One October night in the year 1913, a 27 year old German Jew entered a synagogue in Berlin. He entered like the other congregants; he worshipped like them – but there was something very different about his presence. His appearance that night in the Berlin synagogue was the result of a major decision he had made after months of agonizing inner debate.
Franz Rosenzweig was the child of wealthy, assimilated parents. His friends and family recognized how intelligent and idealistic he was. Ten days earlier he had attended Rosh Hashanah services with his parents in his hometown of Kassel. A few days after entering the New Year he went to speak with his mother, who was aware of the struggle he had been going through and already knew what he wanted to tell her. "You want to be baptized." Rosenzweig nodded his head and pointed to the New Testament he held in his hand. "Mother, here is everything. Here is the truth. There is only one way: Christianity." His mother asked him, "Weren't you in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah?" He answered, "Yes, and I will also go on Yom Kippur. Until I convert, I am still a Jew."
Rosenzweig left his home and returned to Berlin, his mind made up –he would convert to Christianity. He had given this matter great thought and was determined to go through with it. He viewed Judaism as an anachronism – a faith not in touch with the contemporary world of Western Europe. Religion was of little use in the secular enlightened society so why not just join the dominant faith of Christianity? But he had made a decision that before becoming a Christian, he would attend Yom Kippur services to say farewell to his Jewish identity and the Jewish people.
It was 99 years ago that he entered a small Berlin shul to hear Kol Nidre chanted. Something entirely unexpected happened to Rosenzweig in that synagogue that night and it changed his life. He wrote a friend: "After prolonged, and I believe, thorough self-examination, I have reversed my decision ... I will remain a Jew." For the rest of his life, Rosenzweig devoted himself to Jewish study and teaching, and became one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.
What happened to Franz Rosenzweig that Kol Nidre evening in the little Berlin synagogue? What was it he saw or heard or felt which led him back to his people? What did he come to understand, what did he feel that compelled him to affirm his Jewish identity? What really was the nature of his transformative moment? Regrettably, he never provided us with the answers. What we do know is that, in his home, Judaism was only a superficial formality; his parents had fully assimilated into German society. He saw that Judaism had no real meaning for them – they only wanted him to be Jewish but he never understood why it mattered. Until he was studying at the University, Franz did not even know what Shabbat was. He was an intellectual who had made a well-reasoned decision that Judaism no longer held any truth or meaning for him. Yet, that night, something very powerful affected him and led him back to Jewish life.
I doubt that any of us have come tonight contemplating the same crossroads Rosenzweig faced. Yet, I wonder how many of us are filled with doubt and questions, wondering whether Judaism still has truth or meaning for us – whether it is still relevant in the world of 2012. Each of us in this sanctuary has a story to tell, a powerful one of why we feel connected to or in some way estranged from Judaism. Some of us have come here tonight eagerly, some reluctantly and probably most of us routinely. Is not each of us looking, like Rosenzweig, for a way to feel more connected, more rooted in our faith? Are we not yearning for Judaism somehow to speak to us, in our own unique situation? Are we not hoping to find in Judaism an anchor of meaning in the turbulent waters of modern life? And here we all are, to hear the ancient and powerful melody of the Kol Nidre, to examine our shortcomings, to seek forgiveness and to stand within community yet alone with God and our own conscience, looking for a way that we too might leave here tonight feeling more connected – feeling that something that was awakened in us.
What happened to Rosenzweig that Kol Nidre night? Was it listening to the Kol Nidre chant, was it reciting the Avenu Malcenu, was it looking around at the community of worshippers? What is it that he discovered for himself in Judaism that night? Did he find the spiritual and intellectual answers he had been searching for? Years later, he described the Yom Kippur experience for the Jew as "confronting the eyes of the Judge in utter loneliness, as if one were dead in the midst of life."
