Remember, and Do Not Forget – Shabbat Zakhor, 5779

In my former life, when I was working as an engineer in Houston, I was reviewing a piping diagram with a fellow engineer with whom I was collaborating. She was from Venezuela. At one point, she turned to me and, point blank, asked, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes.” She said, “You know the Jews killed Jesus, right?” I said, “Well, according to what I heard, the Catholic church absolved the Jews of guilt for that in 1965 with the Second Vatican Council.” She replied, “Yes, I know about that. But my father told me the truth. That’s the truth.”

I took my piping diagrams back to my cubicle, more than a little stunned.

****

The Shabbat before Purim is always referred to as “Shabbat Zakhor,” because we read a special portion from a second sefer Torah from the end of Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 25:17-19), a reminder of the cruel ambush by the Amalekites while the Israelites are in the desert, and our consequent obligation to remember the enemies of Israel by (paradoxically) blotting out that memory. Commentators have pointed to the fact that there is a dual mitzvah / commandment here: to remember (Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amaleq / Remember what Amaleq did to you at the beginning of verse 17) and also not to forget (Lo tishkaḥ, at the end of verse 19).

So we remember and we do not forget. Two separate holy opportunities: positive and negative.

I must say that remembering and not forgetting our enemies has been pretty easy for the past several months, and all the more so for the last week, when anti-Semitism led the news cycle for the better part of the week. Ladies and gentlemen, I have said this before: We are living in a time in which anti-Semitic activity is clearly on the rise, and statistics collected by the ADL and others suggest that this is a global phenomenon.

And what is extraordinarily troubling today is that anti-Semitic ideas are coming at us from different directions. While we traditionally associate Jew hatred with the extreme political right (think Nazism, white supremacism, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin and so forth), we are seeing today expressions of anti-Semitic ideas from the political left as well.

Now just to get one thing out of the way, criticism of the State of Israel and the government of the State of Israel or its policies are not necessarily anti-Semitic. Israelis criticize their own leaders and government all the time; Diaspora Jews probably less so, but anybody who has lived in Israel knows that the Jewish State, like every other sovereign nation, is far from perfect. While we who are Zionists, and I am proud to call myself a Zionist, are inclined to advocate for Israel from afar, such advocacy does not preclude the occasional rebuke. Governments consist of actual people, who are decidedly not infallible.

But when critics of Israel cross a line is when they veer off into classical anti-Semitism. I am not going to rehash everything we have read in the news, but it’s essential to understand that when an American elected official references “the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” to most Jews this is like fingernails on a chalkboard. The suggestion is that American Jews have a dual loyalty, that we are not truly committed to our nation, that we are somehow pulling nefarious strings behind the scenes to support our interests, that we are duplicitous.

Nobody bats an eyelash when lobbyists for Panamanian or Saudi interests walk the halls of Congress. Nobody accuses Irish-Americans of dual loyalty when they parade on St. Patrick’s Day. OK, so a lot of people are concerned about Russian meddling right now, but nobody is suggesting that Americans of Russian descent (of which you might say that I am one, BTW) are advocating for allegiance to Mother Russia. Didn’t we learn our lesson after the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? Why the Jews?

(There is a classic tale of the Klan rally, where the Grand Wizard is rallying his troops, and he says, “Who is responsible for all of our problems?” And the crowd yells back, “The Jews!” So one old man in the crowd adds, “And the bicycle riders!” The Grand Wizard turns to the man and says, puzzled, “Why the bicycle riders?” And the man responds with, “Why the Jews?”)

The roots of anti-Semitism precede Christianity, but it is the early church fathers, and in particular John Chrysostom in the 4th century, who amplify negative stereotypes about the Jews. Seeking to distance early Christians from their Jewish roots and Jewish worship, Chrysostom delivered a series of homilies to the church of Antioch called “Adversos Judaeos,” literally, “Against the Jews.” Among the things he stated were that the synagogue was a den of scoundrels and a temple of demons, a refuge for thieves, a cavern of devils and a criminal assembly for the assassins of Jesus.

From the Visigothic kingdom in the Iberian peninsula, which laid down anti-Jewish laws in the 6th century, through the centuries of the dhimmi status imposed in Muslim lands, until the Nazi horror of the 20th century, Jews have been subject to a range of ugly stereotypes, in certain times and places yielding pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions, forced conscriptions, and of course all-out genocide. The ideas sown by religious leaders, political leaders, demagogues, and even scholars have caused our people immeasurable pain, suffering, and mourning. Even as we have joined the family of nations in the 20th century, we continue to nurse our historical wounds.

And so it is no great surprise that, when any public figure indulges in even the most roundabout way in negative stereotypes about Jews, we all get a little upset. To address the complex mess that is the failed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is not anti-Semitic. To accuse Israel of “genocide” or “apartheid” is. To disagree politically with PM Netanyahu’s choice to incorporate an extremist party (Otzma Yehudit) as his running partner is not anti-Semitic. To suggest ominously that AIPAC, in advocating for American support of Israel, is mandating “allegiance” to a foreign power, is.

When I think of anti-Semitism, I am reminded of an image that is prominently displayed at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, in the historical narrative section leading up to the Shoah, the Holocaust. It is a Nazi propaganda image:

Du sollst die volker der erde fressen. You shall eat the peoples of the Earth.

