September 25, 2012

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

A group of elderly, retired Jews gather at a café in Tel Aviv every morning.  They sit for hours drinking coffee and analyzing the world situation.  Given the state of ings, their talks are usually depressing.  One day, one of the men startles everyone by saying, “You know what?  I am an optimist!”

This shocks the other guys, and one of them notices something fishy.  “Wait a minute,” he says, “If you are an optimist, why do you look so worried?”

And the first man answers, “You think it’s so easy to be an optimist?”

That reminds me of the situation of our congregation, and very likely every synagogue today.  Right now things are going pretty well.  We are having beautiful High Holy Day Services, our music program offers the most active, professional and creative Jewish music in Arizona, our membership is up, our Strauss ECE preschool is going beautifully, our Religious School is educating kids in Jewish life, our Adult Education Academy offers a fantastic array of courses that are filled with adult learners.  Our Outreach Program continues to bring new people into active participation in Jewish life.  We even have a brand new solar array, a newly paved parking lot, and—this is no small thing—brand new bathrooms.  We should be optimistic.

And yet everywhere in our society we keep hearing about the imminent demise of the synagogue, how Jews don’t connect in religious ways anymore.  We are told that community isn’t about praying or learning, and these old-fashioned, out-of-date ways of being Jewish don’t matter in the year 2012.  Joining together for prayer or study or celebratory meals and events?  That’s just so 20th century—actually, 19th century, even.  In fact, community, where you actually get together in person and interact with other human beings, is becoming completely passé.   

Perhaps you saw the news story last week.  A synagogue of sorts in Florida was actively encouraging its congregants to text and tweet replies during services on Rosh HaShanah.  For example, if the rabbi asked, “What are you proud of that you did in the past year?” or “How can you engage in Tikun Olam in this new year?” someone would field all the tweets or texts in real time and post the best of them on a video screen.  No word on what they do with the tweets that say, “The rabbi’s sermon is too long!”  Anyway, the idea is that if people are able to use their ubiquitous iphones and Droids they will be more engaged with the service.  In fact, if we actually encourage websurfing instead of prayer during the High Holy Days we may have better attendance!

It’s an interesting idea, yet another way to try to create instant community through technology.  We are familiar with this approach at Temple Emanu-El: we already have a new, interactive Temple website, a couple of Facebook pages, blogs, regular email communications, a weekly radio show and podcasts, a bit of Skype learning, and electronic publications, as well as video recording and broadcasting.  But this would introduce yet another interactive aspect to our experience of Judaism, and do it while we are in shul together. What could be better! 

It’s a great idea.  And while we are at it, I’m thinking that we could even set up our wonderful ushers with some of those payment apps that waiters at hip and fancy restaurants have on their i-phones now.  We could have them circulate through the house—I mean the sanctuary—during the High Holy Day Appeal, taking donations from people’s credit cards right on their phones.  Think that would increase the total collections?  Let’s see some hands—who would like to see that at services for Yom Kippur?

Hey, don’t laugh.  With the pace of technological change in our society, by next year it could happen…  or perhaps by tomorrow morning.

Which got me to thinking: just what kind of communities are we creating nowadays?  And what is the real nature of community, anyway?

An interesting pair of facts: there are now 7 billion people in the world.  And there are now 955 million users of Facebook, heading towards one billion.  To put it into perspective, while 1 out of 7 people in the entire world are on Facebook, fully half of the human beings alive in America today have a Facebook profile.  And essentially what Facebook offers is virtual community in an organized, accepted format.  Of course, Facebook offers other things: instant interaction, self-promotion, an uncontrolled soapbox, and electronic narcissism, but in one way or another the great secret lure of Facebook—and all other virtual media—lies in creating a sense of community.  Whether we think the traditional ways work or not, we are still in search of community.

It is easy to say that today we live in a world with far more connectivity and far less communication; but it is also clear that most people still crave human community, virtual or otherwise.  To differ with the old arguments of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message.  The means of delivering the sense of community is not the ikkar, the heart of the issue.  It is the sense of community itself that matters to people.

