Rabbi Yaron Kapitulnik

"Rabbi, I'm Not Religious" - Rosh Hashanah 5777

Rosh HaShanah  5777


Rabbi, I’m not religious.


I can feel it coming, I know what you are about to say.


We could be sitting in my study, or talking during the Oneg. We might be holding a drink at a Bar or at a Bat Mitzvah or a wedding, or maybe leaving a house of a mourner after a Shiva call.


Typically, we are engaged in a discussion about Judaism and then you pause and say; “But Rabbi, I am not very religious.”


And I think to myself – “Boy have I heard that before….”… but even having had this conversation many times, I am always curious how a person measures their own level of religiosity.


We measure our height by feet and inches, our weight by pounds (although I have to say it sounds so much better in kilograms,) our education by the number of years spent at school or by our degrees, our community involvement by the number of boards we serve on, but how do we actually measure our own level of religiousness?


Even on-line, where you can find a self-evaluation test for everything, including tests for how organized you are (I’ll leave it to you to guess my score…) there is no test to define how religious a person is.


And yet, most of us seem to be able to answer that question.


Whether your answer is “I am very religious,” or “I’m not very religious” - It seems to me that most people measure how religious they are based on their practice of Jewish rituals, or to the Mitzvot, meaning the observance of the Jewish commandments. And when doing so, most of us have in mind the “Halacha” – what we like calling, even if not very accurate, the traditional laws of Judaism described in the “Shulchan Aruch” and followed mostly by those who are considered Orthodox Jews.


Indeed, IF we use that definition, the vast majority of us are not very religious including Cantor Alicia and myself.


I know that all of us are extremely proud of our tradition, our history, and the contributions that Judaism made to this world. We are enthusiastic Zionists, we feel joy when we hear the music of “Fiddler on the Roof” and our eyes fill with tears when we hear the Ha’tikvah, or see a delegation of American youth carry the Israeli flag with the blue Star of David through the gates of Auschwitz.


We might celebrate Shabbat, but not every Shabbat, we might love or hate Gefilte fish or we might be life-long supporters of various Jewish causes; from Hadassah to the Teknion or the Hebrew University - and yet - for some reason these things do not make us see ourselves as  religious people.


Just like in the consumer world, where we are rarely able to quote the value of any article without having some sort of comparison, we experience the same issue when we try to measure our level of religiosity.  We try to compare ourselves to the generations before us or to other people we know.


We realize that we do not keep Shabbat in the same way our neighbor down the road does. We don’t keep Kosher, like our grandmother theoretically did (Although, I am sure it was a Jewish grandmother that made it kosher to eat pepperoni pizza on paper plates.)

We don’t go to temple as often as our friends go to church, and when we realize how big the difference is between “US” and “THEM” is, we tend to have a sense of failure, and with it an “all or nothing approach” - if we can’t be like them - why bother at all?


But are these truly the expectations we have of ourselves?


And just in case measuring ourselves against a traditional observance practice scale is not hard enough, there is another equally important scale we use. I define this as “the scale of belief,”

So many of us make a direct association between being religious and believing in God, as if we even know how to define God. I was not shocked when the results of the Pew survey indicated that 2/3rds of people surveyed, self-define themselves as spiritual but not religious. In other words, they are not sure they believe in God but do have some sense of spirituality so they rather not call themselves –religious.


So many of us, including the Cantor and myself, struggle with what it means to believe in God. I for one, love saying that I don’t believe in God, rather I love saying I am in a relationship with God.


These two scales, the traditional practice, or observance scale, and the belief scale are parallel. They live by each other and effect each other and both, together are the two greatest obstacles preventing people from seeing themselves as being religious.



Is it possible that we are missing the mark? That today, in the first quarter of the 21st century we have to set in front of us a new set of expectations? A new way to measure how R.E.A.L  “real”igious - practicing Jews - we are?


What if we had an enhanced, advanced and sophisticated scale in which we judged ourselves, and what if this scale was not just a modern day idea, but one that goes back to the Prophecy and Talmudic times, and outlines what the prophets and rabbis expected from us.


Guess what - WE CAN and we are going to - NOW.