What happened that night to Rosenzweig to induce in him a spiritual reawakening? He finally detected in Judaism what he had been looking for all along - that this ancient faith does have a religious and spiritual message – something transcending formality and routine. He found something which nurtured his soul. We live in a culture where multitudes of books and magazines are devoted to the spiritual quest in America. We are told that baby boomers, generation x'ers or those of generation y, people of every age and every station in life are looking, perhaps even grasping, for more profound meaning in life. We look everywhere we can for meaning and hope – often in the wrong place. At times we find fleeting satisfaction. At times we get flashes of something deeper, and it is indeed most fulfilling. Perhaps that was somehow what Franz Rosenzweig encountered at Kol Nidre that night.
The quest for spirituality is one I'm not sure I know how to define. We all attribute different meanings to it. Meaningful existence, religious identity, sacred living are related to it. Judaism has mystical traditions - but I think for us, spirituality has more to do with finding meaning and developing a conscience. Our culture focuses on achievement, IQ scores, grades and tests in school. At times it seems if you don't get into the right pre-school, you're already off track for the right college. Religious identity has much more to do with self-esteem, fulfillment, feeling comfortable with oneself in this complicated world and discovering that the ultimate assessments in life are not about degrees, or possessions, or titles, but rather about living a life marked by fulfillment, helping others and ultimately achieving the conviction that life is worth living. As we all know so very well, the quest for meaning is a life long process.
In a book about spiritual journeys of individuals from a variety of faiths, Mollie Stone, a Jewish woman in her late twenties, reflects on her ambivalent feelings towards Judaism. She finds what goes on in most synagogues boring and lifeless. Organized religion is too narrowing and limiting for her. Yet she admits that in her own life there is a void. She would like a meaningful Jewish experience. She, like others, found her spiritual connections in meditation groups, in twelve step programs, at Quaker meetings and at Native American gatherings. ... and as we all know too well, too painfully well, that too many Jews in the 80’s and 90’s found their meaning in cults. For Mollie and for many others, the synagogue has become an institution, not a place for religious life, not a place for spiritual growth. Over the summer, I spoke with many members of our congregation, and heard Mollie’s sentiment expressed in so many ways: one member said to me: For the most part my life is good…yet at the same time, people are passing away, getting sick. More and more, we are attending funerals and memorials. The past two years have been the hardest of our lives and we are coming through and starting to do well again And I want very much, while being so busy with the demands of my every day of life, to still take time to find meaning, to slow down, to remember that I'm a spiritual being. Another said to me: I find that more and more of life is about transitions…I yearn to be rooted and anchored in a life filled with constant change. So many people have expressed to me their deep feelings about wanting to find what is sacred in Judaism.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, another great religious thinker of the 20th century, offers a similar piercing assessment: "Little does contemporary religion ask of the human being man. It is ready to offer comfort; it has no courage to challenge. It is ready to offer edification; it has no courage to break the idols, to shatter callousness. The trouble is that religion has become institution, dogma, ritual. It is no longer an event."
What Mollie, what Rosenzweig were searching for - is not dissimilar from our own yearnings. Throughout my years as a rabbi, I have met with many, many people who reveal to me their emptiness and their desire to fill that emptiness. We come here tonight, I hope, not to pass a few hours in official duty for institutional religion, but I believe to have an experience, something that holds for us some promise, some potential for us to change, something that will empower us to transform our daily life, something that will allow us to recognize the awe and wonder and beauty in this world, something that will make our ancient tradition spring to life for us, as it did 99 years ago in Berlin for Franz Rosenzweig. Realistically, that kind of realization is too big of an expectation for one night. For Rosenzweig the transformative experience only came out of a life of learning, questioning, thinking and reflecting.
