A Game-Changing Yom Kippur Sermon

Remarkable and courageous are the first words that come to mind in describing a recent Yom Kippur sermon at a tony Manhattan Conservative synagogue. The sermon did not dwell on what others have, in those few minutes when a spiritual leader has the attention of the three-day-a-year Jews, as well as the regulars. It did not offer an insider’s analysis of the State of the Jewish (Dis)union, did not bash the Orthodox for the latest outrage, did not call from impeaching the President, did not laud tikkun olam as the Jewish mission writ large. It did precisely what a derasha is supposed to do.. It called for Jews to do mitzvos.

The sermon by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Ave. Synagogue deserves to be read in its entirety, if only so that we can more effectively attach our tefilos that his words move his flock and reverberate beyond. It could be a game-changer for people in his synagogue.

Rabbi Cosgrove spoke of the prescience of the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes zt”l in launching outreach efforts on US campuses and beyond, and how the lynchpin of those efforts was getting Jews to perform a demonstrative act – a mitzvah. He spoke of the myriad blessings of living in the United States, but also of its attendant challenges. Those challenges, he says, are more daunting today than when the sixth Rebbe instructed Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Shachter to begin visiting college campuses to try to bring errant Jews back to their patrimony. Regrettably, “our unspoken safety net, the three things that rightly or wrongly American Jews could count on to keep us together… can do so no longer: 1) the Shoah, 2) Israel, 3) antisemitism.” The first has receded too far into the past, the second is too controversial, and the third won’t work in a country that still works to ensure our safety, rather than plots our downfall. Jews in American are doing well, he says. Judaism – not so well. What is there to keep Judaism going into the future?

Today’s rabbis speak about all sorts of things, but are expected to stay away from preaching Judaism. He is breaking that taboo, years after assuming the pulpit. “It’s been more than a decade, and I am saying the very thing a rabbi is supposed to say: I am asking you to do mitzvot.” Only mitzvot preserve the past, and distill it for the future. Only mitzvot express identification with one’s Jewishness in a language more powerful than words.

He tries to allay his audiences fears. Is it reasonable to ask people, already overwhelmed by the complexities of contemporary living, to make commitments? Decidedly yes, he says. “Just don’t tell me that ritual is not your thing or that you can’t make the time. Our lives are filled with rituals: timebound, dietary, and seasonal. We go to Soul Cycle, we go to yoga, we eat GG crackers for G-d’s sake! We carve out time for marathons, we shlep to the new workout in SoHo, and we freeze on the sidelines of our children’s club sports in God knows where.” The rabbi pledges to be patient. Don’t take on more than you can. Start simple. Here in this room, right now, take the time to reflect, reflect with your family: how can you move from ‘not my thing,’ to ‘not yet,’ to ‘why not, let’s see what happens.’ ‘Taste and see,’ teaches the psalmist. (Ps. 34:9) Be open to performing one holy deed and see what happens next.”

He does a better job of allaying the fears of his flock than addressing the misgivings of those of us watching from the distance as he deals with their theological objections. “You don’t subscribe, you say, to a commanding G-d, to outdated notions of reward and punishment.” This is painful for us to read, for two reasons. First, because it reminds us that in recent years, it is not just practice that non-Orthodox Jews have rejected, but G-d Himself.[1] Second, because Cosgrove’s answer to them is so inadequate. “Instead, I encourage you to think of mitzvot not in the vertical, as a connection to a God above, but in the horizontal, a connection to your fellow Jew… The positive and open expression of your Jewish self: that is the argument for a mitzvah.” Sorry, but there is no mitzvah/commandment without a Mitzaveh, or One Who commands. There is no way to leave G-d out of the calculus. A mitzvah implies recognizing the authority of Heaven, and responding to it. Reminder: mitzvah does not mean good deed! A mitzvah by any another name is not a mitzvah. So, from what we know about Torah, is his project doomed to failure?

