Peter J. Rubinstein | September 10, 1999
Wounded by the devastation that brought us to this Armory last year, we assessed the damage together when last we gathered here. We had lost our sanctuary; we were injured and worried. The trauma compelled us to evaluate our community and to think deeply about what we wanted to be as a synagogue.
We know now that by physical measures, our sanctuary as we knew it is gone. Lost forever is the plaster that was stripped away by the cascading walls of water used by the firefighteres to extinguish the flames. Lost forever is the particular stenciling upon which we gazed. The pews are also gone. The organ is gone. So are the carved pilasters, a menorah, the lights, and the ceiling domes, all destroyed in the fire. Lost forever is the aging mustiness that decades of use bring.
From the day after the fire, we urged ourselves to action, consoling ourselves with this indispensable belief: the devastation of a physical sanctuary will not obliterate the spirit, the soul of our congregation. We were raised as a people who know how to wander. We tenaciously honor the core values of our beloved faith. We have carried ourselves on with enormous resilience.
This evening, we take some moments to remember how we transformed trauma into triumph, sorrow into an invigorated commitment.
As soon as the ashes cooled, we began to reclaim what remained. Stripping the building to its barest skeleton, we discovered remnants of our past, which are now displayed in lobby cases outside the newly designed Beir Chapel. Among the remnants were a liquor bottle and a worker’s shoe left in the walls from the construction of the synagogue in 1870.
We welcomed the archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister of Israel and other leaders who came within days to pay their respects.
We committed ourselves not only to maintaining our congregational program but to extending ourselves beyond all previous limits. Hundreds of you signed up at these services last year for Mitzvah Day. We spanned out across the city to clean and plant in city parks, to build houses, to serve meals, and to speak to elderly and children.
In late October, our congregation visited Israel and Prague to see firsthand the restoration of sanctuaries and the rebirth of a community. This class at the Lauder Gur Aryeh Jewish Day School in Prague is a breathtaking witness to the miracle of a reborn Jewish community.
Aware of how we had been supported and strengthened by the people of this city, we extended gratitude in a powerful tribute hosted by Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. The Emerald Society of the police and fire departments greeted us. Hundreds of us paid tribute to the police and fire departments who told us sadly that they are rarely thanked. We also took the opportunity to express our gratitude to representatives of the City and the corporate community for their enormous, unflagging, and oftentimes unsolicited support.
We pledged ourselves to deepen our relationship between our congregation and the Black community through our shared activities with Grace United Methodist Church on 104th Street and the New York Metropolitan Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolence.
In addition, this year we honored at our Jethro Shabbat Justice William Thompson, founder of Blacks and Jews in Conversation.
There was fun, too. Purim gave us the Megillah according to rock and roll with our cantor as Ahashuerus.
We presented our annual Shofar Award to Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary who led us in song with Cantor Franzel in more conservative garb.
Through the span of this year we met thirty times in small groups in the homes of members. Each gathering began with a teaching by Rabbi Davidson or Rabbi Reines focusing on the Principles of Reform Judaism, a much-debated document.
Then without warning or plan, because, as we have learned, no tragedy is planned, I, in the name of all of us, visited Albania and Hungary when the scourge of ethnic cleansing, murder, and bombing hit Central Europe. We could not turn away from the cataclysm of peoples brutalizing each other. With the help of our nursery and religious schools, we put together over one thousand kits for Kosovo— plastic bags containing the simplest sanitary items.
I met a young woman and her child in one of the camps. She wanted to believe her husband had survived but her suspicion was that he hadn’t. In Hungary, we also met Jews who had fled the bombing of Serbia.
Hosted by Jews in Budapest, one revitalized European Jewish community helped another. Many of these Serbian Jews were on their way to Israel.
In New York City, Albania, Hungary, Israel, and among ourselves, we have worked to extend what we know, what we believe, and what we do.
