy and Helaine Schattner, and godsiblings Danielle, and Lia and Matthew; Uncle Joe and Anna-Louise; Sarah Stephan and Shahrzad Noorbaloochi.

To Ever, my beloved, intrepid, risk taking partner, who a year and a half before I would sign a contract with Hinenu and we would up and move here said, “ok, so it sounds like it’s time to study for the Maryland bar exam.” Ever, your labor behind the scenes making copies, buying Yizkor candles, market testing my sermons, and in front of the shtender leading our community in the final Yom Kippur Neilah prayers, convening our Conversion Circle, and holding any baby that you get close to, is a blessing for this community. I am so proud you are my partner, and our rebbetzin. 

Hinenu, I am grateful for you. I am grateful for the joy that pulsates out of this room, the laughter that erupts erev Shavuot when we’re pitching classes to each other at 10pm, or when you turn one of my sermons into a collaborative homiletical experience. I am grateful for the Torah that flows from you, in Torah study or on my porch or between hauling boxes of High Holy Day prayerbooks. I am moved by how you practice care work in caring for our space, and showing up for one another (and for my family!) I am inspired by your strength to mobilize in the face of fear, when we encounter interpersonal struggle, and when we imagine, and respond to, political and environmental violence. These early years have felt like decades. Imagine what more we will learn, what ease we can find, and what truths we will uncover together. B’ezrat HaShem, with all the help we can get.

I want to share with you a teaching that has been fundamental to my life, and my rabbinate, who would have thought it. Asher Tzvi Hersh Ginsburg, aka Achad HaAm (“One of the People,”) was a Hebrew essayist and foremost pre-state Zionist thinker, known as the father of cultural Zionism--I know. Stay with me. He wrote on many issues related to myth making, as well as modern Hebrew language and secular Jewish civilization in Israel/Palestine.

He wrote in an essay on Moses, in 1904 that included the following:

And so it is when learned scholars burrow in the dust of ancient books and manuscripts, in order to raise the great men of history from the grave in their true shapes; believing the while that they are sacrificing their eyesight for the sake of "historical truth." 

It is borne in on me that these scholars have a tendency to overestimate the value of their discoveries, and will not appreciate the simple fact that not every archaeological truth is also an historical truth. 

Historical truth is that, and that alone, which reveals the forces that go to mould the social life of mankind. Every man who leaves a perceptible mark on that life, though he may be a purely imaginary figure, is a real historical force; his existence is an historical truth.

See, it does not matter if Moses really walked this earth. If he truly crossed the Red Sea or even stood on a molehill giving some new rules to his 4 friends. We have constructed civilizations precipitated on the fact that he lived, made it through a split Sea, brought down Torah from Sinai. And more importantly, we have constructed myth and archetype, derived deep personal meaning from the leadership, humility, and passion of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe our Teacher. 

We must recognize today that there is a reality in which Moses is just a very, very good story. One told around campfires of hungry people needing heros to hold on to, the idea that we might actually be able to talk to G!d, that the powerful nation of Egypt could be outsmarted by a group of wily Israelites. That there is no actual archeological evidence to prove our Exodus.

We must recognize today that there is a reality in which Moses was real. Saw the back of G!d, fought for and often against his own yelling people, watched the Sea part before his open arms, got his people free from bondage, took direct action against a slavedriver, found safety as he floated down the river. Achad HaAm wants us to understand all that is true--regardless of whether it is fact. 

You are real, because you know yourself to be real.

Many things can be true at once. Many things can be true, even if they are forgotten, and myth can be created like cotton candy whirling in a sticky machine, thin fibers of the ineffable catching on one another until it is something you can see, fluffy and pink and so real.

Stories are true because they have become true in our lives.

There is no objective truth--we live in a world of myths we choose to put stock in. The scientists here know better than I that science is really just a set of really good guesses strung together that make facts. So too, tradition. So too, Torah. 

Acknowledging many truths at one time is both Jewishly familiar and fundamental for our collective survival. To acknowledge many realities is to mark that even in these moments of joy, heat, and peace, there are revolutions rising and being quashed around the world, concentration camps at our borders.

