Standing Together – Yitro 5777

There are days, maybe once a week, when I feel like, “Ah. That was a good day. I accomplished a lot. I engaged with lots of people. I taught some Torah. I helped move this institution forward.”

There are days when I feel like, “Wow. I spent the whole day in meetings and handling logistics and didn’t get anything of significance done. Ouch.”

On the whole, I would say, I feel pretty good about the direction of Beth Shalom, about my work here, about our trajectory as a community. We are building slowly, making connections between people, reaching members and non-members in new and different ways, perhaps raising the bar of qedushah, holiness, in the context of our community.

Every now and then, it’s a good idea to count your successes and acknowledge challenges. Among the successes, I would count the following:

  • Our membership has grown by more than 10% in the past year and a half
  • We have already raised over $700,000 in pledges from members
  • We are halfway through the SULAM for Emerging Leaders program, training 14 members of the community for greater effectiveness as lay leaders
  • We are about to embark on a congregational learning process and re-envisioning of our tefillah, our services, in an attempt to make sure that our tefillah offerings meet our goals in that regard
  • The Shababababa and Shabbat Haverim services, which happened again last night, regularly draw 120 or more participants for joyous family davening in two services and a laid-back Shabbat dinner
  • Our other youth tefillah offerings have been improved dramatically, thanks to the hard work of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
  • JJEP and the ELC are bursting with kids, energy, and innovation
  • We are launching the Derekh program this summer with a Jewish learning retreat aimed at young adults that will be held in August, and we received a $5000 grant from the Federation’s SteelTree program to run it
  • We have just established a team of volunteers to take responsibility for the sifrei Torah – where they are, to what parashah they are rolled, etc.
  • We are training new gabbaim
  • After more than a year of work and consideration, we are just about to put out a new version of the Benei Mitzvah Handbook with revised policies and information
  • We now have a streamlined, contemporary mission statement

And there are more. I think we can cautiously say that things are going well.

tefillin-hands-jjep

But of course there are also challenges. In particular, there are many things that we just haven’t gotten to yet, perhaps because nobody has stepped forward to help make them happen:

  • We still have no social action committee
  • We still have not been able to plan a congregational trip to Israel
  • We still have no official greeting team
  • There are still daily services when we lack coverage and/or a minyan of attendees
  • Our signage in the building is still, at best, confusing, and I continue to hear reports from people who have difficulty finding their way into the building
  • We are far from implementing an Earth-friendly policy to guide us in use, reuse and recycling in the building

Anybody who would like to help us take on these challenges is welcome!

But in addition to these programming needs, there is a special kind of challenge that we face, a more thorny difficulty that often afflicts synagogues, and that is disagreement.

Not that disagreement is bad! On the contrary, it is healthy and normal. In fact, one might make the case that it is due to disagreement that we are still here as Jews. You see, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, they effectively began the process of “democratizing” Judaism – no more would the priesthood and the Sanhedrin hold all the power. Study and prayer, more personal routes to God and tradition, became the central communal features of Judaism.

But what allowed Judaism to endure and enabled it to survive to this very day, is the ability to maintain civil disagreement.

An oft-quoted Talmudic example of this comes from the two major schools of rabbinic opinion, those of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Yet, despite the fact that their followers disagreed on many points of law and practice, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 14a). They maintained a sense of community and togetherness in the face of argument.

Disagreement is fundamental to who we are. But disagreement can be healthy or destructive, and I am more concerned about the latter.

We read in Pirqei Avot (5:19) about the mahloqet leshem shamayim – a controversy for the sake of heaven. The disagreement which furthers the goals of community, connection and qedushah / holiness is a Divine argument that will last forever. The dispute that seeks to self-aggrandize or consolidate power or disrupt the community is NOT leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. This is the destructive form of disagreement.

One of my most beloved teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us that synagogue politics are good. They indicate a thriving organization that consists of engaged members who care. The absence of political disagreements, the shul in which everybody agrees about everything, he said, is a dying shul.

