Monday, September 9, 2013

Rosh HaShanah - How to Serve, by Rabbi Scott Perlo


How to Serve 
-Rabbi Scott Perlo

I want to tell you a story.
It’s a true story. It happened to me. It’s not a lie.

It’s about one of the many times that I lost my faith in God.

Oh? You didn’t think that rabbis lose their faith? It happens all the time. In fact, it’s a hazard of the profession. It’s all that having religion right in your face, you see. It's hard not to see the holes and crevices and the places where ideas wear thin. Just think of being in a romantic relationship. You know you love them, but damned if there aren't a few cracks in the facade. You know what I'm saying.

In any case, every 18 months to two years so I have a medium sized crisis. This is the story of a major sized crisis.

Back when I was a student in Israel, a beloved teacher invited me to Shabbat services with him.

So there I was, in a very, very religious synagogue – really, you have no idea just how religious I’m talking -  in Rechavia, in Jerusalem, surrounded by a see of black coats and black hats, with the sermon given in Yiddish no less. And as I stood up to say the barchu, I was possessed of a single, crystal clear thought: all this is nonsense.

Except, I didn’t use the word nonsense. Instead, I used the one that started with bull and ended with an unfortunate word for a normal biological function.

“This is bullsh*t,” I thought to myself. “All this is worthless. I am wasting my life on this."

I want to emphasize how little of this was about the people around me and their religiosity. In fact, I envied them, for they seemed so certain as to their purpose. As for me, I couldn’t pray for the rest of that night. Maybe for a few weeks, I can’t remember. But I’ll never forget that moment – its clarity, its stunning power, and what it taught me about the question of what faith actually is.

And that's what I want us to talk about together. That question: what is faith? Along with another one: why does this question matter so much?

Most people think that theological debates are always a derivation of one question: does God exist?

How could I contradict the importance of God in religion? The whole thing is God-centered. You can’t say a line of prayer without running smack into God. But I was always – always – taken by the insubstantiality of that question. Somehow, debates as to whether God exists or not seem – well – seem not very relevant, seem too intellectualized and abstract; seem like they don’t really matter.

And I think the reason for this insubstantiality is that I know a lot of people for whom their belief in God – or lack thereof – doesn’t make a whit of difference in their lives. Whether or not they believed seemed to have no effect on them. Sometimes people's belief in God seems a lot like my belief in frozen yogurt - which is a lovely, positive thing, but has very little effect on how I live my life.

The opposite is true as well – I’ve seen plenty of people who were confirmed atheists who lived as if they were accountable to something higher. I don’t mean that they were just nice people or had a well-developed social ethic, but that they put their lives in service to a cause or an idea greater than themselves, and were, as a result, lifted up.

This was true, for example, about Christopher Hitchens. Now, it’s not like I have entirely unqualified praise for the guy: he was rather overly fond of scotch and beer nuts, and had no use for anything but the most fundamentalist of religion, which he excoriated. But Hitchens loved the canon of Liberal Enlightenment like it was holy writ – he knew it backwards and forwards, with an all too evident love and reverence. You could tell that, when he spoke of it, he spoke as a caretaker of great ideas. He saw himself as its servant. It was, in its own way, stunningly beautiful.

And what it seemed like, for Hitchens and many others, is that they specifically didn't believe, but lived lives of service. I am aware that he is rolling over in his grave - and don't think that I'm not taking a little pleasure at calling Hitchens faithful - but it seems to me that all the mechanics were there - just decidedly not directed at God.

The point is this: sometimes the debate about the existence of God is academic. It has no heft and no relevance. It doesn’t matter to people. It is empty. And the reason that it is empty is that, unless our belief in God or the lack thereof has some effect on the way we live, it's just an opinion.

So what I want to do is throw the question out. At least for the purposes of this drash, we aren’t going to ask simply, what do we believe? We’re going to find a different question – a more profound one, one that makes a difference to us, one that has the power to change us, and to help us change. And that question is:

What do we serve?

See, this is why that crisis is faith was so powerful and troubling, way back at that synagogue in Jerusalem. For the question there wasn't "does God exist." My crisis was, "am I wasting my life on this?" Are the ideas to which I was putting my life in service real, or are they nonsense? I was concerned that I was serving nothing.
What do we serve? It's a question worth asking, I think.

The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote:
Every person, and every society lives with some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: what constitutes a fulfilled life? what makes life really worth living? What would we most admire people for? We can't helping asking these and related questions in our lives. And our struggles to answer them define the view or views that we try to live by, or between which we haver."

Which is to say that we are, as social animals, as collective souls, impelled to ask ourselves the questions of what makes life worthwhile.

The answers aren't always that elevated. Sometimes what makes life worthwhile is really decent sushi.

But it turns out that without a sense of what is elevated, and what is higher, people feel empty.

In the 1970's, there was a proto-reality TV series, called "An American Family." It was about the Louds - a prosperous, upper middle class clan from Santa Barbara, CA, and it was initially intended as a fairly milquetoast    American portrait. What they got was chaos. And controversy. The eldest son came out of the closet on the show (the first time on American television ever, as an aside). The parents' marriage unraveled, disintegrated - they divorced. Somehow a pin popped the balloon. Somehow this family, who had everything by American standards, was left with nothing.