Today, even in the non-virtual world, there are all kinds of communities—the communities that exist at rock concerts, with their very own rituals; the communities that exist at football and basketball games, for example, with their own very specific rituals.  The communities that exist at political conventions, with their own rituals.  But those communities more or less dissolve as soon as the events that bring them together end. 

And we still continue to crave community, and create it wherever we are. 

Why?  What is it that ties human beings together in communities?  Why do we have this gregarious motivation?  Is it economic shared interest?  The need to protect ourselves from outsiders?  Loneliness?  Boredom?  The deep desire to belong to something greater than ourselves?  What is it that makes us feel that we must, in one way or another, be together within the structure, loose or otherwise, of organizations?

To answer these questions we must to explore just what formed the very first human communities.  Why did we come together in the first place? What is it about our makeup that originally moved us to develop this hankering for company?  Why did we start the process that led us to build communities, which eventually became civilization?

For many years anthropologists have believed in something called the Neolithic Revolution, an idea first advanced by a British archeologist named V. Gordon Childe in the 1920’s.  Childe theorized that civilization first evolved from the transition of our human species from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists.  At some point about 10,000 years ago we figured out that it was better to feed people from a reliable supply of domesticated grains like wheat and barley rather than chasing and hunting herds of animals to find food.  In order to produce those grains in a large enough quantity we had to cooperate, and some of us began to specialize in certain tasks.  That meant that we could support a larger population, which led to more specialization. 

Soon we were building irrigation works and raising crops that required storage facilities, which had to be built and protected from the more primitive people out there who were still just hunter-gatherers.  That led to even more specialization as the social organization evolved into leaders and followers, producers and defenders, and then surpluses had to be distributed and scarcity alleviated, which led to commerce, and all of this led eventually to settlements, villages, towns, eventually cities, and the entire cooperative structure we think of today as civilization.  Those civilizations radically modified their natural environment by means of the cultivation of specialized food crops, and learned to build permanent structures to house themselves.

This theory of a Neolithic Revolution eventually came to include the idea that religion evolved to help people live together in community, because shared beliefs and practices make it easier to work with other people cooperatively.  Communities of the faithful, bound together by a common view of their place in the world and subservient to leaders who had a special connection with their god or gods, were more cohesive than clumps of quarreling people with no shared beliefs. 

The sequence was, essentially, this: we needed food; we could make more food by domesticating and planting grains; we learned that we had to work together to make that food in quantity; the structures of civilization came about to support those needs; and, finally, religion developed to keep people happy and comfortable in those civilizations.  Not quite Marx’s “religion is the opiate of the people” but close.

But a remarkable excavation in southern Turkey is changing those views dramatically.  It seems to have existed long before the Neolithic Revolution ever took place, and scholars now believe that it actually created the Neolithic Revolution.  While the Neolithic Revolution is supposed to have begun about 10,000 years ago and continued in various areas until about 5,000 years ago, the archeological site that has messed up its assumptions dates back at least 2000 years before that.  And it includes huge constructed works that should not have been possible with the technology of that time, roughly 10,000 BCE.  And it includes a lot of them. 

Most importantly, that place is not a palace, or a fortress, or a castle. It was built by our species, homo sapiens, human beings who still wandered the world in bands of nomadic hunters, hunting wild animals and foraging for edible plants.  They lived in the Old Stone Age, in a world without metal or writing.  In order to build this place more human beings had to come together in one place than ever had done so before.  Those people managed to cut, shape, carve, and transport 16-ton stones, 32,000 pounds of rock each, for hundreds of feet in spite having no wheels or domesticated draft animals to pull them.

That remarkable place these ancient people built is not a palace, or a fortress, or a castle.  It is a temple, or perhaps a series of temples.  And it demonstrates that what first brought people together into communities, what initially began the civilization of human beings, was religion.

The place is called Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey, and it is an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance that profoundly changes our understanding of the development of human societies.  The erection of huge monumental building complexes was clearly within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of the later sedentary farming communities as we believed until now.  In fact, as the excavator of Göbekli Tepe, archeologist Klaus Schmidt puts it, "First came the temple, then the city."

The truth is that we began to create human civilization not with farming or cities or commerce or warfare.  We became human because we needed to create a place to come together to worship.  Prayer preceded planting.