Each person and each organization within our congregation mustered their energy in all possible fashion to help, even by designing and having our Central Issues Group paint the bridge work that now hangs around the perimeter of our Sanctuary building and evokes the stenciling that will be restored within. We do it all so that these, our children, can learn from us through our school, our youth group, our college program that to be a Jew means to learn one’s own history and faith, to nourish one’s own spirit, and to help others.
And finally in June, our dynamic Social Action Committee hosted “Advancing the Promise” at Saint Bartholomew’s Church. It was a time for us to commit ourselves anew to the promise of a better society. We did so in song, in dance, in listening to Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement and visionary in government. We dedicated ourselves to justice and joined hands with neighbors, friends, and each other and joyfully sang “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem for our age and a promise to ourselves.
We shall overcome! This year we have faced inconceivable challenges. We permitted no obstacle to deter us. We remained undiminished in commitment and conviction. We demonstrated resilience.
Memories were born this year and there will be stories told about this congregation at the turn of the millennium that manifested impassioned zeal in a dedication to its own future and to improving its society.
For even while our sanctuary is in ruins, the soul of this congregation remains whole and vital.
This evening, I want to use this common experience to talk not only about Central Synagogue and a sanctuary rising from the ashes. This experience is not only the tale of a congregation and its sanctuary. It is a lesson about the pattern of life itself and an instruction about human destiny and what happens at death.
The final prayer of Yom Kippur, read during the last minutes of the holiday, professes, “In woman and man, children of dust and offspring of heaven, You have blended two worlds: perishable earth and immortal soul, finite matter, locked into time and space and infinite spirit which endures through all eternity.”
We Jews believe that the physical container of the spirit is temporal, that it can be damaged as our sanctuary was damaged, even lost as our sanctuary was lost. However, the soul and spirit, which are contained therein, are immortal just as the soul and spirit of this congregation transcended the ashes.
You and I, human beings, are of two worlds, one physical and perishable, one of the soul and immortal. In life, as we know it on this earth, these two embodiments of our being blend in singular harmony. According to Jewish tradition they are separated at death so that even while the house of the spirit is buried in the bosom of the earth, the spirit itself returns to God who gave it.
That is a fundamental principle of our Jewish faith. Yet, how often Jews ask, “How come I don’t know this?”
Perhaps because all traditional beliefs in an afterlife and resurrection were expunged from an evolving Reform Jewish theology during the latter 19th and into the 20th century. Early Reform Jews argued that what could not be seen and what could not be rationally demonstrated did not exist. So our liberal ancestors took out all references to a life after this earthly life.
We were taught that these bodies of ours, which we touch and feel and which others can caress and hold and see, are all that we are. We were taught to believe that there is nothing more beyond this life. As a result, liberal Jews struggle when death occurs in a family or among friends because we have no format for imagining a life after our earthy life, an existence without a body.
Many of us have been taught that while Christians believe in an afterlife, Jews do not.
That is not true. Quite the contrary, Christian thought emerged from Jewish thought on this matter.
Our tradition imagines the journey after death, and it instructs that there is an olam haba, the age to come. That is the place where souls move after burial of the body. The reason for a speedy interment is that the n’shama, the soul, hovers near the body and ascends only after the grave is filled in. Rabbi Abbahu argues in the Talmud, “The person who has died knows all that is said in his or her presence until the grave is closed.” (Shabbat 152b) The person knows what is said at the funeral. Others quoted in the Talmud argue that such awareness continues even after burial.
The Mishnah, a fundamental text of Jewish thought and law and the basis for Talmudic exposition, says directly, “All Israelites have a share in the age to come… except for those who deny that resurrection of the dead is taught in the Torah and those who deny that the Torah comes from heaven.” (Sanhedrin 10:1) equating the importance of the belief in resurrection with the belief of a God-given Torah emphasizes the traditional adherence to the idea of resurrection.
How startling it is for Jews to learn that not only does Judaism believe in an age to come, in Gan Eden (our version of heaven), in Gehenna (our version of hell), but that we have a traditional uninterrupted belief in physical resurrection, t’chiyat hameitim.
