Spiritual Capsaicin: a sermon for Kol Nidre


This is my favorite time of year.  Sometimes it’s a bit earlier, sometimes it’s a bit later, but it always falls around this time of year.  I’m speaking, of course, about the Hatch Green Chile season.  


Oh, I know, I know, you’re thinking, what? But it’s true.  I love hatch green chiles.  I don’t even use all the ones I buy each year. I buy more than I need and put them in the freezer.  Part of what’s so great about them is that they’re special.  Sure, they are basically Anaheim Chiles, which you can get year-round, but these are particularly flavorful and grow in the region of Hatch, New Mexico, from whence they get their name. 


Some are mild, and some are pretty hot, but nothing crazy, like, the  Habanero, or the Infinity Chili (!) or the current world-champion of NO NO NO NOPE NO, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper.  That bad boy scores one and a half to two million on the Scoville scale.


The Hatch chiles I like so much score between 1000 and 2500 on the same scale.  But what is this Scoville scale?  It’s remarkably simple.  The Scoville scale is named for Wilbur Scoville, who devised it as a way to measure the ‘spicy-heat’ of a given hot pepper.   


You know, like the Naga Viper pepper.  That’s a spicy pepper.  How spicy is it? It would take over a million parts of water to dilute the capascin in that pepper so that it was undetectable to the human taste.  

So if you had one teaspoon of that pepper, you would need to mix it with 166,667 ounces of water to dilute it.  That’s 1,302 gallons of water.  


Now if you compare this to a pepper we are more likely to encounter, say, the average Jalapeno, the numbers are different.  Let’s say the Jalapeno in question scores a 5,000.  One teaspoon of Jalapeno holds its own up to about four gallons.  But it soon disappears into memory at 833 ounces of water.  6.5 gallons.  

So there are two things to consider when working with hot peppers.  Firstly, their score on the Scoville unit.  How ‘hot’ are the peppers, and secondly, how much dilution are the peppers going to be subjected to?


I apologize for using the food analogy on Kol Nidre, but bear with me.  Imagine you were making a big pot of chili for a party.  And you were having a lot of friends over, from different parts of the country and everyone has a different idea of what the perfect chili is.  But one thing is for sure, it needs to have some hot pepper in it.  

You’ve got a lot of friends so you are making 212 gallons of chili.  You add in 5.4 teaspoons of dried Jalapeno pepper.  This leaves you with a nice heat index of about 1990.    


Uh, oh, it turns out your cousin Eddie just called and he’s bringing his whole family. Now you need to make 313 gallons of chili.  (This is a metaphor if you are stuck on the amount of chili we are talking about).   Unfortunately, you find out you mismeasured your chili powder.  You only put 5.2 teaspoons in.  And Oh, No!  You’re out of pepper powder.  Not to worry,  you still have some flavor from it left, but now it scores about a 1300.


In 1970 there were 5.4 million Jews living in America among a population of 212 million.  In 2010 these numbers changed.  One went down slightly.  The other went way up.  We counted 5.2 million Jewish people among a population of 313 million.  

Demographically, we are becoming more diluted, like the chili pepper in the pot.  In 1970 there were 3.4 Jews per 1000 people in the US, and today there are roughly 1.95 Jews per 1000. 


What complicates matters is that it isn’t simply a matter of how many Jews there are.  It isn’t merely a quantitative problem.  It is equally a qualitative problem.  5 teaspoons of one kind of pepper won’t matter a bit if it only has a heat score of 400 in a 313 gallon pot.  At the same time, 5 teaspoons of Habanero at 500,000 units leaves that pot with a heat score of 108,160.  So if you only have a little bit of pepper to work with, the quality of that pepper matters a great deal.


Among the great factors in the dilution of Jewish identity is intermarriage.  It’s just a fact.  Let’s be clear; I was raised the majority of my life in a mixed-faith household.  My wife was born into a mixed faith family. It affects all of us.  In 1970, the rate of intermarriage was 13 percent.  Today it’s 50 percent.    

Depending on the area of the country you live in, the situation varies.  In Boston, 60 percent of children identified as Jewish living in a mixed faith household are being raised as Jews.  In Denver, the number is 18 percent.  


Overall, the numbers aren’t very promising. 

In total,  the number of Jews that identify as Jews and affiliate in some way, in any way, is about 2 million.  And here we are! We’re part of that 2 million.  

Since you are here, something has worked. Maybe it’s tradition. Maybe it’s nostalgia.  I hope it’s because you honestly want to be here and do something real Jewish. But something reached you. This is good. What is not good is that you are part of a smaller and smaller minority.


So, we have smaller and smaller amounts of chili pepper to put into a bigger and bigger pot.  And there’s some mighty powerful flavors in that pot with us.  Since we can’t count on having more, we need stronger peppers.


If you still aren’t following me, I’m comparing Jewish people to chili peppers, and Jewish identity and practice to the relative strength of these peppers.  


The pot of chili is our larger community, the American world in which we live.  The competing ingredients all the other identities and disciplines we and specifically our kids have to participate in or contend with.  


I wish that I could say that we have responded to our lesser quantity and percentage with a proportional increase in our Jewish scoville score, say from Jalapeño to Tabasco.  But this is not the case.  In fact, we’ve done the opposite.  

We continue to raise blander and less powerful peppers.  Peppers that cannot hold up against the increasing volume of diluting 


Friends, the situation is clear and absolute.  We are declining in quantity and quality. 


