A Sermon by Rabbi Howard A. Berman
High Holy Day Sunday – Rosh Hashanah, 5764
Arlington Street Church, Boston Massachusetts
Even though I have been a friend and guest preacher here at Arlington Street Church for many years, and have been serving in my new Associate Clergy position as Rabbi in Residence for over a month now, I know that for many of you, I am still something of a new and unknown entity. Even the nature of my role in the ministerial leadership of this congregation is a history-making and unprecedented phenomenon! And in light of this, it seems appropriate to focus this first sermon in my new capacity here, on basically introducing myself to you… sharing some of my ideas and commitments, some of my vision for my work here at ASC, and perhaps most important, some highlights of the spiritual journey that brings me to this place and this moment in my life.
Now this journey has been virtually a life-long path for me. From my earliest childhood, I seemed to have had a deep spiritual sensitivity and a fascination with religion. Some of my earliest memories were the warmth and excitement of my family’s Jewish holiday celebrations, going to synagogue services, and learning about my tradition. In fact, I decided to become a rabbi at the age of five—certainly, way before I really understood what that meant! If one can truly be said to have felt a “Calling,” then I would probably use that expression. Now the rather interesting thing about this, is that from the beginning, while deeply rooted and expressed in a Jewish context, my religious consciousness has always been very broad and far-ranging. I was raised in the typical post-war suburb of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. But Fair Lawn was typical only in the monotony of its newly laid out streets—lined with 1950’s ranch and split-level houses. In some other very significant ways, Fair Lawn was unique! As the starting point for many young GI Bill families from the New York metropolitan area, it was remarkably diverse in its social makeup—not racially, unfortunately, but certainly ethnically and religiously. Our town was basically 1/3 Protestant, 1/3 Roman Catholic and 1/3 Jewish. Everyone lived together in the same new housing developments, and a huge number of baby boomer kids grew up, side by side, experiencing each other’s families, cultures and religious lives. And consequently, the lines between these various identities, were very flexible and fluid. We all celebrated each other’s holidays for example—with Christmas trees and Menorahs in every public school classroom, in those innocent days before the Supreme Court rulings prohibiting such things. My very deep love of Christmas—which you will all marvel at in a few months—was shaped at this time—and never posed any dilemma for me. Celebrating Chanukah in our home, Christmas at our best friends’ houses, and both, in school, seemed like the most normal, natural thing in the world… as was going to each others’ temples and churches, Sunday Schools and Hebrew Schools, and helping each other prepare for our First Communions, Bar Mitzvahs and Confirmations! In fact, so blurred were the boundaries, that while I had decided to become a rabbi at age 5, at 7 years old, I made a major change in career choice! One night while watching TV, I happened to see the great movie classic “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. I was so enthralled, that I immediately decided that I wanted to become a nun! Of course, I quickly learned that this was not a job for a nice Jewish boy—so I reverted to my original choice of the rabbinate, and have never wavered since! However, this episode, still the object of much raucous laughter in Berman family lore, underscored how broadly based my budding spirituality was… and, in retrospect, was probably also an early hint that I was gay as well!
As I continued to mature, eventually left our little interfaith Shangri-La near the New Jersey Turnpike, and went out into the real world, I became aware that outside of Fair Lawn, religious and social boundaries were far more polarized and rigid than I had ever realized as a child. And yet, I always retained this formative perspective. I went through my university years in London, and then my seminary training at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, with the same mindset—deeply rooted and increasingly committed to the values, beliefs and identity of liberal Reform Judaism, but always inspired and nurtured as well by the beauty and truths of many religious traditions. I could spend my entire academic week immersed in the study of Hebrew, the Bible and it’s Talmudic commentaries, and Jewish history, and then on Sundays, attend different churches each week—fully participating in the prayers and singing, and always conscious of the essential connections and the underlying commonalities with my own faith. The churches I was most drawn to interestingly, were Episcopal—for their rich liturgy and glorious music—and Unitarian—for their intellectual and socially conscious spirituality that was virtually identical to my own Reform Judaism—only without the Hebrew!
Providentially, it was at this time that a memorable moment occurred that would prove to be a profound portent of the future! In 1967, in my first year at seminary, our campus was fully caught up in the anti-war fervor that pervaded all of our lives in that Viet Nam protest era. I vividly recall the Service in our Chapel that October, when we learned of the legendary “What If They Gave A War And Nobody Came” draft card burning that had taken place at Boston’s famed Arlington Street Church! I recall how electrified we young, idealistic, liberal religious activists were by this courageous, prophetic act in a spiritual setting—and how a number of our rabbinic students proceeded to burn their own draft notices in front of the Holy Ark. Little did I ever dream on that day almost 35 years ago, that someday I would be serving—as a Rabbi—in that very Sanctuary that had so inspired us!