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I have been here now a year and a half. During the first year or so, I was aware of very little in the way of disagreements with my style or my choices or my halakhic opinions. There’s a name for that grace period that new rabbis are usually afforded: the honeymoon.

But now the honeymoon is over.  And just as in any marriage it’s not a bad thing.  It just signals the start of getting down to brass tacks, the sharper points of living in holy matrimony.

So I have to confess something at this point – something which I have not owned up to until now: I am not perfect. (My wife liked that line best.) While I try very hard indeed to make sure that I am serving this community as best I can, I have occasionally let myself and others down. And that is hard, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want things to be right.

And yet, as the old maxim goes, you cannot please all the people all the time. And that also applies to rabbis.

It even applies, by the way, to our greatest teacher. Moshe Rabbeinu, you might say, was at the peak of his career in Parashat Yitro. He ascends Mt. Sinai to confer face-to-face with the Qodesh Barukh Hu, and takes dictation, beginning with the Aseret HaDibberot / Ten Utterances (usually referred to as the “Ten Commandments”).

And yet, Moshe fails. What happens while he’s up on the mountain, acquiring a radiant glow in the presence of God? The people doubt him. They worry. They think he’s never coming back. “This Moshe guy,” they say, “we don’t know where he went!” (Ex. 32:1, roughly). And then they build an idol. So not only has Moshe failed to deliver the monotheistic goods, but he also fails so badly that the Israelites actually do the opposite of what Moshe is about to teach them when he comes down the mountain.

And, to make matters worse, when he finds out, Moshe loses his cool. He “goes ballistic” as he smashes the tablets.

I am certain that many of us have had that Molten Calf moment, when we think things are going so well, and then everything seems to come crashing down around us. I find this passage consoling when facing my own moments of doubt.

After a year and a half of progress, I feel that together we have made Beth Shalom a more inclusive environment, a more friendly and civil place. And we have accomplished many community-building initiatives.

And yet, we still have to avoid getting sucked into that Molten Calf dynamic as a congregation. We have to agree to disagree respectfully when there are complex political issues. We have to work together to prevent rumors and anxiety from dragging us down, and instead focus on seeking the greater benefit to the community. We have to continue to work together, understanding that none of us is perfect, that we will occasionally fail to meet our objectives, that although the overall trajectory has been positive, there will sometimes be temporary setbacks.

Rather than smashing the tablets, we have to instead do what we did this morning as we read the Aseret HaDibberot: stand together as a community in solidarity, as if gathered at Mt. Sinai.

There will be contentious issues in committees and on the Board level. There will be arguments over finances. There will be personality clashes between members. And I might occasionally make a decision with which you disagree, or fail to meet your expectations. At these moments especially, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust in good intentions.

These are the challenges that keep rabbis up at night. But we will face them all together, and as long as we keep before us the sense of community, connection, and qedushah, we will continue to build.  It is in remembering what unites us that we will find the holiness of our intentions, illuminating the respectful way forward as we stand together.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/19/2017.)

 

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Open up the Kotel – Va’era 5777

In 1987, on my first visit to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program*, I visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, as every Israel tour group does. And out of nowhere, it seems, tears welled up from deep within me, from some ancient place in which Jewish history and theological yearnings meet and tap into our collective grief and our enduring optimism. I bawled as I leaned against the warm, ancient stones. So did everybody else in my group, including the one guy out of the 80 or so of us who was not Jewish. I was seventeen.

Fast forward thirteen years to 2000, when I was in cantorial school at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I experienced an unusual thing that at the time seemed quite avant-garde, even slightly illicit: an egalitarian shaharit / morning service at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex. At the time, there was no proper area for such a service – it was just a spot on the ancient Roman roadway at the base of the wall, under a rocky outcropping referred to as Robinson’s Arch, within the archaeological park that covers the southern vicinity of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was even a table; just a few cantorial and rabbinical students with tallit and tefillin and our own siddurim.

robinsons-arch

Robinson’s Arch

What seemed like a covert operation at the time, a solution arrived at to allow egalitarian groups to daven / pray in the style that is customary for 85% of North American Jews, was a compromise – an attempt to allow mixed groups to do it their way without upsetting the more traditional, men-and-women-separate prayer that goes on in the plaza that is often thought of as the Western Wall (even though that portion of the outer retaining wall is really only a small fraction of Herod’s rebuilt, 2000-year-old plaza). Our ability to meet there was granted by the Israeli government to solve the problem of Haredi groups harassing egalitarian daveners (people who are praying) and throwing chairs and even human feces at them.

