The Question of the Moment

It’s hard to believe that 5776 has already flown away from us, and we are headed into 5777, which will be the only Hebrew year in our lifetimes containing three identical digits in a row (of course, this does not seem so special only 17 years after 1999).

You may recall that our theme for the High Holidays last year was Connection, Community, and Kedushah (holiness), and much of what we have accomplished over the last year has focused on those things: parlor meetings, the monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, the new pre-bar/bat mitzvah Family Retreat, the launching of Beth Shalom’s new mission statement, beginning to plan our Centennial celebration, Pride Shabbat, the inauguration of a task force to discuss being more welcoming to interfaith families, and so forth.

This year, the theme for High Holidays is “Why?” Why be Jewish? Why Beth Shalom? Why engage with Jewish living? Why learn the ancient writings that fill the Jewish bookshelf? For the vast majority of us who were born Jewish, we have never thought too deeply about why – we have merely been Jewish by default, and done Jewish things because that is how we were raised. But the contemporary challenge to religion requires that we think more pro-actively about why we do what we do, because if we cannot answer those questions for ourselves, what is the chance that our children will continue to value the rich, meaningful legacy that we pass on to them?

In order to get yourself in the mood for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m going to suggest the following. Spend a few moments answering the following questions for yourself:

  1. What is the most meaningful Jewish thing that I do? Why do I continue to do it?
  2. What is my most powerful Jewish memory?
  3. What is one area of Jewish life and learning that I wish I knew more about?
  4. Why does the world need non-Orthodox Judaism?
  5. What value does Congregation Beth Shalom bring to my life and my community?

If you are not sure how to answer any of these questions, perhaps you will gain some perspective this year during the High Holidays. Let’s hope that we will all be open in 5777 to gain a greater understanding of the tremendous value and meaning in our customs, our rituals, our rich textual tradition.

And I am going to suggest one more thing again this year for services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Wear white clothing to the synagogue on these days. It is traditional to wear a white kittel to acknowledge our need to seek purity. But white can also suggest the search for meaning, the openness to finding meaning in what we do as Jews, not just on the High Holidays, but throughout the year. You don’t need a kittel, but you can simply wear white, and be open.

Shanah tovah!

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Renewing Our Relationship With Judaism -Ki Tetse 5776

I am always captivated by passages in the Torah that list laws, because they give us some insight into what our ancestors valued. Today’s parashah was especially rich with such laws, and among them some of my favorites:

  • returning your neighbor’s donkey
  • not abusing an employee
  • leaving some of your harvest for the needy
  • not taking chicks from the nest while the mother is there
  • stoning to death a disobedient son
  • stoning to death a newlywed woman in whom “the tokens of her virginity” were not found

Wait a minute – back up.  I’m sorry about those last two.

And, in some sense, so is Rabbinic Judaism.  Yes, those are in the Torah, but we have never actually stoned anybody to death (thank God!). In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show that the applicability of these laws is so limited that they could never actually be carried out.

Fortunately, we do not practice the religion of the ancient Israelites. Judaism is not the literal application of the laws as written in the Torah.  Rather, Jewish law has been codified by our sages who interpreted the Torah in subsequent centuries.  In other words we practice rabbinic Judaism, which is much more reasonable.

Given the issues surrounding some of the laws described in the Torah, there is a debate in rabbinic literature that continues to this day: Do the mitzvot have some internal value, or moral worth, or are they simply commandments that we must follow without searching for any higher message?

Maimonides (1135 – 1204 Spain -> Egypt) sees reason behind each commandment. For example, he believes that the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, shooing away the mother bird in order to take the chicks teaches us compassion for all of God’s creatures.

הכן מצות שילוח הקן מעוררת אותנו לתמיהה ...

In his seminal work of philosophy, Moreh Nevukhim, “Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides connects the suffering of animals with the suffering of people:

“Since therefore the desire of procuring good food necessitates the killing of animals, the Law enjoins that this should be done as painlessly as possible…  [the suffering of animals] does not differ from that of man, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings…  If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow people!”