Note the symbols in the Jewish parasite’s eyes: a dollar sign, and a hammer-and-sickle. The capitalists and the communists. The left and the right.

Let’s face it, folks: there is no question that anti-Jewish sentiment will always be there, and it will manifest itself on the political right, the left, and the center. The demonic Jew of John Chrysostom will, for some, loom behind Wall Street, and for others he will be ferrying people northward across the Rio Grande.

Anti-Jewish stereotypes will be spewed by religious and anti-religious folks, young and old, Southern and Northern, black and white and Asian and Latino, gay and straight. It will spill off of your computer screen. It will exert itself angrily during marches; it will be discussed calmly on talk shows, and it may (God forbid) cause disenfranchised men to walk into synagogues with assault rifles.

And it will never go away. What can we do?

Shabbat Zakhor, this Shabbat of remembrance, is exactly the right time to invoke the following:

  1. Despite being history’s perpetual victims, we are still here.
  2. Anti-Semitism will never go away, but neither will we; this is the covenant made with our patriarchs and matriarchs that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  
  3. Remember Amaleq, and do not forget.

Do not forget”: we should always be vigilant, because, as with Haman, the villain in the Esther story, as with Nebuchadnezzar, as with Titus, and Ferdinand and Isabella, and the Crusaders and the Czars and the Nazis and Ayatollah Khomeini we really never know when the zeitgeist will turn against the Jews again. We must not forget the past.

Remember Amaleq”: this is an imperative to continue to parse the words of those who speak in coded and not-so-coded language to foment hatred against us. We are the masters of interpretation: we must be aware of the potential violence and suffering that words can cause. We cannot dismiss anti-Semitism, right or left. We cannot excuse those with whom we align ourselves. We have to call them out. We may never wipe out the sentiment, but we can certainly make known that all the political, social, or cultural privilege in the world did not save the 11 who perished on the 18th of Ḥeshvan (Oct. 27th), or the 6 million of World War II.

On this day, when the world mourns for the 50 people of faith who perished in New Zealand, and the many more who were injured, we have to remember that words matter, that our history teaches us to be wary of those who indulge in stereotypes and play on fears. Our lives, and the lives of many around the world, depend on it.

Zakhor, velo tishkaḥ. Remember, and do not forget.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/16/2019.)

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The Shabbat Blueprint, or How to Improve Your Life in 5 Easy Steps – Vayaqhel 5779

This past Shabbat (March 1-2, 2019) was the National Day of Unplugging, an annual program run by the Sabbath Manifesto to promote Shabbat observance not just for Jews, but for everybody. Because you know what, folks? We need Shabbat, and in honor of NDU, I offered a basic template for improving your life by raising your Shabbat bar:

Be grateful that I am not going stand before you today to talk about all of the crazy that’s going on in the world right now. In fact, I’m going to ask you to try to put those things out of your head. Because you deserve that. You deserve a break. Leave those things for tomorrow.

Because Shabbat is special. And it is valuable. And it frames our lives with meaning. But it’s also woefully under appreciated in this 24/7, instant gratification world.

(And, of course, it’s mentioned right up front in Parashat Vayaqhel, which we read today!)

The Conservative movement is filled with many ironies. One of them is that we expect our adherents to live a Jewish life, and we offer tools for them to do so, but most of us do not rise to that challenge in the way that Judaism expects us to. And let’s face it: the bar is pretty high.

Based on our own Beth Shalom survey data, only about one-quarter of us keep kashrut inside and outside the home (an additional 34% keep kashrut at home only). And about 60% light Shabbat candles regularly. Four out of five of us fast for all of Yom Kippur, but according to the Federation study only about 44% of Conservative-identified Jews in Pittsburgh ever attend a Shabbat meal. Less than half.

And even among our most committed synagogue-goers, I am often puzzled by the amount of surreptitious smartphone use that goes on in the synagogue on Shabbat; I am surprised by the lack of interest in Friday evening services which, with the exception of our monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, only barely make a minyan every week. I am confounded by the members of our community that attend events on Shabbat, some sponsored by Jewish organizations, that are clearly not Shabbat-friendly.  

Now, there are many reasons why we make the choices that we do, from family to theology to convenience and availability, and I usually say that guilt is not part of my religion. But advocating for Jewish tradition is, and so every now and then it is my responsibility as a rabbi to stand up for what is right Jewishly, what is good for all of us in our holy, ancient framework.

But I am also cognizant of how challenging it is to live as an observant Jew in contemporary America. I had a congregant at a previous congregation who was extraordinarily dedicated to our tradition: she was a loyal attendee not only at Shabbat services but also during the week, she was involved in synagogue governance and committed to learning and promoting Jewish observance. But once she told me that she was trying not to use her smartphone on Mondays, because she needed a break from feeling constantly connected.

I was incredulous. “Why not Shabbat?” I said.

She countered with something along the lines of, “It’s complicated,” alluding to weekend family activities and suggested, in a particularly Rosenzweigisch moment, that she was not yet ready for embracing traditional Shabbat observance entirely.

It’s complicated. I know – it’s not easy to take it all on, particularly if you did not grow up with it. My family was an every-Shabbat-morning Shabbat family, but we lived 20 miles away from our Conservative synagogue. So we drove, in accordance with the 1950 Conservative teshuvah that permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, despite the actual combustion that is going on in the engine, the kindling of fire being explicitly, Torah-itically prohibited in Parashat Vayaqhel.

