OK, Well Maybe Not 100% Defrocked
Sunday October 16th 2005, 2:10 am
Filed under: Sermons

Yes, Defrocked Rabbi had a small gig this past Yom Kippur in a very small congregation in a somewhat small city. You all know the rule of Jewish life: two Jews, three synagogues. This town was close to that.

In case you missed it, here’s my Kol Nidre sermon; (Hey! I bet it was better than the one you heard):

“Are you all old enough to recognize the name of Lenny Bruce?” I asked my 23 year old daughter that question this week as I was preparing and she said, “I know that’s a name I should know, but I don’t remember who it is.”

In case you don’t know, Lenny Bruce is acknowledged among almost all modern comedians to be the father of modern comedy. He was way ahead of his time. More than anyone else, Bruce helped change stand-up comedy from the practice of telling jokes to a more daring and experimental form of entertainment that we just take for granted these days.

His routines took the form of stories, skits, and commentary. A lot of his work ventured into controversial areas involving sex or racism. This was back in the late 50’s early 60’s when we had many more taboo subjects than we do today. Lenny Bruce’s frequent use of material with high shock value caused his career to be plagued by constant trouble with the law. His obscenity trials are now considered to be landmarks in the case for preservation of First Amendment freedoms. He died at age 40 of a drug overdose in 1966.

I started out last week thinking about Yom Kippur and about Kol Nidre and about fasting in the usual way rabbis do these things. How this day is an opportunity for prayer, for wiping the slate clean, letting go of old grudges. How Kol Nidre doesn’t really mean what you might think it means. And as I worked out my thoughts, I kept coming back to Lenny Bruce

In one of his most famous routines, Bruce riffs on the differences between “Jewish and Goyish”; now in case you’re too young to remember, part of it — slightly sanitized –goes like this:

Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish.

If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.

Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.

All Drake’s Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes, goyish. Black cherry soda is very Jewish, macaroons are very Jewish. Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t go near them.

Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Baton-twirling is very goyish.

Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland USAF (ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York.

Now, some of Lenny Bruce’s references might be a little dated. But some are universal and timeless. Its been over 40 years since he wrote that routine, but sliced white bread is as goyish as ever; and pumpernickel is not one bit less Jewish. I first heard this routine when I was younger than my aforementioned daughter is now. And I have never forgotten it. Especially that last one:

Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word.

Bruce was right. In 1966 Jews observed everything. We observed Hannukah. We observed Passover. We were observant of Shabbat and kashrut and all the other things we did that made us different. We even observed our own birthdays. Observe is following the rules. Observe is doing it just the right way. Observe is being afraid that you’re never doing enough. And sometimes observe is when you just watch; when you aren’t really involved.

Other people celebrated, (or so we thought then.) Celebration is spontaneous and creative and joyful and unrestrained. Even back then, sometimes we celebrated. But we seemed afraid to admit it.

In 1963 or 4 or 5 I heard this Lenny Bruce routine and a few years later when I was in rabbinic school it still stuck in my throat. So I made myself a promise: I was going to celebrate. Whenever I had occasion to refer to a Passover Seder or a meal in a Sukkah or a bar mitzvah or any other Jewish event, whenever humanly possible, I was going to say, celebrate! Relax, enjoy, let go a little, relish the moment. Celebrate! Make “celebrate” a Jewish word.

Now Yom Kippur has always been the greatest challenge to that resolution.

The sound of Kol Nidre that Liz sang so beautifully still rings in our ears. Some say it is the most awesome, most inspiring moment in the Jewish year. Can we celebrate this hour? Or must we always observe it.

And the sound of Kol Nidre inaugurates our annual 25 hour fast. From the moment of sundown, around 6:30 this evening until the third star is visible in the sky tomorrow evening, we are all encouraged to abstain from all food, from all drink; even water.

It is a challenge. It is not easy. Most of us to practice this fast each year have been anxious about it for a few weeks now.

Fasting on Yom Kippur goes all the way back. It is one of the 613 commandments of the Torah. When the Torah first described this day, it said, this is a day for v’aneetem et nafshotaychem, a day for afflicting your souls.