The mother hen and her chicks, says Rambam, are representative; the mitzvah applies equally to humans, if not literally, then figuratively.

But not everybody agrees with Rambam.

Ramban – Nachmanides (1194 -1270 Spain -> Israel) states clearly and unapologetically  that “The ruling on the mother bird is not based on the Almighty’s pity for the animal.”  To Ramban, this is merely one more decree, albeit one that does teach us to avoid cruelty.  No further conclusions may be drawn.

Elsewhere, Rashi (1040-1105 France) states in a commentary on a different passage that the reason one should not steal (e.g.) is not because it is “wrong” to steal; rather, because God commanded us not to steal.

There are modern commentators that come down on either side of this equation. But I must say that this rabbi is with Rambam. Our inner motivations in following Jewish law should be in line with our behavior. We do not merely fulfill mitzvot like so many sheep, but rather use them as a tool to bring greater holiness into our lives. Our goal in taking these holy opportunities is to extrapolate these commandments for the greater good.

It is therefore not enough merely to shoo the mother bird away before taking the chicks, but also a lesson about minimizing suffering for all of God’s creatures, no matter their size or significance, and even as we use some of them wisely to produce our food. And that message is as much reinforced by the mitzvot surrounding kashrut, holy eating, as it is by the obligation to return not only your neighbor’s donkey, but your enemy’s donkey as well.

***

You may be aware that Rosh Hashanah is a little more than two weeks away…

This is a time to reset the dials of our lives, or, to use more contemporary language, it’s time for a full system restore.

We tend to think of the High Holidays as being associated with the Book of Life (Besefer hayyim… nizakher venikatev… lehayyim tovim ulshalom), the extended metaphor of God’s weighing our souls. But I would like to offer a different perspective.

Perhaps we can dedicate this time not just to wiping the slate clean regarding our actions, but also our relationship with Judaism. Not merely a behavioral renewal, but rather a theological and ideological renewal

I’ll tell you what I mean:

In some ways, it is easier just to perform the rituals of Jewish life without thinking about them.

I remember so clearly the day back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on practical theology, and hearing education professor Dr. Steve Brown telling a roomful of future rabbis, cantors, and  educators-to-be that the language of hiyyuv, of obligation, does not speak to people today, so there is no point in trying to use it.  I recall feeling let down – like, what kind of Jewish world is this where nobody sees themselves as being obligated to anything?

I have since learned to take a more nuanced view. For many of us, our relationship with Judaism is based more on sociological motivations – history, cultural connections, the need for moral guidance in complicated times, the desire to “resonate” with our ancestors, and so forth, than it is with the traditional perspective of fulfilling obligations.

The challenge, however, will be to maintain our connection in the future, when that particular set of sociological conditions goes away. And that’s why we need to re-examine our relationship with our textual tradition now.

We relate easily to the narrative portions of the Torah, the stories of our ancestors (and their dysfunctional family) as our national myths, our history; we can learn from them; we can sometimes strive to interact with them (What would Moshe do? What’s troubling Rashi? etc.).

And it is particularly difficult to relate to the vast swathes of the Torah that are about irrelevant things, like the sacrificial cult in the Temple, which has not been active for nearly two millennia, and will likely never be re-established.

Somewhere in the middle, though, between narrative and sacrifices, are the lists of laws.  Here in the depths of Devarim, we find lots of them.  Some we like.  Some make us uncomfortable.  Thank God for the lens of rabbinic literature for helping us to understand that we do not ACTUALLY have to put anybody to death.  (Aside from the difficult moral quandaries that this would place us in, it would also not be so good for synagogue membership.)

And the essence of our relationship with the Torah and Judaism is building those personal connections with the text; wrestling with it; agreeing and disagreeing with it, and so forth.