But the problem with driving to shul is that, driving home from synagogue after services, it was hard not to stop at the video store to rent videos for the weekend (remember video stores?). And it was also hard not to stop at the sandwich shop and get some subs. And in winter in Western Massachusetts, when there was a good amount of snow on the ground and great skiing a 15-minute drive away, it was really hard not to put the skis on the rack and head off to the mountain for a few good runs. We did all of those things.

And yet, here I am, standing before you, exhorting you not to do them because it’s theoretically good for you. What gives?

I need you to trust me on this: Shabbat makes my life better; my family and my community benefit tremendously from turning off certain things for 25 hours every week, and doing certain other things that heighten enjoyment and qedushah / holiness. We need that break – physical, mental, spiritual. We need the moment of recharge. We need to reconnect in a traditional, simpler way.

So, I’m hearing some of you think, “That’s great, Rabbi.  Count me in. But where do I start?” I’m glad you asked, because that is indeed the challenging part. Taking Shabbat on whole-hog (you should pardon the expression) is not so easy.

But I am going to offer you today a blueprint for raising the bar:

  1. Meals
  2. Family time
  3. Avoid commerce.
  4. Turn off the devices.
  5. Kindle lights before and after, setting off the full 25 hours from the rest of the week.
  1. Meals. In particular, have Shabbat dinner. And I don’t mean go to a restaurant. Make Friday night a holy, home-cooked meal night. Or, if life is too crazy, order in and support one of our kosher food purveyors. There is nothing quite like it. It’s something I discuss with every single couple I marry: have Shabbat dinner together. Set that precedent for your family. Your schedules may be crazy all week; you may not have time to see each other. But if you set aside Friday night dinner time as holy time, that regular practice will pay off for the rest of your life.

    The next level, of course, is to have a Shabbat lunch. Yes, it’s a little more laid back. But still valuable. Actually, my wife prefers lunch:  She’s not as tired and having family and guests pass the time on Shabbat afternoons is much of what Shabbat is all about.

  2. Family time. Spend time together, at home or with another family nearby, not out and about, not going shopping or to amusement parks or even museums, but just hanging around in an unstructured way. Take Saturday afternoon to lounge around and enjoy each other’s company. Play board games. Read the newspaper. Be old school – low tech, low stress, high interpersonal engagement.

  3. Avoid commerce. While I know that it is our civic duty as individuals to keep the economy movin’ and shakin’, the local unemployment rate will not skyrocket if you keep your wallet in a drawer on Shabbat. It’s a wonderful opportunity to just be – not to acquire or trade or take part in commerce of any kind. It’s actually quite liberating.

  4. Turn off the devices. I could have easily put this first on the list, but I must concede that, if we are trying a soft entry here, this has to be number four, mostly because we all think of our smartphones as a part of our body today. Some people feel disconnected or anxious without it. If that describes you, you might want to try this in small chunks, i.e. maybe just Friday night from sundown until the following morning, and then some of Saturday as well.

    But trust me: this may be difficult, but it is also extraordinarily rewarding.

  5. Demarcating the full 25 hours. Perhaps when you have reached this level, you might consider what is really the easiest of all, but which requires the greatest commitment: lighting candles 18 minutes before sundown (that’s the published candle-lighting time you’ll find on Jewish calendars; you have an 18-minute margin if you need it), and performing havdalah (“separation”) when it’s dark. If you have succeeded in all of the above, this is the way that you know you have made it: demarcating the full 25 hours with lights before and after.

Five easy steps to improving your life.

Now, of course I know that I am preaching to the choir. You who are here in this room right now are the most likely to be doing many of these things. But I also know that we all have the potential to stretch ourselves, and doing so will surely heighten the experience for all of us. But may I ask you to be my ambassadors?  Would you engage those you love in a conversation about this? Check out the link to the Sabbath Manifesto website. Send someone that link and start a conversation. Since you are reading this on my blog, you can easily share it, and/or leave comments below. A little more dialogue doesn’t hurt.

The Talmud tells us (BT Shabbat 118b) that if all Jews were to observe two Shabbatot fully according to halakhah, we would all be immediately redeemed. While I don’t expect this to happen soon, we can certainly aim higher. Rather, I prefer Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s take: Shabbat is a palace in time, but we must build that palace.

We all need a little more Shabbat. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/2/2019.)

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The Eternal Why

On this Shabbat, one year after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we might turn our eyes heavenward once again and call out, “Why?” Why must we mourn for murdered high school students? Why must we remove our shoes at airports, but tolerate the sale of assault rifles? Why must we grieve for the memory of our beloved Pittsburgh neighbors, felled in hatred a few short months ago? The opening verses of Parashat Tetzaveh describe the burning of a “ner tamid” in the mishkan, the portable desert tabernacle, an eternal flame that indicated to our ancestors the constant presence of God in the center of their encampment. When we look to our ner tamid, our eternal light today in our sanctuary, we are reminded not only of our need for constant vigilance, but also of our burning desire to make this a safe world, a world where we need not ask these questions of “why.”

May this Shabbat be a Shabbat Shalom, one in which we all get a little more peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Tefillin – Mishpatim 5779

As part of an ongoing, informal series, I am speaking occasionally on the fundamentals of Jewish life. While many of us are well-versed in the fundamentals, and far above that, I think it is important to refresh our memories from time to time about the things we think are the most essential. So you might forgive me if the following sounds preachy, but hey, I’m a preacher!