Absolutely not. Experience has shown that when some Jews begin practicing mitzvos, their curiosity and/or pintele Yid is aroused from its slumber, and they ask for more. In time, some of them make the full trip back to observance. For others, we should keep in mind what the Shalah HaKadosh says in several places: Hashem created an ohr de-hemanusa[2] in every mitzvah. In other words, mitzvos convey a sense of the reality of His existence to those who practice them. Jews who balk at accepting a G-d Who cares about and values human actions might come to believe in Him if they begin to observe His mitzvos.

Let us then cheer on Rabbi Cosgrove’s first brave step, and pray that this words will find favor with his listeners, and that many more will follow in his footsteps. Let us be there, non-paternalistically as brothers and sisters to help them if and when we have the opportunity. And let us pray thatone day we might all once again speak a common language of mitzvos, connecting all of us to each other, and to our Creator.

[Kudos to Talia Rosenberg, Dallas, for the tip.]

  1. For those who think that this discomfort might be limited to this single synagogue, I have only bad news to report. The next issue of Jewish Action should include a review article I wrote of Jack Wertheimer’s recent book, The New American Judaism. It will show how some non-Orthodox rabbis believe that the single greatest obstacle they find is G-d, or more specifically, their congregants’ refusal to deal with traditional understandings of the nature of G-d.
  2. I’m on the road, away from my seforim, so cannot supply the cite at this time.

You may also like...

33 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    While Rabbi Dr. Cosgrove is an oddity in the US where his practice is closer to that of his upper east-side orthodox neighbors than his Park Avenue Synagogue members, in Israel he would be a middle-of-the-road, albeit brilliant, Mesorati Rabbi. I admit that he fascinates me; I read/hear all of his sermons and have read his Ph.D. thesis on Rabbi Louis Jacobs OBM in its entirety. I know of no other conservative synagogue with a hazzan from Har Etzion that also includes an occasional prominent orthodox scholar among its speakers.

    I know it would disturb some, but his brand of Judaism is at the left-most pole within a tent that includes much of the Eidah haHareidit near the right-most pole. Sorry, but that to me are all parts of the traditional community to which I belong. I know that even a mildly trained lamdan can differentiate and exclude some in my tent, easily shifting the left pole further to the right. But why do that? If we are to thrive, experiments to the left and right are useful canaries in the coal mine who warn us about the dangers ahead. Denying those dangers do not make them disappear.

    Seeing his sermon on Cross-Currents is a major step forward, that I hope Rabbi Adlerstein does not have to walk back too much and hopefully not at all

    • Reb Yid says:

      There are more than a few non-Orthodox synagogues that invite Orthodox scholars to be speakers, and this has been the case for quite some time.

      I belong to an Orthodox shul that occasionally invites speakers from the non-Orthodox world; I wish more Orthodox shuls would do this, as it is sadly all too rare. We have so much to learn from one another.

      • dr. bill says:

        Although very laudable in theory, with the exception of extraordinary scholars, hosting speakers of a (very) different stream of Judaism, is fraught with its own set of practical complexities. Rabbi Dr. Cosgrove chooses wisely.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        IIRC, the speakers in such shuls tend to be either rabbinical figures or lay communal officials who are associated with the LW of MO. I question whether the Orthodox world has “much to learn” from a heterodox world that defines social justice and the numerous elements of the progressive agenda as Judaism as opposed to being a person whose life is rooted in Torah Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim

      • lacosta says:

        inviting a non-orthodox clergyperson requires listening to theology to a practitioner who starts with different premises. am not sure what topic they can lecture that will in no way impact dissonance with O [and certianly haredi ] theology…..

    • Steve Brizel says:

      The bottom line remains as RYBS stated that one should daven at home rather than go to service in a mixed seating congregation, regardless of how “traditional” and brilliant a thinker and darshan the spiritual leader and cantor may be in their personal levels of observance.