For more than a decade afterwards, that Roman road under Robinson’s Arch became a well-known location for egalitarian groups, and particularly for destination benei mitzvah services conducted by Jerusalem-based Conservative and Reform rabbis who were grateful for the business. The road was uneven, and there were no chairs, and portions were roped off because it is an active archaeological dig, but it was a special and unique experience to don tallit and tefillin and read Torah among the ancient rocks.

But struggles continued at the traditional Kotel plaza, where (in particular) a group known as Women of the Wall gathered regularly on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish, lunar month) to attempt to hold services in the women’s section, wearing tallit and tefillin (according to the various customs of the individual participants) and reading from a sefer Torah. These Rosh Hodesh gatherings became a focal point for many shocking confrontations between more traditional worshippers, the police, and the Women of the Wall participants, who were verbally abused and physically harassed and occasionally arrested.

For the last three years, there has been a solid, yet temporary and somewhat inelegant platform in the Robinson’s Arch area, just south of and out of sight of the “traditional” Kotel plaza, and this platform has made the area seem a little bit more official. About a year ago, the Israeli government agreed to complete the “upgrade” to the Robinson’s Arch area to make it a fully-functioning option for egalitarian groups.

But, Israeli politics being what they are, promises made by the Netanyahu administration were never quite fulfilled. Activity was stalled. Feet were dragged. Religious parties threatened. Nothing happened.

And the groups that had been advocating for change pressed charges, bringing their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Court handed down a verdict which said that the prohibitions against mixed tefillah, against women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading Torah were all the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” (although Israel has no constitution and no principle of separation of church and state), and that the religious leadership of the Kotel (Rabbi Shemuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation) would have 30 days to demonstrate why all people could not pray according to their own customs.

According to the JTA article on the verdict:

[The Israeli Supreme Cout] also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs…

The [administrative] parties “must explain why the petitioners  should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.

Kol hakavod to the Supreme Court for standing up for what is right here, and against the forces of fundamentalism in our midst. It is truly ironic that religious protection seems to exist for non-Orthodox Jews in every democratic country in the world except Israel.

It is worth pointing out that religious restrictions such as these are not limited only to the Kotel. In 2011, I took 37 teenagers to Israel, and we stayed one night at Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv. It so happened that the following morning was Monday, a Torah-reading day, and as we gathered in the hotel’s synagogue for shaharit / the morning service, we were told by the hotel staff, secular Israelis, that we were forbidden from using the hotel’s sefer Torah by the local religious authorities because we were an egalitarian group.

In the weekly cycle of parashat hashavua, the weekly reading of the Torah, we are right now in the middle of reading the Exodus story, arguably the most powerful and moving narrative of the Torah, and certainly the one that has spawned the best biblical films. It is a tale of the struggle against oppression, against hatred and fear, and of overcoming authoritarian rule. But it is also a tale about egalitarianism, about equality between men and women. Let me explain.

Some of you may have heard (from some others in the Jewish world) that the only positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are lighting Shabbat candles, separating a piece of hallah when making it, and immersion in the miqveh (ritual bath) following the menstrual cycle. But that is not true. Those are, you might say, “alternative facts.”

In actuality, there are many other positive, time-bound mitzvot that are identified in the Talmud to which women are obligated, and one of them is drinking four cups of wine at the Pesah seder (God’s promises to the Israelites that serve as a basis for these four cups were found in today’s parashah, Ex. 6:6-8). The Talmud’s reasoning for this is (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 108a-b):

ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס

Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: Women are obligated to drink these four cups, because they too were part of the miracle [of deliverance].

