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September 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

One of the best stories I ever heard in person came from the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, may his memory bring blessing, the long-time president of the UAHC/URJ, our Reform movement.  Rabbi Schindler told it on himself when he visited my congregation in Santa Barbara many years ago.  

It seems that on a trip to Israel Schindler had gone to the Kotel, the Western Wall, and was walking towards this holiest place in Judaism when a old man approached him and asked him to put on a kipah, a yarmulke, worn by traditional Jews at all sacred places.  Schindler, no traditionalist and head of the most important Reform organization in the world, said grandly that he didn’t need a yarmulke because “the sky is my kipah.”  The old Jew looked at Schindler and shook his head slowly, saying, “Such a big kipah for such a small head…”

We Reform Jews typically have an elegant disregard for the niceties of ritual, the traditional elements that our ancestors considered essential to their expression of Judaism.  We know that kipot, tallitot and phylacteries—or as our grandparents would have said, yarmulkahs, tallises, and tefillin—are merely symbols, and have no intrinsic holiness themselves.  In fact, we are often quite certain that we know better than our more primitive forbears about such matters.

And so we approach the things that other people label “holy” with, at best, a healthy skepticism.  We put far more time into staring at our iphones or Samsung screens than do reading in any siddur or machzor, and we know much more about sports scores, clothing sales, or presidential debate topics—not to mention Iranian nuclear treaties—than we do about Torah. 

We tend to be skeptical, contemporary human beings.  We live in a world filled with the accomplishments of science, in which everything we believe in must be proven.  There is even a touch of cynicism to us, to be honest.  Holiness?  Consecrated places?  Rituals? Sacred languages?  These were OK for our grandparents, perhaps our parents, but we know better.

I suspect most of you do not know what an apikorus is.  No particular reason you should.  The word is used in the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, way back in the third century, and has been commented on in Jewish literature ever since.  It is derived from the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, founder of the school of thought we call Epicurean, which can be summarized more or less as “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and after that—nothing.”  In the ancient world, Epicureans were rational hedonists—that sounds kind of fun, actually—and they came to symbolize the essential idea that living enjoyably is the best reward, and that the rituals, rites, and experiences of holiness were essentially meaningless.  The rabbis did not all someone an apikorus as a compliment.

But in Europe, the institution of the apikorus in Jewish tradition became kind of important.  Every town needs its local skeptic, especially in areas deeply devoted to religious practice, as Jews mostly were.  So just as each shtetl had its rabbi, each village also had its own apikorus.  The believers had the rabbi; the nonbelievers had the apikorus.  There were far more of the former than the latter, but there were enough of both to go around. 

And so it came to be that in the world of Eastern European Jewry, in the Old Country, where every local rabbi looked up to an even greater rabbi in a bigger city, the apikoruses developed a kind of similar sort of arrangement, with the lesser apikoruses looking up to the greater apikoruses.  And in Poland the greatest of the skeptics, the top apikorus of all, was the Great Apikorus of Lodz.  Just as there was a Vilna Gaon and a Lubavitcher Rebbe, so there was a Great Apikorus of Lodz.

There is a story of the young apikorus in the shtetl of Szadek in Poland who grows frustrated trying to convince the people of his little village that their committed adherence to piety is mistaken and irrational.  He has had it with life in his tiny little town, and he sets out for Lodz to learn at the feet of the Great Apikorus of Lodz.

The Szadek apikorus arrives in Lodz on Friday morning, and he asks at the inn where he can find the Great Apikorus. The inkeeper says he can find him at the local shul. The young apikorus is surprised, but goes to the synagogue and asks again where he can find the Great Apikorus of Lodz.  He is told that the great one is inside, praying.  Again, the Szadek Apikorus is surprised—he is inside, praying?—but he goes in and asks the shammas where in the sanctuary he can find the Great Apikorus.  “Oh,” says the shammas, “He’s up on the bimah reading Torah.”  Now the Szadek Apikorus is more than surprised, he is positively stunned, and a little irritated.  But he stations himself on the aisle and waits for the Great Apikorus to come down from the pulpit.