We have a prayer that is part of our morning ritual it comes from the Mishna (פאה א, א) and it’s called “Eilu Devarim”.


This famous passage, sometimes called "the rabbinic ten commandments," lists a series of moral obligations and responsibilities we are directed to follow:


It reads as follows:


“Eilu devarim sh’ain l’hem shiur...these are the things without measure, some translate as limitless, they sustain us not only in this world, but also in the world to come:


*Honoring our parents

*Acting with kindness and loyalty

*Eagerly pursuing Jewish learnings at all times

*Welcoming guests

*Visiting the sick

*Rejoicing with couples under the Chuppah

*Caring for the dead and for the mourners

*Delving deeply into prayer

*Making peace among Human beings.


V’talmud torah k’neged kulam - AND the study of Torah- this is the corner stone.



When we take a close look at the above list it is surprising - it has only something to do with what most people associate today with a religious lifestyle.


It does not talk about keeping kosher, nor about keeping Shabbat, it does not talk about building a Sukkah or walking around with a kippah. It definitely doesn't talk about lighting Hanukkah candles or having not one but TWO Passover Seders.


It mostly talks about the relationships between people, about how we treat each other and about the interdependence of the 3 basic pillars of living Jewishly; Worship, Study, and Social Action.

Do not get me wrong - I am not standing here today and saying there is no meaning in what we all know as Halachic or Orthodox Judaism. On the contrary - I find great importance in all of those things for those who chose to live Halachic life and maintain an Orthodox life style.

But we cannot and MUST not define religious life to those alone.


We must make a moral, communal and religious check list for our people who chose to live a progressive liberal and independent life, and it must exceed the Ten Commandments, it must exceed what we are told is "Authentic Judaism."  


Because we are told that authentic means “an origin supported by unquestionable evidence.” No one single form of Jewish practice today comes close to what the origin of Jewish practice used to be 2000 years ago. If so we must look at other definitions of the word: authentic means “representing one’s true nature or beliefs, authentic means being true to oneself, it means genuine, it means real.”


We are authentic. We are all “REAL”IGIOUS people, and we have a 2000-year-old list that can guide us on our path.


Last night I spoke about how we waste time, and how we are distracted from what truly matters, and how we should use our time better.  This coming year let's constantly ask ourselves if we have done enough to honor our parents, and honoring parents is something we continue doing – even for those of us whose parents are deceased, by the way we carry their legacy, prophecy and values, even after they are no longer with us.


Let us constantly push ourselves to perform acts of love and kindness, even when our hearts are not inclined to do so. We must ask ourselves - every single day if we have been generous enough to others that do not have as much as we do, or to institutions and organizations who’s missions, we strongly believe in.


Let us welcome the stranger, the new student in your class, and the new person at your work, the new neighbor down the road, the new congregant at temple, the veteran, the person who suffers from mental illness, the LGBTQ community, the refugee seeking to live in peace amongst us.


Let us visit the sick, let us not forget the widow and the orphan once the Shiva is over, let’s truly be there for a friend who is bereaved, for a sick person who is homebound, or hospitalized or paralyzed by his depression.


Let us humble ourselves by experimenting more often with prayer and learning to pray with sincerity. Always remembering Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman’s words; “Pray as if everything depended on God, Act as if everything depended on you.”


Prayer allows us to hope for a better future, to ask God to be our partner in creating this future, but it does NOT excuse us from NOT actively pursuing that change. Let us not look aside at any injustice around us, any discrimination, any expression of hate, any intolerance or indifference and say - it has nothing to do with me because I am not an immigrant, a policeman, an African American, a woman, an addict or a homeless family. Rather let us make and bring peace to where there is strife or injustice.


And according to the text - V’talmud torah k’neged kulam - but the study of Torah – this is the cornerstone.


And for those of you who  grew up with the old Gates of Prayer Siddur, “the Red Book” –in it this sentence is translated as ”The study of Torah is equal to them all because it leads to them all.”


Let us never stop studying, because if forces us to step out of our comfort zones, an act that leads to growth, and this is the ultimate goal. That wherever we are today, on this first day of this New Year, should not be the place where we are next year.