In other words, the Exodus was not just for men; all of the Israelites were saved. And we all are obligated to celebrate this egalitarian deliverance today. That statement for freedom and against oppression continues to resonate in every corner of the Jewish world, not only on one side of the mehitzah. And given the centrality of the image of our people’s redemption from Egypt as a justification for treating all people with equity, the poor, the widow, the immigrant and refugee among us, it is undeniably an imperative to ensure that all of us have access to God and our tradition, that none of us are excluded due to gender or any other status.

And there is plenty more material here – the idea of a mehitzah (separation barrier between men and women) is actually medieval; it may only date for certain to the 13th century. And never mind the fact that there was no official mehitzah  at the Kotel until 1967.

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The Kotel in the 1920s

So I am waiting with great excitement to see how the anti-egalitarian forces of the Israeli religious right will justify denying adherents of the progressive movements to daven in our customary way. The Talmud tells us that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was permitted by ancient authorities to wear tefillin (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a). Would our contemporary zealots challenge their authority?

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The Kotel in the 1870s

By way of conclusion, it is worth pointing out that there are really no holy places in Judaism. Once the Temple was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in 70 CE, our understanding is that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed from the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies, and has not returned. We have sanctified time, not space or objects, for two thousand years. While there is no question that the Kotel is a place of great sentimental significance – a central connection to our history, the focal point of our prayer, the physical remains of the ancient epicenter of the Jewish world – our tefillah is just as valid right here in Pittsburgh as it is in Jerusalem.

But since the Kotel has been elevated to an unprecedented level in the contemporary world, that spot should be emblematic of all of the different paths we have through our tradition. It’s not a synagogue; it’s just a very moving, very powerful location. And it should be open to all.

Let’s hope that by the time that we take our congregational trip to Israel (coming your way soon! Let me know if you’re interested!) that we will proudly be able to gather there for a meaningful service the same way we are doing right now – acknowledging that we are all equal before God.

Shabbat shalom!

* AMHSI is now offering free scholarships to a few lucky teens from Pittsburgh. Please see me for details.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2017.)

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Be an Upstander – Shemot 5777

You know the old joke about how I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out? There is a related Jewish story. It’s an old fable about two brothers (Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, JPS 1973, pp. 77-78):

One brother had a wife and children, the other did not. They lived together in one house – happy, quiet, and satisfied with the portions which they inherited from their father. Together they worked the fields with the sweat of their brows.

And the harvest came. The brothers bound their sheaves and brought them to the threshing floor. There they divided the crops of the field in two parts equally between them, and left them.

That night, the brother who had no family lay on his bed and thought: I am alone, but my brother has a wife and children. Why should my share be equal to his? And he rose from his bed, went stealthily out into the threshing floor, took from the stalks of his own sheaf, and added them to the sheaf of his brother.

That same night, the other brother turned to his wife and said: “It is not right that we have divided the crop into two equal parts, one for me and one for my brother. He is alone and has no other joy or happiness, only the yield of the field. Therefore, come with me, my wife, and we will secretly take from our share and add to his.” And they did so.

In the morning, the brothers went out into the threshing floor, and they wondered that the sheaves were still equal. Each one decided to himself to investigate. During the night each one rose from his bed to repeat his deed. And they met each other in the threshing floor, each with his sheaves in his arms. Thus the mystery was explained. The brothers embraced, and kissed each other.

And the Lord looked with favor on this threshing floor where the two brothers conceived their good thoughts… and the children of Israel chose it for the site of their Holy Temple.

An Israeli variant is about two other brothers who lived on a nearby hill, and did exactly the opposite: each stole from the other in the middle of the night. And that was where the Israelis chose to build the Knesset. (#Rimshot!)

I have become very concerned about the state of our society. I think that something that we have lost is a tangible sense of togetherness. On the contrary: the level of mistrust seems to me higher than it has been in my lifetime. And a related contemporary challenge about which I am particularly concerned is the lack of civility in our public discourse.

On Monday, as part of Community Day School‘s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the themes invoked was the principle of being an “upstander.” To be an upstander means, according to the website of the educational and professional development organization Facing History and Ourselves:

“A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.”

