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Welcoming Interfaith Families, Maintaining Tradition – Eqev 5781

I recently completed my fourteenth year as a rabbi, since I was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 2007. As many of you know, I have been affiliated with the Conservative movement for my entire life. 

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

But you may not know that in 1994, when I was finishing my Master’s degree in chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, I applied to the rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, at the urging of the Reform rabbi at the Texas A&M Hillel. When HUC rejected me, Rabbi Tarlow was incensed, and he called the chair of the admissions committee to find out why. He was told that the committee felt that I had difficulty seeing multiple sides to an issue.

Now, it may be that what they saw about me during the interview was engineering clarity: trying to get to an answer as efficiently as possible. In any case, I must say that in retrospect I find it difficult to believe that I ever had such a difficulty, because nowadays I cannot help but see at least a couple of sides to any issue, perhaps to the detriment of that problem-solving clarity that I used to have.

As I grow older, and particularly in observing the deeply polarized society we have become, I must say that I wish that more of us had the humility to see multiple sides to every issue. I feel like the black-and-white oversimplification that is a feature of social media has brought us to this point, where acknowledging and engaging with multiple perspectives around complex issues is not merely frowned upon, but even derided.

Parashat Eqev, which we read from this morning, reminds us not only of the binary theology of Devarim / Deuteronomy – if you, the Israelites follow the mitzvot, you get the land of Israel, and if you do not, you will lose it – but also the need to be humble, because actually it’s not so simple. In particular (Devarim / Deut. 9:4):

אַל־תֹּאמַ֣ר בִּלְבָבְךָ֗ בַּהֲדֹ֣ף ה֩’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֨יךָ אֹתָ֥ם ׀ מִלְּפָנֶ֘יךָ֮ לֵאמֹר֒ בְּצִדְקָתִי֙ הֱבִיאַ֣נִי ה’ לָרֶ֖שֶׁת אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וּבְרִשְׁעַת֙ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֔לֶּה ה’ מוֹרִישָׁ֥ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

And when the LORD your God has thrust [your enemies] from your path, say not to yourselves, “The LORD has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. 

The 15th-century Portuguese commentator, Don Yitzḥaq Abravanel, adds that people tend to attribute their successes to themselves. But the text here says, “Don’t think that you’re getting this land because you’re so perfect.” Rather, says God, I’m only giving this to you because you’re a wee bit better than the surrounding peoples. Don’t think you’re all that special. Be humble.

Humility is an essential Jewish value; it is one reason that our tradition reminds us regularly that we came from slavery, and that we should remember not to oppress the others around us. We have to remember our roots.

It is with this humility, and with an appreciation for multiple perspectives, that we should read the results of the recently-released demographic survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center. The report came out in May, just before a barrage of Hamas rockets from Gaza provoked an Israeli response that quickly dominated the news cycle, and so those of us who pay attention to the state of Jewish America were distracted by the news from Israel. You might have missed it.

There is a lot to process in this report, but I wanted to zoom in on one particular issue, and that is the state of the Jewish family. One of the findings is that the intermarriage rate among Jews has remained at a consistent rate; about 56% of respondents who are married report that their spouse is not Jewish. Of course that figure varies tremendously with age and affiliation; among Conservative-affiliated Jews, for example, 25% report a non-Jewish spouse, and among the category of people whom Pew describes as “Jews of no religion,” that is, people who were born Jewish but do not practice Judaism, the figure is 79%.

A few decades ago, these numbers would have seemed shocking. The Conservative movement’s reaction to interfaith marriage in the 1980s was to pretend it did not exist: no recognition, no aufruf, and of course no rabbi could preside over such a marriage. At the time, we were so proud as to think that this would lead to greater in-marriage. The approach backfired: many of those Jews who married others, whose rabbis turned them away, left the Conservative movement and did not look back.

We have, thankfully, reached a different place. While I still cannot solemnize a marriage of a Jewish person to one who is not, this is for purely halakhic reasons; we have not yet been able to come up with a halakhic basis on which to perform such a marriage. But of course we welcome these couples into our congregations; we have a number of members of Beth Shalom where one partner is not Jewish, and some of those Jewish-adjacent members of Beth Shalom are among our biggest fans, eager partners in helping to create a Jewish home and provide a Jewish education for their children. 

One of the items that the Pew study presents is that 28% of interfaith parents are raising their children as Jews (compared with 93% of families with two Jewish parents). Now that is not a particularly high number, but I’ll tell you this: if we reach out to those families, if we welcome them into our midst, then we have a much better chance that more of their children and grandchildren will be raised Jewish. 

In some cases, by the way, our embracing the supportive non-Jewish partner has led to that person becoming Jewish through conversion, a testament not only to the appeal and the richness of our tradition, but also to our being open and inviting them in.

Now the challenge here is that, on the one hand, we want those interfaith families to be part of our community. We do not want them to be turned away, such that they will never return. When I was preparing for the Honeymoon Israel trip I took with the Pittsburgh cohort a year and a half ago, I learned that one of the frequent narratives among disaffected Jews in interfaith relationships was about how some of them had been spurned by their communities, and the pain this caused. We do not want to be creating more hurt, and giving people more reasons not to come back to the synagogue.

Of course, the perspective with which I grew up, like most of us here, is that in-marriage is the most desirable outcome. In addition to the halakhic challenges to intermarriage, when two people share similar customs and values, it is a solid foundation on which to build a successful marriage. Also, of course, Jewish home life is centered around family participation, and of course it is ideal for both parents to be steeped in these practices and texts to pass them on to our children and grandchildren.

After so many decades of Jewish hand-wringing over intermarriage, not to mention the centuries of uncomfortable history, our expectation that in-marriage is ideal is so ingrained as to be unavoidable. There are those who say that this expectation implicitly places an interfaith couple in a secondary position, and that is something that we clearly do not want to do. However, I think it is also reasonable to promote in-marriage while welcoming our Jewish-adjacent partners, who have thrown in their lot with our people, who are supportive participants in our Jewish journey.

And, on the third hand, we love it when people who are not Jewish join the ranks of our people. So while I have occasionally crowed that I have created 50 or so new Jews since I’ve been in Pittsburgh, doing so also may seem judgmental to some of the non-Jewish partners in our midst. We must ensure that our message is that anybody who wants to join the Jewish people is welcome, and the doors are always open. But even for those who choose not to, we are still grateful that you are here with us.

So you can see that even discussing this is complicated. On one hand, as ambassadors for Judaism and Jewish life, we need to support our home team and our historical traditions; on the other, as diplomatic contemporary Jews who seek to keep as many of our folks connected, we also must maintain a big, non-judgmental tent. And, as Eqev teaches us, we have to be humble about it: we cannot possibly think that we know all the answers or will succeed in hitting the right notes based on our merits. We need to lean into that humility because we compete not only in the marketplace of ideas, but also in the ocean of disaffection and indifference. 

A curiously hopeful note gleaned from the Pew study, by the way, is that even among the folks who are described as “Jews of no religion,” a healthy fraction of those Jews are practicing some aspects of Jewish life: for example, 30% of them held or attended a Pesaḥ seder last year, 28% observed some kind of life-cycle ritual, and 1 in 5 fasted to some extent on Yom Kippur. I’m not sure why these behaviors place these folks in the “no religion” category, but such is the messy nature of statistics and categories. Nonetheless, it is another reminder that those open doors face multiple directions.

Fortunately for all of us in the Conservative movement, halakhah / Jewish law is not judgmental; we can still welcome all folks into our community, even as we stand by our halakhic principles in Jewish ritual. Just as there is a range of Jewish practices among our people, so too there is a diversity among Jewish families. And we embrace them all, even as we humbly maintain tradition.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/31/2021.)

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On Boycotts, Binary Thinking, and Genocide – Vaetḥannan 5781

If you will allow me to take the anachronistic liberty of ascribing a contemporary movement to an ancient text, Devarim / Deuteronomy is easily the most Zionist book of the Torah. Moshe is delivering a series of lectures to the Israelites after they have been wandering through the desert for nearly four decades, and now they are perched on the far side of the Jordan river awaiting for the instruction to cross over and re-enter the land that has been promised to them.

And Moshe’s message is intimately connected to the land, with constant reminders that an essential part of our people’s berit / covenant with God is the inheritance of this land. For example, as we read this morning in Parashat Vaetḥannan (Devarim /Deuteronomy 6:1):

וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ 

This is the mitzvah, the laws and the rules, that God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and inherit.

The land and the mitzvot are intimately connected in that Divine relationship between God and the people of Israel; they go together. And it is this sense of connection which inspired our ancestors over the last 2,000 years, in all their wanderings, to remain loyal to our tradition, to keep the memory of the land of Israel in our hearts and minds and on our tongues. It is the ancient yearning for the perfection of this holy formula which yielded the best-known poem of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, who in the 12th century, the story goes, left Spain (“sof ma’arav,” the end of the West, according to him) to journey across the Mediterranean. He certainly arrived in Egypt, and a legend has it that he died in the Land of Israel, trampled by a horse as he kneeled to kiss the holy earth of Jerusalem. 