“Shalom Aleichem,” he says, “I'm the Szadek apikorus, an apikorus just like you, and I've come to Lodz to study at your feet..."

"Welcome!” says the Great Apikorus of Lodz, “But before we study heretical texts together, we need to go to the mikveh and prepare for Shabbos."

The young apikorus, thoroughly perplexed by now, follows the Great Apikorus to the ritual bath, then back to the synagogue for Friday night services.  He still has learned no new heresy, but he remains hopeful.  After services he is invited to go home with the Great Apikorus of Lodz, and there he has a traditional Shabbos dinner, with all the blessings and zmiros, the songs.  The Szadek Apikorus, not a little put out, goes back to the inn to sleep, but he arranges to meet the Lodz Apikorus at synagogue the next morning.  There the Great Apikorus puts the young apikorus off until after morning services, then after lunch, then mincha services, the Shalosh seudos meal, then because they are studying the next week’s Torah portion. Finally, at the end of Shabbat, the Great Apikorus himself leads the Havdallah ceremony in shul!

The young apikorus can contain himself no longer. "I don't understand what's going on. I came to Lodz to study heretical texts at your feet, to bathe in the glow of your skeptical philosophy, but you're doing all the same stupid rituals as everyone else. What kind of apikorus are you, anyway?"

The Great Apikorus of Lodz looks carefully at the young man. 

“Tell me, Szadek Apikorus, you don’t pray?”

“Of course not!” says the young man, pridefully.  “That is foolish superstition.”

The Great Apikorus strokes his beard thoughtfully.  He asks, “And you don’t read Torah?”

“No!” says the young skeptic. “A book of stories.”

“And you don’t keep Shabbos?” the older man asks.

“Another superstition!” says the Szadek apikorus, with some anger.  “I am an apikorus.  But what are you?”

The man draws himself up to his full height and declares: "I am the Great Apikorus of Lodz. But you?  You are not an apikorus.  You are a goy."

Now I tell you this story not to offend those of you who are not Jewish, or those of you who are apikorsim, nonbelievers yourself, nor even to bother those of you who don’t observe Jewish rituals much.  After all, you are all here in our sanctuary on Yom Kippur, holiest day of the year for Jews—or joining us on HD live stream, which is nearly the same thing—and you are taking the time to participate in some of our most demanding rituals.  Many of you are fasting, and beating your breasts in confession.  But Yom Kippur observance or not, the point is that many of you today fall into the category of skeptics.  You see ritual and practice as things you may choose to observe, not as elements that have any intrinsic value, and certainly not sacredness.

In fact, each of us, in one way or another, is an apikorus.  The Tucson apikorus…  a new singing group of the Reform Jews of Southern Arizona.  The story of the Great Apikorus of Lodz teaches us that even a skeptic can, and should, pray, and study, and practice.  Because that’s what we Jews do, even when we don’t fully believe.  You know, like almost all of us here today…

But even in congregations filled with Reform Jews, apikoruses, over the course of twenty years as a rabbi, and 18 or so before that as a cantor, I have nonetheless noticed something. 

I have noticed that when we stand in a cemetery and participate in the rites of Jewish mourning, people are also not so cynical or skeptical.  And the same seems to be true at a bris, or a wedding, or when a 13 year-old on this very bimah suddenly demonstrates that she is indeed a young adult, or when a group of 16 year-olds young men and women show that they care about and understand their growing Jewish identity, or when a 60 year-old woman becomes bat mitzvah for the first time.  Then the skepticism dies away, and the cynicism melts, and something truly holy takes place.

That is, when we experience something directly, when we encounter a holy moment, the apikorus in us usually fades away… and we feel a direct connection to something sacred.  These moments move us in ways we do not expect.  It is more than just the human dimension.  It is the touch of the divine, the sense of the sacred, the traces of God in those moments.

