Even those of us who were not yet born look back on the years after World War II as something of a golden age. No, it was not a golden age for people of color, women, or LGBTQ people – but it remains vividly hopeful in our imaginations. It was the era of the “American Dream” and the yardstick by which we measure society.
We imagine the Montgomery G.I. Bill sending veterans to college, a strong manufacturing sector, and a “baby boom.” We imagine the simplicity and sense of common culture. We imagine what it must have been like to live during a time of shrinking economic inequality, when politicians crossed the aisle and found common cause.
But the myth of the “American Dream” did not emerge after World War II in the postwar boom. It came to the fore during the Great Depression, when our country seemed to be falling apart. James Truslow Adams popularized the term “American Dream” in his wildly successful book, The Epic of America.[i] Published in 1931, he defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”[ii]
During a time of economic collapse, rising fascism, and social unrest, he gave purpose to our struggles and a vision for what could be possible, if only we made it through.
The secret of myths is that we do not create them when we are strong, but when we are weak. We create them when we need hope, not when we have much of it. They give direction to our lives and turn us from the victims of one story into the protagonists of another.
Plato’s Republic suggests that myths are “noble lies,” intended to make us care more for our city or country.[iii] They help us continue forward when the going gets tough and feel a stronger affinity for our fellow citizens.
Historian Yuval Hariri even suggests that myths are the secret to our success as a species. In his bestselling book Sapiens, he indicates that myths are the “mysterious glue” that holds us together and enables vast numbers of people to cooperate.[iv] In creating and sharing these stories, we create common cause. They reside in our minds, but feel incredibly real – and can have real consequences in our lives. In fact, they often define our purpose in life. In giving us meaning, they give us motivation.
Individuals have myths. Families have myths. Communities have myths. Countries have myths. To be sure, the Jewish people has myths. What we lacked in a country of our own for millennia, we replaced with stories that could recreate a sense of global community.
Professor Shalom Spiegel put it best: “Devout centuries wove endless fantasies around the characters and occurrences depicted in the Holy Writ.”[v] The results have been literary, ethical, and social grandeur. Our unique contribution as a people is not just myth, but our self-awareness of myth.
We live by the stories of our Torah and sage tales of the Talmud even though we know that they are at least partially fantastical. We were among the first peoples to acknowledge that we believe in our myths because of the wisdom that they hold – not their historical veracity.
Most of us sitting here today probably believe that the Torah is at least part myth. But we are also here today because it elevates our lives so profoundly.
Our self-awareness of myth is not merely a modern or post-modern phenomenon. It is not just an aspect of the Reform Movement. It is imbedded in the Talmud and the writing of preeminent Jewish jurists for thousands of years.
One of the great, self-aware myths of the Talmud stems from a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and his cohort of rabbinic colleagues about whether an oven should be deemed Kosher.[vi] Rabbi Eliezer believes that a particular oven can be made Kosher, while his colleagues disagree. The dispute is real, while what unfolds afterwards is entirely part of the rabbinic imagination.
Rabbi Eliezer first tries argument after argument, using logic to emphasize the merit of his claims.
When that doesn’t work, he invokes God’s miraculous interventions to prove his point – and we transition to a fanciful tale of rabbinic hubris. The story becomes less about Kashrut or the debate itself and more about character and the way in which Jews should engage in debate altogether.
Rabbi Eliezer says that if he is right, a carob tree will uproot itself and move at least a hundred cubits away. Lo and behold the tree does just that. But his colleagues say that Jewish law cannot be decided based on a carob tree.
Rabbi Eliezer then says that if he is right, the stream will prove it. Lo and behold a nearby stream reverses course and begins running backwards. But his colleagues respond that you cannot cite a stream as proof in a debate.
Rabbi Eliezer then says that if he is right, the walls of the house of study will prove it. They begin to cave in and fall, ultimately resting at an angle out of deference to the other scholars who were seated there. Once more, the miracle occurs, but the rabbis are unmoved.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer says that if he is right, a Bat Kol, a Divine Voice from heaven, will call out. The voice calls out and asks why the other scholars have not yet come to concur with Rabbi Eliezer.
Then Rabbi Joshua gets to his feet and calls back to the Divine Voice a rebuke from Deuteronomy: Lo ba shamayim hi, “The Torah is not in heaven.”[vii] Rabbi Yirmiyah affirms, “The Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, so we do not defer to the Divine Voice.”
Ultimately, Rabbi Eliezer’s colleagues ostracize him.
Invoking God at the expense of the rabbinic process had gone too far. Rabbi Eliezer’s colleagues would listen to logical arguments, even if they became harsh. But miraculous interventions undermined the sacred process of reflection, logical deduction, and debate. Believing in miracles was fine. Using them as proof against rational thought was antithetical to the Torah itself.
The genius of this Talmudic passage exists not in spite of the mythical elements but within them. It also supports the key precept from last week – minhagan shel Yisrael Torah hi –our customs come to carry the weight of Torah, so long as they evolve in dialogue with Torah itself. Torah is a mythical starting point from which we continue our evolution as people indefinitely.