In more contemporary times, in the middle of the 19th century, before any steel emerged from Pittsburgh factories, this ancient yearning spurred the first wave of our people to escape the misery of the shtetl and move to Ottoman Turkish Palestine.  

And it is this ancient yearning that brought greater numbers of aliyah following the wave of Czarist programs in the early 1880s, and again in the early 1900s. And in particular, after the Shoah, when European Jewish refugees and displaced persons needed a safe haven, there was Palestine. Now in British hands, there was a well-developed economy, agricultural collectives, and bustling cities. Survivors of the European attempt at genocide defied the British blockade to enter the land of their ancestors, and soon fought for and won independence.

It is with great dismay that I read this week of the account in Jerusalem, at the location adjacent to the traditional Kotel / Western Wall that has been set up as a temporary location for egalitarian prayer. A Masorti (that’s the Conservative movement outside of North America) group was holding a service for Tish’ah BeAv, chanting Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, when a group of zealous Orthodox folks invaded the space and set up a meḥitzah (the separation barrier between men and women found in Orthodox synagogues), shouted and sang and disrupted the Masorti service. It is especially upsetting that on the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple due to sin’at ḥinnam, baseless hatred, that at the very spot where the Temple stood until the year 70 CE, that such intolerance would be on display so vividly.

Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian prayer space by the Western Wall

And it is with even more dismay that I learned of Ben & Jerry’s decision to suspend sales of their ice cream products in West Bank settlements. It makes me wonder if they have also suspended sales in other disputed territories such as Crimea, North Cyprus, Kashmir, Tibet, and so forth. 

The move is clearly only symbolic – who cares whether or not residents of Ma’ale Adummim have access to Cherry Garcia? And, by the way, you’ll still be able to buy New York Super Fudge Chunk in Jerusalem, a short drive away. But it points to the powerful voices of Israel’s critics in calling attention to who does business in the territories, a plank in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

צ’רי גרסיה

But my greatest and most surprising source of dismay this past week, by far, was from a poll produced by the Jewish Electoral Institute, a non-partisan group which, according to its website, is “dedicated to deepening the public’s understanding of Jewish American participation in our democracy,” primarily through polling. This survey found, among other things, that in a recent poll of 800 Jewish voters, 25% agreed with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state,” and, more shockingly, 22% agree with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” 

In its coverage of the survey, the Forward noted that while the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow is comfortable with the “apartheid” label, even they were surprised by the “genocide” statement.

To be clear, as in all democratic countries with heterogeneous populations, Israel struggles with inequalities within society. But there is no government policy of racial segregation. However, hearing Israel described as “an apartheid state,” or a “colonialist settler state,” as is fashionable in some circles, is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Certainly some of our South African members can reassure us that Israeli society is nothing like the apartheid era in South Africa. Most likely, when I went before an Arab judge in Family Court in Israel for approval for the child support agreement for my Israeli son, that judge would have been very surprised by the “apartheid” descriptor. And so too the Arab doctors and nurses who worked in the hospital in Beersheva where my son was born. And so too the Druze soldiers who bravely and loyally serve in the IDF, and Justice George Karra, the Christian Arab who serves on the Israeli Supreme Court, and of course Member of Kenesset Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, now the first Arab and the first Islamist party to join the majority coalition of the Israeli government. I don’t think any of those folks can credibly use the word “apartheid” to describe Israel.

But “genocide”? We, the Jews, we know genocide, and however you may feel about Israel and the Palestinians’ failure to come to a negotiated settlement, we know that applying the word “genocide” is obscenely hyberbolic, and plays on anti-Jewish stereotypes. 

My father-in-law survived Auschwitz; many more of my relatives did not. Where are the camps in Israel? Where are the cattle cars delivering non-Jews to the gas chambers? Where are the laws preventing Arabs from going to school, or owning property, or holding government positions, or even dating or marrying Jews? Where are the fields of slaughter, the Einsatzgruppen, the ghettoes?*

There are none of these things, of course. So how could it come to be that 22%, 176 of the respondents to this poll agreed with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians”?

The only possible answer, hevreh, is that we have failed. We have failed in the education of our own people, and we have failed just as much in getting out in front of the message. For people who know only ongoing conflict in the region, and who only see the reported body counts, of course Israel looks like the bad guy. But it is perversely reductive to see the side with the higher body count as the victim and the other as the bad guy.

We have failed when those of us who do not know our history are hornswoggled by extreme voices applying the word genocide to Israel and consequently to Jews. We have failed in relaying the admittedly very complicated history of the establishment of the State of Israel, and the wars and terrorist attacks she has faced.

And of course this challenge is only made worse by the current political climate in America, where it seems that left and right are increasingly living in different worlds. Our political discourse on many issues seems like skewed lines: no chance of intersection, no apparent intention to ever seek common ground. I checked out Twitter this week for the first time in a while, and all I could see, for miles of tweets, was binary thinking. You’re either on this side or that side. There is no middle way. No attempt to reach out, only to score points against the other.

In this environment, we are going to lose the battle for the hearts and minds not only of Americans, but American Jews as well. Certainly, the majority of us still support Israel, and majorities of non-Jewish Americans as well. But the challenge of the binary approach to all things will make this battle even harder.

How might we approach this? I do not think that attempting to label anti-Israel speech as hate speech is the right path. Likewise, Israel advocacy, which is certainly good for Israel at least in the American political arena, will not solve this challenge either. 

Rather, what we need is thoughtful engagement with history and the facts on the ground. And we also need to figure out how to get out in front of the message.

So how do we do that? 

We need to make sure that we are teaching our students about Israel, presenting them with accurate material that gives an unbiased, factual telling of the Zionist project, both its strengths and its pitfalls. Perhaps there are organizations like the Peres Center for Peace in Israel who would be willing to create a curriculum for a broad audience – Jewish and non-Jewish – that would teach that story. We need to lean into the idea of peaceful coexistence – not too long ago that seemed like a nascent reality, and it can be again. We need to support institutions that are bringing people together for positive engagement between people, engagement that will lead to real partnership, and ultimately to peace.

Boycotts – by ice cream companies or against them – will not achieve anything other than more binary thinking, more Twitter-esque polarization. Our ancestral yearning for that land, and our sense of justice as Jews necessitates seeking new, creative approaches. We have the resources. Let’s do it.

בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרׇדְפֵֽהוּ / Baqqesh shalom verodfehu, says the Psalmist (Tehillim / Psalms 34:15). Seek peace and pursue it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shabbat Naḥamu, 7/24/2021.)

* It has been pointed out to me, subsequent to my delivering this sermon, that genocide can take different forms; the method of the Nazis was not used by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda, for example. Nonetheless, what unites different forms of genocide, according to the United Nations’ definition, is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Israel’s military response to Hamas rocket fire, for which she has received much criticism, does not meet that definition. If it were the IDF’s intent merely to kill innocent Palestinians in Gaza, it would certainly not, for example, provide warning signals of various types to residents of targeted buildings which contain terrorist infrastructure.

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Life in the Fast Lane – Shabbat Ḥazon, 5781

As a child, I used to look skyward on clear nights and imagine going to space. I was a fan of science fiction stories and movies; I fell in love with Kirk and Spock and the whole gang on the USS Enterprise at a young age.

But adulthood has the unfortunate tendency to kill many a childhood fantasy, and I must admit that I had not been paying so much attention in recent years to human efforts to conquer space. But something caught my attention this week, and you probably heard about it as well: Sir Richard Branson, English business magnate and founder of Virgin Group, flew into sub-orbital space, about 50 miles up, achieving weightlessness for a few minutes. Among the many companies he controls is Virgin Galactic, a company that promises to be able to provide flights into space for the general public in the near future. 

Sir Richard

Branson just barely edged out Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, who will also be traveling into space in his own craft in a few weeks. And of course there is investor Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, which has sent a few rockets skyward recently, including partnerships with NASA.

All of these endeavors are the stuff of dreams. And, of course, they are fabulously expensive. These companies are somewhat tight-lipped about how much money they are investing in these flights, but it must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Bezos will have a companion on his flight who has reportedly paid $28 million for the seat. Three people have paid $55 million each for seats on a SpaceX flight to the International Space Station next year. Virgin Galactic already has 600 people signed up for trips into space that will cost more than $250,000 per seat.

But what about the rest of us here on Earth? As much as I am sure that many of us would love the opportunity to travel into space, I will confess that this strikes me as, in the words of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, “Hevel havalim.” Vanity of vanities.

After all, if these investors were to take that money and invest it in people here on Earth – education, literacy, health care, clean water, clean energy, democratic governments, solutions for climate change – imagine the good that they could do on the ground. And in particular at this time, when we are still suffering from a worldwide pandemic.

I am certainly not accusing these men of not being charitable. Bezos made the largest charitable gift in the world last year: a $10 billion commitment to fight climate change. According to what I could find on the Interwebs, Musk and Branson have each pledged to give away half of their wealth to charity. I am merely concerned about the optics of this race into the final frontier when so many are suffering down here on Earth. The great ballyhoo surrounding such extravagant projects that will truly only benefit a tiny few seems a bit tone-deaf.