      • dr. bill says:

        One can certainly debate the relevance of the Rav ztl’s psak to an era when the conservative movement is gasping for air with potential demise a distinct possibility. Compare that to the era when the psak was given; back then the conservative movement seemed invincible, attracting a fair number of centrist musmachim of TV, NI and YU. Many who served conservative shuls are in the olam ha-emet and mentioning names would not serve a worthwhile purpose. Any unbiased study would easily verify the overall weltanschauung of those rabbis.

        i believe despite herculean efforts, the conservative movement will disappear and split; the vast majority will join the reform movement and some will find their way into ultra MO / OO-like groups. It is already a quasi-reality in Israel and its early emergence may not be that far away in the US.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      One can argue that the Torah observant community is keenly aware of the fact that most if not of all CJ and the entirety of RJ are not just “experiments to the left and right” and that R D Cosgrove and DR J Wertheimer are the last of the traditional CJ Mohicans . Anyone in Kiruv today will tell you that many adults, teens and children that they encounter haven’t seen a Pesach Seder, a Bubbie light Shabbos candles or even have had a Bris Milah, Bar or Bas Mitzvah, a Jewish name or even stepped foot in a C or R house of worship for years after a Bar or Bat Mitzvah except possibly on RJ or YK or for a simcha. These are the facts on the ground of lack of many of the basics of Jewish life as eloquently described by Dr Wertheimer.

      One can argue that a discussion is long overdue within the MO world as to the nature of the biggest dangers which include the seriously misguided desire of some parents in seeking Ivy League degrees despite the documented risks today of many who have invested 12 years for tuition and even a year or two for yeshiva or seminary in Israel, walking away from their commitment based on their being exposed to the perfect storm that exists on many prominent college campuses of hostility to freedom of speech and religious liberty ( including and especially support of Israel and Zionism), the pernicious and historically unsupported view that America ( including the Jewish community) was built solely on the unique institution of slavery and the view that we are all merely sets of competing narratives, as opposed to searching for what is true in the sciences and what literature is worth reading as opposed to what is worthless, to loosely paraphrase Saul Bellow.. It would be educationally and communally disastrous IMO to ignore how this perfect storm of factors will affect the viability of Jewish life in America. If you need evidence in this regard, just look at the Mazel Tovs for graduates of certain schools every year

      IMO, what is needed in the MO establishment is an entirely different set of related issues which warrants an in depth discussion but which would not be responsive to the above post.

    • Yossi says:

      How do you include them if he gets rid of the necessity of G-d?

  2. Raymond says:

    The question here appears to me to be between what is the preferred course, to go from the general to the particular, or from the particular to the general.

    My personal inclination is with the first choice. By nature, I am philosophically oriented, and it just seems to me that before one gets bogged down in little details, that one should first have an overall picture of what is going on, and from there, work out the details. In support of this idea, the Logotherapist Viktor Frankl was fond of quoting one of Frederick Neitzche’s most famous expressions, namely that “He who has a Why, can bear almost any How.” An overall worldview, a meaning in life, is what matters, with everything else just the details. In the realm of education, this view is epitomized in philosophers such as Mortimer Adler (Jewish!) and educators such as E.D. Hirsch (Jewish!) who are some of the leaders of getting a classical education first, and worrying about trade school later. And while my memory of how the Rambam expresses a similar idea is unfortunately rather vague, I seem to recall that, he, too, justifies the more philosophical approach by basically mocking those who go about doing the mitzvot without knowing quite why they are doing them.

    But then there is the other side of this issue. On a personal level, when I attended graduate school to become a librarian, I managed to get good grades, but that does not mean I truly understood what was going on. All my grades showed was that I was adept at writing papers for school, and that was probably the case just because I had done it for so many years. It was only when I started working in libraries, that I finally understood how libraries work. I would imagine the same concept holds true for things like romantic love. One may read all kinds of thought-provoking books on the subject, but it is not until one actually engages in a real relationship, that one starts to gain understanding of what that is all about. The Torah itself has little or no philosophy in it at all, while listing many hundreds of G-d’s Commandments to follow. In fact, even when it come to G-d Himself, the Torah spends a whole lot more time describing His actions as opposed to His Essence.