So my question this Yom Kippur is, “Can we make fasting a celebration?” Even as we afflict ourselves??

Bear with me for a few minutes. I’d like you to join me and think about fasting.

We all dread this day. We shirk from this way of afflicting our souls. A traditional greeting for the few days up through tonite is to wish someone a Tzom kal, an easy fast. That always strikes me as kind of a paradox; but that’s the greeting.

Our great teachers through the years have come up with at least four main reasons for fasting.

First, fasting is for penance. We deny ourselves food and water, to show we’re really sorry for the things we’ve done that we’re not proud of. Whenever someone is about to be found guilty in a court of law, they express regret. And we always wonder, “Are they sorry for what they’ve done, or just sorry that they got caught?” Here we got caught by no one but ourselves. Fasting is an expression of the need to give something of ourselves, to make some sacrifice, to demonstrate that all these words of remorse we say have some real substance behind them. This is the one day of the year where self-affliction is good. It’s our way of telling ourselves we are sincere. It is our way of saying to ourselves, to God, “Hey! Don’t let me off the hook too easily here. I really want to make amends for the wrongs I’ve done. The discomfort that I feel shows my desire to balance the scale.”

And the second reason for fasting on this day is for self-discipline. Part of the repentance process scratches at our natural urge to give self-discipline a try. Self-indulgence and lack of self-control are what get us into trouble in the first place. Disciplining oneself is never easy; but virtually all great teachers in every spiritual tradition insist on its value.

I used to be a serious mid-life runner. I used to run marathons and shorter races. For about a dozen years, that was my passion. After the race was over, I used to hang out with my fellow runners; and sometimes we’d ask each other: Why do we do this? And you want to know what the most common answer was? “To prove to myself that I can.”

You know, one of the things I do in my life is I practice hypnosis. It’s my sideline; what I do in the evenings. 90% of the people who come to me for hypnosis come to quit smoking. And I always ask them, “Why do you want to quit?” A lot of them say, “I hate it, it stinks, it’s expensive, it will kill me.” But one of other the most common responses might be a little surprising. They say, “I want to prove to myself that I have the self-disciple to do it.” Fasting on Yom Kippur is an annual opportunity to do a bit of self-discipline; to prove to yourself just what you’re capable of.

Not everyone can run a marathon. Fortunately, not many Jews smoke these days. But everyone has the opportunity to do this fast.

The third traditional reason for fasting is that fasting is a means for focusing on the spiritual. Usually, most of the time, Judaism acknowledges the needs of the body; usually it calls gratifying the instincts of the body good; within certain limits. Remember how when God creates the word, God looks at the world as it has come into beings, and God says, “It is very good.” And our rabbis said, “Good, sure;” why “very good”? Very good implies that even the inclination to do evil is good; If it were not for our animal instincts, no one would have any ambitions, no one would build a house or marry or raise children. Without the inclination to evil, the world would become desolate. Humanity would die out. And yet, as much as we recognize the needs of the body, Judaism really about the spiritual side of life. Sometimes body and spirit go together; sometimes they go in opposite directions. By fasting on Yom Kippur the needs of the body are left unattended; so all the focus can be on spirit. Like angels; dressed in white. Fasting makes talking to God and listening to God a whole lot easier.

And the fourth reason for fasting is a means of awakening compassion. By knowing what is means to go hungry, even for one day, our hearts are moved for those who suffer. Remember a few weeks ago, watching the refugees from hurricane Katrina. Hearing stories about food being unavailable to them. Did you feel their pain? And just a couple of days ago; on the other side of the world; reading about 10’s of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people suddenly without food, without shelter, sleeping on the ground. Afraid that any buildings still standing might soon topple.

By fasting we are moved to think of the needs of others and to alleviate their suffering. In haftarah, the lesson from the prophets that we read tomorrow morning, Isaiah castigates his people for their neglect of the poor. Their fasting and their pretence of piety is not acceptable to God if it is just a way to hide behind their meanness and dishonesty. But when fasting leads to compassion, to action to alleviate suffering, that’s what this day is all about.