OK, so let’s face it: there is so much to celebrate right now – success in creating vaccines, returning to something approaching normalcy, seeing people again. The rate of joblessness is going down as people return to the workforce. The economy is beginning to move again, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industries, which were devastated by Covid.

But there is also much to mourn. And that brings me to Tish’ah BeAv, the official Jewish day of mourning. Starting this evening and going through tomorrow night, we will fast for 25 hours to remind ourselves that we are a people that is still in mourning, 1,949 years after the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem, destroying the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple that was the center of Jewish life up until then, for the second and final time. While the Beit HaMiqdash occupies a special place in our hearts and minds, it has never been rebuilt. In recalling this destruction, we chant the book of Eikhah / Lamentations this evening, perhaps the most evocative poetry of desolation ever composed (1:1): 

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה

Eikha yashevah vadad ha’ir rabbati am hayetah ke-almanah.

How lonely sits the city, which was once full of people; She who was great among nations, now is like a widow.

Tonight and tomorrow we will mourn not only the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but also many other cataclysmic moments in Jewish life: the Crusades, the Expulsion from Spain, the Shoah, and so forth. We are a people whose paths of exile are wet with tears, whose persecutions and dispersions we carry with us just as much as we carry our words of Torah. We are a people for whom there is little solace in history, not much more comfort in the present, and only a modicum of optimism for the future. Jerusalem, rebuilt though she may be, still vibrates with the rumblings of ancient destructions.

Tish’ah BeAv keeps us close to mourning. And that is a good thing. We should not be so high on ourselves that we forget the misery, the pain of our history. We should not be so proud as to think we can conquer time or space, or be free of anti-Semitism, or be liberated from the woes of human life.

Now, I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “OK, Rabbi, we’ve had nearly a year and a half of isolation, of anxiety, of losing beloved family members to a deadly virus. We have grieved enough. It’s time to party, right? Now is not the right moment to lean into the official Jewish day of mourning.”

But, as with Yom Kippur, the goal of fasting and remembering on this day is not for its own sake; it is not merely a day on which we should be miserable just because. As with Pesaḥ, when we recall being freed from slavery and deny ourselves a whole range of foods, we do not do so merely to encourage constipation.

Rather, we afflict our souls on Tish’ah BeAv because occasionally we need to be humbled, so that we know what it is like to be hungry and miserable. We need to remember that there are people for whom every day is a fast day, who have no luxurious leather shoes, who have no comfortable furniture on which to sit, who have no climate-controlled home in which to live. 

Over our month of sabbatical, Judy and I saw many homeless people in the cities we visited along the Eastern seaboard. I do not know if there has been an uptick in homelessness due to the pandemic, but I certainly would not be surprised if that were the case; the number of people living on the streets is heartbreakingly large.

ט֣וֹב שְׁפַל־ר֭וּחַ אֶת־עֲנָוִ֑ים מֵחַלֵּ֥ק שָׁ֝לָ֗ל אֶת־גֵּאִֽים׃

Better to be humble and among the lowly than to share spoils with the proud. (Mishlei / Proverbs 16:19)

We fast on Tish’ah BeAv to remind ourselves of the most fundamental responsibilities we have as Jews: to take care of the others around us, to remember their suffering, to recall that even as we aim for the stars, we must work hard to provide comfort for those who have none on Earth.

We have to remember the pain. If we do not, we’ll all be in space, and we will lose sight of what is really going on here on the ground.

By the Waters of Babylon, by Evelyn De Morgan, 1855-1919

I mentioned earlier that this is Shabbat Ḥazon, the Shabbat of the vision of Yeshayahu (known in English as Isaiah). Yeshayahu’s vision is one of suffering, of invasion by the Assyrian empire, brought about by the faithlessness of his audience. Echoing the opening of Eikhah, he says (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 1:21-22):

אֵיכָה֙ הָיְתָ֣ה לְזוֹנָ֔ה קִרְיָ֖ה נֶאֱמָנָ֑ה מְלֵֽאֲתִ֣י מִשְׁפָּ֗ט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִ֥ין בָּ֖הּ וְעַתָּ֥ה מְרַצְּחִֽים׃ כַּסְפֵּ֖ךְ הָיָ֣ה לְסִיגִ֑ים סׇבְאֵ֖ךְ מָה֥וּל בַּמָּֽיִם׃

Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt— but now murderers. Your silver has turned to dross; your wine is cut with water.

Faith has turned to faithlessness; luxuries have been reduced to waste. But, says Yeshayahu, whose very name means “God will save,” we can change that. We return to our holy obligations, and there is redemption. As with the conclusion of Eikhah (5:21),

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃

Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old! 

If we use this fast to spur us to action, to return to Torah and mitzvot, to remember the needy among us, God will save us from future suffering.

God will surely not, however, save us from our own vanity. That is up to us as individuals, and as a society.

Shabbat shalom, and have a meaningful fast.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/17/2021.)

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Wisdom of the Journey – Mattot/Mas’ei 5781

I was fortunate to have been in Philadelphia over the last week, including for July 4th. Judy and I went to watch the fireworks display over the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and sat in the street with thousands of other folks. It was the first time that we had been at a gathering of that size for more than a year and a half, and it was, as you can imagine, a good, patriotic feeling.

July 4th, 2021, Philadelphia. Photo credit: me

As we sat and watched the crowds milling about, angling for a good location to stand or sit, having ice cream, schmoozing with the strangers around them, we noticed the fantastic diversity around us. Americans of every color, Americans speaking multiple languages, some of which we could only guess at, Americans in various types of ethnic and religious clothing. It was absolutely heartwarming to see so many people, and so many different sorts of people, hanging out together in the city, celebrating our nation’s 245 years of independence.

Judy remarked, “If the founding fathers, who signed the Declaration of Independence a stone’s throw from this spot, were here today to see this crowd, would they recognize it as the nation they created?”

It was indeed a healthy ponderable. While a few of the signers were born in the British Isles, most were born on this side of the pond, but all of them were, up until that moment of independence, subjects of the English King. All men. All white. Some were plantation owners, where they owned enslaved Black people. 

Could they have possibly surveyed this crowd and made sense of the picture before them? Would they understand that equality, that citizenship, that certain unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, could be extended by our Creator to the mixed multitudes on the streets of Philadelphia in 2021?

And could they have possibly foreseen a group of aggrieved American citizens, whipped into a violent frenzy by an outgoing president, storm the building that houses the legislative heart of America, threaten the democratically-elected people who represent us, cause damage, kill a police officer, and capture the whole thing on video, as happened six months ago?

I would like to think that the founders of this nation might have expected both. I would like to think that they anticipated a range of events, from unity to schism and from homogeneity to the entire smorgasbord of humanity and for a whole gradient of possibilities in-between. I would like to think that they knew, as they set out on this journey that would last centuries, that they felt that what they were building in the New World was at least as resilient as the English monarchy, which was already 900 years old in their time. I would like to think that, as optimistic and idealistic as they were, they were confident that what they were setting up would be able to handle what would undeniably be a challenging journey for a new nation.

Of course, we the Jews have been around much longer. We have been witnesses to events that go back thousands of years. And who knows if our ancestors anticipated the travails that we have survived? We mark on Tish’ah BeAv, a week from tonight, the destructions of both First and Second Temples; dispersions, exiles, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and so forth. That we are still here, whether in Philadelphia, London, Buenos Aires, Tehran, Tel Aviv, or Pittsburgh, is nothing short of miraculous. Our tradition is that powerful.

Parashat Mas’ei, from which we read this morning, opens with the following verse (Bemidbar / Numbers 33:1):

אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃

Elleh mas’ei venei yisrael asher yatze-u me-eretz mitzrayim letziv-otam beyad Moshe veAharon.

These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

And what follows, of course, is a litany of the places in which the Israelites camped during their masa’im, their journeys. Rambam, in his Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, explains that this record of the 20-odd places in which the Israelites camped in their journey through the wilderness was absolutely necessary, because future generations may not believe that it was possible. The record of places, suggests Rambam, are there because otherwise, the miracle of 2 million people living for 40 years in the wilderness simply may not be believed.

And maybe you would not believe the things that have happened in these United States, either. Maybe you would not believe that, a mere 85 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, that the Southern states would secede from the Union over the issue of slavery. Maybe you would not believe that the remaining states would have to go to war to bring them back into the Union. Maybe you would not believe that women were not allowed to vote until 1920, and that it would require an act of Congress in 1965 to ensure voting rights for Black Americans. Maybe you would not believe that presidents would be assassinated, that our nation would fight in distant wars overseas, that an American could walk on the moon, and many other features along the journey that we have not yet encountered.

Maybe.

But just as we the Jews are resilient, having outlasted many of our historical enemies, the democracy in which we live is in fact resilient. Flawed, yes. But still holding up under pressure.

On Wednesday evening, Judy and I were walking through the historic district of Philadelphia, and as we were strolling past brick townhouses from the 18th century, we spotted many mezuzot. I imagined that some of them may have been from the Colonial period, although one might hope that the kelafim contained therein have since been replaced. Certainly, Congregation Mikveh Israel, which dates to 1740, is still there (although not in its original building).