That also can happen when we encounter a holy object.  Whenever I take out the Torah for a small group or class, and unroll it, and people have the chance to get close to it and learn about it and experience its authenticity, no matter how skeptical and assimilated they may be, they become very different: changed, not skeptical at all, curious, slightly awed.  That was true through both of our Torah writing projects, the Eisner Family Torah and the Linda Nadell Centennial Torah.  As we worked through the experience of creating a new Torah, and even when we repaired some of our older Torahs a couple of years ago and restored them to kosher status, there was a remarkable connection that people felt with this scroll, this tangible object of parchment, ink, and sacred words.  We were no longer apikorsim looking at a strange object.  We were Jews connecting to Torah as every generation has for millennia.  It was beautiful, and amazing.

The same thing is true, perhaps most profoundly, about holy places.  When we take our Temple Emanu-El Pilgrimage trips to Israel—and we are going on our fifth pilgrimage in May and June, and we’ll meet about it the day after Yom Kippur at 5:30 PM—people on that trip will encounter the Kotel, the amazing Western Wall in Jerusalem, touch the stones and sense the power of that extraordinary place. Something fantastic happens. It is not easy to describe, and the feeling is hard to capture in words.  But the sense of being in the presence of something mystical, overwhelming, powerful, weird, and holy is impossible to resist.  It is not always so easy to understand intellectually, but when we are in a place that is sacred there is something about it, something that changes us.  We drop that protective armor of skepticism we habitually bear, and find ourselves moved in unpredictable ways.

This observation led me to wonder just what it is that makes a place holy, and what it would be like to visit places that were holy, both incredibly ancient places and contemporary ones.  Places that were holy before human beings were civilized, places that became holy over time, places that were holy to different religions at different times, and places that are holy now—and everything that has been holy in between.  When I began to research the sacred places on earth I discovered something else: the most popular tourist destinations in the world are not beaches, or big cities, or capital buildings, or natural wonders, or skyscrapers, or gambling casinos.  These are all popular destinations.  But the places that more people go to every single year are sacred sites.  It turns out that the holiest places on earth are also the places more people want to go to than any others.

That is, more individuals in this cynical, skeptical world full of apikorsim, of nonbelievers, go to see and feel what holy places are like. 

So, as a rabbi, why not go to each of them, and see if I could see, hear, touch, smell, feel, and sense what made them sacred, try to discover the commonalities and the differences, the way they changed and whether they felt, to me, especially powerful or meaningful in some way.

And so began a personal quest to experience the holiest places on earth, to explore why they were holy originally, how they changed over time, and try to understand what keeps them holy now—or doesn’t.  Through the goodness of this congregation, and our leadership, I was able to take a sabbatical, from January through March, and visit almost all of the holiest places on the planet, of every religious denomination, and seek to find out what it is that makes a place holy. 

Around the world in 85 days, as it turned out.  20 countries, 48 airline flights.  125 holy places.  To see if I could find holiness of place. 

Before I did this, I received only two different responses from the people I told about my sabbatical project.  It was either, “That sounds amazing!” or “You must be nuts!”  Sometimes I got those two comments from the same person, one right after the other with very little pause between. 

I know that many of you have read my travel blog, and even offered to purchase advance copies of the book when it is published.  That is very kind, and I hope, of course, that you mean it.  I don’t intend to repeat the 70 or so essays I published over the course of that exceptional experience today.  But I do wish to share with you just a few observations about what makes a place holy, and why we may need holy places today more than we ever have.

Now I am at least as skeptical as the next person.  As rabbis go, I am probably closer to the apikorus than the true believer.  I remember a singer in one of the High Holy Day Choirs that I conducted turning to me and saying, “You are the most sacrilegious person I know!”  I don’t think it was a compliment.  While I love Judaism, and find our rituals and observances woven with wisdom, meaning, and sanctity, it takes effort for me to move into the mode of easy sanctification, of accepting what others profess to be holy. 

But if I was going to see what made these places sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, BaHai, Druze, Sikhs, Jains, Shinto, ancient Egyptians, Stone Age people, Polynesians, Inca, and aboriginals, among others, I was going to have to be open to the potential of each place, and know enough about each faith to understand what made it unique and sacred.  And that openness had to be sincere.  In order to experience the spiritual potential in each place it was essential to view it as a fresh possible expression of the partnership between God and human beings that allowed for the creation of a unique space.  The wonderful part of being in other people’s sacred spaces is that it turned out to be very easy indeed to enter them and simply be open the spiritual potential of each place.