    However, the fact is that the first of the Ten Commandments (which really includes all of the 613 Torah commandments) is the rather philosophical one of getting to know G-d. And returning back to the Rambam, while in the popular, secular mind he is known best for his philosophical work Guide to the Perplexed, among those who are really in the know, namely Orthodox Jews, his Mishna Torah, which after all is essentially a book of mitzvot, is the work that has placed him as perhaps the most revered, and certainly the most quoted and discussed, of all Jewish thinkers since the days of the Talmud. And yet upon further reflection, one realizes that in that work, the Rambam starts out his Mishna Torah with the more philosophical, theological commandments, thus in a way combining the two approaches. And the fact that he places them before the more concrete, physically-oriented mitzvot, well, that may be something only the Rambam (and G-d) could get away with, but I am glad he did, since that is my orientation as well. And so I have come full circle in this discussion, but I don’t feel like I have failed, as Judaism itself so often seems to place far more importance on the give-and-take of such discussions, rather than on the final conclusions reached or not reached.

    Sometimes people have asked, what is more important, the head or the heart? Whom does society need more, men or women? One can make legitimate arguments for either side on such issues. Such things are never settled, because in reality, both are important. And maybe the same goes for the issue at hand. We need the lengthy discussions of Jewish law we find in the Talmud, but we also need the Aggadah that is interspersed among all that legal talk, and we need works such as Mishlei, Kohelet, and the Pirkei Avot. And one final time returning to the Mishna Torah, the Rambam, too, not only begins that work with theology, but intersperses the majority legal portion of that work, with theological discussions as well, such as what is the nature of the True Messiah and the End of Days. And we need both approaches.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    A fascinating and challenging sermon. For those who haven’t bought and/or read The New American Judaism. doing so is a must read that will greatly aid your awareness and comprehension of what passes for heterodox Judaism in the 21st Century and hakaras hatov on the growth and challenges facing all sectors of the Torah observant world

  4. mb says:

    “Reminder: mitzvah does not mean good deed!”
    Not so sure I agree with you on this. Especially when spelled with a small”m”.
    Our sages in their wisdom disposed of most, if not all, of the “difficult”Mitzvot, such as anything that required a death penalty, Sotah ritual, Genocide, and more, but left us with those that they themselves said refined the soul. Every Mitzvah that we have has a rational, moral, ethical and societal component, and we can certainly say that mitzvot are good deeds, by which they have been generically known for years, and regardless of the opinions that without ascribing them to a creator, they are not Mitvot, anyway you look at them, they are good deeds.
    Besides, didn’t God Himself say I’d rather they forget Me, than forget My Torah?

    • Steve Brizel says:

      One could state that Sotah was not applied because the moral level of the people had sunk. The death penalty remains on the books, but its application was limited. RYBS stated that the mitzvah of eradicating Amalek remains in force against any national entity that seeks the eradication of the Jewish People. Chazal and many Rishonim and Mefarshim at the end of Parshas Bshalach understood that Amalek stood for any force or movement that would decrease the level of commitment of Klal Yisrael to Torah and Mitzvos. In general, we are left with those mitzvos that “refined the soul” because we are in need of such mitzvos, not HaShem, but which were commanded to us regardless of =any perceived “rational, moral, ethical and societal component” by HaShem. Ramban in either Ki Setzee or Ki Savo discusses this issue extensively.

      • nt says:

        In general I agree with your posts but here I must differ. I am not aware of any source that says there was a specific historical stoppage to the Sotah procedure. Rather, just like all services and procedures in the Temple, it ended with the destruction of the Temple. If anyone can supply a source to the contrary, please do.
        Secondly, it must be pointed out that the Sotah procedure is not a punishment for the woman. On the contrary, studying its details shows the opposite: It is only applicable in which there are not the two witnesses required for capital punishment, but there is one witness saying the woman was unfaithful. As a result, she becomes forbidden to her husband. Once she successfully completes the procedure, she is permitted to return to her husband. If she is guilty, all she must do is say so, and her husband divorces her, but she will face no other earthly repercussions. In fact, much of the procedure is specifically meant to get her to admit to her guilt prior to undergoing the test. The test is administered in the hopes that it clears her of wrongdoing so she can be reunited with her husband.