The rabbi of Mikveh Israel through a hefty chunk of the 19th century was Sabato Morais. Born in Italy and of Sephardic extraction, Morais was not only a hazzan and rabbi, but also was the founding president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886. (JTS was initially located at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the Spanish-Portuguese congregation which is the oldest in America and the sister congregation to Mikveh Israel.)

Rabbi Hazzan Sabato Morais

Morais was a rationalist, rejecting kabbalah, as many of those associated with JTS did in its early years, and he also highlighted the flourishing of Jewish literature and poetry in Andalusia in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, a subtle bias which exists to this day at the Seminary. Although it was surely not his intent to create the Conservative movement, it was certainly an objective of the early Seminary to unify the rational center of Jewish life, far from the theological extremes.

In the context of the American Civil War, during a sermon in Philadelphia in 1863, he spoke of unity not only in Judaism, but in public life as well. Referencing the country of his birth, he applauded the need to fight for unity:

The aspirations of Dante, the inspiring songs of Petrarch, the longing of every good and true Italian, have they not ever been for the unity of the Italian peninsula . . . Why have the dungeon and the gibbet proved fruitless, and the brothers Bandiera run to martyrdom as to a festive board, but because the idea of a united Italy kindled the hearts of her children?

(Attilio and Emilio Bandiera were Milanese nationalists killed during the revolution of 1848, fighting for a unified Italy.)

Morais stood for unity: unity of Italy, unity of the United States, and he was also a pivotal figure in seeking unity in the ranks of American Jewry.

Our resilience in Judaism relies on the idea, however tenuous in today’s Jewish world, that even though we disagree on some theological issues, we are still one people. Let us hope that we as Americans can see our way through to a unity that will guarantee our resilience for centuries to come.

Let us pray that the American journey does not end in chaos and dysfunction; that we can find a way to cast aside the extremism in our midst, to focus on the greater good, and to move forward as a society.

Philadelphia is a city that today is still marked by the presence of Benjamin Franklin, whose pithy quotes adorn many a statue and building around the city. One that we encountered read, “The doors of wisdom are never shut.”

These words strike me as being so Jewish. What is the source of our resilience throughout history? It is Torah – our ancient wisdom, which we continue to revisit and re-learn and re-interpret. 

I would like to think that Franklin might take contemporary America’s pulse and as his prescription for our contemporary ills, simply repeat those words. Those doors are not shut. The wisdom is there – the wisdom of unity in the face of division. We know where we have been; we remember the journey. 

Let us put that wisdom to work.

Shabbat shalom.

Categories
Sermons

Sanity, Not Cynicism – Bemidbar 5781

(Note: This sermon was delivered during the 11 days in May, 2021, in which Hamas rockets rained down on Israel by the thousands, and Israel responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. Although a cease-fire was announced on 5/20, the message here still applies.)

We knew this would happen again. We knew that there would be instigations in Jerusalem. We knew that the rockets would fly from Gaza, causing Israelis to flee to bomb shelters at all hours. We knew that there would be reprisals. We knew that there would be an asymmetrical body count. We knew this, because nothing has changed since 2014, the last time this happened.

Nothing has changed.

Nobody is talking to each other. There is no round table, no smoke-filled room. Rather, there is cynicism all around. Cynics who have declared the peace process dead. Cynics who say, “They don’t care about peace.” Cynics who say, “This is our land, not theirs.” Cynics who say, “The other side only understands violence.”

Granted, talking is hard. This is the most intractable diplomatic challenge in the world. The Israelis believe that they have no reliable partner with whom to talk. The Palestinians are concerned that talking with the Israelis will only inflame the Palestinian street. Anxiety leads to cynicism leads to war.

And yet, something has changed for me. This time things are a little different than they were seven years ago. 

What has changed? My 20-year-old son, Oryah, is now serving in חיל התותחנים / Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the IDF’s artillery corps. He was recruited for his mandatory army service last summer, two weeks before my daughter Hannah’s bat mitzvah. At this moment, he is serving in the West Bank.

I am breathing OK for now. But I must say that being the father of a soldier in an active armed conflict is an experience that I have never desired, even if it is for a country that I love. I am praying more fervently now for all Israelis in the line of fire, but all the more so that those who defend Israel from terrorists can do so speedily and securely and with minimal loss of life. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I will remind you once again that I am a proud Zionist. I have lived in Israel; I have been a diligent student of Israeli history and the Modern Hebrew language; I adore Israeli pop music, Israeli food and culture; I am grateful for the modern miracle that is the Jewish state. I am grateful that Israel is a thriving, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, a bustling democracy in a region that is not known for its strong adherence to democratic principles. I am proud of Israel’s success in education, in high-tech industries, in public health. 

I am also proud, and nervous, to have a son serving in the IDF.

But I am also anxious about Israel’s current state. Consider the following:

  • Israel has had four national elections in two years, and is still unable to form a governing coalition. The political chaos has left it rudderless for some time. This is not a healthy situation.
  • Palestinian elections were supposed to take place in the West Bank, but were canceled, perhaps due to the Palestinian Authority’s concern that they would lose. The PA is, sadly, widely seen as corrupt and ineffective by the Palestinian population.
  • The confluence of the end of Ramadan and Yom Yerushalayim, the Israeli holiday celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967, created even more political and religious tension in the holiest city in the world.
  • Add to this the real estate dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. As you know, every square centimeter in the Holy Land, and particularly the Holy City, has the potential to be a flash point. The opportunity surrounding this for instigation by activists on opposite sides was simply too great not to take advantage of, and suddenly there was a serious tinder-box situation.

Israel attempted to lower tensions by putting off the Sheikh Jarrah court decision and by canceling the Jerusalem Day parade. But this was not enough; Jerusalem was already heating up, with rock-throwing and demonstrations and police and worshippers injured in horrible clashes on the Temple Mount. 

Hamas, in an extraordinarily cynical and murderous move, decided that in order to “defend Al-Aqsa,” the mosque on the Temple Mount, they must actually shoot missiles into Israel, including into the Jerusalem area, where Al-Aqsa is located. Their calculus in doing so is that of being perceived on the Arab street as being the true defenders of the Palestinian cause compared to the powerlessness of the PA.

The thousands of rockets which Hamas has sent over have not only put Israelis in danger, but also put Israel in the unfortunate position of having to respond by seeking out and destroying the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.

Again.

Please remember that, as in the past, Israel does everything it can to minimize civilian casualties, including warning shots, leaflets, calls to cell phones, and so forth. Hamas typically urges Gazans not to leave, so that the body count is higher. It is truly heartbreaking.

An even more unfortunate development, something that has never happened before, is the civil unrest that has broken out in Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations. Border troops were deployed in Lod, where a synagogue was burned. A presumably Israeli Arab man was beaten by a Jewish mob in Bat Yam. A group of Arab protesters seriously injured a Jewish resident of Akko. This is a gravely upsetting situation that will breed further mistrust and will tear at Israel’s social fabric for years to come.

I hope that the Jewish Israelis who are participating in these riots understand what an embarrassment and a tragedy it is to see our people stooping to such a horrible low point. We have to be above thuggish behavior; if not, we are no better than the terrorists. Let us act on the Jewish value of kevod haberiyot, respect for all of God’s creatures, including those who hate us, and not on the base principles of revenge.

What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome. We (and I mean all of us) have been working on finding a solution for decades now, and we have, it seems, lost the will to proceed. We are not talking to each other. And people are dying. Again.

Back in my final year of rabbinical school, before they gave us a JTS tallit and kicked us out into the world, senior rabbinical and cantorial students were required to read a book by Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who was also a family therapist, called, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The book was written for clergy, to help them work with families and congregants, and I learned from Rabbi Friedman some valuable lessons about the principles behind family therapy. Family therapy is an area within psychology that treats families as systems, taking into account how all the members of the family unit interact with each other.

One of those principles is the difference between stasis and equilibrium. Equilibrium occurs when all of the individuals within a family system are functioning together harmoniously, when they are all connected to each other and there are no breakdowns between people. It is a family system in balance. That is what we all seek in our own lives, within our own families; it is a healthy situation.

Stasis means that there is a dysfunction in the family system – breakdowns between people, failure to communicate, acting out by some individuals, and so forth. When a family is in stasis, nothing is changing, but the system is not in balance. Until the underlying problems that are the source of toxicity are revealed and addressed, a family in stasis cannot move forward, and certainly cannot be in equilibrium.

All the stakeholders: the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, their respective citizens, the international community, the nearby Arab governments, the Western powers, and yes, even Hamas, are all in a family system together, and it is a system that has been in stasis, not in balance, not healthy, for a long time, and that is having a pernicious effect on all parties. Nobody wants to address the underlying problems, because there will be a political cost. Nobody wants to stick their neck out, because the task seems insurmountable.

Peace is hard. You don’t make peace with your friends. Finding solutions to where lines are drawn, how governments cooperate, who is in charge of what, who can travel where, who provides electricity and water to whom – these are all extraordinary challenges. But it certainly beats having to run into bomb shelters, or to have your building destroyed, or your fields set on fire, or civil unrest in your city, or God forbid to lose a child.