The traditional liturgy still includes as a central part of the prayer service the words “You are faithful to revive the dead. Blessed are You, O God, m’chayeh hameitim, Who revives the dead.”
Uncomfortable with the idea of resurrection, our Reform forebears took these words away. They changed the Hebrew sentence to translate as “Praised be Thou, O Lord, notaya b’tochaynu chayay olam—who hast implanted within us immortal life.” They taught us that the only hope for immortality is in the memories of mourners.
The latest iteration of our prayer book returns to a semblance of the traditional Hebrew.
Dr. Eugene Borowitz, the eminent Reform Jewish theologian, confesses that though he cannot have knowledge of what awaits him after death, he is yet “inclined to think that [his] hope is better spoken of as resurrection than immortality for [he does] not know [him]self as a soul without a body…”
In the time of trauma that accompanies a death, mourners long to grasp the specifics of the journey of the souls of those we love. Tradition follows Rabbi Akiba’s teaching that “the judgment of the unrighteous… shall endure only twelve months.” (Mishna Eduyot 2:10) After one year, even the wicked return to Gan Eden—to paradise.
Our tradition never meticulously described the world to come, even though our tradition was meticulous about confessing that such a world exists.
Personally, I cannot conceive of resurrection.
But I believe that while the body dies, a person does not. I believe that the soul lives forever. I believe that the essence of a human being does not reside in the physical container, which lies lifeless after the last breath. It is the spirit within a person that makes a loved one beloved and that spirit is not equivalent to a lifeless form. The spirit is something else. Upon death, the n’shama, the soul, is somewhere else.
I choose to believe the traditional concept that the n’shamah remains forever and is welcomed by the souls of those who have gone before, parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. The souls of those whom we bury are lost in body to us and gathered in spirit with those who will love them in the olam haba.
I offer this brief explanation of our tradition’s teachings to help and to comfort those who have struggled with death and perhaps did not know what our faith believes. I cannot say that this is what a Jew must believe, because we are ultimately bound by our personal experiences and private understandings. I myself will continue to struggle with this matter.
But of what I am certain is that each of us has a soul, that permanent part of us that is not impaired by illness or injury, that is not equivalent to physical appearance or intelligence, that gives us permanent value and is unrelated to age or ability. It is that part of us that is not foreclosed by the cycle of life and death. We Jews refuse to accept a person’s total annihilation. We believe in the non-perishability of a human being, that nothing in creation is ever lost.
At the end of this service, we will sing about our soul and God. The last words of Adon Olam profess, “Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake, and with my spirit, my body also: Adonai li v’lo irah—You are with me, I will not fear.”
We are so much more than the form we see in the mirror. Our eternal soul abides within, the seed from which our passions and commitments grow, the core of our belief and our faith and our trust and love, the part of us that will never end. It is the precious part of us that so many of us seek to nourish during life. Our souls will cause ripples to flow outward in the sea of humanity during the course of creation, and upon death it will be lifted to gather with those who have gone before.
This day we consider seriously the spirit within us.
So we return to where we began. The house of Central Synagogue was destroyed a year ago. Like our souls, the soul of our community never faltered.
Our sanctuary building is being resurrected. We call it a restoration. New trusses are being formed under the temporary roof. The building that is rising up will be extraordinary and exquisite. In form it will capture the intent of its builders and the vision of its original architect. And it will be elegantly fashioned to be flexible to meet present and future needs as well as any of us can foresee. It will be a bridge between past and future generations. You can hear about it from our architects and builders this Wednesday evening.
Last year we promised nakum u’vahniynu, “We will rise up and rebuild!” The promise is being kept!
Let us begin this year feeling the presence of those who gave us life, whether in our physical midst or looking down from above. And let us find comfort, those of us who have suffered loss, in the abiding presence of those who still love us, and who would tell us of that love in ways beyond our senses.
And let us appreciate the blending of two worlds: perishable earth and immortal soul; finite matter and infinite spirit, which endures through all eternity. And then, let us give thanks.
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