This passage of Talmud calls us all to self-awareness of our myths. It is a most fitting passage to read, especially on Yom Kippur. For Yom Kippur is the sacred day on which we are called to face our myths, both as individuals – and a community. We are called to face them to make sure that they are serving righteous ends and helping us live good lives.
Some people live under the myth of giving “tough love” when they are really just being tough.
Some people live under the myth of a “normal” relationship with a substance, a person, or a group, when that relationship is not so healthy at all.
Some people live under the myth of success or glory or greatness or perfection, when our success and glory mask other areas of pain and brokenness.
Some people live under the myth of righteousness but act out of self-righteousness.
The vidui, the communal confessional, which we recite multiple times today, is not an affirmative admission of guilt. It is a chance to recognize the places in which our myths cause us pain. Our tradition affirms the power of myth as a means of organizing our community, giving us hope, and bestowing upon us a sense of higher purpose. But it openly acknowledges the presence of myth, so that we can be aware of when, how, and whether it really works in our lives. We in turn should grapple with it, shape it, and come to greater self-understanding through it.
Today we ask ourselves:
- What are the stories we tell about our lives?
- What are the stories we project about ourselves to our families, circles of friends, places of work, and social media followers?
- What emotional needs do these myths serve?
- Are my myths truly serving my needs – or should I change the script?
Today, we all serve as editors of those sacred scripts that define our lives and reside in our subconscious. Today, we take time to engage with those myths – and see how we might improve them, so that we can live by better narratives in the year ahead.
We often create myths in moments of pain and hurt and might need to revisit those moments. That is why Yom Kippur is often somber, melancholy, and difficult. Not because we are being judged by some vengeful deity, but because we return in discerning judgment to our life’s most painful moments – and try to reweave the scripts that emerged from them.
So, too, should we face our myths as a community. For even our blossoming, joyful, loving East End Temple Family has a few – three of which I will relate, albeit with some trepidation.
First, we proclaim that we are the “most welcoming” community in New York City. We genuinely might be. Yet I am surprised by the number of newer members who have told me about moments when they felt like outsiders.
Second, we proclaim that we are a “best-kept secret” in New York, even when 98 percent of respondents to a survey this winter indicated that they would recommend or strongly recommend our community to a friend.
Third, we use with surprising frequency the clichés “we have always done” or “it’s what we do” – when literally only two people in our community can attest to what we have done over the past 70 years, and both of them scrupulously avoid using history as pretense to impede progress.
These are not dangerous or bad myths. They actually are quite lovely. But as Jews, we are still called to reflect upon them and others that reside in our midst, in order to live an examined life as individuals and in community.
The problem with our myths is that they enable us to keep doing business as usual, rather than engaging in the deeply Jewish process of continual self-betterment. They enable us to feel warm and welcoming, rather than reaching out a hand to a person we have not yet met or taking steps to get rid of the silo between newer religious school families and members who have been here for years.
But we are better as a community than to go home happy when there is kindness to bestow and justice to pursue. We are stronger than to shy away from awareness that our more comforting myths might not always ring true. In fact, our myths indicate precisely where we should devote extra energy as a community this year.
If there are three areas of focus for communal change this year, they are in-reach, communications, and the articulation of our values.
As our community grows, we need to find more systematic ways to welcome new members, invite them into community, and encourage them to take on leadership roles. We need more thought partners, philanthropic partners, and partners in activism and organizing. We need to renew our leadership development programs. We have such remarkable people in this room, and it’s on us to help every single one find the right ways to build our vibrant community.
It has also become evident that we are not a “best kept secret” by design, but because our online presence has not kept up with the times. We have great content and extraordinary lay leaders who continually help us – but we need to update our social media platforms, website, and e-blast. This will be a year of introspection and iteration, as we empower a Communications Task Force and upgrade the ways in which we communicate with our members and potential members.
Most importantly, we need to express what it means that we have “always” done things in a certain way. I perceive it to mean that there is wisdom and intention behind many aspects of communal life. We have good minhag, good customs as a community.
Even if we seek to redouble our best practices, we must first articulate what they are and the reasons behind them. We should keep doing much of what we already do – but should not maintain the status quo for its own sake. We have the potential to be a community that transforms our religious movement – but need to express with clarity what works and why.
Just to reiterate, our myths as a community are benign. But our vitality as a community gives us all the more reason to engage with them today. We have the ability to learn from them and revise them from a place of strength. We do so today, not only as people deeply invested in our community, but also as people deeply invested in the sacred, difficult, and soulful work of Yom Kippur.
Today we take a step back from all of our myths – personal, communal, religious, and national. We do not atone for their existence as an intrinsically human way to collaborate, motivate, and give meaning to our lives. But we do acknowledge moments when we lacked awareness of these myths. And we do atone for moments when they led us astray, justified our inaction, or enabled our wrongdoing.
May we all have the strength to encounter our true selves this Yom Kippur and improve the myths by which we live.
[v] Introduction to Legends of the Bible by Louis Ginzberg, page xi.
[vii] Deuteronomy 30:12, with a translation from Sefaria.org.
This article was originally given as a Yom Kippur sermon at East End Temple in Manhattan.