        Steve Brizel wrote: In general, we are left with those mitzvos that “refined the soul” because we are in need of such mitzvos, not HaShem, but which were commanded to us regardless of =any perceived “rational, moral, ethical and societal component” by HaShem. Ramban in either Ki Setzee or Ki Savo discusses this issue extensively.
        I’m not sure which Ramban you mean, but yes, all mitzvos are for our benefit, and not G-d’s. And we are obligated to keep all commandments whether we comprehend them or not. But our tradition teaches that all commandments are beneficial to us. In many cases the benefit is obvious, and in many it requires a little more study. Great sages through the ages have written works on the subject, the most famous of which is Sefer Hachinuch. But in the commentaries I am aware of, such as Ramban and R’ Bechaye, the benefits are taken as a given. See

    • Steve Brizel says:

      MB wrote in part:

      ” Besides, didn’t God Himself say I’d rather they forget Me, than forget My Torah?”

      Look at Nedarin 81, and Rabbeinu Nissim, Bach to Tur ( not sure where now) and Beis HaLevi-all posit that the the above refers to not reciting Bircas HaTorah and learning Torah Lishmah as opposed to viewing Torah as RL merely ancient Hebrew and Aramaic comparative literature

    • rkz says:

      Chas Ve’Shalom.
      All mitzvot are binding, regardless of our imaginary morality.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    R Adlerstein points out a critical flaw in the above linked sermon. All Mitzvos are inherently are a defined by a Mtzaveh. That is one reason why Moshe Rabbeinu shattered or dropped both of the Luchos

  6. Shades of Gray says:

    “Sorry, but there is no mitzvah/commandment without a Mitzaveh, or One Who commands…Absolutely not. Experience has shown that when some Jews begin practicing mitzvos, their curiosity and/or pintele Yid is aroused from its slumber, and they ask for more.”

    This reminds me of a similar statement of the Noverminsker Rebbe about Reform Jewry, linked below, in the June, 1999(summer) Jewish Observer, pg. 40(underneath R. Hillel Goldberg’s related “Is Reform Jewry Coming Home?”):


    “The following thoughts have been percolating in my mind these past weeks. To some, they may seem novel; to some, even questionable. But to me, they reflect an unmistakable reality…We are witness today to a new stirring in the hearts of Jews that deserves our attention and reflection. The quest for truth and the search for meaningful Jewishness is coming from the most unexpected places, from those totally estranged from Torah faith and observance.”

    R. Perlow goes on to say that Reform Jewry is subconsciously calling אֵלְכָה וְאָשׁוּבָה אֶל אִישִׁי הָרִאשׁוֹן (Hoshea, 2,9), and writes later, “Of course, the moral sequence of mitzva observance is the acceptance of a Divine “Metzaveh.” Here is where Jews with faith in Torah Misinai part ways with the heresies of Reform. The call to mitzvos should inherently lead the callers and followers, if they are serious seekers, to real teshuva, return. The manifesto is therefore only a beginning, albeit a historic one. Its logic, however, compels the commitment that only the Mesora of our fathers can provide.”

    Prof. Adam Ferziger discusses R. Perlow’s statement and its background in a 2009 Jewish Social Studies article, “From Demonic Deviant to Drowning Brother: Reform Judaism in the Eyes of American Orthodoxy” (available online):

    “In the CCAR Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism ratified in Pittsburgh on May 26, 1999, they asserted the centrality of mitzvot and moved away from universalism toward a Jewish identity uncompromisingly rooted in God and Torah. This was a major departure from the religious approach known as American Classical Reform that was first advanced in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which focused on the Reform movement’s moral vision and omitted ritual religious acts from its central tenets. The new decisions of the official organs did not require Reform Jews to perform any specific rituals, and total personal autonomy was still advocated. Yet they symbolized the rise to dominance of a trend toward greater traditional behavior within Reform Judaism whose earliest expressions can be traced to the late 1930s, but which has evolved in particular since the 1970s and intensified during the 1990s.”