This word was just added to the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016.

Given our history and our tradition, we Jews have a special obligation to be upstanders: to speak out against that which we know is wrong, to intervene on behalf of those who are being persecuted, to call out hatred and racism and anti-Semitism when we see it.

Martin Luther King Day is always an opportunity for us to recall that Jews were there when the civil rights movement in this country was forged. It is a reminder that one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walked with Dr. King on the latter’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Afterwards, Rabbi Heschel declared, “I felt as though my legs were praying.”

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

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

When Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King, the level of mistrust in America was also quite high. Society was changing. The established orders were being upended. People who had been historically oppressed were throwing off their yoke.

And people were angry. The civil rights movement inspired many Americans, including many Jewish volunteers, to do some really wonderful, holy work. But it also caused many others to behave badly in public, to scream and burn and even murder to try to prevent change.

In 1965, there was no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. So people actually had to confront each other in person. Not so today.

One can hardly read an article of any sort on the Internet without being assaulted by a blast of name-calling, hyperbolic accusations, and general disregard for others. And whether we are participating in these troll-fests or not, even those of us who read the comments sections on popular news sites are somehow metaphorically guilty of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors (from Parashat Qedoshim, Leviticus 19:16).

The relative anonymity of the online environment makes it far easier for us to cut each other down, to trade insults, to grandstand with impunity. And our online behavior is ultimately reflected in our feelings for one another offline.

We read this morning about how the new pharaoh “did not know Yosef.” (אשר לא ידע את יוסף – Ex. 1:8) Rashi points to a disagreement in the Talmud between Rav and Shemuel about whether this was, in fact, a new king or not. And if it was, in fact, the old king, then suddenly he was pretending not to know Yosef.

It is perfectly normal, perfectly human, and definitely Jewish to disagree with each other. And it is completely appropriate for us to stand up for the principles in which we believe. But a functional society depends on our willingness to be able to disagree with each other and continue to talk to each other and work with each other. We are, as I have mentioned in this space before, faced by many contemporary challenges; we will never solve them by demeaning each other.

And, indeed, we cannot be like the pharaoh who pretended not to know Yosef. We cannot pretend not to know our fellow Americans. We cannot dismiss the people with whom we disagree, as if their feelings and opinions cancel our ability to perceive any and all traces of decency.

On the contrary, says the Torah. Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Lev. 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. Even if they believe things that you find absolutely odious. The Torah clearly does not say, love your neighbor as yourself, but only if she thinks like you do. We, the Jews, must lead by example; we must continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.

I offer you the following piece from the Talmud for your consideration:

ת”ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה”ר. מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה”ר, ומצאו חסיד אחד, אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך! לגלג עליו. לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רה”ר ונכשל באותן אבנים, אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך.

Our rabbis taught: “A person should not throw stones from his property into public grounds.

It happened that one man was throwing stones from his property into the public domain. A pious man passed by and said to him, “Foolish one, why are you throwing stones from property that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?”

The man laughed at him. As time went by he had to sell his field and when he was walking on those public grounds, stumbled over his own stones.

He then exclaimed, “That pious man was right when he said to me, “Why are you throwing stones from ground that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?” (Bava Qamma 50b)

We have to work hard to protect not only our physical public spaces, but our political, social, spiritual, and emotional public spaces as well. Throwing insults and epithets as a form of discourse into the online cloud is like tossing rocks into the street. We’re all going to eventually trip over them.

If we truly want to be upstanders, we must work hard to rekindle our civility. We cannot allow differences of opinion to fragment our democracy. We have to build a temple to love and compassion in that metaphysical public space. We have to remember and invoke our shared values.

That does not mean we have to agree. That does not mean that we have to tolerate hatred, bigotry, intolerance, or shaming of any kind. But it does mean that we have to speak nicely to each other, and occasionally give our produce up for the benefit of the other, so that we may build that temple.

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/21/2017.)