What was it Rosenzweig responded to that night? What was it that triggered his extraordinary response? What can we say about this mystery? We will never really know the answer. Perhaps as he was about to discard his Judaism -- at that last moment something deep within him stirred and made him realize the incredible treasure he was about to cast away. A treasure with an ancient history - which connects us with Abraham and Sarah, a treasure founded on the belief in one God - with no human or semi-divine mediator between Creator and worshipper, a treasure superb in its ethics and values that make sense and uplift life, a treasure rich in ceremonies which can transform the ordinary into the sacred, a treasure which, above all, values and affirms life, a treasure which asks that we take responsibility for our lives, a treasure that sees in each human being a potential for good, a treasure that stands firmly on justice and fairness and decency and compassion, a treasure that has survived throughout the millennia, a treasure that knows how very precious life is and respects the value of each human being, a treasure that knows there is a purpose to life, a treasure that calls upon us, as Heschel said, "to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen."
In 1920, Rosenzweig founded the Lehrhaus Judaica, the Jewish House of Learning in Frankfurt – meant to make Jewish learning accessible to all people. In his opening address, he spoke about a new kind of learning: "It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts with the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law of Moses, but ultimately makes its way back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time...There is no one today that is not alienated, or who does contain within at least some small fraction of alienation.
Perhaps that Kol Nidre eve in Berlin, Rosenzweig came to understand that Judaism survived attempts to destroy it because it offered, and goes on offering, an approach to life which is proudly uplifting and affirming. The difficult part of Judaism is that it makes demands on us. There are no surrogates in Judaism. We are the ones who must make this a community -- its vitality, its survival depends on each of us. Is that what Rosenzweig suddenly realized?
Nine years after that transformative evening in the Berlin synagogue, Rosenzweig was stricken with ALS and completely paralyzed. Yet he continued to read, write and study. He would call his nurse to turn the page of his book, by clearing his throat or turning his head slightly. Even after his vocal cords became paralyzed - he was still able to make just a slight motion with one finger and he would point to a letter on the typewriter. That is how he made a significant contribution to literature by translating the Hebrew Bible into German. From nearly casting off his religion, he devoted his life to Jewish learning in the face of tremendous obstacles, physical and spiritual. I believe he knew that by making that small gesture to the key - he was keeping Judaism alive, the faith he had come close to disdaining but now understood to be profoundly worthwhile. He undertook awesome exertions to transmit that faith to future generations. That Kol Nidre night for Rosenzweig was a beginning, a renewal, a spark ignited and never extinguished. What is the spark that is ignited in each of us tonight? Do we allow ourselves to feel that spark?
What is it that will impact us enough tonight to truly effect change in our lives? What is it that will help us to understand that in this post-modern, highly assimilated world – that it still means something, it means a great deal to remain a Jew. The mystery is not so much what happened to Rosenzweig so many years ago, but rather what is taking place right now in our souls, in our minds, in our hearts.
On Kol Nidre we stand with the community of Israel and at the same time we each stand alone. I think about each of you and how the Jewish people needs you just as we needed Rosenzweig. Whatever it is that brought us here tonight – whether it be parents, children, a desire to pray, guilt, a need to communicate with God, a wish to hear the stirring melody of Kol Nidre, a yearning to be part of the community – whatever it is, I believe at the core is the desire to feel connected to this magnificent faith of ours. In how many of us will a tiny spark be kindled?
As with Franz Rosenzweig we can never know what happens in another person's inner life. But what we can say about his experience is that, despite everything, it was full of life and hope. What Rosenzweig discovered that night, and what bound him forever after to the Jewish people, was a very simple truth: our tradition can come alive.
We will never know what happened that night to Franz Rosenzweig. What matters is understanding what is happening to each of us tonight. What is that we feel tonight in our heart or souls that will renew in each of us an appreciation of the gifts we have in Judaism? What are the small gestures we will make in our hearts and souls, like Rosenzweig with his finger, to allow ourselves to experience the power and magic of transformative moments whether it be tonight or whenever we are ready for them to occur in our own lives.
My hope, my prayer for each of us is that we will hear that “still, small voice of conscience” reminding us that Judaism is very much alive, keenly relevant and an incredible treasure awaiting our ongoing discovery so that indeed our lives can be lived in a manner that would deserve and evoke an Eternal amen.
Rabbi Lee Bycel, September 25, 2012