The process by which civilization developed was this: our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a sense of great wonder at the changes taking place in their natural world.  They came together to create large temple complexes—Gobekli Tepe is huge, and less than 5% of the site has been excavated.  As larger groups came together for ritual and religious purposes it became evident that they needed to have more food on hand than hunting groups could bring back to the site.  Initially, hunting groups brought back large quantities of game to feed those building the temple and then performing the rituals—this is demonstrated by a large numbers of animal bones found at the site of Gobekli Tepe.  But as they gathered for these rituals in larger and larger numbers, people realized this wasn’t a permanent solution.  And so they worked to develop other sources of food, domesticating animals and plants, growing food, and gradually developing permanent settlements.

That is, civilization began with religion.  The initial impetus for us to live together cooperatively came from a collective need to worship, to satisfy the human desire for communal ritual.  The need to pray together and the search for God actually led to the development of society. 

Religion formed community, not the other way around.  We came together because we sought holiness.  Only then did we realize that there were other advantages to society, and other needs that could only be met collectively.  The power of the primal religious urge that created Gobekli Tepe was so great that our ancient ancestors managed to shlep huge stones solely by human muscle power, shape and carve them using nothing but flint knives, and set them upright by mounting them before they had even mastered any engineering skills at all.  All to satisfy a core hunger for meaning.

In essence, the beginning of civilization, the heart of community, was in the search for God, together.  It is that religious motivation, however characterized, that lies at the very core of why we originally gathered, and why we created society.  Everything came out of that.

So if that is where civilization began, what is it that underlies community today?  What are the core values and shared experiences that validate our own civilization?

The answer is simple, but also complex.

What underlies community today is the same thing that led to the creation of the very first communities.  It is the desire to feel part of something greater than ourselves, to explore our need to understand our world and our universe in ways that give meaning to our lives, to enjoy the personal validation that comes from sharing experiences and purpose with others.  And of course, we crave the release from loneliness that any community can provide.

We are sometimes told that community is no longer based on faith, that shared belief and practice is an archaic notion, and that civilization certainly no longer rests on religious foundations.  This clearly is an approach taken by most of our major Jewish organizations, which seem obsessed with the idea that Judaism can be carried forward by some sort of secular Jewish identity, a mythical “cultural Judaism,” a fabulous, mystical continuity tied to an ephemeral and vaguely Jewish social identity.  The idea is that we Jews may no longer pray or study together, might not actually celebrate Jewish holidays meaningfully with our congregations or our families, are not truly committed to the only organizations that actually work to guarantee Jewish life in the future, but if we raise money together and rally for Israel we will assure the continuity of our own neutered version of Judaism.

But the statistics are rapidly proving that this is a one-way exit ramp from Jewish life and identity.  Although helpful in assuring some level of contact from more and more estranged Jews who neither study nor pray nor view work for Tikun Olam in Jewish ways, who may or may not even understand what Judaism actually is, it is not proving to foster even ersatz community for the vast majority of American Jews.  While a small group of insiders continues to feel very proud of itself, self-justified, and even empowered, most of us are neither involved nor connected to this self-serving, pseudo-community that is devoid of real meaning.

And of course, the failure to incorporate into this approach the one institution that has created and embodied Jewish community for 2000 years does not speak highly for its long-term viability.  It should be obvious to everyone that in one generation in America without synagogues there will be no Judaism, virtual or otherwise.  That is not media theory, or anthropological guesswork; it is simply fact.  Without congregations of worship and study this Jewish culture, and our Jewish civilization, simply will disappear.

No, it is not value-free culture that is at the core.  What underlies real community is something else—or rather, a few something elses...  It is actually just what created civilization in the first place.  It is the process of seeking something greater than ourselves.  It is the shared quest for meaning.  It is solidarity with others for a cause, alleviating the loneliness that is part and parcel of the human condition.  But most of all, it is the commitment to sublimating our own egos for the sake of service.  It is what we call avodah in Jewish prayer, service to God and to our brothers and sisters.

Do you want to know how it is that a community of Paleolithic wanderers could build a beautifully carved and huge temple complex with virtually no technology at all?  It was because they were dedicated to these ideals, to connecting with something much greater than themselves in preference to highlighting their own temporal needs.