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Responding to Richard Spencer (or, Torah is Love) – Vayyiggash 5777

Some of you know that my first experience in graduate school was at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas. A&M is one of the largest public universities in the country – today nearly 60,000 students, although when I was there it was only about 43,000 (still pretty big). However, in Texas, if you’re Jewish, you are much more likely to go to the University of Texas in Austin. A&M’s Jewish population is only a few hundred, whereas UT’s is a couple thousand.

Ironically, it was my attending Texas A&M which brought be back to Judaism. Although I had grown up in a fairly traditional household, I had found that at as an undergraduate at Cornell, I was not so interested in Jewish life. It took relocation to the buckle of the Bible Belt, to one of the most socially and politically conservative corners of this country, to one of the most heavily fundamentalist Christian enclaves, to rediscover my heritage. The Hillel rabbi at A&M, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, figured strongly in my return. (His wife, by the way, Dr. Sara Alpern, is a Pittsburgher.)

Texas A&M opt-out bill faces obstacles | The Baylor Lariat

Rabbi Tarlow retired a few years back, and the new Hillel rabbi is a young, energetic fellow named Matt Rosenberg. Rabbi Rosenberg was faced with an unusual challenge recently: Richard Spencer, the white supremacist leader who has come to the fore in recent months, was invited to speak on campus by an alumnus who is known for supporting such causes. Apparently, Texas A&M has a policy that any alum can rent a room in the student union on campus for any event, and the university has no right to cancel an event of which it disapproves.

So, given that Spencer was coming to speak on campus, and given that there was nothing that anybody could do to prevent it, a whole host of student groups mounted an anti-Spencer campaign. The university itself hosted a protest rally at the same time as Spencer’s speech in Kyle Field, the legendary stadium that is home to the Aggie football team and the Twelfth Man tradition.

Among the loudest protesters was Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, who spent tireless weeks rallying A&M students against Spencer. When the day came, Rabbi Rosenberg found himself in Mr. Spencer’s press conference before the speech, and was called on by Spencer to ask a question. The exchange did not go well; Rabbi Rosenberg conceded that it was not one of his best moments. (You can see this online here.)

Rabbi Matt Rosenberg: You come here with a message of radical exclusion; My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love. That love is embodied by Torah. Will you sit down and study Torah with me and learn to love?

Richard Spencer: OK, I can’t promise to study with you. That’s kind of a biggie… I will say this. I will promise to talk with you. And I will say this: Do you really want “radical inclusion” into the State of Israel? And, by that, I mean, radical inclusion: maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that? … You’re not answering.

RMR: I’m not.

RS: Look, in terms of the Jewish people, why are they a people? They are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles. It’s axiomatic. That is why the Jews are a coherent people with a history and a culture and a future. It is because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves. I want my people to survive in the future.

***

In his own defense in the Forward, Rabbi Rosenberg pointed out that he had never been trained in debating skills. I am pretty certain that I would not have done any better, because frankly, I did not see that coming.

What Spencer did, in a few sentences, was to twist all of recent Jewish history to suit his own purposes.  There are multiple reasons why the Jews are still here: Yes, because we have held fast to our traditions and our ancient texts; yes, because we have stuck together, but also yes, because for thousands of years we were prohibited from mixing with non-Jews – by ourselves, our own customs and institutions, but even more so by the people who oppressed us: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans, but also the English, who kicked the Jews out of England and Wales in 1290, the French, who kicked the Jews out of France in 1306, the Austrians, who kicked the Jews out of Austria in 1421, and so forth.We cannot forget the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and the centuries of persecution which preceded it. We cannot forget the pogroms of 19th-century Eastern Europe. We cannot forget Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. And the waves of Arab hatred and riots of the 1950s. And the Iranian revolution of the 1970s. And let us not forget the Jews of Silence, the Soviet Jews, who, once applying to leave for Israel, were punished by the Soviet authorities.

In short, it is people like Richard Spencer who have kept the Jews isolated throughout history. And here is the irony: freedom is a double-edged sword. As much as clinging to our traditions and texts has kept us distinctive, so too has that distinction been reinforced by those who despise us. Let’s face it: why is the intermarriage rate in America so high? Because we have finally gained acceptance. Jews actually make appealing spouses to non-Jews, something that not too long ago was anathema. And you may know that many of those Jews who can now marry non-Jews (since they will now marry us) still feel proud to be Jewish, still feel connected to Judaism in some way. In prior centuries, the only way to join the wider society was to become not Jewish. Today, all doors are open.

