The Particularistic and the Universalistic: Religion in 21st Century North America

(sermon delivered on June 9th, 2012)
            Shabbat shalom.
            I would like to talk about two things this morning that have been on my mind.
            The first is particularistic and the second universalistic. 
            First, the particularistic:  Judaism.  In talking about Judaism, I do not want to talk about numbers.  We give much more weight to numbers than is deserved.  Rather, I want to talk about purpose and impact.  Because in those regards, Judaism is passionate, thriving, engaging and indispensable.
            But, first, some personal history.  When I applied to rabbinical school in 2000, I wrote one of my admissions essays on the constant dynamic tension that I felt wearing a kippah(yarmulke; head covering) all the time.  I was most concerned about wearing my kippah at a non-hekhshered restaurant, a bar or a night-club or dance-club.  While my essay focused on the personal, professional and religious implications of such a choice, my conclusion ultimately reflected a core ideological tenet of the Judaism.
            I realized that, for me, it was ultimately less important what I determined to do than that I recognized that I would be constantly engaged in that process of determination.  The answer was less important than the question.  The resolution was less important than the ongoing struggle.  Indeed, it is that very ongoing struggle that ultimately brought and continues to bring me the most comfort.  My kippahis uniquely meaningful to me because I think about it every time that I wear it.  I think about what it means to be a public religious figure and what it means to be a Jew.  I think about God.  Had I decided with certainty one way or the other about when to wear and not wear a kippah, I would think of those other things much less regularly.  Absolutism would be disengaging; certainty would be stifling:  my personal and religious life would be much emptier as a result.  Thus, the constant dynamic tension of when to wear a kippah epitomizes the strength and passion of my religious conviction.      
Of course, this tension translates to all facets of Judaism.  Are we absolutely sure that praying the traditional words of the siddur (prayer book) is what the Torah and God commanded us to do to replace sacrifices?  Are we absolutely sure that the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk demands eating meat from kosher slaughterhouses rather than demanding that the violation of the ethical treatment of animals in those slaughterhouse prohibits us from eating their meat?  And, if we’re going to be honest, we also need to ask:  are we absolutely sure of what God is, of what God wants, or even of God’s existence?  Are we absolutely sure?
For some of us, we might be able to answer a definitive “yes” to one of more of these questions.  For others of us, we might even be able to answer “yes” to all three.  But, I suspect that, for most of us – including myself – “yes” is a difficult if not disingenuous answer to give.  “Yes” might be easy, and “yes” might be convenient.  But, it is not likely genuine, and it is not definitely Jewish.
In Judaism, the response to these questions is no different than my response to my struggle about when to wear a kippah.  Judaism does not deal in absolutes.  Indeed, prayer is more engaging because of its constant dynamic tension:  we want to talk with God, we really do; is how we do it the best and most appropriate way?  Speaking personally, my becoming a vegetarian is more meaningful because of the constant dynamic tension:  kashrut(Jewish dietary laws) is not simply about a seal on food but also about the ethical considerations that the Torah mandates.  And our relationship with God is intimate because of its constant dynamic tension:  the absence of absolute empirical evidence is what demands, creates and sustains our faith.  Certainty is boring.  Certainty is unfulfilling.  And, certainty can be dangerous.  Absolute certainty leads to dogmatism, to theological, ideological and even military warfare.  Ambiguity, however – just the slighting intrusion of doubt – leads to faith, exploration, meaning, understanding, passion, and compassion. 
This is what I want in religion.  I want to be part of a religion that does not shun these questions, that does not seek to impose dogmatic behavior as a substitute for meaningful ideological and theological inquiry and engagement; I want to be part of a religion, of a Jewish movement that does not deny our religious obligations in the name of ethical practice.  I want that tension, that constant dynamic tension.  We need that constant dynamic tension.  People are hard-wired to live in a world of ambiguity and to accept the challenges therein.  We do not deny the complexities of living a traditional religious life in our contemporary society.  We do not resort to dogmatic ideology or practice nor do we deny the value and centrality of religious proscription.  We embrace that tension, we navigate that tension.  We are a movement of integrity and a movement of authenticity.  We are am yisrael, a people who – literally:  that is what the word yisraelmeans! – struggles with God and with our choices.  We are Judaism.
            That was the particularistic; now the universalistic.  Please allow me to take a couple of minutes to read a piece written by Rob Kirby (; you can also find the post on my Facebook page:  feel free to Friend me and/or to like my public profile page, Rabbi Moishe Steigmann!). 
Author and legendary conservationist Lawrence Anthony died March 2. His family tells of a solemn procession of Elephants that defies human explanation.
For 12 hours, two herds of wild South African elephants slowly made their way through the Zululand bush until they reached the house of late author Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who saved their lives.  The formerly violent, rogue elephants, destined to be shot a few years ago as pests, were rescued and rehabilitated by Anthony, who had grown up in the bush and was known as the “Elephant Whisperer.”
For two days the herds loitered at Anthony’s rural compound on the vast Thula Thula game reserve in the South African KwaZulu – to say good-bye to the man they loved. But how did they know he had died?…
There are two elephant herds at Thula Thula. According to his son Dylan, both arrived at the Anthony family compound shortly after Anthony’s death. “They had not visited the house for a year and a half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to make the journey,” Dylan is quoted in various local news accounts. “The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later. They all hung around for about two days before making their way back into the bush.” Elephants have long been known to mourn their dead. In India, baby elephants often are raised with a boy who will be their lifelong “mahout.” The pair develop legendary bonds – and it is not uncommon for one to waste away without a will to live after the death of the other.
But these are wild elephants in the 21st century, not some Rudyard Kipling novel… So, how after Anthony’s death, did the reserve’s elephants — grazing miles away in distant parts of the park — know?
“A good man died suddenly,” says Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Ph.D., “and from miles and miles away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved human friend, moved in a solemn, almost ‘funereal’ procession to make a call on the bereaved family at the deceased man’s home.”
“If there ever were a time, when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all beings,’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend.”
            What were these elephants doing?  Really, what were they doing?  They were paying a shiva call (the period of mourning of the death of a loved one when family and friends come to offer condolences)!  The connection between these elephants and this man was not just physical and emotional.  It was spiritual.  They had no way to know that he had died!  It’s almost unbelievable – but for the fact that it happened.        
            So, why do I choose to conclude my sermon on religion with this story?  Because we are all seeking.  We all yearn for a spiritual connection with others, with God.  And, as we discussed earlier, we all doubt.  But, the relentless companion of doubt is hope, is inspiration.  This story reflects that hope, that inspiration.  There are things in this world that resonate, that are inexplicable, that are binding.  They embody spirituality, and religion is our key, our access card, our password to that very same connection.
            I know what people say the dangers of religion and spirituality are.  But, they are wrong.  Religion and spirituality are not dangerous.  People who misuse and distort religious and spiritual teachings are dangerous.  Similarly, religion and spirituality are not inherently good.  But, those who use religion and spirituality to bring people together, to bring God into this world, to somehow make sense of the two elephant herds’ shiva call:  they – we – are good.  That is what religion and spirituality can bring into this world and into our lives. 
            And, that is why it is such a privilege to be a rabbi, to be a conduit of this kind of religious teaching, to help bring this sense of spirituality into your lives and into our world.    
And so it is my hope and prayer that we all be blessed with many connections, and may our faith and tradition continue to guide us and bring us together.
            Shabbat shalom.