True leadership is not driven by fear or anxiety or the possibility of losing your prime ministership or even your life. True leadership happens when, while being in touch with all the relevant stakeholders, you make a decision to move forward. True leadership is bravery. And we need the kind of bravery Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin showed the world in the 1970s. We should all be praying for such leadership to emerge.

Good, brave leadership, both within Israel and outside, would find a way to talk rather than to launch rockets.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ancient marching orders here from on high. These are the words of Psalm 122:

שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃
יְהִֽי־שָׁל֥וֹם בְּחֵילֵ֑ךְ שַׁ֝לְוָ֗ה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ׃ 
לְ֭מַעַן אַחַ֣י וְרֵעָ֑י אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּ֖א שָׁל֣וֹם בָּֽךְ׃
לְ֭מַעַן בֵּית־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵ֑ינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁ֖ה ט֣וֹב לָֽךְ׃ 

Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”
For the sake of my sisters and brothers and fellow humans, I pray for your well-being;
for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good. 

I do not know, any better than you do, or PM Netanyahu, or PM Abbas, or any of the other relevant leaders, how to solve the very, very deep problems here. But I do know this: if we do nothing, if we do not talk to each other, at best, nothing will change; at worst, bloodshed will continue. We will be in the same place in another few years. And that is tragically, indeed, homicidally cynical.

Let us pray for Jerusalem, and for all its inhabitants; that we seek God’s imperative for good, for well-being.

Let us pray for Israel, and for the entire region, that those who live there, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, should live in peace.

Let us pray that all the stakeholders seek equilibrium, and emerge from this dreadful stasis.

Let us pray for sanity over cynicism.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/15/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Once You Learn How to Die, You Learn How to Live – Shavuot / Yizkor 5781

Do we truly understand the value of life? The value of our lives? Do we really appreciate the gift we have been given, while we still have it?

One of the things that the pandemic has taught is just how frail we all are. Think about this for a moment: millions of people around the world taken too soon; young, healthy people suffering from virus effects long after regaining health, the so-called “Covid long-haulers;” the economic fallout – the jobs lost, the industries disrupted, the evictions and lives put on hold, and so forth. All of this due to a tiny piece of RNA wrapped in a protein shell. This microscopic thing, which can barely be called alive, has caused so much damage. It is hard to wrap your brain around. 

And the fallout that it has caused is primarily due to fear of death. We have spent 14 months staying away from people – from loved ones, from strangers in the supermarket, even passing people on sidewalks (I have found myself walking out into the road, perhaps unsafely so, many times) – out of respect, yes, but more essentially out of fear.

And with good reason, of course. 14 months later, nearly 600,000 of our fellow citizens are confirmed to have succumbed to that strand of RNA, and perhaps the figure is even closer to one million. Based on CDC statistics, this virus is about as deadly, per capita, as heart disease and cancer, and far more deadly than auto accidents and Americans with guns. Somehow, however, death seemed so much more close this year, so much more present. 

And we fear death.

A congregant who recently lost his grandfather (not due to COVID-19) asked me for suggestions on the topic of books that deal with death from a Jewish perspective. I came up with a few myself, but I also posed the question to fellow Conservative rabbis, and one suggested the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that was on best-seller lists for four years. Probably some of you have read it. I never had, until I stumbled across a copy in one of the Beth Shalom libraries a few weeks back. I figured, maybe I should read this.

In case you do not know, the book is about Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, with whom Albom had a close relationship while studying there as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, Albom wandered off into the world to seek his fortune, and did not stay in touch with Schwartz. Instead, he worked hard at building a career as a sports journalist, until one evening he was watching Nightline, and he saw his old professor and friend being interviewed by Ted Koppel (remember Ted Koppel?) about dying of a terminal disease. Morrie had ALS, and was at that point already unable to move his legs. Albom reconnected with him, and then went to visit him at his home outside of Boston over a series of 14 Tuesdays. During each of his visits, Morrie Schwartz unloaded wonderful bits of wisdom – about death, yes, but all the more so about life.

Although Albom is Jewish and so was Schwartz, the book is not really drawn from traditional Jewish ideas about death. While there is one brief moment in which Schwartz, a self-declared agnostic, looks heavenward and suggests that his life is in God’s hands (“I’m bargaining with Him up there now,” he says, p. 163), there is otherwise no reference to any of the things that Jews associate with death and mourning. Nonetheless, it is a very Jewish book, primarily because Morrie’s approach to dying of a terminal illness is to talk about it, to make Albom and the reader aware of their own mortality.

That is what we do. We are not only the people of the book; we are also the people of the schmooze. (Most of you know that I grew up in WASPy, stiff-upper-lip New England; I have never been much of a talker. Somehow, going to rabbinical school changed all that.)

You might make the case that Morrie’s essential argument is that we have no need to fear death, because we are all going to die. Death is an essential feature of life. During one of their early visits, Morrie offers one of his most impactful statements. “The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (p. 82) What he means by “learning how to die” is to be prepared for it, to be aware that it is coming. Once you have done that, you can appreciate life in a much more complete way.

I became aware just this weekend, through an article in the New York Times about a nun, that Catholics have a practice known as “memento mori,” Latin for “remembering death.” The idea is to “intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.” Sister Theresa Alethia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul convent in Boston has made it her mission to raise the profile of this somewhat obscure practice. Her argument is that we are too focused on the superficial and the inauthentic, the “bright and shiny” things that are constantly occupying space on our screens and in our consciousness.

The article notes that Buddhist mindfulness meditation tries to achieve the same thing, and Morrie Schwartz also invokes the Buddhists. 

But we, the Jews, have our own traditions that keep our mortality in front of us on a regular basis.

You may never have thought about this in these terms, but that is what we do every time we observe Yizkor, when we take a few moments to recall those whom we have lost. One of the traditional things we say during Yizkor are the words from Psalm 16: 

שִׁוִּ֬יתִי ה’ לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד כִּ֥י מִֽ֝ימִינִ֗י בַּל־אֶמּֽוֹט׃ לָכֵ֤ן ׀ שָׂמַ֣ח לִ֭בִּי וַיָּ֣גֶל כְּבוֹדִ֑י אַף־בְּ֝שָׂרִ֗י יִשְׁכֹּ֥ן לָבֶֽטַח׃  

Adonai is always before me, at my right hand, lest I fall. Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.

As ironic as this statement sounds – happiness and death in the same verse – it is absolutely the feeling one gets in reading Tuesdays with Morrie. Teacher and student are united in their joy of connecting and reconnecting, even though one will soon be gone. They enjoy food together; they exchange powerful hugs.

And every time we respond to one reciting the Mourner’s Qaddish, we are doing the same thing. The text of the Qaddish is not even about death, but even though it is an essential part of mourning, it promises life and joy in our praise of God. And every time we celebrate any life cycle event – berit milah, baby naming, bat/bar mitzvah, wedding, etc., we are reminded that life is a cycle – a cycle of joy and grief and loving and loss and thriving and languishing and beginning and ending. 

Why is a Jewish wedding ring a perfect, simple circle, with no stone? Because life is a circle, one in which we all experience all of those beginnings and endings every single day, as we wind our way around.

Elsewhere, Morrie adds, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” (p. 52) As we turn around and around, the way we make our lives full, the way we fill in that circle, is by giving out love, and maybe getting some of it back.

Death is always there. We hear it intoned in our rituals. We bring comfort to those who are approaching death, and when they are gone we are there for those who mourn. We know that we can be happy today, because we also know that there is an endpoint. And we will be remembered by those to whom we gave love.

Perhaps one of the most striking lessons that Morrie Schwartz offers, and one which living a life committed to Judaism also gives us, is the following:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (p. 43)

Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish holidays, Jewish ritual and song and story and text and halakhah and customs, are primarily focused on connecting us to each other and offering us meaning. While we know where we are headed, we understand that the most important thing that we can do before we get there is to connect, and to re-connect, and to love. That is our purpose; that is what gives our lives meaning.

As we emerge from this pandemic, let us not only remember those whom we have lost, but let us also recommit ourselves to living better, to finding meaning, to engaging with the words of our tradition, to loving more.

That is how we may truly appreciate the gift of life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot, 5/18/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

Tear Down This Meḥitzah – Behar/Beḥuqqotai 5781

In 1952, working here at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Jonas Salk, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who grew up in the Bronx, developed a vaccine against poliomyelitis. Today there are only a few hundred cases of polio that are contracted each year in the whole world. Polio had been a dreaded disease, causing paralysis in about 5 out of 1000 infected people.

Thank God, we have no need to fear polio today. Thank God for the Divine inspiration, working through the hands of Dr. Salk and his fellow researchers, that led to the development of the polio vaccine. 

I am sorry to say that we will not have as much success with SARS-CoV-2, and that will be largely due to the politicization of health care, and, frankly, everything else.

Vaccination centers have plenty of available doses waiting for arms. We hit a peak of over 3.3 million shots per day in mid-April, and now we are around 2 million per day.  We all saw this coming. But the public discourse has led to a situation in which a whole lot of people are insistent that they would rather take their chances with a virus that has killed officially nearly 600,000 Americans, and perhaps as many as 900,000, a virus that is in fact far more dangerous and deadly than polio. 