If we meet here again next year, and we are exactly in the same state of mind that we are in today. We have FAILED.


I need to share with you a thought. There is no rabbi in the world that doesn’t love it when people come to him or her at the end of a sermon, be it on the High Holy days or after a Shabbat service and offer a compliment about the sermon they heard. We are all human-beings and love to hear a nice word. BUT the true reward, which happened to me last week, is when a congregant one year later pulls out of his wallet the card that was handed at the HHD last year, the one with the quote “you are nothing but dust” on one side and “The world was created for your sake” on the other, and shared how he has been looking at the message almost daily during the past year and how this message helped him navigate through some difficult times.


So please, Take the magnet that we handed you today, Place it in a place you can daily see it, be it on your refrigerator, your bathroom mirror, your golf cart. Allow these sacred words to guide your daily actions and your religious life, this coming year.


You can immediately ask – The list that you are holding, the actions prescribed by the rabbis – aren’t these are just what good people do, not necessarily religious people? Why can I not just simply call myself a good person? What you are describing is how a good human being behaves - everyone can do these things, I don't have to be religious, I just have to be good.





And to that I answer that I believe that being wholeheartedly GOOD is a religious concept.


The Jewish religion, is the source of all the teachings we take today for granted as being part of what we see as “being a good person”.


When we understand that all the good that we do, as individuals and as a congregation, is not just because it makes us feel good to do it, or because we were born good, or had a great education, but rather because it is what our religion demands of us, then we can recognize that helping the poor, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger, consoling the bereaved, are religious acts, SO we are REALigious people.

All these are mitzvoth = commandments, and are just as important as attending services, keeping kosher, or observing Shabbat.



To be a religious Jew, to be a Reform Jew, means to do as our tradition commands, to do as one of our greatest sages -Hillel said: “Ve ahavtah lereach Kamoch” Love your fellow as yourself. A statement that was later interpreted by Rabbi Akiva to mean:  “what is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. “


Friends, it is true that there are those who posture themselves as more” Jewish as us. “US” being the less traditionally halachic observant. In doing so they diminish, degrade, and demean our way of living jewishly wholeheartedly.


And part of this is our own fault because as Reform Jews we have come to accept the word “reform” as an adjective.  And this adjective is often qualified and usually meansless.”  In our case we refer to ourselves as “less practicing” or “less believing,” as if there is a bar that needs to be crossed in order to be “authentic” or “real.”


Our only response to those non-tolerant, and non-inclusive members of our faith is to continue doing what we do- with more passion, with more determination and with more understanding of the pivotal role we play in the making of Jewish history.


I want to end with a beautiful story I heard from my mentor Rabbi Peter Rubenstein:


He tells of a coincidental meeting with a couple in the hospital before Rosh HaShanah. They were from out of town. The wife was seriously ill. The man told Rabbi Rubenstein that he is not a believer. In fact, he said, I have not been to a synagogue in many years.”


Peter, being the mensch he is, invited him, If you would like to come to services this year we would be glad to have you as a guest.”


The man said, Look, rabbi, whatever I have to ask of God, I can ask of God from here.”


That’s true,” he answered, but maybe God has something to ask of you.”


I believe that God has something to ask of us, I believe you are all here today because even if you do not define yourselves as such - YOU ARE wonderful REALIGIOUS JEWS and I believe that here, and in our special sanctuary also known as “the miracle on Hood Road,” there is a place where we also hear what God asks of us.


It is time we begin changing our language to reflect our actions. It is time we change our actions to reflect our language.


You all received a list of “Eilu devarim” - may this list guide you this coming year as you pursue your religious journey. As you learn, and get comfortable with seeing yourself as “Realigious” people.


Hopefully next year when we are sitting in my study, or talking during the Oneg. When we are holding a drink at a Bar or at a Bat Mitzvah or a wedding, or maybe leaving a house of a mourner after a Shiva call. When we are engaged in a discussion about Judaism you will look at me with a smile and say: “But Rabbi, I am Realigious.”


And please remember what the Lubavitcher Rebbe loved to say -


"Anything worth doing is worth doing now.”  - Shana Tova.


5776 Year in Review

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