So far in the series, we have covered Shabbat and essential go-to (refrigerator-magnet) texts. Today we are going to cover what is, if we’re being honest here, perhaps one of the more ridiculous and perhaps misunderstood mitzvot of Jewish life: the mitzvah of tefillin.

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Now of course this is extraordinarily timely, because, well, it is our obligation to put on tefillin six mornings a week. So, for example, tomorrow. And not only that, but it so happens that Sunday, February 3 was the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs World Wide Wrap, which we celebrated during JJEP at Rodef Shalom with the teaching and application of tefillin.

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So first some hard truths: putting on tefillin is a little strange, and somewhat alien to those who have never done it.

And yet, I believe that this mitzvah is truly essential. In fact, I think it might be up there with some of the most important physical mitzvot: building a sukkah; removing all the hametz from your home before Pesah, for example.

Those mitzvot that require a certain amount of physical work, of doing something that requires more bodily investment than the recitation of prayers or eating certain foods, are, in my mind, the ones that bring it all home in Jewish life. You have to go out of your way to do these mitzvot. It’s kind of like dipping your toe in the water versus immersing your whole body. Putting on a tallit is easy. Refraining from eating shrimp is pretty easy. Even many Shabbat observances can be easy. But tefillin is hard. It requires familiarity with an arcane ritual and obscure scriptural readings and then there’s that whole binding-in-leather-straps thing, which for many seems a wee bit uncomfortable. Plus, I know this a deal-breaker for many: it messes up your hair.

As you may know, I am at morning services here at Beth Shalom every day except Wednesday. Most of the men who join our services put on tefillin, and also two women who join us regularly. Often, there are people who are attending services who are not “regulars” – generally people who are observing yahrtzeit (annual remembrance date of a loved one’s death). I offer tefillin to men, and to women if they are already wearing a tallit, thus signaling that they have taken on at least some of the mitzvot traditionally ascribed to men.

Nine times out of ten, that person politely declines the tefillin, and I don’t push.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna, in his magnificent history entitled American Judaism, documents how during the period of heavy immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, there were reports of men who burned their tefillin on the boat. They knew that America was a free country, where they would no longer be bound by the archaic folkways of the shtetl. The release from the ancient leather straps suggested a kind of release from ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, i.e. the mitzvot.

We’re free here to put on tefillin, or not. And most of us do not. But that is nothing new; the medieval rabbinic commentator Rabbi Shelomoh ibn Aderet, aka “the Rashba,” went on a “tefillin tour” of France and Spain in the 13th century to promote the mitzvah.

Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

  1. May be redefined in modern terms
  2. Do not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society)
  3. Offer a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas)
  4. Center on the child
  5. Are infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Mostly we think of Sklare when we think of holidays: Pesah and Hanukkah are still widely practiced; Shavuot and Tish’ah Be’Av less so.

And the mitzvah of tefillin does not make the list, because it’s every day and not child-centered. And it messes up your hair.

But tefillin scores high, I think, on the ability to redefine for today.

What meaning can we derive from tefillin? How can this curious ritual, become meaningful enough that it can become fashionable again?

So, before I answer that, I have to first give you the basics of tefillin.

  1. Where does the mitzvah come from? The four passages are as follows:
    1. Shema, first paragraph: Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and particularly 6:8. Page 1026 in Humash Etz Hayim

      וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃
      Ukshartam le-ot al yadekha, vehayu letotafot bein einekha.
      Bind them as a sign upon your arm, and wear them as a symbol between your eyes.

    2. Shema, second paragraph: Devarim 11:13-21, and particularly 11:18. Page 1053.
    3. Ex. 13:1-10, particularly 13:9. Page 392.
    4. Ex. 13:11-…, particularly 13:16. Page 393.
  2. How do we do it? We take those words literally. The boxes of tefillin contain those four passages, written on parchment. And, just to be sure, there are two sets of them: in the tefillin shel rosh, the head box, there are four individual scrolls inserted into four individual chambers, and in the tefillin shel yad, they are all written out on a single scroll. This is decidedly old-school: we are not binding anything metaphorically; we are doing it literally.
  3. What does the word, tefillin, an Aramaic-ish term, actually mean? It is, in fact, a plural form of tefillah, our general word for prayer. So, even as we are reciting prayers with our lips in the morning, we are also binding prayers to our body to complete the experience, spiritual and physical.
  4. What are the customary symbols associated with tefillin?
    1. The Hebrew letters shin on either side of the shel rosh: one representing the three avot / patriarchs, one with four points standing for the four imahot / matriarchs.
    2. The wraps around the forearm: seven, that is, three plus four, representing once again the imahot and avot. Also, seven is, of course, the number of days until Shabbat. Also, the number of words in the verse (Ps. 145:16) Poteah et yadekha, umasbia lekhol hai ratzon – You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
    3. The Almighty: Shaddai, shin-daled-yod on the hand. Same as on a mezuzah scroll, by the way.

And I would love to stand before you and say, “There is magic here! These boxes are special communication devices which connect us directly to God! They are amulets that ward off evil spirits! They keep you healthy!” But I can’t do that.

(They might actually protect you in the event of a heart attack through remote ischemic preconditioning, but although there was one such medical study that indicated this, I am sure that there will soon be another one that will contradict it.)