Now, before we all start pointing fingers, let’s face it, folks: we are all to blame for this. We are all to blame because of what you might call a meḥitzah in public life.

Let me explain:

What is a meḥitzah? Many of you may be familiar with this word from its Yiddishized pronunciation, with the accent on the “ḥi“. (Being a Zionist and a lover of the Hebrew language, I prefer to place the accent in the correct place, i.e. the final syllable. BTW, it’s related to the word ḥetzi, half, because a meḥitzah cuts things in half.)

The meḥitzah is the divider that you find in Orthodox synagogues between men and women. Since we at Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement are egalitarian, that is, we make no distinction in Jewish law between men and women, we have no need for a meḥitzah. And in fact, it was the elimination of the meḥitzah which was one of the hallmarks of the Conservative movement in its early years, even before Conservative synagogues became fully egalitarian. We want people to be together, families to be together in synagogue.

The Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom, which has no mehitzah.

Metaphorically speaking, however, a meḥitzah is a barrier, a dividing line. And I think that we are living in a time in which the meḥitzot of our lives are causing very real damage. 

We are experiencing a breakdown in communication across our society, and that has everything to do with the fact that we are all living in different media environments. We seek out the news sources that merely reaffirm our own worldview, abetted by social media, and are siloed such that we dismiss arguments for the other side.

And that, by the way, also plays out in the Jewish world.

For example, the metaphorical meḥitzah between Orthodoxy and everybody else has led to complexities surrounding the essential question of “Who is a Jew?”, and in particular around the challenges of who can get married in Israel or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (Some of you may recall that my name is on a “blacklist” of rabbis whose testimony as to who is Jewish is not accepted by the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate.)

Back on this side of the Atlantic, the challenge of the meḥitzah in public life is now playing out in our efforts to eliminate the coronavirus from our midst. Israel, where politics infuses everything, has many challenges, but thank God, public health is not one of those. My son, who is in the IDF, was fully vaccinated back in January.

I heard a story this week on NPR about a rural area in Oregon, where vaccine resistance is so high, and that people are so angry at each other about it, that local pastors claim that they cannot even talk about it in church on Sunday, for fear of getting people riled up. 

The factors here are complex, but to some extent, listening to this story reminded me of Robert Putnam’s seminal sociological work from twenty years ago, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s essential argument is that social capital, the glue that connects us to people outside of our regular range of friends and relatives, has steadily declined since the middle of the 20th century. The result has been a decay in the overall resilience of our society, by a range of measures.

Social capital and public health are inextricably linked. One reason that we were able to eliminate polio is that the vaccine appeared at a time when Americans had a much greater level of social capital, of interconnection between people. Now we are all metaphorically bowling alone, not in leagues, disconnected from one another, residing in our own bubbles, and constantly stimulated by the division machine that is the media, which feeds off of your clicks and likes and reactions and shares. 

If we are not interconnected, through civic organizations and sports leagues and bridge clubs and, of course, synagogues, we are less likely to care about the people around us, and therefore understand the need for public health measures, or sustainable energy sources, or anything that requires collective action. And of course we should note that the pandemic isolation has likely caused even further decline in social capital.

We are having a very hard time right now thinking about the greater good. We are all in it for ourselves. And it is just that much easier to throw up a meitzah, a dividing line between you and me.

The major question that we are facing in the current moment is, how will we get those who are vaccine-hesitant to change their minds? Politicians, it seems, will not be able to do so. (See the meḥitzah problem.) Fervent opinion pieces in major newspapers will not do it either. Noodging your resistant friends and relatives probably will also fail.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his column this week on our failure to achieve herd immunity, writes:

A lot of Americans have seceded from the cultural, political and social institutions of national life. As a result, the nation finds it hard to perform collective action. Our pathetic Covid response may not be the last or worst consequence of this condition.

Between the silos of American life, the distrust sown between people in different groups, and the loss of social capital, the challenge here seems insurmountable.

Based on some of the things that I have read in various sources, it seems that only cold, hard facts from a trusted source (e.g. the family doctor) might work. Let’s hope that our medical community still holds some sway here.

But the bigger picture, the one about the meḥitzot of our lives, will be with us for a long time. Until we can all find a way to get past us vs. them, until we can begin to think of ourselves as all being in this together, then we will continue to devolve as a nation. I am of course hoping that synagogues, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and so forth, as places that still create social capital, will help us with seeing past ourselves, to the others around us, to those not like us, to those with whom we disagree.

One of the gems that is found in Parashat Behar, from which we read this morning, is the quote that is inscribed on the Liberty Bell, Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:10:

וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ

Ukratem deror ba-aretz, lekhol yosheveha.
Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.

Though the Liberty Bell is a powerful symbol of our American freedom, the Torah’s context is a somewhat mundane issue about the jubilee year, the 50th year in the agricultural cycle, in which ancestral lands were returned to each Israelite tribe, so that each tribe would retain its original boundaries. The liberty, found here is in fact an effort to make sure that nobody would be in permanent debt, and that no one person or tribe could swallow up all the other tribes’ land. It preserved a healthy status quo that enabled our ancestors to retain their independence as well as their interdependence.

I am afraid that we will not have learned the most essential lesson of this pandemic, which is that we are all in this together, and that we must work together, to rebuild trust, to re-establish that sense in our immediate communities as well as throughout our society.

We may be able to start gathering again. But will we address the greater challenge, the challenge of the meḥitzah? I certainly think that we should, and that as individuals and as organizations and governmental agencies we should be thinking about this on a high level.

We must sit together, with no meḥitzah. We cannot bowl alone.

Only when we each see the humanity in every other person, no matter who they are, the color of their skin, their ethnicity or sexuality or religion or even who they vote for, will we be able to move forward. Only in this way may we ultimately begin to solve the challenges that we face, and only then might we finally proclaim liberty for all of our inhabitants.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/8/2021.)

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On Being Imperfect – Emor 5781

I am feeling at least as much anxiety right now as I have throughout the pandemic, and that is despite the fact that I am fully vaccinated.

Why? Because it is easy to shut things down, and just say no to all forms of gathering in person. It is easy to say, you must always wear a mask when you are around other people, or stay 6 feet away from others, and so forth.

It is not quite as easy to make cautious decisions about restarting all the things that we stopped more than a year ago. It is not so easy to say, some may come and others may not, due to their vaccination status. It is not so easy to differentiate between what is permissible outdoors vs. indoors, etc. 

And we have all been in this anxious mode for so long, it is not so simple to turn it off. I went to see my optometrist this week, my first real in-person appointment with a health-care provider in more than a year. And despite the fact that I and the optometrist are both vaccinated, it was still very strange for us to be in a small room, so close to each other. We wore masks, of course. 

We are going to be in this limbo phase for a long time, it seems – until children can be vaccinated, until we know for certain that we are sufficiently protected from the more infectious or more deadly variants. I fear that, for many of us, our anxiety level will remain quite palpable for some time.

One of the lingering concerns that I have, after 13.5 months of isolation and anxiety and uncertainty, is what loss to the Jewish world and the Jewish future that the pandemic will have caused. We have not had in-person Youth Tefillah for all of that time. Registration at both our Early Learning Center and JJEP has been lower than a “normal” year. We have canceled two Family Benei Mitzvah Retreats. And so forth.

Students learning at JJEP, the shared religious school between Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom

Now, as an astute observer of Jewish life commented on Facebook not too long ago, the Qadosh Barukh Hu is grading on a curve this year. Nonetheless, my feeling is that we have so few opportunities in today’s always-on-the-go society to get Judaism into our children, that a loss of so many things in the past year will have a long-lasting impact on what our kids know and how connected they feel.

These are valuable hours that will never be regained.

So that is a burden that I feel I am carrying with me, as I consider my tiny role in the chain of Jewish tradition. I am sure that you all have similar types of burdens, about your work, your family, your relationships, and so forth.

I must say that the pandemic has reminded me over and over how imperfect I am, how flawed all of our lives are. 

Which brings me to Parashat Emor, and what we read today about the Kohanim / priesthood. One of the things we read about this morning was perfection in the context of the ritual sacrifices that took place in the mishkan, and later in the Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem:

דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱ-לֹהָֽיו׃

Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 21:17)

Not long after this statement about the perfection of the individual kohanim offering the sacrifices, we find:

כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ מ֖וּם לֹ֣א תַקְרִ֑יבוּ כִּי־לֹ֥א לְרָצ֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃

You shall not offer any [animal] that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 22:20)

The Torah insists that everything involved with the sacrificial offering is flawless: the kohen offering it, and the animal being offered. Of course, that expectation could not be put on the person actually bringing the sacrifice, whom, in many cases, would be bringing it because he or she had transgressed in some way.

And that expectation of perfection in ritual still plays out to some extent today. We expect that the person leading services does so fluently in Hebrew, and does not mis-pronounce words, and that this person is Jewishly observant Jew and a model citizen. We expect that the Torah is read perfectly, such that (at least, when we are doing so in person) we even have two people standing by to correct the reader in the event that she or he makes an error. And that is why we teach our children the language and the words and rituals of Jewish life, so that they can offer their own supplications and praise and requests and Torah in a way that comports with our tradition.