As the High Holidays approach, now is the time to consider how we might renew our covenant, and particularly here at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Judaism is as much about thinking and learning as it is about doing (i.e. prayer, saying qaddish, mitzvot, etc.). Ours is an intellectual tradition. In this season of return, perhaps we can consider returning to the foundational principles of the synagogue: that it should be not only a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, but also a beit midrash, a house of study. Let’s rededicate ourselves to learning about and redefining our relationships to Judaism through learning, discussing, and passing our textual heritage from generation to generation.

Along those lines, there are two things I want you to know about:

  1. I am starting up a learners’ service that will meet on one Shabbat morning per month, the second Shabbat morning of each month. I think that the entire community has the potential to benefit from learning more about tefillah / prayer. Due to various logistical considerations, it will not start until December. It will be primarily for beginners, but even veteran daveners will be able to learn as well.
  2. The other thing is that, in collaboration with a number of key members of the congregation, I have put together a concept for this community that will help transform Beth Shalom into that beit midrash in addition to being a beit tefillah. The concept is the Open Community Beit Midrash program at Beth Shalom. We will be approaching major donors with this concept as a part of the greater fundraising plan connected with our centennial year celebration. But the goal is to offer a whole new range of programming, the likes of which have not been seen in Squirrel Hill. The centerpiece will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, wherein all will be welcome to come and learn, regardless of their background, knowledge, experience, membership status, sexuality, whatever. This new arm of Beth Shalom has the potential to renew and reinvigorate not just this synagogue, but the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I’ll speak more about this concept on Yom Kippur itself, but I wanted to give you all a taste while we were on the subject of renewal.

Meanwhile, use these holidays to reconsider your commitment to our intellectual heritage.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/17/2016.)

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Comedy and the Jews – Shofetim 5776

The Jewish world has lost (at least) two luminaries summer: Elie Wiesel, who passed away in July, and Jerome Silberman, aka Gene Wilder, who died nearly two weeks ago.

We will surely invoke Mr. Wiesel’s memory over the course of the High Holidays, but I think that the proper way to celebrate Mr. Wilder’s life is to recall his humor. And, while we’re at it, to remind ourselves that the Jews practically invented comedy.

A few years back, Robin Williams (alav hashalom) said the following:

I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think that you killed all the funny people?’

We do not tend to think of our ancient Jewish texts – the Torah, the Talmud, and so forth – as being funny. Today’s parashah, Shofetim, for example? Not a funny word in it. Most of it is about our obligations to uphold various commandments, and particularly with respect to law and order. Taking responsibility for an unclaimed, murdered corpse (Deut. 21:1ff)? Not funny. Not destroying fruit trees during a siege (20:19-20)? Not funny. The whole eye-for-an-eye thing (Deut. 19:21)? Definitely not funny.

And yet Jewish life and culture has produced many, many funny people. Allen Konigsberg, known to the world as Woody Allen, once quipped that the Jewish response to centuries of persecution was that we learned to talk our way out of a tight spot. A brief look at Comedy Central’s list of the top 100 stand-up comedians yields four Jews in the top ten. One surprising outcome of the Pew Research study about American Jews from October 2013 is the following: In responding to the statement, “[blank] is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me,” 42% said, “Having a good sense of humor.” (It was the sixth item on the list.)

So where did this wonderful sense of humor come from, if not from our ancient texts? Perhaps, along the lines of Woody Allen’s statement, persecution and oppression indeed produced the Jewish smart-aleck. With all the misery in Jewish history, how could we not respond with humor? Comedy is, after all, human failure; Mel Brooks once defined comedy as follows: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Let’s face it: Jewish history is riddled with human failure. We understand comedy.

And of course, we are masters of the word, the People of the Book, and our greatest scholars have dedicated their lives to parsing our ancient texts. This has refined the way that we Jews use words. Words in our tradition are valuable; they are to be adored, examined, deconstructed and reconstructed again. The inevitable result is the ability to spin every tale, happy, tragic, or otherwise, in multiple directions. It therefore became a Jewish tradition to use words not only for teaching and learning, but also, as a natural outgrowth, for amusement.