No less a personage than Kurt Vonnegut talked about the Louds in an incredible commencement speech on nature of religion. Now Vonnegut was an avowed freethinker, but this is what he had to say, "Most viewers, and the Louds themselves, claimed to be mystified by the tinhorn tragedies and unfunny comedies thus immortalized. I suggest to you that the Louds were healthy earthlings who had everything but a religion in which they could believe. There was nothing to tell them what they should want, what they should shun, what they should do next. Socrates told us that the unexamined life wasn't worth living. The Louds demonstrated that the morally unstructured life is a clunker too."

This accords with what I have seen in my work. So many, so many people who come by our doors out there, and who have, in terms of privilege, pretty much anything you could ever ask for, except for a sense of purpose, except for a sense of worth and meaning.

Maybe it is that because we don't ask that question enough - what is it that we serve - that we feel so lost, and so often confused about what we were put here to do.

So let's ask it now. Together.

What is it that we serve? What ideas are we willing to yoke ourselves, our time, our lives to protecting? This isn't just a question of where we send our money, or how we vote. It's the question - with my life as the substance, my days as the currency, in what do I believe strongly enough that I am willing to spend?

If you figure out the answer to that question, you will know in what you believe. You will know the locus of your faith – whatever that may be. You will find that you wrap your life, almost reflexively, around things and ideas you serve. What you’re willing to give to, what you’re willing to serve – that’s really the only question that matters when it comes to matters of belief, for by them people will be able to tell the story of you.

I have to ask myself this question often. What is it that I serve?

Some of you are still with me, in that Ultra-Orthodox synagogue back in Jerusalem, perhaps wondering how it was that I didn’t walk out and never come back. Here you see me, wrapped in a tallis, dressed in white. How was it that I got from there to here? Why is it that I still serve God?

That night, I began to realize that I wasn't actually serving; rather, I was playing a game with belief, and that game was keeping me in a kind of prison.

That prison looked something like this: despite what we know today, that the universe is 14 billion years old, that we live, not at the center of it, but on an outer arm of a medium-sized spiral galaxy in the midst of another 200 billion galaxies just like it, that the root of all of our beings are particles of matter so small that we haven't yet built the technology to see them - that our understanding of the nature of God has not changed a whit. That we still have the angry, over-concerned parent with a white beard that we had 400 years ago.

What I realized was that I had everything in my religious life - except for curiosity. My curiosity at God's nature, and the nature of the universe - all these things were absent.

Religion is not the recognition of unchanging these about the nature of everything. Religion is the search to uncover and understand the spiritual nature of everything.

So many people understand religion as the swallowing acceptance of spiritual theses. But in reality it is the preparation of the body and the soul to search for the face of God, and perhaps, every once in a while, even to find it. It is a journey of exploration, not a war of faith.
That night, in that synagogue, was not the night I lost religion. It was the night that I found it.

That night, I found what I serve. I serve that journey. I serve all those who are seeking that journey. I serve the search for holiness and the divine, with love in our hearts and kindness on our lips. I serve the strength it takes to raise our heads above the fray of nonsense and distraction, and to see the Higher Things for their true beauty and their frail necessity. And I serve the idea that such a search cannot be undertaken alone, and requires spiritual partnership between many - so many. And if I could spend my life helping to create spiritual partners, even in the smallest way, I would live a fulfilled life.

So I can say, in a way that I couldn't years ago - ana avda d'kudsha brikh hu. I am a servant of the Blessed Holy One. And I can finally speak the preceding words with contentment.

There will be many of you in this room for whom this message does not resonate. And I need you to know that that is perfectly ok by me. We weren't all created to serve the same thing, and think the same way.

But there are some of you who feel spiritually stuck, who feel torn between the depth and meaning that Judaism provides, and some of the beliefs you've encountered that lead you to believe that it no longer has relevance to contemporary life - that it is caught too far in the past. Some of you want the richness the Torah provides, but you don’t know how to square Torah with the new knowledge about life that we possess. And to those people, I say - come with me. This journey is yours too. It's one that we will undertake together. It’s a path that I can show you how to walk, even as I don’t know the road’s end.

I can’t promise you certainty. I can’t promise you answers. I don’t know what our Torah will look like at the end, or what we’ll say, or exactly what we’ll teach. But I can promise the fulfillment, the graceful humility that comes from living a life in service to that which is transcendent. I can, at the very least, promise you the reward of those words: at avda d’kudsha brikh hu: you will be a servant of the Holy One too.


  1. The most beautiful sermon I have ever read, or heard for that matter. Thank you and Shana Tova.

  2. Hi Rabbi,

    Your sermon is very thought provoking. I had this afterthought.

    The existence of G d can’t be proven. I am not a Rabbi, but for me this is not such a big problem and the reason is this, Judaism exists and it is good.

    I believe that the life of the average Jew is a ‘better’ life than that of a person without any religious belief and that this can be scientifically proven. I believe the same is true of most religious cultures, that life within one is generally better than life outside of one.

    Roy Chesnut