But, after a year of isolation, and grief, and economic and social chaos and upheaval, I occasionally feel that I am a broken vessel. I am flawed in ways that we are all flawed. Even as Congregation Beth Shalom goes from strength to strength despite the pandemic – anointing a solar roof, hiring a Development Director and a new Executive Director – I am feeling inadequate in the face of all the lost hours of Torah, the future of Judaism and the Jewish world slipping through our hands with every passing week of not gathering in person. 

I wake up in the middle of the night wondering, have I done enough to teach our tradition? Have I worked hard enough to help you all appreciate the value and meaning of Torah? Have I reached out to enough people to bring comfort and inspiration? Have I sufficiently grieved, or celebrated, or chanted or pleaded or inveighed for or against? Have I been the rabbi that you all need in this moment? Have I been the husband that I ought to be? Have I been the father that I ought to be? The son? The cousin? The friend?

Ladies and gentlemen, I can only offer myself. And I am far from perfect. And I am certain that many of us have similar doubts about ourselves. 

Fortunately, despite the strict imperative to perfection in Parashat Emor, there are other opinions on the Jewish bookshelf.

זִֽבְחֵ֣י אֱ-לֹהִים֮ ר֪וּחַ נִשְׁבָּ֫רָ֥ה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּ֥ר וְנִדְכֶּ֑ה אֱ֝-לֹהִ֗ים לֹ֣א תִבְזֶֽה׃

True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:19)

The Psalmist is teaching us that it is not only acceptable for us to be imperfect, but that is the absolutely the correct way to offer sacrifice to God. We offer ourselves, our imperfection of spirit in prayer, in meditation, in reflection. Furthermore, that line is just two verses after 

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:17)

You may recognize this as the line that is murmured in silence before the Amidah, as we take three steps forward (and three steps back first, if necessary) to enter the court of God in true, reflective prayer, prayer which is offered in earnest sacrifice of the soul on the metaphoric altar of awareness.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, an early 19th-century Ḥasidic rabbi, in a statement that riffs on the line from Psalms, teaches us that, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” It is this line that my teacher Rabbi Ed Feld drew on when he titled the siddur that some of us are holding right now, “Lev Shalem,” which literally means, “a full heart.” We enter tefillah with a broken heart, with the intent to make it complete again.

It is in fact the very intent of our tradition to offer ourselves in prayer, imperfect though we are, as dissatisfied with ourselves and our behavior as we are. 

That is the whole point.

A few years back, when I was on Long Island, a curious thing happened. In an effort to put out practical reading material in the synagogue lobby, I ordered a bunch of pamphlets from a Jewish publisher that were aimed at people who were having difficult times, emotionally and spiritually. The titles were things like, “Caring For Your Aging Parents,” “Bringing Your Sadness to God,” “Coping With the Death of a Spouse,” and so forth. You may have seen these – they are in many synagogue lobbies, and they are written from a Jewish perspective.

A former president of the synagogue, who had invested many, many years in helping to build and support the congregation, saw this and told me, “We cannot have these here. This is not us. This is not who we are.” 

What I think she was saying was, “We are not the kind of people who acknowledge our pain and grief in public. We are stronger than that.” Her knee-jerk reaction was to recoil from the idea that people could see and embrace their own vulnerability.

Being a young rabbi, a year or two out of rabbinical school, and lacking the hutzpah to respond properly, I said nothing. But the display of pamphlets stayed up, and people took them home and read them. Because actually, that is us.

We offer ourselves. And we are not perfect.

And as we look forward to the near future and anticipate that we will soon gather once again, remember that whatever burden you are carrying, whatever anxiety you might be feeling, whatever brokenness you might perceive in your life right now, you are not alone. We are all imperfect, and we are all in this together. That is what synagogue, and tefillah, and Torah are for.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/1/2021.)

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Poles of the Pandemic – Tazria-Metzora 5781

An interesting thing happened in Israel last week. No, not the ongoing saga of who will lead the country, which political parties will form a governing coalition in the wake of the fourth national election in two years, and the most inconclusive of all of them. That is interesting, but it’s dragging along, and quite frustrating for all observers of Israeli politics, and of course Israeli citizens.

Rather, this week included the annual days of mourning and celebration that are right next to each other: Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day commemorating the State’s 73 years of independence. Yom HaZikaron is a somber day, with public ceremonies during which Israelis remember their family members and friends and colleagues and army comrades who gave their lives to build and protect their nation; the air raid siren sounds throughout the nation for two individual minutes, and all Israelis stop what they are doing to recall those who are gone. Yom HaAtzma’ut is a happy day, a day of barbecues and musical performances and giant, silly, blue-and-white inflatable plastic hammers. And since Yom HaAtzma’ut immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the two days is stark, and one can actually feel the mood change as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, separating grief and remembrance from celebration and joy and national pride.

One of the challenges of reading Tazria-Metzora every year when they come around (and all the more so in years when we read them separately, so that we get two weeks of reading about skin diseases), is what to say about this. The rabbis just could not accept that the Torah should really be taken at face value here, but rather that the image of infectious affliction of the skin must be allegorical. 

The Torah is otherwise terse. In many places it says so much with so little; in this case, the Torah seems to say so little of apparent relevance to us today with so much material. There are many such attempts to reinterpret the nega of tzara’at; perhaps the best-known was cited by Sylvia earlier in her devar Torah.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, in his take on Metzora, points to Sefer Yetzirah, a proto-kabbalistic text, for guidance. Sefer Yetzirah observes that the Hebrew word נגע / nega, affliction or disease, which appears many times in Tazria and Metzora (e.g. Lev. 14:32: זֹ֣את תּוֹרַ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ נֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת), is an inversion of the word ענג / oneg, meaning enjoyment. 

Oneg is an expression of joy in engaging with our tradition (think “oneg Shabbat”), while nega is the exact opposite – a deficiency of engagement that is so weighty as to be a physical affliction. The Slonimer Rebbe extrapolates this further to say that investing ourselves in Jewish tradition – tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, kashrut, holidays and so forth, include the two components of (quoting the words from Psalm 34, which we sang earlier in today’s service) sur mera va’aseh tov. Repudiate evil and perform good deeds. We need both of those things to achieve oneg, enjoyment, and of course to avoid nega, affliction.

One of the things that the pandemic has done is to lay bare the stark difference between the oneg of our lives and the nega, the enjoyment and the affliction. We do not have to dig too deeply to come up with examples of how our lives have changed for better and for worse, and sometimes those things are right next to each other.

Some of us have improved ourselves and our world in this time. I would say that I have seen a greater effort on the part of many of us to perform charitable acts for others: to help out those who were homebound in this time, to reach out to friends in need, to be there as a comforting presence, even from a distance, to those who have suffered, to those who grieve lost loved ones, to those who have lost their livelihoods. 

I was thinking about this when a heartwarming story floated across my desk about the largely white Fiji fraternity at Louisiana State University, 90 of whose alumni raised over $50,000 to pay off the mortgage of their longtime cook, a 74-year-old Black woman named Jessie Hamilton, who had been working two other jobs to make ends meet. This is a dramatic act of tzedaqah, but I suppose that one reason this made the news (including the New York Times) is that we are all so much more appreciative right now of such acts of generosity, in the wake of so much loss and grief.

Certainly many of us have become newly aware of the struggle for racial justice in America. While recent events suggest that there is still a long, hard road ahead of us in this regard, to guarantee the safety and education and equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens, nonetheless our public consciousness suggests that we now at least have the potential to move in the right direction.

It seems to me that many of us have also used this time of isolation to improve ourselves personally. I know that I have spent much more time making sure that I get enough exercise by taking regular walks in Frick Park (and I have seen many of my neighbors doing the same, even throughout the winter), and I have been cooking more (I make sourdough bread and fresh pasta regularly now), and I have also spent some time learning to play the banjo, something I hope to inflict on all of you soon enough. And I am sure that many of you have also engaged in similar pursuits.

So there is the oneg, the enjoyment. But we all know what the flip side of this is. We have plenty of nega / affliction to go around right now as well. 

Some of those contemporary afflictions are the plague of misinformation, and the bad actors who are willing to put any falsehood out there via Internet, and the platforms that care only about their bottom line, with no sense of responsibility for how the spreading of misinformation is actually killing people. (By the way, whatever you may think of his method and brand of humor, the English-Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen has used his fame to call attention to the very real danger that Facebook, Twitter, et al have caused.)

And we cannot forget, of course, the lies told by public figures that led to the violent insurrection in Washington on January 6th. Our democracy has held, but the cost in lives lost and the invigoration of white nationalist groups that helped foment this attack is truly chilling. 

And of course we probably know this anecdotally, but the emotional distress caused by isolation in this past year is great. It is likely that rates of depression, anxiety, domestic abuse and other social ills are much higher. CDC data released this week showed that overdose deaths from opioid abuse have jumped dramatically in the past year.