I would also like to point out that although our Jewish sources might seem somewhat unfunny, there is the occasional humorous moment. For example, there is the moment in Parashat Balaq when Bil’am’s donkey opens his mouth to berate his rider (Numbers 22:28-30; it is surely not a coincidence that the 2001 movie Shrek features a talking donkey, among other Jewish hints). Or when the prophet Elisha is taunted by a pack of little boys, saying “Go away, baldy!” And so he curses them, whereupon two bears come out of the woods and mangle forty-two of them (II Kings 2:23-24).

But the Talmud is a richer source.

For example:

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 23b

מתני׳. ניפול הנמצא בתוך חמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של בעל השובך, חוץ מחמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של מוצאו

גמ’. בעי ר׳ ירמיה: רגלו אחת בתוך נ׳ אמה ורגלו אחת חוץ מחמשים אמה, מהו? ועל דא אפקוהו לרבי ירמיה מבי מדרשא.

Mishnah: If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a cage for raising pigeons), it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it…

Gemara: Rabbi Jeremiah asked: if one foot of the bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the Beit Midrash.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a

אמר ליה קיסר לרבי תנחום: תא ליהוו כולן לעמא חד. ־ אמר: לחיי, אנן דמהלינן לא מצינן מיהוי כוותייכו, אתון מהליתו, והוו כוותןִ ־ אמר ליה: מימר ־ שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי למלכא ־ לשדיוה לביבר, שדיוה לביבר ולא אכלוה. אמר ליה ההוא מינא: האי דלא אכלוה ־ משום דלא כפין הוא, שדיוה ליה לדידיה ־ ואכלוה.

Caesar said to Rabbi Tanhum, “Come, let us become one people.”

Rabbi Tanhum replied, “By my life, we who are circumcised cannot become like you. You, then, should become circumcised and be like us.”

“A very good answer, Caesar replied. “Unfortunately, anybody who defeats the emperor in an argument must be thrown to the lions.” So they threw Rabbi Tanhum to the lions. But the lions did not eat him.

An unbeliever who was standing nearby said, “The reason the lions do not eat him is that they are not hungry.”

To test this theory, they threw the unbeliever to the lions, and they ate him.

Comedy: human failure.

A piece of Gene Wilder’s work that crossed my e-desk this week was a clip from The Frisco Kid, in which Wilder plays a rabbi from Poland traveling across the US in 1850 to serve a Jewish community in San Francisco, and to bring them a sefer Torah. There is a scene where the rabbi and his traveling companion, a bank robber played by Harrison Ford, are captured by unfriendly natives, and Wilder’s character expresses his willingness to trade everything, including his life, for the sake of the Torah.

It’s not a funny scene, and it certainly contains potentially damaging stereotypes about Native Americans.

But put in the context of Wilder’s body of work, I think there is a larger message we as contemporary Jews can draw from this: Even as we cling to our ancient textual tradition, we should do so along with a sense of humor.gene-wilder-picture-9

Wilder was not a traditionally-practicing Jew. But he was deeply connected, as most of us are, to his heritage. He was an actor. But the fact that this scene sits alongside, say, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (one of my favorite movies, BTW), suggests something about the nature of how we live today. The Torah is not relegated to a library. It is part of us, and we should approach it in the context of all of the enjoyable, playful parts of our lives along with the serious moments, along with the grief, along with the all of the challenges we face.

Our tradition is malleable; the ancient words of Jewish wisdom sparkle as much today as they did 2,000 years ago. But they are not meant to sit on a shelf and collect dust. They are supposed to bring joy into our lives.

Some of you may know that Gene Wilder left this world in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. I find it particularly upsetting to picture Mr. Wilder gripped with that affliction; this man who brought us so many laughs, who at the end of his life would not even be able to recall the punch line, much less the rest of the joke. It seems to me a particularly ironic way for a Jewish comedic actor to go out.