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Really, there is no magic here; only one of the most powerful, physical symbols that we have as Jews. We so understand the richness and value of our textual heritage that we display them proudly on our arms and our foreheads every day.

This is the sign of our love for our tradition, and a sign of God’s love for us.

What do we say when we wrap the strap around our middle finger? Hosea 2:21-22:

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-ה

I will betroth you to Me forever;

I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in loving-kindness and mercy;

I will betroth you to Me in faith, and you shall know God.

And not only do they declare our betrothal to God, but they also suggest that, every morning, we connect our arms with our heads and hearts, as a reminder that the works of my hands should reflect my ongoing struggle to ensure that my deeds are in line with my intellect and the good intentions of my soul. This binding is, you might say, a kind of suggestive intent for our actions for the rest of the day, a pre-emptive reminder of the mitzvot, of making the right choices in our interpersonal relationships.

But in case that is not enough, here is something else that might help rekindle our interest in tefillin:

In 2014, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) passed a teshuvah (halakhic responsum, that is, a rabbinic opinion that answers a particular question in Jewish law), written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, that concluded that women may be considered obligated to all mitzvot. Her conclusion, approved by the committee and therefore a halakhic option available to Conservative communities, is as follows:

The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot. We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.

So here’s the kicker: in an ultimate statement of redefinition, we are all obligated to the wearing of tefillin. One of the most traditionally masculine mitzvot can be understood as applying to all of us. And we all should strive to take that holy opportunity six mornings a week.

I am ready and available to teach anybody who wants to learn. Come see me!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/2/2019.)

 

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Planting Seeds of Dialogue – Yitro 5779

Two decades ago, when I was living in Houston and working at my final job as a chemical engineer, I learned to meditate at a Buddhist temple. Conscious of my Judaism and wary of our tradition’s all-encompassing prohibition of everything to do with idolatry (we read a taste of that in the Ten Commandments today), I made sure that nothing that I was doing could be construed as violating that prohibition.

There was a Burmese monk who was something like the local rabbi, and he would give a little inspirational talk after the meditation hour. One day he told the story of how the Dalai Lama was speaking somewhere in California, and was asked by a member of the audience if he could tell them how to find the quickest path to enlightenment.

The Dalai Lama did not answer the question. He simply started crying.

There is no easy path to enlightenment. It takes work. Years of careful, thoughtful work.

But the wider lesson here is that very few significant things in life are achievable without careful planning and preparation. Consider the moment on Mt. Sinai that we read today, where God begins the revelatory process with Moshe / Moses: this was such a fundamental moment for our ancestors that it required extensive preparation – days of communal and individual purification, and let’s not forget the whole Exodus story which preceded it. Many things needed to be in place before the moment of contact between God and Israel.

I am concerned that our national state of anxiety, coupled with the new tools of social media, have created a climate in which everything happens in an uncontrolled frenzy. Consider the news story that unfolded over the past week about the apparent stand-off between a Native American drummer and a high-school kid by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. An initial video, shared widely and rapidly via social media, seemed to show the teen and his posse mocking the drummer. When other footage surfaced, the picture seemed more complicated, involving an hour or more of prior invective from a couple of Black Hebrew Israelites, who are known to spew hatred at passersby in some cities. (I myself was verbally assaulted on multiple occasions by these guys on the streets of New York.)

standoff

Subsequent analyses of the situation only seemed to muddy the waters, to the point where it is difficult to say who was at fault, who was mocking whom, what the motives of the various parties were at the time. And then as the news cycle turned over and PR firms were hired, the scene became a kind of Rorschach test for the observer.

I concede that I do not know what exactly happened that day. But what concerns me is not only the scene of people from disparate ethnic groups clashing with each other, but also our rush to judgment; our willingness to assume that we knew what was going on from a few seconds of out-of-context video footage. It is almost as if we wanted to see conflict, to point fingers unambiguously. No chance of enlightenment here.

This is just one small example of the many ways in which we are losing patience for the careful, diligent work it takes to understand the other, to effect change, to exert leadership, to get to know somebody, to cooperate across racial or religious or ethnic lines. We have lost interest in intellectual rigor, in authority based in years of experience. And we are all just too darned busy to dig deeper, to create relationships, to foster real discussion.

The second-century CE collection of Jewish wisdom known as Pirqei Avot, verses of the ancestors, tells us the following (4:23):

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not attempt to assuage the anger of your friend while he is angry; do not try to console her at the time when her deceased lies before her.

In other words, don’t try to tell anybody something that they are not ready to hear. Even words of comfort are alienating when the time is not right, when the other person is not able to listen. True communication happens only when both parties are prepared for it.

Last Sunday morning, we featured Beth Shalom member Zack Block in our Lox and Learning series. Zack is the Executive Director of Repair the World Pittsburgh, whose mission is to “make meaningful service a defining part of American Jewish life.” In short, what Repair the World does is to engage Jews in a range of volunteer activities with partner organizations.