Realizing operating myths--that being the myths we take for granted and base our thinking on, might diverge is how we teach each other, move the other (especially when their myths are harmful.) Understanding our operating myths and beliefs allow us to soften towards operating myths we don’t share. How we uncover hard truths of harm and accountability, and make repairs. Admitting that many things can be true all at once is how we win, you see. I have to believe and act, as if environmental collapse is imminent, happening, worsening. The choices I make with my life, the way I spend my time, must come from this core understanding. And I have to believe, and act, as if the solutions are here, implementable, and I am a fundamental part of it. Knowing many realities might be true is how we win.

The text chosen for the front of our beautiful Torah cover, designed by Annie Sommer Kaufman with our community’s input, comes from Beresheet, Genesis, 1:2:

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep; the breath of the Divine hovered over the surface of the water.

The image of the Divine hovering over the surface of the waters, not breaking the surface, but imperceptibly close, is my hope for our congregation. Many Truths coming close to this world, inspiring our choices.

Bamidbar Rabbah (which is midrash, which is---? Jewish fanfiction on the Torah!) explains that there are shivim panim l’Torah, seventy faces of Torah, seventy ways to explain Torah. This is multiplicity and variance in the ways we might come to interpret, or know, text, and the Divine. This is many truths being able to be found in any one sacred text. Perhaps that underlines your fear of eisegesis--that we are reading into the text only what we want to find is true. Or perhaps it is underlining that our subjective experiences, just like our neighbor’s, are holy. What do you lose, what are you losing right now, if a RIGHT WAY is taken away?

Water can take on an infinite number of shapes, is multifaceted, each is holy. So too, is Torah. I was so moved by this midrash on the Song of Songs, it lives on the back of your handout, for future reading. Hinenu-ites (and all my teachers) know that I can’t resist putting too many texts somewhere! This beautiful text explains all the ways that Torah and water are the same, including:

Just as the water has many voices, so too does Torah have many voices.

Just as water originates in tiny drops and accumulates into mighty streams and rivers, so the Torah is acquired word by word today, verse by verse tomorrow.

Just as water is not pleasing to a person who is not thirsty, so too Torah not appreciated unless a person [has struggled with it enough to be] tired from it.

Just as a scholar is not embarrassed to ask a student, ‘pass me some water,’ a scholar is not embarrassed to learn from a student a chapter, a verse, a word, or even a letter.

We inherit a mutli-vocal, multi-agenda’d cannon. We together bring all our life experiences, all our family and cultural traditions, all our values and biases and dreams, and weave together a collective myth. We saw it today in our installation ritual, all the threads of who we are as individuals into a collective story. As we act on it a collective myth, it becomes true.

Beckoning Us Forward

What is beckoning us forward, Hinenu? What do the years ahead hold, and what will they ask of us? What are the facts of this lifetime, and what are our ancestral myths that help us understand it? 

Hinenu has been gestating and growing for years now, and I’ve been a part of it since 2016. Now that we have finished our first year, that I am installed, as your rabbi, our Torah is dressed, and we have a full and clear image of our values, what do we do with it? We are no longer becoming, though we are maturing. We can no longer rest on the joy of even having made it this far--we must be propelled forward by that joy. 

What lies ahead? The years ahead will be full of great blessing, joy, beauty, and art. The years ahead may be full of unexpected suffering. Sickness, death, challenges and attacks on what we know to be most true.

What beckons us forward? That this community should be a site of healing. A place for people to name their alienation from the Jewish world for being too left. Too multifaceted. That we should be a site of healing on the journey for those bearing hurt from religious community. A place for healing created by and for all of us multifaith families,  all of us trans and queer people, all of us Jews of color, all of us people with disabilities. 

What beckons us forward? That this community should be a site of resistance. To the violence of gentrification and displacement, to homelessness and hunger. To xenophobia and the horrors of militarized borders and detention, to Islamophobia. To abelism, to transphobia, and the horrors white supremacy. That our resistance begins with words, but ends with creative, collaborative, dynamic action.

What beckons us forward? A collective responsibility to care for this holy makom, this holy place, to tend gently to this growing root system, to ease into a reality in which we are here--and we are not going anywhere, and to build on that foundation. 

What is beckoning us forward? A yearning to be together, to make something out of this lifetime. 

What is beckoning us forward? A world in which we are all truly in our excellence. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if G!d hears our prayers to make the rain fall, or Esther really did save us from disaster, or Moses walked this earth. We are building civilization together, here, with one of many histories, believing it did. May our myths guide us. May we be so blessed to know ourselves as real, reflected in the faces of our community around us. Keyn yehi ratzon.