But it is also a reminder of a gem of wisdom from our tradition:

Yalqut Shim’oni, Eqev, 850 (on Deut. 7:25):

אין אדם בעולם בלא יסורין

There is no human being in the world without afflictions.

There is, as they say, one more star in the sky, but the rest of us down here are left in a slightly less-humorous world. Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. And I hope that we can keep laughing, even as we cling to the values of Torah.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2016.)

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The Rabbi’s Annotated Mixtape – Re’eh 5776

Based on a recent article in the Forward, How To Make an Unorthodox Playlist For Your Orthodox Rabbi, I put together some annotations to reveal the tanakhic, midrashic, and philosophical references for these songs. Enjoy!

 

  1. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’, you better run”

Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”

God said, “Out on Highway 61”

Genesis 22:1-2

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

 

  1. Halleluyah (Leonard Cohen)

Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

 Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, vol. 2, p. 927

At midnight the strings of David’s harp, which were made of the gut of the ram sacrificed by Abraham on Mt. Moriah, began to vibrate. The sound they emitted awakened David, and he would arise at once to devote himself to the study of the Torah. Besides study, the composition of psalms naturally claimed a goodly portion of his time.

 

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

 David / Bat Sheva (2 Sam. 11:2)

Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and strolled on the roof of the royal palace; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful…

She tied you to her kitchen chair

And she broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

 Samson / Delilah (Judges 16:19)

She lulled him to sleep on her lap. Then she called in a man, and she had him cut off the seven locks of his head; thus she weakened him and made him helpless; his strength slipped away from him.

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  1. Who by Fire? (Leonard Cohen)

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

Who in your merry-merry month of May

Who by very slow decay

And who shall I say is calling?

 Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 143

How many will pass on, and how many will be born;

Who will live and who will die;

Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

Who will perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague…

 

  1. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything there is a Season) (The Byrds / Pete Seeger)

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-4; this is a direct quote, except the words “Turn, turn, turn”)

 

  1. What is Life (George Harrison)

What I feel, I can’t say

But my love is there for you any time of day

But if it’s not love that you need

Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

 I and Thou, Martin Buber, p. 11

The Thou meets me through grace – it is not found by seeking. But my speaking of the primary word to it is an act of my being, is indeed the act of my being…

 The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.

Tell me, what is my life without your love

Tell me, who am I without you, by my side

Pirqei Avot 1:14

[Hillel] used to say:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I?

 

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Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

****

What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)

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Why I Love Camp Ramah – Mattot/Mas’ei 5776

I love summer camp. And in particular, I love Camp Ramah, with which I have a relationship extending now back 36 years, to my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (In case you do not know, Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement; there are 13 North American camps plus affiliated programs in Israel, Ukraine, and Argentina.)

We arrived at Camp Ramah in Canada pretty late at night – it was 11:00 by the time we found our way to the guest cottage, which was far nicer than any such accommodations that I have seen at any of the other Ramah camps (I’ve now been to five of them, including the day camp in Jerusalem, where I worked in the summer of 2000 as a music specialist). The night air was cool – it was 63 degrees – and the stars were bright and vivid.

This camp really feels like the end of the world. Having never been so far north in Ontario before, I could not help feeling as we drove there that we kept taking turns onto smaller and smaller roads, finally ending up on a dirt pathway as we entered the camp property. The camp’s official address is on “Fish Hatchery Road,” which sounds far more organized than the rural environment reveals. (Curiously, my alma mater, Camp Ramah in New England, is also down the road from a fish hatchery. Coincidence?)

Nonetheless, the camp was alive and pulsing with energy when we pulled in – the staff was having a late-night barbecue, and we were promptly offered hot dogs, which we politely declined.

And, it wouldn’t be camp without some mayhem, so as we were getting into bed, all the smoke detectors in the guest cottages went off, dragging everybody out of bed and frightening my 7-year-old son greatly. But it was an opportunity to meet our neighbors and chat for a bit, so it wasn’t too bad. And that’s sometimes how camp works: you plan as thoroughly as you can, and then something sends your fabulous program gloriously off-course. But you adjust and go with the flow, and everything mostly works out fine in the end.