One of Repair the World’s activities is maintaining community gardens, and Zack used the example of gardening as a community-building activity. First, he said, you bring people together to plant seeds in pots indoors. You water the seedlings regularly. Some time later, you bring people together again to take the seedlings to the garden and plant them. There is watering and fertilizing and weeding and pruning and all sorts of ongoing maintenance. And then you bring people together again for harvesting, and bringing those fruits and vegetables to food pantries, or to bag them and make them available for nearby residents to take and use, or to host an exciting event with an up-and-coming local chef who can do something brilliant with string beans and eggplant.

seedling

It occurred to me that this is an excellent metaphor for dialogue across political, religious, ethnic, racial, or even gender-based lines. And, since this past Monday was Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which, according to the Talmud, is the new year for the trees, the plant metaphor works well in this season.

This is how diplomacy works: you plant “seeds”; you tend to them, and when the time is right, you “harvest” the solutions, the compromises, the social justice commitments, and then you pass the garden on to your successors.

Let’s acknowledge for a moment that we have guests in our Sanctuary today. Welcome, members of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and a special welcome to the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of the Diocese. We will have a Q&A with Bishop McConnell and myself and Rabbi Markiz after qiddush (i.e. “collation”), and I hope you will join us for that. We are all in agreement that, particularly in the wake of October 27th, both here in Pittsburgh and across these United States, we are all in need of more communication with people outside of our own circles.

I sometimes feel that we are a nation in retreat: retreating to our own news bubbles, retreating to our comfy armchairs and our Netflix subscriptions, retreating to our own kind, or into ourselves. Where do we see examples of true dialogue in our society today?  Where there was once discussion we see diatribe; where there was once debate we see demagoguery. We are all just screaming to be heard, striving to collect the most “likes,” to achieve the most re-tweeted tweet, to post the most outrageous selfie.

I hope that today we will plant some seeds and mark the beginning of a conversation between our communities, a conversation that will ultimately yield fruit in making meaningful connections across a religious divide. And there are more gardens to plant, conversations to be had – many groups reached out to us following the Tree of Life massacre.

But it will take time. We need to talk. To break bread together. To make small-talk. Only after you have come into our space, and we have come into yours, and you have asked us questions, and we have asked you questions, can we really start to dig deeply and honestly into the difficult issues that we all face. One meeting is not enough.

Just as there is no speedy path to enlightenment, there is no quick way into meaningful dialogue. As with the rabbinic wisdom from Pirqei Avot I cited above, there is no shortcut to being able to enter the truly challenging, but essential, conversations; there is only the garden, in all its labor-intensive greenery.

A final note: the main event of Parashat Yitro (our Torah reading for today) occurred in the reading of the Aseret haDibberot, the Decalogue. But the name of the parashah comes from Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro / Jethro, who is a Midianite kohen, that is, a non-Israelite priest. In the words of Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College in Boston:

Yitro embodies a quality of capaciousness – and indeed, his name itself comes from the Hebrew root yeter, or yoter. Abundance. More-than-enoughness. What Yitro embodies here is a quality of big-heartedness. There is more than enough room in his heart to truly rejoice in the blessings of another people.

Like Yitro, we should all have more than enough room in our hearts for our neighbors, for diplomacy, for reaching out and creating the depth of relationship required to achieve honest, heartfelt discussion. That is how we may achieve enlightenment.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/26/2019.)

 

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Singing Together with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Beshallah 5779

Some of you may recall that a few weeks back I spoke about refrigerator-magnet texts – short, pithy statements from our textual tradition that are the most resonant, the most useful in our day-to-day lives, and how we should keep them in front of us at all times. (I’m actually looking into making refrigerator magnets; will keep you posted.)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a few go-to verses of his own, pieces of Biblical wisdom that he continued to return to in his sermons and speeches and writings. One with which you may be familiar is from the prophet Amos (5:24):

וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן

Veyiggal kamayim mishpat, utzdaqah kenahal eitan.

Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

It’s a verse that appears in our siddur / prayerbook in the Prayer for Peace (Siddur Lev Shalem, p. 178), which we occasionally recite. It also appears in one of the quotes inscribed around the perimeter of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC:

We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’

Dr. King delivered that verse on Dec. 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, on the first day of the Montgomery bus boycott, just a few days after Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her seat in the front of the bus.

One month after the shooting here in Pittsburgh, my family and I went to Washington, DC for Thanksgiving. It was my first visit there with our kids, and although I have been to our nation’s capitol many times, somehow this trip was so much more emotional. Perhaps it was because it was the first time that I was seeing the monuments to our democracy through the eyes of my children; perhaps it was because the communal wounds of October 27th were still bleeding; perhaps it was because of the divided state of our body politic. In any case, when I got to the Martin Luther King Memorial, I found myself tearing up and indeed even sobbing out loud.

Have you been there? Let me describe it: The three-quarter bust of Dr. King is hewn from a piece of stone which looks as though it has been cut out of and moved forward from a larger stone hill. Inscribed on the bust is the line, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

dr king bust

And around the entire plaza are a series of fourteen of the most powerful quotes from Dr. King’s oratorical bounty. With virtually every one of those quotes, I cried even more. Here is just a taste:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

(Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963.)

We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.

(Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965.)

Dr. King had a special gift that brought people together, that made Jewish kids from New York want to go down South and work on behalf of African-Americans, that made Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel want to walk with him in Selma, that made people want to stand together, to march together, to sing together.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group. (AP Photo)

When we face the types of social challenges that we are up against right now as a society: the scourge of hatred in all its forms, the struggle for equality for all people, the breakdown of family and neighborhood ties, the curse of opioid addiction, the seemingly endless cases of unarmed black men and boys shot by policemen, it would do us good to remember that the framework of religion, and the interfaith coalitions that this framework often spawns, have helped us in the past to overcome such challenges. Dr. King’s leadership was successful not only because of his knowledge of pithy texts, but also because of his ecumenical sense of, “We’re all in this together.”

