A Shabbat sermon is the primary vehicle through which a rabbi’s community judges his or her performance, ability and personality. Over the years, a particular rabbi’s sermons tell the story of Judaism as it is filtered through the speaker’s individual lens. I can only imagine how much pressure this weekly task creates. Rabbis need to come up with timeless yet novel themes; they need to package these themes in a way that will not offend yet spiritually excite and motivate; they need to support their points with classical Jewish sources as well as scholarly perspectives and wisdom drawn from popular culture. As if this were not enough of a challenge, pulpit rabbis are mindful that they are laying their souls bare before those most likely to judge and critique them.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, a luminary in the Conservative movement, has spent the last 25 years at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois. To celebrate this milestone, the shul published Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion, 96 edited sermons of Rabbi Kurtz’s choosing. The book, in which Kurtz artfully reveals the personal meaning he finds in our traditions, is valuable not only for any serious Jew, but also for those who believe our tradition is too outmoded to offer much value in today’s world.
Three themes leap out: the reality that life entails struggle; the importance of making a difference in the lives of others; and the foundational need for Jewish unity. Kurtz illustrates how the Jewish tradition informs our ability to cope with life’s difficulties, to become the best people we can, and to forge a global Jewish community more concerned with commonalities than with differences.
In the preface, Kurtz discusses his favorite biblical passage, the Genesis narrative of Jacob wrestling with a man “until the break of dawn.” He writes that “this struggle, in the loneliness of night, forever changes Jacob” and then admits: “For me, this struggle never ends; every day we attempt to meet the challenges of everyday life. Sometimes we prevail; other times we do not. Like Jacob, we walk away wounded, limping from the encounter, but blessed in the process.” I believe this honest – almost raw – admission reveals the author’s over-arching philosophy. Struggle is inevitable; what matters is how we respond to it.
Part of the power of the book derives from Kurtz’s unbridled honesty, as when he was asked to visit a terminally ill young woman. He frankly acknowledges that he was “filled with trepidation.” He also admits that although he was supposed to provide her with comfort and cheer, the result of their many visits over several months was just the opposite. The young woman’s human spirit and internal reserves actually enlivened his spirit. The message is clear: Jacob’s encounter with the stranger and Kurtz’s encounter with this young woman illustrate that within all of us is “a wellspring of physical, emotional, and spiritual prowess” that we can rely on. In times of need, “we can meet life’s challenges with courage, strength, and faith.” This message is reiterated throughout the book.
Other struggles derive from internal battles. Speaking of the two sides of Noah, who was righteous in his generation but whose drunken conduct dishonored his family, Kurtz observes: “It would be a boring world if we only had the capacity to do good. Instead, we must constantly challenge ourselves, channel our emotions, our drives, and our passions, recognizing that each time we make a decision, we must do it for good and not for ill.” Kurtz merges his life’s struggles with the importance of living generously and making positive choices for the betterment of humanity. Living according to halakhah is exceedingly important to Kurtz, yet it is clear that he regards Jewish rituals as a means to bring us closer to God. Even prayer – the ultimate human testimony to “God’s presence in this world” – is trumped by man’s acts, deeds and behavior.
For Kurtz, spirituality is manifested and achieved through human deeds – both large and small – that make a difference in the lives of others. He stresses the importance of guarding against indifference to the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of others, and of becoming partners with God by using our talents to do good. Kurtz illustrates this theme with one of the simplest commandments. In Deuteronomy 22:6-7, we are told to let a mother bird go before taking her young. The simplicity of the command does not detract from its importance. Yet, not all commandments are easy to fulfill. Kurtz’s sermons challenge his audience to be more proactive in our deeds and more reflective prior to taking action.
Kurtz’s third theme is Jewish unity. In a sermon written for Parashat Bemidbar, he says: “We feel responsible for another Jew wherever he or she may reside. When we unite together in spirit, we are a holy people.” This theme is also evident in how Kurtz conveys his message. He shows a desire to learn from any Jewish source, regardless of its author’s affiliation. The Jewish scholars he quotes reflect the religious spectrum, from very traditional Orthodox to Reform thinkers.
Of course, the very concept of Jewish unity always has been illusive. We often are not able to engage with those with whom we differ. Although Kurtz does not address directly the issue of denominational strife, his overall wisdom does provide some compelling advice. First, in a sermon on Parashat Vayikra he emphasizes the importance of derekh eretz and civil discourse generally. Especially when we engage with those with whom we disagree, civility and respect are essential. Second, Encountering Torah serves as a reminder that all of our daily deeds have the potential for helping achieve Jewish unity.
Encountering Torah is one rabbi’s account of how our tradition furnished the parameters of a worthwhile and spiritual existence thousands of years ago, and continues to do so in modern times. Yasher koach to Rabbi Kurtz for his eloquent and probing reminder of why living Jewishly means living meaningfully.
Encountering Torah is available from North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (847.432.8900, ext 221 or nssbethel.org).