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    The linked Yom Kippur sermon includes a quote:

    “It was Louis Finkelstein, the late chancellor of JTS, who reflected: “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study Torah, God speaks to me.”

    While I have similarly read the above statement in the name of AJ Heschel of JTS, I believe I have also read it from a traditional source. Does anyone know of such a traditional source?

    Perhaps related to the Torah half of the statement is the comment of the Netziv in Ha’amek Davar on Shemos 20:21(“In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come unto you and bless you”). The first-person language, אַזְכִּיר can literally mean “I will mention”, and could imply that Hashem participates in learning as the verse is applied to Torah study in Pirkei Avos 3:7 and Berachos 6a (this nuanced reading of אַזְכִּיר has been previously noted by Yerushalmi Berachos 4:4 quoted by the above Ha’amek Davar and Torah Temimah, and also noted by Ruach Chaim on Avos 3:7).

    • Aharon says:

      In lonely man of faith, the Rav made that comment about nevuah (nevuah is God talking to man, after the cessation of nevuah, tefillah is man speaking to God)

  8. rkz says:

    Mitzva has gedarim and dinim. Does Dr. Cosgrove’s flock know them? Does he?

    • dr. bill says:

      unfortunately, you reflect the position of altogether too many (Haredi) jews. I told someone of a totally secular Israeli work acquaintance, stuck in Seattle for yom Kippur, who had a fish meal at a local restaurant and walked multiple times uphill to a shul over two miles from his hotel. did he wear shoes and was the restaurant kosher was the response. i guess perspectives differ. that Israeli is meticulous checking for a mehadrin rabbanut hechsher when he takes me to dinner and i appreciate it. (we both would rather starve than eat at a eidah hashgacha.) he will not think of calling me when it is Shabbat in Israel or the US :).

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Sociological anecdotes are not really relevant in discussing what is a Divinely ordained commandment but rather only demonstrate the degree of observance of an individual or community

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Starving rather than eating at a restaurant under Eidah hashgacha is not IMO just another example of unnecessarily acting PC but ignoring the fact that the Eidah provides a hashgacha that is superb

      • tzippi says:

        We’re living in an era where even the two/three day a year Jew is becoming less common. So I say kol hakavod to your friend, and may his sincerity and conviction lead to bigger and greater things, and be enough to inspire his children. Said as a chareidi type.

      • rkz says:

        I don’t understand how that story is relevant to my comment.
        Do you mean that we should praise good intentions and ignore the halakha? (I do not think that you mean that, but I don’t understand what you mean)

    • mb says:

      Dr. Cosgrove is Rabbi Dr. Cosgrove!

      • Steve Brizel says:

        ask yourself whether he qualifies as a Halachically proper witness and whether any action undertaken by him has any Halachic meaning especially given his truncated definition of Mitzvah

    • nt says:

      We hope they will eventually. Let’s just appreciate a positive development for what it is right now.

  9. rkz says:

    Another question: How many of Dr. Cosgrove’s flock are actually Jewish?

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Everyone has flashes of inspiration or partial inspiration from time to time. As long as this rabbi and his congregation choose to remain in the Conservative movement, their chances for a real breakthrough to enthusiastic observance are limited. If their leader really believes mitzvot are strictly to bond Jews to one another, how is he not a Reconstructionist? On the other hand, if he uses this tack for practical reasons only, to help them get their toe in the water of mitzvot, he might have potential to do some good.

  11. tzippi says:

    rkz wrote: I don’t understand how that story is relevant to my comment.
    Do you mean that we should praise good intentions and ignore the halakha? (I do not think that you mean that, but I don’t understand what you mean)

    No, but there’s a way to say that this isn’t the halacha while commending the intention and conviction. If done right, it could lead to bigger and better things.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This