And we do indeed all need to be in this together.

And even while our paths to God may vary, the true strength of what unites us is formidable.

Take for example, the following:

Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.

(March for Integrated Schools, April 18, 1959.)

To me this suggests two different mishnayot from Pirqei Avot, the 2nd-century collection of rabbinic wisdom:

Pirqei Avot 2:2

Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, taught:…

All who serve on behalf of the community should do so for heaven’s sake. Their work will prosper because the inherited merit of our ancestors endures forever…

Pirqei Avot 1:18

Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel taught: The world rests on three things – on justice, on peace, and on truth, as it is written (Zechariah 8:16): “With truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates.”

These words drove our ancestors in ancient times to keep our faith alive; they drove some of our parents and grandparents to join forces with Dr. King in the fight for civil rights. They will also always drive Jews to work on behalf of the common good, to seek justice and equality for all.

Dr. King spoke and wrote and marched at a time when churches, synagogues and other faith-based organizations worked as focal points of community organizing.

But we have a problem today: fewer and fewer of us are in the sanctuary. Fewer of us are in the pews. Religion holds much less sway as an organizing factor than it did in the 1960s, because so many of us have opted out.

And yet it is here that we sing together. It is here that we learn together. It is here that we take our ancient wisdom and learn to apply it to today, to launch the words of Torah out into the world. We need synagogues, we need churches and mosques and all other houses of worship to gather people together so that we can all be inspired to repair this broken world.

And in all those houses of worship, we need to double down on the words of our various traditions – the texts that speak of justice and peace, of community and equal rights, of our nation and of God. We can make change by coming together, by emphasizing the principles that we share. We still have the power to act on Dr. King’s vision, that vision in which people of all races and religions and socio-economic statuses can in fact cooperate for the common good.

When we sing together, loudly, as people of faith, our voices will be heard.

Back at the Dr. King memorial, from his Christmas sermon in Atlanta in 1967, I also read the following:

If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.

Here is a challenge for us all: How much do we love our nation? How much do we love our city? How much do we love our neighbors? How much do we love the world?

If we desire to act on the love that we explored over the High Holidays, then we all need to reach out, as a community of faith, to other such communities: to our black and brown and white neighbors, to partner with them to make this world a more just and equal and peaceful place, a place where no child is separated from their parents, where nobody is shot for any reason, where no drug company can work to convince doctors to write out more prescriptions of addictive pain medication, where we as a nation and a world can wrap our brains around the realities of climate change and protect the populations which will soon become the most vulnerable.

On this Shabbat Shirah, this Shabbat of Song that coincides with Dr. Martin Luther King Day weekend, we remember that when we sing together, our voices are stronger.

We already sang the song at the Sea of Reeds, an ancient song of redemption sung by our ancestors, which was introduced as follows:

אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיה

Az yashir Moshe uvnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot ladonai

Thus sang Moses and the Israelites this song to God…

Moses and his sister Miriam lead the Israelites in singing together, and a midrash says not only that all the men, women, and children were dancing and singing, but even the unborn babies – the fetuses in the wombs of some of the women – sang along as well.

Every single voice joined together for that song. And we continue to sing it today, every morning, as a symbol of our ongoing desire for redemption, as a spur to work harder to build the society that Dr. King envisioned, the one in which we truly understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that we become “a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” A nation where justice will run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We need to raise our voices together with those of our neighbors, express our love together through song, and bring a little more redemption to this very broken world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/19/2019.)

 

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Leadership, Doubt, and Hamilton – Va-era 5779

The whole family and I saw Hamilton at the Benedum Center on Wednesday night. Really, it was awesome. We already knew the soundtrack; my kids have it mostly committed to memory, and, thankfully, they have the good sense to, when singing along with the soundtrack in the car, NOT audibly recite the four-letter words.

One of the themes that the musical tangles with is leadership: what makes a good leader; what was truly revolutionary about the leadership of the American Revolution. When Alexander Hamilton, “young, scrappy, and hungry,” arrives in New York to seek his fortune, he clambers into the spotlight, while the more politic Aaron Burr cautions him to “talk less, smile more.” When George Washington announces that he will not seek a third term as president, we see King George across the pond, guffawing about how ridiculous it is for a leader to yield power to somebody else. Hamilton is not a reluctant leader; he vows over and over not to “throw away his shot,” and makes all the moves to position himself as a leader. He is not afflicted with doubt. He spends every waking moment writing, speaking, publishing, and his gift with words and ability to lead with the pen is formidable.

Alexander Hamilton

Let’s contrast now with that other epic musical that we feature each week here at Beth Shalom, the Torah, and in particular, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, who is filled with uncertainty.

We read today in Parashat Va-era about Moshe’s doubts. In fact, there were a few places where Moshe expresses doubt since we started Shemot / Exodus last week.