These are certainly variants of the nega, the affliction that the Torah goes on and on about in today’s parashah. We are greatly afflicted, and not only due to the loss of over 560,000 lives. We are greatly afflicted, even as some of us have found some oneg, some enjoyment. The oneg and the nega are proximate.

We are hopeful, of course, that we will see an end to this soon. And we certainly will, if we can get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possibly. (Vaccine appointments are very easy to come by now. If you have not received a shot, you should push everything out of the way to do that now.)

And what comes next, of course, will depend on how thoughtful we are about the near future. Given the oneg and the nega of the past year and change, we should not lose out on the opportunity to move forward in a way that, shall we say, accentuates the oneg in our lives.

Sur mera va’aseh tov, says the Psalm. Repudiate evil and do good. As we begin to inch forward slowly into gathering at this time, we should keep the following principles before us:

  1. Sur mera. Repudiate evil. We have to continue to keep each other safe through masking / social distancing, until such times as our public health authorities say that it is OK to let our guard down. The sooner we get our transmission rates down low, the sooner this will all be over. And that means, by the way, that if we know people who are on the fence about vaccination, we should reach out to them in love, and maybe even drive them to get a shot.
  2. Aseh tov. Do good. We should continue to seek ways to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, and while of course there are many such ways of doing this, I personally recommend considering the many traditional ways of Jewish living: setting aside Shabbat as a holy day of rest and oneg, eating mindfully, engaging with words of Torah, expressing our gratitude to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, and of course raising the bar in terms of our tzedaqah and hesed, our charity and acts of lovingkindness. 

It is through these things that we can lean into the oneg, the enjoyment, and keep away the nega, even as they bump up against one another.  

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/17/21.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Kashrut / Mindful Consumption – Shemini 5781

Having just completed Pesaḥ a little more than a week ago, I am still grateful for the dietary freedom that has suddenly re-appeared on my plate.

There is a funny thing about Pesaḥ – just about everybody takes the idea of kashrut over Pesah a wee bit more seriously.

My family actually became kosher (that is, everyday kosher, not just K-for-P) when I was around 11 or 12, mostly at my urging. While my parents both grew up in kosher homes, they had more or less abandoned the practice. But Pesaḥ was always 100% kosher – we went all out. One year, before that time, I was visiting my cousins in Hartford during Pesaḥ, and one afternoon my older cousin Stephen and I walked to a nearby mall. We were hungry, so we went into a non-kosher restaurant to have lunch, at a kind of low-end steakhouse. I was a bit hesitant, thinking that this did not seem quite right during Pesaḥ, but I trusted my cousin. So we ordered steaks, which came with a slice of toast. Stephen rationalized, “OK, so since it’s Passover, we just won’t eat the toast.”

Now my cousin’s family was less kosher by traditional standards than my own. But when my aunt Brenda, Stephen’s mother, heard that we had eaten at a non-kosher restaurant, during Pesaḥ, she absolutely hit the roof. My cousin was caught completely by surprise. I just felt guilty and embarrassed.

Regardless of the outcome, this story is a reminder of the fact that we, the Jews, have a fairly strong historical attachment to dietary guidelines, and that even amongst those of us who do not hew to the letter of the law regarding kashrut, there are still limits to how we eat. Even when my family did not explicitly keep kosher, for example, there was still a strong inclination to avoid pork, and I’m sure that there are many members of Beth Shalom who are in the same boat. 

Data from the Federation of Jewish Pittsburgh’s community study a few years back suggested (not directly – you have to attempt to extract the estimate yourself) that about one-third of self-identified “Conservative” Jews keep some form of kashrut inside and outside the home, and although I would suppose that the figure is somewhat higher for Beth Shalom members, it is difficult to parse out what the respondents meant by kashrut.

Nonetheless, I thought that today would be a good day to return to my very-occasional series on the Fundamentals of Judaism. In certain ways, I am a fundamentalist, and this is the sixth installment in an occasional series on the fundamentals of Jewish life. The others are:

Parashat Shemini, from which we read this morning, includes one of the two passages in the Torah dedicated to things we are permitted to eat and things we are not. Sometimes there are discernible patterns: land animals that are ruminants and that have a split hoof, fins and scales, and so forth, and sometimes there are not, as with birds (while no distinct features are described, the only implicit rule is that they are not birds of prey, which is a behavioral distinction, more so than a physical one). 

But let’s face it: restricting ourselves to particular foods is difficult, and that’s even before all of the complicated layers added in rabbinic law: the rigorous separation of meat and dairy implements, the rules surrounding kosher slaughter (which of course are not found in the Torah), procurement of “hekhshered” products, and so forth. 

And all the more so today, in which boundary-crossing of all sorts has become the norm: we do not like being fenced-in by boundaries that seem arbitrary. On the contrary, in our 24/7 world, in which conventions of the past are being tossed out, seemingly at blisteringly fast rates, traditional dietary restrictions, at least those that are religion-based seem at best somewhat quaint, and at worst downright annoying.

My life has no limits in so many areas. Why should I be limited in what I eat, particularly by guidelines from an ancient book?

This, of course, raises the larger question of why we would want limits on our behavior at all. Judaism is fond of limits: things you should do on Shabbat vs. things that you should not. There are codes of behavior with respect to daily prayer, how we speak, how we interact with others in a business context, how we educate our children, how we grieve, and so forth.

As Americans, we chafe at the idea of being limited in any way. “Don’t tell me how to behave, ” we say. “This is a free country, ” is our persistent refrain.

And yet, we know that there are some problems that come with the principle of “everything is available to me at all times.” Life has to have guard rails. 

All parents and teachers know that setting limits is healthy for the development of children:  it makes them feel safe, builds patience and problem solving skills, resourcefulness, responsibility and self-discipline. If we are the children of God, then all the more so for us as humans. The Sages warn us not to presume to understand God and the reasons for the laws, but I am certain that this is one of the fundamental principles behind kashrut: to set boundaries within Creation.

Even beyond the idea of boundaries, a related challenge that we face is too much choice. Too many options. I have given in the past the relatively innocuous example of the toothpaste aisle, in which there are seemingly endless varieties of toothpaste. Too much choice sometimes makes life more difficult. 

But germane to today’s discussion, we know that too much dietary choice in particular is dangerous: the CDC website, for example, says the following: “Adults who eat a healthy diet live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.” And we all know that many of us are not eating a healthy diet; certainly the range of unhealthy foods easily available for our immediate consumption is contributing to these maladies. To make matters worse, attempts to help limit our consumption of these foods through legislation, like mandating smaller portion sizes, usually fail when political forces intervene. We like having lots of opportunities to make bad choices.

Put more starkly, too much choice is killing us. When confronted with many options, people often do not choose the healthier one, particularly when it is up against foods specifically designed to turn on our pleasure centers: fatty, salty, sweet edibles that our bodies feel like they just cannot get enough of.

And that brings me back to kashrut. You may have been told, as I was growing up, that “kosher food is healthier,” because of diseases like trichinosis, which can be contracted from under-cooked pork. Ramban, who lived in Spain in the 13th century, believed that the flesh of non-kosher fish was toxic. 

But let’s face it: that is a disingenuous argument. Kosher food can be just as unhealthy as non-kosher food. 

The more persuasive argument, in my mind, is that kashrut, particularly in combination with the range of berakhot / blessings surrounding food consumption, heightens our awareness, and simply being aware of what we eat is 90% of the battle. Kashrut is mindfulness of consumption.

When I know that I am limited in what I am permitted to consume, it makes me pay attention: I look for the hekhsher at the grocery store; maybe I check the ingredients as well. I think about my meals in advance: is this a dairy meal? A meat meal? Have I prepared a salad, which is pareve, and can go either way, and then I’ll have some left over that I can use at the next meal? 

I am aware that some things are available to me and some are not. I do not necessarily know why God said this and not that, that and not this, but I do know that this awareness helps me understand that I am interconnected within the greater ecosystem, that I have been shaped by these boundaries to consider the consequences of the choices that I make. I am therefore aware that what I eat shapes our food production system, our economy, our world.

I am aware that the Talmud teaches us that eating food without saying a berakhah is like theft of God’s Creation, that my food is not simply at my disposal to take or to leave, and that even the most mundane human task of eating can be elevated to a holy moment, and that this holiness keeps me grounded firmly in Creation. It reminds me of my obligation to protect and defend what God has given us from unbounded despoliation.

Awareness. Awareness of what and how we eat leads to a greater awareness of ourselves, our world, and the necessity of taking responsibility for what God has given us. 

Kashrut is a fundamental statement of who we are as a people. It helps us to stay connected to each other and to our identity as Jews. But beyond that, it is also an opportunity on a daily basis to reaffirm the holiness in our lives and our world.

As a fundamentalist, 

  • I observe kashrut because it reminds me multiple times each day of the Jewish value of gratitude for what we have
  • I practice holy eating to nourish the spark of the Divine within me by being mindful of what I put into my body
  • I practice kashrut to remind me to respect Creation by considering the resources I consume
  • I observe kashrut to acknowledge my connection to my people

And so should you. If you need any help in stepping up your kashrut game, please give me a call and we’ll talk.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/10/2021.)