So we spent three and a half days there, playing soccer and frisbee, dunking in the agam (lake) and davening, dining in the hadar okhel (dining hall), lying around in the sun, welcoming and saying goodbye to Shabbat with all of the nearly 600 campers and staff together in raucous song.

What I love about camp are the following things:

  1. Being away from the craziness of everyday life, and replacing that with a totally different kind of more-rustic craziness.
  2. Kids enjoying themselves away from digital devices, which, if not the scourge of humanity, are at least a plague on those parenting teenagers.
  3. Timelessness. Camp does not change that much, and there is something beautiful in that.
  4. The sounds of camp: the breeze at night; the powerful sound of singing and pounding on the tables in the hadar okhel, the dining hall; the sound of Jewish kids playing basketball and dancing Israeli folk dances and preparing a musical in Hebrew and just hanging around on the migrash (field).
  5. The Jewish framework. OK, so camp teaches a few things about Judaism fairly well, and a few things not so well. But the most essential thing that camp teaches very well is the rhythm of the Jewish week, the implicit foundation on which all other camp structures are built: six days of work, and the seventh day of rest. Tefillah / prayer three times a day. Expressing gratitude before and particularly after eating. Jewish text here and there, as a part of the environment.

But the thing that I love about camp the most is that it is the most successful Jewish educational endeavor that we have ever crafted, mostly because it teaches Jewish kids about Judaism in an informal way, that does not let on that it’s education. The Hebrew language is integrated into all facets of camp, from announcements at meals to learning to play volleyball. Yes, there is formal Judaic learning in daily shi’urim (lessons), but Jewish life saturates every aspect of camp. Love of Israel is reinforced in many ways, from the presence of a delegation of Israeli staff to Israeli pop music played over the PA system in the hadar okhel. Torah and Jewish text are infused into many activities.

It is the informality that makes camp work. Jewish life simply happens in the context of summer activities. Camp is not like Hebrew school, wherein kids get 5 or 6 hours a week of Jewish instruction. It’s actually even more powerful than day school, because it’s a kind of immersion. There is no quick dip into Judaism before returning to regular, not explicitly Jewish activities. Camp is 24/7 Judaism. It never stops.

And the secret to continuity in Jewish life is that ongoing connection. Today’s world is very fragmented: all of our activities are siloed. Work is separated from family time which is separate from school which is separate from entertainment and on and on. It can be very isolating to live in that environment. Judaism, for the vast majority of Jews, is what you do on a Saturday morning, or on Yom Kippur, or when there’s a family bar mitzvah. But our ancestors did not live that way. The rabbis of the Talmud see Torah as a part of all facets of our lives, from business to romantic relationships to recreation to family. And camp endeavors to create that environment in a way that our lives at home may not.

Does it always succeed? No. But the impact of camp can be quite strong, nevertheless.

One of the items appearing in Parashat Mas’ei is the list of places which the Israelites passed through on the way from slavery to freedom. It is a catalog of place names with no detail given as to what each place was like or if anything happened there during their visit. However, a midrash (from Tanhuma) understood this passage as being an important historical record for our ancestors to recall what happened at each stage of the journey through the desert: here is where we slept; here we caught a cold; here you told me that your head hurt. (You know the Israelites… always complaining!)

And, as you know, we have continued to journey as a people. We continue to grow and change as human civilization moves forward. My Jewish world is quite different from that of my great-grandparents. Even so, camp is a model that continues to work, and only at the Ramah camps do our children learn about the open, egalitarian, and yet traditional form of Judaism to which we are committed.

Here is where a young woman donned a tallit for the first time. Here is where we made connections with young Israelis who represent the Jewish state while teaching Hebrew and volleyball. Here is where a boy learned how to chant the Torah from his madrikh (counselor). Here is where a girl played a lead role in a production of the famous Broadway musical, Kannar al haGag (Fiddler on the Roof).