We Jews aren’t the only ones fasting today. Today is also the 10th day of the Muslim fast of Ramadan. Each year, all Muslims are suppose to fast from sun-up to sun-down every day for four weeks. And the Prophet Mohammed taught that fasting was a way of awakening compassion. When you fast, you learn what it’s like when someone has no food. And so when you see someone in need, you help them.

OK; I’ve got a challenge for each and every person here tonight; for the next 24 hours. Take your fasting to the next level. If you’ve never even attempted to celebrate the fast of Yom Kippur, try it now. Tell yourself that when you leave this place in an hour or two you will not open the refrigerator or open a pantry door or even turn on the water tap AT LEAST until you go to bed tonight. That can be phase one. See if you can make it that far. If this is the first time you make it through to phase one, give yourself a pat on the back go to bed knowing that you’ve done a bit of penance and a bit of self-discipline and focused spiritually and awakened compassion just a little bit more than you otherwise would have.

Now if you make that far for the first time or if you’ve made it that far before, you can give yourself a little mental message that when you wake up in the morning tomorrow, the very first thought you will recall is that this is Yom Kippur and you’ve been doing the fast. So see if you can’t just skip breakfast. Try it without even drinking water. (Assuming you’re healthy enough; if you’re pregnant or have diabetes or some such thing, then maybe you shouldn’t be fasting.) See if you can’t stretch just a bit and make it back here at 10:00 am tomorrow. That is phase 2. But actually, if you make it here, then you’re stuck and you’re pretty much unable to break your fast until noon. So when you make it through phase 2, then you can give yourself a bigger pat on the back, but then you stop yourself and you go, “Hey! Being proud of fasting almost defeats the purpose; just do it!” humbly.

Then comes the hard part. When we break tomorrow, it’s around 12 or 12:30. So then you can decide if you want to try to stretch to phase 3. If you do, then you realize that now you’ve got about 4 or 5 hours where you get uncomfortable. And you can’t just fill in the time with the usual mundane things you do during your days. Watching tv just doesn’t feel right; nor does shopping or cleaning your house or finishing whatever unfinished project you’ve got. Phase 3 is the most challenging. You’re all most cordially invited to join me and few others for a local walk right after morning services. (Bring your sneakers if you’re thinking to walk together.) Reading is good, especially reading something with a spiritual component. Meditating is good. A short nap is ok. This is a time to be alone with yourself. To experience Yom Kippur most intensely. To think about penance and self-disciple and spiritual matters and awakening compassion. Now if you make it through phase 3, then you can give yourself an even bigger pat on the back, and know that it’s mostly downhill from there.

If you’re still fasting when we meet back together tomorrow afternoon for Ne’ilah, you’re likely to find yourself in a very unusual mental state. You’re a little light headed, maybe a little spacey. But intensely aware that you are doing something special for yourself. Those last hours are something I can try to talk about; but really, its something you have to experience. It’s like climbing a mountain or riding a roller coaster; some things aren’t meant to described. They have to be experienced.

This is my challenge to you this Yom Kippur. Play with fasting a little more than you have previously. Wherever you are, take one more step. That’s all. We tend to think of Jewish stuff as all or nothing: either you eat only kosher or you don’t. Or you go to synagogue every Shabbat, or you don’t. It’s not either/or. There’s always a whole spectrum of where you can be. And you can always look at where you are on that spectrum; and adjust, just a bit. You can always take one more step; if you are so inclined. Sometimes you’ll try something new and you’ll just shake your head and day, “jeez louize; why did I do that???” But sometimes you’ll learn amazing things from the experience. Sometimes you’ll be transformed. You won’t know until you try.

So maybe, just maybe, when we all reassemble late tomorrow afternoon, we can all prove that even though Lenny Bruce might have been right 40 years ago, some times, some things do change. I know it’s a paradox; it’s black become white. But somehow, in some mysterious way, maybe now, at long last, if we all work on it together, we can make even fasting into a celebration.

G’mar chatimah tova, may we all be stamped and sealed for a happy, healthy, and prosperous year.

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