  • Last week, when God instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe says, “Mi anokhi?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11).
  • He further protests (4:1) “What if they do not listen to me?” and (4:10) “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
  • And in Va-era, when prompted by God to go to Pharaoh, he describes himself (twice: 6:12 and 6:30) as “aral sefatayim,” literally, “my lips are uncircumcised.” i.e. that his speech is impeded.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi tells us that the word that is usually translated as “uncircumcised,” “arel,” actually means, “obstructed.” The prophet Jeremiah uses the term in reference to the ears and the heart, suggesting that these organs can also be obstructed. Moshe is uncertain of his abilities as a leader because he is not a public speaker. He is obstructed. In some sense, Moshe is the anti-Hamilton.

From the moment that we meet Moshe, in fact, we rarely see him emerge from this state of self-doubt.

But I would like to make the case that Moshe’s uncertainty is what makes him a good leader. Doubt is healthy and natural. Consider your own doubts.

Or, consider mine. I remember a teaching session back at Temple Israel of Great Neck when I expressed my own doubt about God always hearing prayer.

One of the attendees confided in me afterwards that he was uncomfortable with his rabbi expressing doubt. I offered the following in response: we all have doubts. Even rabbis. But the way to approach faith is not by eliminating all doubt (which is impossible), but to acknowledge it.

Maimonides, for example, strongly rejected the idea that God has any kind of physical form, or human-like body parts. But we all know that the Torah and many rabbinic texts reference God’s arm, or God’s face, or God’s hair. So which is “true”? And, by the way, how can God hear prayer without ears?

Doubt is a universally-human trait, and anybody who claims to be 100% certain about any spiritual matter is exaggerating. It would be deeply disingenuous of me to stand before you and say that I agree with everything in our tradition, that I accept every word of the Torah as the absolutely true word of God received by Moshe on Mt. Sinai, that I approach God and Judaism unquestioningly. And I sincerely doubt that God gave us intellect and reason specifically so that we could ignore that gift in matters of faith. And I am 100% certain that Rambam would stand with me on that one.

To achieve honest faith, we must acknowledge our doubts. And as American Jews living in skeptical times, when religion holds far less sway than in past decades, we must openly embrace these doubts and those that have them, so that we can keep the door open for those who might otherwise leave. We in the Conservative movement maintain an intellectual openness that is essential today.

These are deeply skeptical times; we do not look to the heroes of past years, or turn proudly to our institutions for uncorrupted inspiration. The 20th century, the American century is long over. As a society we are struggling to maintain traditions, religious and secular, in the wake of the fall from grace of our once-glorified political, social, and religious leaders. Our suspicions about authority of any kind – government, corporate, religious, even medical – run deep. All the emperors are naked.

Add to this the fact that we are quite far removed from the ancient daily struggles that kept our ancestors coming back to God. We do not face the immediate life and death challenges that our ancestors – Israelite subsistence farmers – faced: the dependence on rain, the helplessness in the face of disease and famine and war, the great natural risks involved in childbearing, and so forth. And thank God, we live in an open society in which we can draw spiritual inspiration from many wells, not just the Jewish one.

All of these things conspire to make it very hard for any of us to feel very deeply about religion, let alone achieve faith in the face of doubt. Indifference is rampant. No thanks, Rabbi Adelson. I’m good. No need for me to come to shul (synagogue).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was keenly aware of the challenge of faith, of the power of doubt. As we wrestle with God and ourselves, the likelihood is that our experiences of the Divine are fleeting, if not entirely absent. How then can we justify faith? Heschel says in God in Search of Man (pp. 154-5) that

“Faith in the living God is not easily attained… Why, we often ask in our prayers, why hast Thou made it so difficult to find Thee? Why must we encounter so much anguish and travail before we can catch a glance of Thy presence?”

We must work hard, says Heschel, to find God. And although most of us want, even the skeptics among us, to find that connection to the Divine, very few of us do.

Honest faith, therefore, must reflect this struggle; lack of certainty is an essential part of faith. It is in the struggle that Jews find God, just as Yaaqov did, and so too did Moshe. It is in this cosmic wrestling match that we discover the power that Judaism has to alter our lives. That is why we are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God.

And that is why we should fear the leader that has no self-doubt.

By emphasizing Moshe’s concern about his “uncircumcised lips,” the Torah is actually insinuating that he is the correct choice to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not his lips that are uncircumcised, but rather his heart — he does not want to accept that he is, in fact, capable.

But we know how the story ends.

What do we learn from all of this? That we can, as with Jeremiah (4:4), cut away that obstruction around our hearts, and pursue our faith with an honest acknowledgment of doubt. It’s what makes us human.

We cannot allow the fundamentalist groups in this world, who tolerate no doubt, to control the dialogue about any religion, particularly Judaism. We cannot allow the extremists in our midst to shift the conversation to some inhuman, unrealistic position that does not account for the complex nature of human thought. Uncertainty is an essential part of who we are. We do not unquestioningly accept every word of authority as truth. On the contrary, we challenge. We argue. We wrestle. And we occasionally do not believe.

Doubt is what makes faith real and honest. It is the essential nature of faith, that those of us who are sometimes uncertain still step forward to grasp the mantle of Jewish tradition. So cut away that which obstructs your ability to seek God wholeheartedly, and embrace the doubt.

And furthermore, uncertainty is what ultimately makes leaders great. The ability to re-evaluate, to re-frame, to re-work the plan when necessary, the willingness to concede your uncertainty is what allows for a true leader to thrive. I would pick Moshe over Alexander Hamilton any day. (I think.)

Shabbat shalom.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/5/2019.)

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