We had seven kids there from Pittsburgh last weekend, including two of my own. But we can do better than that. If we want to help our children along that traditional, egalitarian journey, Ramah is where they should be.

Shabbat ended as it had come in: cacophonously, with music and prayer, and the entire camp gathered together for ritual. And I recalled the camp days of my youth, and the havdalah ceremonies that seemed so powerful, so evocative, so connective. You grow older, you leave camp – camp is for the young, and your journey continues and takes you elsewhere. You leave camp. But camp never leaves you.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2016.)

 

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Letter from the Tel Aviv Beach – Huqqat 5776

A funny thing happened on my way to Israel.

Apparently, an anonymous threat had indicated that there was an explosive device located in one of the plane’s kitchens. Nothing was found, even after searching the aircraft upon landing. For a brief time in Swiss airspace, we were accompanied by Swiss fighter jets, although I am not sure what they would have done if there had in fact been a bomb on the plane (God forbid!). Perhaps they would have evacuated us in mid-air, James Bond style?

I emerged from baggage claim into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, and there was a sea of journalists with TV cameras and microphones and all sorts of recording devices. Since I had not checked any bags, I was among the first to emerge, and was accosted by a posse of them, who were asking questions like, “Do you know anything about the alerts? Did you hear anything? What happened on the flight?” My answers were not very interesting, because they had not told us a single thing (or if they did, I was asleep at the time). From my perspective, the flight had been utterly, completely normal. In retrospect, they probably did not let us know that there had been a bomb threat, because it might have led to chaos on the plane.

The rest of my week in Israel was far less exciting. Nonetheless, no matter how many times I go back, Israel is always magical to me. I often wish, as I am traveling around the Jewish state, that I could collect all of the little moments of amazement that strike me – the sunset over the Mediterranean, the beauty of the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee as seen from the mountains all around, the ironies of the Byzantine rules of Israeli bureaucracy, the striking entrepreneurship of the Israeli people, the scene of Orthodox families rubbing shoulders with vacationing Arab families on the Tiberias boardwalk, and on and on.

I must say, however, that there is no place that makes me feel more proud to be Jewish than the Tel Aviv beach. Yes, the sand and the scene are awesome, and the water is warm and inviting, and the people are friendly and the mood is groovy. But even more than that, it reminds me of the central thing that I love about the modern State of Israel: that it is completely normal for there to be a beach, where completely normal beach things happen, in the Jewish state.

tel-aviv-beaches

What I see on the beach is not merely the sand and the waves and the volleyball and the surfers, but rather the ordinariness of it all, that people of all walks of life and backgrounds and religions and ethnicities can gather in this place to simply enjoy the few moments of freedom they have before returning to the rest of their normalcy. The beach is a great equalizer: everybody parks themselves on the same sand; everybody dips into the same water.

And yet, the lifeguards are calling through their megaphones in Hebrew. And the meat served in the beach restaurant is kosher (even if the restaurant itself is not hekhshered). And you are only a few steps away from the Trumpeldor cemetery, where some of the greatest figures in Zionism and Israel’s fine and performing arts are interred. And as you look both directions, north and south along the Mediterranean shore, you see more and more buildings as the city with the world’s largest Jewish population continues to grow and reshape itself. And the tourists and residents and guest workers and diplomats and journalists on the beach who are chatting in French, Italian, German, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic, American English, Australian English, English English, Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, and a bunch of others that I can’t even recognize all know that they are in a Jewish land.

My son and I spent many hours on the beach last Shabbat, most of the time body-surfing the voluptuous waves (is it OK for a rabbi to use the word “voluptuous”?). And while he was merely enjoying the beach like everybody else, I was in a state of Zionist reverie, reflecting on how special this ordinariness was.