Which brings me to the path that lead to the momentous milestone at which I now find myself. In 1981, I became Senior Rabbi of Chicago’s historic center of liberal Judaism, Sinai Temple—and continued graduate studies in American religious history. My affinity as a Reform Jew for the Unitarian Universalist tradition was further enhanced, as I studied the history of both denominations. My own congregation had long been referred to, by other Jews—not always affectionately—as the Jewnitarian Temple. It had a close relationship with the liberal churches of the city from the time of it’s founding in 1861, when Sinai and First Unitarian Church both declared themselves to be sanctuaries on the Underground Railroad, offering shelter to slaves fleeing from the South. Like my great predecessors in the Sinai pulpit, I was always very involved in social action and interfaith work—peace and justice advocacy and interreligious dialogue. While I worked closely with clergy colleagues in the Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist and Muslim communities, I always felt that my relationship with my UU friends was hardly even interfaith! After all, Jews were history’s first Unitarians—and Universalists—the first to teach the radical concept of Ethical Monotheism—the Unity of God and the Oneness of humanity. Unitarian Universalism on the other hand, represented, historically, the most complete reclaiming and restoration of the Jewish basis and core of Christianity—both in its rejection of the Trinitarian doctrine, and its radical extension of the congregationalist impulse of the Protestant Reformation.
In 1995, after 15 happy and fulfilling years at Sinai, I decided that I wanted to explore other dimensions of my personal, intellectual and spiritual life, and was in a fortunate position to take an early retirement from full time rabbinic work. I became Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai, and still continue to commute to Chicago on a monthly basis to preach and teach there. And I also fulfilled a long time dream of moving to Boston—a city I had always loved and been fascinated by. I began hanging out here at ASC on occasion, and soon became very close friends with Kim. As many of you know, I became a regular pulpit guest here, and felt increasingly at home. My personal loving relationship with Kim and Kem continued to deepen, and I had the great joy and honor of co-officiating at their wedding here the the church, on Valentine’s Day, 1999. Even back in the early days of our friendship, we often fantasized about working together someday… never realizing what the Universe had in store for us!
But the Loving Spirit of the Universe indeed revealed the path that has brought us to this moment! This strange and wonderful confluence of experiences and commitments, inspires the vision I now hope to bring to my role here as a Rabbi at Arlington Street Church. I believe that this exciting experiment gives us the opportunity of affirming the common values and commitments we share as Reform Jews and UU’s. I will bring to my preaching and teaching here, the mandate of the Hebrew Prophets that has always inspired my ministry as a Rabbi—to share both spiritual insights for personal growth and healing, as well as to raise up moral challenges on the pressing social, political and ethical issues of our day—upholding the mission of the pulpit that I have always affirmed—to comfort the afflicted—and to afflict the comfortable!
I also believe that the new relationship we are creating here represents the fulfillment of a long overdue mandate of Unitarian Universalism to fully affirm and live out the principle it proclaims—words emblazoned on the cover of today’s Order of Service… that both Judaism and Christianity are the two co-equal historic sources of the UU tradition—and that the time has come to move beyond the Yankee Protestant cultural ethos that has dominated the Movement, and pervaded even this congregation, and more fully embrace its rightful claim to its own Jewish heritage! And in reclaiming the Jewish dimension to Unitarian Universalism, I want to also help empower all of you to more fully embrace all of the rich spiritual traditions—Western and Eastern, Native American and African, Theistic, humanistic and Earth-Centered—that are all of our spiritual legacies as well, and should be major resources for an authentic 21st century liberal religious commitment ! In the words of the prominent UU historian Peter Richardson, Unitarian Universalism, which was once known as the “Unsectarian Sect,” stands today on the threshold of what we can proudly call the “Interfaith Faith!”
And so, I believe that it is wonderfully fitting that I—and we—begin this new chapter at this sacred season of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. This ancient celebration offers us the precious gift of new beginnings and unexplored paths for our journeys. As one of the oldest New Year festivals still being observed in the world today, Rosh Hashanah proclaims Judaism’s revolutionary teaching that history is not cyclical and static—as other ancient cultures believed—but rather, that human experience is dynamic and evolutionary—always progressing toward new heights and greater revelations of Divine truth. For each of us, personally, this means that we need not be bound by the limitations, patterns and regrets of the past… but rather, that there is always an opportunity to make a fresh start, and begin anew. Traditionally referred to as the “Birthday of the World,” Rosh Hashanah reminds us that each of us is a co-worker and partner in the unfolding process of Creation… that our world—and our lives—will ultimately be what we make of them! What a wonderful hope… and what a powerful challenge… these ideals hold out to us, as we here at Arlington Street Church begin this exciting New Year, and this promising new chapter!
I would like to leave you with the traditional blessing that will be recited in synagogues throughout the world next Friday evening, as the sun sets, and Rosh Hashanah is ushered in. And in keeping with tradition, we will call out the ancient notes, and hearken to the stirring sound of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, which for 5000 years, has heralded the New Year, calling all humanity to awaken from spiritual slumber and moral complacency, to a brilliant dawn of transformation and redemption :
Loving Creator of the Universe ! May this New Year, 5764, bring healing and renewal… joy and health…life and peace… to us and to all the world.
We Praise You, Eternal Spirit of the Universe who has sustained us, kept us in life, and permitted us to reach this sacred day together!
(The Shofar was Sounded following the Sermon)