My four-year incarnation as a rabbi in the form most people would recognize began in 1997. I stood in front of 750-plus people to lead High Holy Day services at Temple Judea in Tarzana, California. This wealthy suburb of 40,000 named for the estate of Johnny Weissmuller, was once the farmland of the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
I had started the job a few months earlier. But this was the moment, with me in a white robe, that would establish for these people who their new, young rabbi was and what their relationship with me might be.
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends I have not met, I stand here about to deliver my first sermon to you. It will focus on imploring you to become an organ donor.
I didn’t know exactly what else to preach on.
Pockets of awkward laughter. I quickly continued.
That’s not true. I did. I knew what else I could preach on. And here is that list. The top ten, catchy high holiday sermon titles of the sermons that you will not be hearing.
And I let them have it:
Number 10. Shofar: Cruelty to Animals or Just Blowing Hot Air?
Number 9. A Great Big Fish and Other Stories.
Number 8. The Book of Life: 5757 Years on the Best Seller List.
Number 7. Fasting Your Way to Forgiveness.
Number 6. Judaism: It’s Not Just for the High Holidays Anymore.
Number 5. How to Pick the Lock on the Gates of Repentance.
Number 4. The Two-Outfit-Four-Day Dilemma.
Number 3. Is Full Redemption Possible Without a Receipt?
Number 2. Rosh Hashanah: Is That Final ‘H’ Really Necessary?
Number 1. Please Don’t Get High on the High Holidays.
I suspect no one remembers the pitch for organ donations and few remember any other rabbi’s sermon from that year.
But they remembered that this rabbi, their rabbi, started with a top-ten list.
And I was beginning to develop my own style of being a rabbi.
Six years later I was reusing material as the High Holy Day rabbi for the Jewish community of Solvang, California (pop: 5,909) and anyone within driving distance who scored an invitation to the Royal Scandinavian Hotel conference room. Northern Santa Barbara Country. An amalgam of cowboys, vineyards, and descendants of early-20th century Danish refugees.
I didn’t believe in promoting Judaism any more. I was freelancing. It was one year before I would register the domain religion-outside-the-box.com.
I took the $3,000 gig.
I led Rosh Hashanah without a hitch. But then Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—approached.
I felt ill thinking about phoning in recycled material I didn’t believe any more. God—as best as I could understand the concept—requires that we have the courage to be our true selves. As much as we can. As often as we can.
A new Yom Kippur sermon bubbled up within me.
And so I stood there in my white Chuck Taylors. Abstaining from leather and wearing white are Yom Kippur traditions. I said the following. Words that, years later, I would refer to as My farewell to the Jews talk.
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Friends here in Solvang.
All of you have agreed to meet as members of this particular tribe on this particular evening.
You people who showered and made a conscious decision as to what clothing to wear.
A chuckle or two. I quickly continued.
Tonight is Yom Kippur. The day of atonement.
Tonight is said to be the holiest day of the year.
Tonight is said to be the anniversary of the day on which the High Priest would, after elaborate preparations, enter into the Holy of Holies. To be face to face with God.
Which is quite an amazing thing, as our tradition teaches that none shall see God’s face and live. But that is beside the point.
The High Priest used to, in days of old, go into the holy of the holies–and yes, when I hear the phrase ‘holy of holies,’ I think of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.
They are with me. Their laughter lets me know.
The high priest would go, this one very special day a year, to be face to face with God. They would make atonement, reparations between God and the people. It was the high priest’s role to cleanse people of their sins. To help them to be renewed in God’s eye.
And here we are today.
Doing something related.
You have hired me, a ringer, an outside man, a professional, to preach to you.
And here I am. Standing before you.
On this holy, holy day. To preach to you something about atonement, something about forgiveness, something about God’s role in your life.
This is the pinnacle moment of the drama.
Here we are.
Kol Nidrei night.
And I am tasked with telling you truth. Something that you might take with you.
Here it is: please don’t believe me.
If you are going to believe me, a religious professional, when I say one thing, let it be this: ‘Do not listen to me.’
You reading this. Yes, you the person reading these words right now,
I want to address you directly. Guy ordained as a rabbi wanting to break the literary 4th wall and reach out to you.
You’ve probably got a sense of me. From the above, podcasts, videos, books, talks or having met.
I’m not into particularism—the doctrine that some but not all people are chosen. To paraphrase John Lennon—shot directly outside my childhood bedroom window in 1980—I don’t believe in magic, I don’t believe in religion. I believe in humanity. I believe in love. I believe in me. I believe in you.
This is why I made religion-outside-the-box (now rotb.org) a tax-exempt religious organization in 2005.
Because I believe religion ought not shackle or limit people on their way to understand their freedom. It should set them free.
So, let me invite you—the person reading this—the human who might be in need of community—to an upcoming ritual about forgiveness + atonement.
High Holy Days. 2019.
Rabbi Brian style.
For the past 20-plus years, I’ve been running my version of the traditional High Holy Day services. It’s less of an Episcopal-styled formal service and more of a gathering where we discuss and do some innovative cleansing rituals on forgiveness and atonement.
Every year it’s a bit more open, organic, and spiritual. No book. I run it from notes and the heart. Both in Portland and online.
A group gathering about forgiveness and atonement.
Please join me. Live.
Portland, Oregon (10/4 at 7pm PST)
On the web (10/4 at 5pm PST/8pm EST)