The only thing that interrupted this dreamy afternoon was how filled the water was with non-biodegradable refuse: fragments of plastic bags, Q-tips, bottle caps, swathes of netting, lost undergarments, and a variety of less-mentionables. Indeed, at first I collected a few larger items and brought them to shore to dispose of properly. But there were just too many to deal with – a sign both of Israel’s tremendous success as a destination and the downside to overloading the system.

The other item of unpleasantness was a small altercation between a down-on-his-luck panhandler with a nasty skin disease and an American busker. The American had apparently set up his guitar-based operation too close to the panhandler, and so my son and I happened to be walking by when the panhandler threw a plastic bottle filled with water at the busker in the middle of a song as he stormed off in anger to find a better location.

I suppose that one thing we learn from the beach is complexity, that Israel is not simply some picture-perfect Disneyland where the streets are paved with Jerusalem stone and everybody frolics in Judaic glee. On the contrary – Israel is a complicated place where the politics reflect the diversity of all of its residents. And all the more so – the sea of languages heard at the beach is a small representation of all of the voices who are weighing in on the fate of this tiny country and its range of prickly-on-the-outside-but-sweet-on-the-inside people.

The early Zionist writer Asher Tzvi Ginsberg, known generally by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am, envisioned Israel as the merkaz ruhani – the Jewish “spiritual center,” guided not by halakhah / Jewish law necessarily, but by the values that Judaism teaches us. While there were several competing varieties of Zionism extant in the early 20th century, you could make the case that Ahad Ha’am’s was the one that probably came closest to being fulfilled. And it is certainly my merkaz ruhani: I go there to recharge.

One poem that often resurfaces when I am visiting Israel is Yehuda Amichai’s Tayyarim / Tourists:

תיירים / יהודה עמיחי

בקורי אבלים הם עורכים אצלנו

יושבים ביד ושם, מרצינים ליד הכותל המערבי

וצוחקים מאחורי וילונות כבדים בחדרי מלון,

מצטלמים עם מתים חשובים בקבר רחל

ובקבר הרצל ובגבעת התחמושת

בוכים על יפי גבורת נערינו

וחושקים בקשיחות נערותינו

ותולים את תחתוניהם

ליבוש מהיר

באמבטיה כחולה וצוננת

פעם ישבתי על מדרגות ליד שער במצודת דוד, את שני הסלים

הכבדים שמתי לידי. עמדה שם קבוצת תיירים סביב המדריך

ושימשתי להם נקודת ציון. “אתם רואים את האיש הזה עם

הסלים? קצת ימינה מראשו נמצאת קשת מן התקופה הרומית.

קצת ימינה מראשו”. “אבל הוא זז, הוא זז!” אמרתי בלבי

הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת

מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה

ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

 

 

Tourists – תיירים

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.

They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,

They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall

And they laugh behind heavy curtains

In their hotels.

They have their pictures taken

Together with our famous dead

At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb

And on Ammunition Hill.

They weep over our sweet boys

And lust after our tough girls

And hang up their underwear

To dry quickly

In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists

was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see

that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch

from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,

left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

***

The day-to-day normalcy of human existence to which Amichai points, coupled with Ahad Ha’am’s vision of the spiritual center were demonstrated in abundance all over Israel as I collected my moments of amazement. Israel is neither a merely a museum of ancient ruins nor a bookshelf full of stories stretching back thousands of years. It is a society that exhibits all of the positives and negatives of human existence. It is upon us all to take that into consideration as we ponder and weigh in on Israel’s future, the future of not just the holy sites, not just the ancient connections, but of all the very real people who live there. And we should measure Israel not by Yad Vashem and the Kotel and the high places of Christianity and Islam, but by Israeli willingness to continue living those Jewish values, by being a light not only to the nations  but even unto Diaspora Jews.

Ahad Ha’am is buried in the Trumpeldor Cemetery, a stone’s throw from the Tel Aviv beach. And I am certain that he is grinning and stroking his beard as he contemplates what the Zionist dream has become. Imperfect, yes. But also beautiful.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2016.)

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