60% of Jews below 40 years of age live in households identified as non-Jewish

54 percent of all American Jewish children under the age of 18 are being raised as non-Jews or with no religion.

Of the population that consists of people who were born Jewish and are Jewish by choice, only 11% attend synagogue weekly. 

Only 36% of Jewish households light the Shabbat Candles.  Allowing for the Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox communities which account for about one million people today, that leaves about half a million non-orthodox Jews that perform even the most simple, basic and easy home ritual.  

The only fix, folks, is to become spicier peppers.  And spice in this case does not necessarily mean ritual practice or keeping kosher, though that certainly is a good way to increase the score.  

There are lots of ways to increase our heat, yet to do so will require resources and increased commitment.  And we must be willing to try new things, to try things that we’ve tried before without success and to try new ways of being Jewish that will speak to today’s Jewish families, which include more and more non-Jews.  We can do this and are trying to do this as a movement and as one congregation, but it mostly has to happen in your homes and in your own way.  

There are less of us now, and a greater need.  That means we all have to do more.  It’s that simple.  Does this surprise anyone?  Does it come as a shock?  

It isn’t news to the leaders of our movement.  Though I would be the first to criticize decisions that have been made by our leadership over the last three decades, I can’t say they haven’t consistently tried to respond.  And I remain hopeful that the road being surveyed by our Union’s new president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  will take us in the right direction.  


In particular I want to mention the Campaign for Youth Engagement, which seeks to revitalize and renew our impact among those we stake our future upon.  Through efforts in Union Camps like Greene Family Camp, our Youth Groups and through immersive and transformative programs like Mitzvah Corps.  Mitzvah Corps is an opportunity for High Schoolers to spend part of their summer vacation working alongside peers from all over the country in places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua and New Orleans, helping those in need and making the world more complete through social action and volunteerism.  


Another project of this campaign is called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.  The aim of this endeavor is to address the terrible truth that 80 percent of our 12 year olds will have no discernable connection to Judaism by the time they graduate high school.  The chili pepper is getting watered down and washed out.  And that is unacceptable. 


I’m frankly proud of the B’nai Mitzvah students we have celebrated over the three years I’ve been rabbi of this congregation.  I think we do a pretty good job of recognizing the differences between individual students and most of the time we’ve been able to keep the B’nai Mitzvah a meaningful lifecycle event and not a going-away party.   I remember when everybody had a theme for their B’nai Mitzvah.  The theme was B’nai Mitzvah.  And though we are doing as well as anyone, even better than average, we are certainly not immune to the disease that has ravaged our communities, robbing us of hundreds of thousands of young  American Jewish minds and souls.  Fighting disease is, by the way, a Mitzvah.  It’s a moral-ethical and religious obligation.  


Speaking of Mitzvah I want to share a local response to the need for some spice in our lives. 


In this congregation, the Jacques C. Shure religious school is launching a  program called “A Million Minutes of Mitzvah”.  It is meant for all of us to participate, and I invite you all to participate.  In fact, I urge you to participate.  Buy a T-shirt.  It’s a Mitzvah! The concept of Mitzvah is simple.  It means to do something that your Judaism compels you to do.  It is a “Jewish” act.  Specifically it is something that God wants you to do as expressed through the Torah and the teachings of our rabbis. 


You will be given many programs and special events in which you can participate this year, and I sincerely hope to see everyone in this congregation take part in some or all of them. 


 In addition to the multitude of opportunities there will be given to us to see how many minutes of mitzvahs we can bank as individuals and as a community,  there are countless ways to bring Jewish content into your families.  


Here are some Jewish things you can do at home, which is where the battle for will be won or lost.  That’s where the garden of chili peppers is.  This is the seed and feed store.  If you want to ensure that our values and our approach to Judaism remains a vibrant and even present at all a generation from now, all of us must act.  We must increase our Jewish identity.  Our Jewish involvement and our Jewish spice level.  

  • Say the Sh’ma before bedtime.
  • Hang a Mezuzah on your door, or hang another one on another door.  
  • Choose each week where you are going to give tzedakah as a family.
  • Lighting candles on friday at sunset, or even better have a shabbat dinner.
  • Make challah or another traditional food together
  • Learn some Hebrew words or the alef bet.  Quiz each other with flashcards.
  • Volunteer in the congregation, like, you  know to be president elect or something, just throwing it out there or something smaller like come to a clean-up day or join a committee. 
  • Read the torah portion of the week together and discuss what it means to you.
  • Write letters of thanks to veterans or active duty soldiers
  • Stand up for being Jewish.  Choose not to play football on Yom Kippur. 
  • Make your child’s jewish education at least as important as piano lessons.
  • Make your own Jewish education at least as important as following your college football team. 
  • Give as generously as you can to support your temple, so that it can provide the right climate for growing strong peppers.  Innovation and inspiration and excitement require investment.  

Each of these small steps leads to another small step in strengthening your identity.  Each Mitzvah you do will drive your heat up a point or two.  And you will find yourself filled with an increased level of purpose and meaning and connection in your life.  


Isn’t that why you are here, after all? When all is said and done?  Isn’t this about having purpose and meaning and connection in your life?  You’ve been given all these,  in great abundance.  But you have to do something with these gifts.  I don’t care what you choose to do, but before God, this day of Atonement, I implore and challenge you to do something.