At the beginning of this conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous and again at the end, we discuss a seminal prayer-poem of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef. It is a recital of commonplace mortal perils of the year to come:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low…
Our culture — human nature magnified — denies frailty and finitude with a million devices. This religious ritual, more realistically, stares them in the face and asks us to make sense of our lives in and because of them.
This program evokes so much that I love about Jewish tradition — like the fact that it is supremely attuned to human nature's messiness as well as its nobility. It comprehends the fact that we turn a phrase like "living like there's no tomorrow" into a cliché, an excuse for froth or license. And so, by the calendar, cyclically, Jews both secular and devout are stopped in their tracks by the long blasts of the shofar and High Holy Day rituals that cleanse, humble, deepen, anchor, and refresh. In long hours of prayer, liturgy, and fasting, worshippers name and reckon with the transgressions and omissions of the year past — both individual and communal — and wipe the slate clean for the moment in time ahead.
We had wanted to find a way to explore the Jewish High Holy Days for years, and we might have interviewed any number of wonderful guests, who would have provided myriad windows into the themes and meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as we researched this program, my imagination was caught by Sharon Brous. She is a rabbi in the conservative school of Judaism, but spent a number of actively disaffected, secular years doubting the validity of faith in a modern life. She now leads an urban community she helped to found in Los Angeles in 2004 named IKAR — after the Hebrew word for "essence," or "core." Her congregation is bursting to the seams, mostly with people in their 20s and 30s. IKAR calls itself both progressive and traditional. Alongside social justice engagement, their Yom Kippur worship will include the ancient spiritual posture of full-body prostration.
Solemn words like repentance and atonement define the Days of Awe, though these English translations of Hebrew words are resonant culturally with their Christian appropriations. More importantly, they don't capture the poetic and visual nuances of the Hebrew. Yet Sharon Brous embraces them intellectually and kinetically. In the deepest spirit of Jewish tradition — of midrash and Talmud, of reverent yet imaginative interpretation of text and practice, of sacred and fearless conversation across generations about them — she fills them with new connotations for her generation.
There is a new Zeitgeist that she embodies, and that intrigues me. Sharon Brous could not be more different from other recent younger guests I've had, such as the Christian Shane Claiborne or the Muslim Eboo Patel; but she reminds me of both of them. They are all thoroughly modern, deeply thoughtful, spiritually wise beyond their years — at once fully engaged in modern life and rooted in ancient spiritual soil. They are fierce about making their traditions relevant and as passionate about transmitting the beauty and wisdom their faiths have revealed across the ages.
In one moving part of our conversation, Rabbi Brous speaks about teachings in Jewish tradition that grieve her, as a woman in particular. But she adds that "the wisdom that comes from this text comes from the same place as the excruciating pain that flows from it." And even the tears she cries over the pages of Talmud or Torah, she insists, become part of the mix of the living tradition that she carries forward into a new year.