And in this way we are not any more advanced than they were, nor any less.  What underlies community, what undergirds civilization, is knowing that we are engaged in a greater enterprise than making it through the day.  What creates community is doing the right thing for the community because it is the right thing, because it serves God and the Jewish people, not because we need to inflate our own sense of self-importance.  It is humility in service, not arrogance, anonymous dedication rather than the puffery of honor.  It is the commitment to pray together, to study together, to visit the sick members of our community, to help those in financial need among us.  It is burying our dead, consoling the bereaved, bringing babies into the covenant, helping children come of age as young adults with knowledge and values.  It is marrying in holiness, honoring our relationships. It is dedication to caring for and teaching our children.  It is by singing, by joining your voice to the collective song of our choir and the larger chorus of the entire congregation. 

It is volunteering to help lead a congregation by service, not by self-importance.

When we serve together in this way we build community that raises our lives above the mundane and into the realm of holiness.  More importantly, we commit to something that truly is greater than ourselves.  We become collectively much more than we can ever be individually.  We develop our own civilization, if you will.

But rabbi, you say, what if I don’t actually like all the other people in my community? What if I do my best work alone?  What if I am busy, too busy to participate in community actively?  What if I like feeling more important than the synagogue makes me feel?  What if I believe I should be in charge, that I know better than everyone else?  What if I hate the mess of group process?

Poet Michael Leunig has a prayer that reflects the reality of our community—of any true, sacred community.


We give thanks for our friends.

We anger each other.

We fail each other.

We share this sad earth, this tender life, this precious time.

Such richness.

Such wildness.

Together we are blown about.

Together we are dragged along.

All this delight.
  All this suffering.

All this forgiving life.

We hold it together.

The answer to all of these problems is that genuine community, gathered together not for the edification of ego but for the completion of higher goals, makes it all work.  Giving to others, freely and selflessly, paying back what we have received, caring for and about people in the context of serving a higher cause, makes all of those problems recede in importance.  When you know why you are serving, when you know that you are building real community, when you commit your life to a people and a tradition that are greater than the immediate needs of the moment, you are building something truly great.  When you do this freely, from your own heart, you can make a real difference.  And you are connecting to what is most holy in the world.  

I’ll tell you a true story about a Volunteer Recognition Shabbat we held here at Temple Emanu-El.  A fairly new member, a returnee who belonged to Temple long ago, attended the Volunteer Recogntion Shabbat one year.  He sat near the back, and as people were called up to come forward who had volunteered during the year he gradually discovered that nearly everyone around him was on the bimah.  Finally, only he and a man in the row behind him were left.  Sheepishly, he turned to the guy behind him and said, “So I guess it’s just you and me—everyone else did something for Temple last year.”

And the man said, “Oh, no—I volunteered a lot.  But I just had a knee operation, and I can’t walk up there.”

I am not telling you this to make you feel guilty about what you didn’t do last year.  Our Yom Kippur prayers should do a good job of that all by themselves.  I am telling you this because in a very real sense you are what you give.  The true currency of the realm in this congregation, of any real community, lies in what you give in time, talent, and selfless service.  Right here, at Temple, you can find community as it is meant to be experienced.  A true community is a congregation full of people who commit themselves to making a difference, to giving of themselves.  To becoming more than any of us can be individually.

This year, commit to voluntarism.  This year, commit to being an active part of this community.  This year, dedicate yourself to service as it is meant to be done: for the sake of the higher purpose.  For our microcosm of civilization.  Not for the power.  Not for the honors.  Not for the accolades. Not for the dinners or the publicity.

Instead, do it for God’s sake.  For your own sake.  For the sake of your own spiritual and emotional well-being.  For the sake of the Jewish people.  And because it is the right thing to do.

Because it gives your life meaning and holiness and purpose.

If you do that, if, when you are asked, you say yes; if, before you are asked, you step forward, selflessly, then this will be a year of goodness, and blessing, and holiness. For you and for our real community.

Ken Yehi Ratson.  May this be God’s will—and, mostly, ours.


225 N. Country Club Road
Tucson, AZ 85716

Phone: 520-327-4501
Fax: 520-327-4504

Subscribe to our mailing list