Having worked to create a sense of the holy, and having been engaged in an effort to make it relevant for people for over 35 years, it was a great gift to simply be present and see how other people do it.  And there was a great deal to learn.  But today I only want you to think about three important things.

First, from the Outback to the Amazon, from the Tiber to the Nile to the Himalayas, from Poland to Istanbul to Delhi to Tokyo, people are the same.  We are all made from the same material, have the same needs and desires, the same strengths and weaknesses, the same beginning and end.  This world we have been given is magnificently diverse and beautiful.  The people living on it are also diverse and beautiful, and generally they are also kind.    All human beings, of every race and creed and place, are creatures of God, in God’s image.   Please think of them that way, and try to treat them that way.  For no reason I can think of, in every country I visited and every holy site I wandered around in, people were gracious, respectful, fantastically hospitable, and genuinely kind.  And if these strangers can be that way to someone so different from them, I’ll bet the people around you today in our temple have that same capacity. 

Second, there is something unusual about the energy level of sacred places, whether they are yours or someone else’s.  If you simply enter and allow the temple, church, mosque, shrine, monument, or ruin to settle into your consciousness, just absorb the spirit of the place, it is almost impossible not to feel something profound.  These places are usually beautiful, to begin with, and they are also typically meticulously maintained.  But it is more than that.  That is purely sensory, and aesthetic.  What happens in a place like Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu or Karnak temple or Santiago de Campostella or Bhod Gaya or Tzefat is that you have an incredible sense of mystical energy.  You feel the holy. 

About a century ago the German philosopher Rudolf Otto called this feeling “Numinous”, which means a non-rational, non-sensory experience and feeling whose immediate object is outside of ourselves.  Although many theologians, including my grandfather, wrote about Otto’s categorization of the holy as important, and I think he is accurate, I’m not sure it helps to use another word.  What you come to realize is that holiness is category all by itself, not reducible to anything else.  When you are in the presence of the holy, from the theoretically healing waters of Lourdes, France to the theoretically purifying waters of Tirta Empul in Indonesia, from the top of Mt. Sinai at dawn to the Moai of Easter Island at sunset, you don't judge it or analyze it.  You sense it.  Holiness is an essential element in this world.  It exists.  Open yourself up to that possibility.  The energy of the sacred is here, tonight. But it is also available in many other holy places.  Be aware of that possibility, and like our ancestor Jacob you may be able to say here, and elsewhere, “Surely, God was in this place and I did not know it.”

And third, and I learned this from every single religion I encountered, from Europe to Africa to Asia to Australia to South American to, um, Utah: no one but Reform Jews apologize for being committed to rituals that affirm the sacred.  Every holy place has its own traditions and its rites, and the adherents of each of the many faiths in this world are often just as bright, educated, and critical-minded as our own congregants.  But they don’t let their own apikorus nature prevent them from praying, making offerings, participating actively and fully in the religious life of their communities.  They treat ritual as integral to their lives, commit resources to it without critically analyzing the cost-benefit of doing so, whether or not they are sure it is efficacious in some objective sense.  They are proud of their temples, filled with a sense of the beauty of their own traditions.  Just as the Great Apikorus of Lodz prayed in the synagogue regularly, so too do the believers of each and every faith do the same in their own houses of holiness. 

On this Yom Kippur, affirm your pride in your own heritage.  Find the holiness in our rituals, our services, our prayerbooks, our music, and our sacred space right here.  Be not like the apikorus of the small shtetl; be like the Great Apikorus of Lodz, who found meaning and holiness in the rituals of his religion and his people, no matter his doubts.

Understand that all human beings are the same.  Believe that holiness exists in this world, and be open to experiencing it.  And be proud to live and act on your own Jewish religious identity regularly.

If you can do these three things, no matter how big or small your head, or how deep your doubts, then you will find holiness, and blessing, in this 5776 year.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.


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Tucson, AZ 85716

Phone: 520-327-4501
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