What Should the Rabbi Say on Yom Kippur?

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Israelis sit on Ashdod beach during the Tashlikh ritual on the Jewish New Year, Sept. 25, 2014.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Imagine that you are sitting in a movie theater surrounded by your family, munching popcorn and enjoying a film. Suddenly, you hear a whirring sound; the film grinds to a halt and the manager rushes to the front of the auditorium. Glaring at the audience, he begins to shout, “You are enjoying my movie aren’t you? So why didn't you come last week and the week before that when I also screened wonderful films?”

That was how my friend, journalist Jonathan Freedland, described the experience of many Jews listening to their rabbis preaching their High Holy Day sermons.

There are clearly clumsy clergy whose ranting is offensive. But sermon writing isn't easy; inspiring people to change their ways and make more room for God in their lives is hard.

As a pulpit rabbi, I agonized over how to construct speeches that might inspire a contemporary congregation. Late into the night, I would whittle away at my words, editing out any trace of archaic Biblical language, searching for the most modern analogies and paraphrasing every rabbinic quote into a contemporary idiom. It was ancient wisdom with a modern facelift, and, at times, it felt a little forced.

Then I began listening to the speeches of one of the greatest preachers of all time: Martin Luther King. Like millions of others, I was spellbound by his rhetoric and captivated by his moral passion.

His speeches were a heady mix of advocacy for America's oppressed black people, confidence that this message was deeply rooted in the American dream, optimism that change would come, and an entreaty for protesters to show willingness to pay the price for that moral struggle. This potent brew was served with Biblical poetry to deliver a message of hope and justice that eventually changed our world.

"We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." he thundered, citing Amos 5:24. This call for a social revolution in which the downtrodden is uplifted and the arrogant cut to size also drew on Isaiah's exquisite analogy: "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain" (Isaiah 40:4).

Listening to Martin Luther King’s message and hearing him declaim the words of the Hebrew prophets, I realised that, sometimes, we rabbis lose our nerve. Instead of painting a magnificent vision for the world, we fixate on legalistic details of religious observance and obsess over Jewish continuity. We forget that people will only be inspired if they are presented with a compelling moral mission.

The call for social justice and peace on earth is not just an amorphous idea borrowed from liberals, but a profoundly Jewish principle explicit in our prophets and enshrined in our law. Judaism wants fidelity to the faith and it demands precise religious observance, but it also offers a bold vision that is too often ignored. The Rambam codifies it as law, not because it is cute and comforting, but because it sets powerful goals for humanity. Referring to Messianic times, he writes:

"There will be neither famine nor war, envy nor competition. Good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God ... ‘The world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed’," (Rambam, Laws of Kings 12:5 citing Isaiah 11:9).

Our prophets offered us compelling messages in glorious poetry and our halakhists (writers or compilers of halakha, Jewish law) set these before us as a challenge. They wrote with confidence that we can mend the world and they challenged us to make the necessary sacrifices to do so. This is the Jewish vision which we must confidently proclaim and live out in Israel and abroad. And these are part of the yardstick by which we should be measuring ourselves as we face the days of judgement.

Perhaps the job of the rabbi is easier than I thought. The prophets proclaimed the challenges better than any sermon I could compose. And I know of no more inspiring visions than these. We simply have to share these visions in warm, accessible and challenging ways.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.