So when Richard Spencer tried to cast Jews as an isolationist success story, about people who maintained their identity because they refused to mix with others, he was spinning history for his own agenda, cynically using the Jewish tale of persecution across the ages to justify that very persecution. His people, the haters, are the ones who kept us apart, who kept us in ghettos. His people passed humiliating laws and carried out expulsions and forced conscriptions and forced conversions. People of his kind promulgated the blood libels and ultimately genocide.

White Nationalist Richard Spencer Sparks Protests at Texas A&M

But that was only half of his statement. The other half was about Israel, and it’s an argument that is even more loathsome. He said facetiously, “Maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that?” His hyperbole played on the fallacious argument that Israel is an apartheid state and used it to justify the separation of Jews from non-Jews. Spencer’s subtext was, “You Jews should understand keeping another people down, right? Because you’re doing it right now in Israel.”

Spencer smiled at this point, because he knew that he had hit Rabbi Rosenberg where it hurts most.

Where to begin on this one? Should I start with my son’s soccer team, HaPoel Deir Hanna, on which Jewish and Arab 16-year-olds, young citizens of the democratic State of Israel, cooperate on the field, on the same team? Should I mention the Muslim and Christian members of the Knesset? Should I recap the entire history of Jewish-Arab conflict on that small strip of land, the opportunities lost, the blood that has flowed on both sides? The very present and immediate need for Israeli security?

The reality of Israel, her internal demographic realities and external struggles are much more complex than can be captured in a provocative soundbite. But Israel is an open, democratic society that has its share of challenges, just as every nation does.

Rabbi Rosenberg was right: the Torah is love. Earlier this morning, as we do every single morning of the Jewish year, we said this explicitly when we wrapped our tzitziyyot (the fringes hanging from the four corners of our tallitot / prayer shawls) around a finger, as we prepared to recite the Shema. “Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu.” With great love you have loved us, God. And you have demonstrated your love by giving your Torah to the world. And it is up to us to “lilmod ulelamed, lishmor vela’asot, ulqayem et kol divrei talmud Toratekha be’ahavah,” to learn and teach, to keep and do, and uphold all the teachings of your Torah in love. Torah is love. Love is Torah. And it is upon us to share this love with everybody – to share with the world the idea of “Ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha” (Lev. 19:18) – love your neighbor as yourself, with that ahavah rabbah, that great, unbounded love.

What can we learn from this? That we have to be ready to make the case for who we are, not only to respond to haters like Richard Spencer, but also to ourselves. What we must have on the tips of our tongues is the following:

We are Jewish, and continue to be Jewish, because our tradition has value: it brings us knowledge about ourselves and others, it brings us joy, it provides a framework to celebrate and grieve as a community. And it teaches us love through the ancient words of Torah. And that is why we are still here.

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So, Mr. Spencer and your white supremacist friends, please don’t look to the Jews to justify your twisted rationale for hate. Rather, learn from our history and our tradition and see that respect and love for all is the source of our continued existence. That is humanity’s divine obligation. That is Torah. That is love.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/7/2017.)

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Dancing in the Hard Rain – Vayishlah 5777

I think I know where Bob Dylan is.

I’m sure that you have all heard that Mr. Dylan, aka Robert Zimmerman, joined the most elite club in the world this year: he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And it seemed for some time that he was avoiding the honor. The Nobel committee had a hard time finding him. He did not return phone calls. It seemed that he was not interested in claiming the prize. (Perhaps, unlike many Nobel laureates, Dylan doesn’t really need the money or the kavod / honor.)

Although he eventually agreed to accept the prize, Mr. Dylan seemingly snubbed the Nobel institution by skipping the award ceremony, citing “pre-existing commitments.” A New York Times reporter tried to discover what, exactly, Mr. Dylan’s commitments were; he was not performing that night anywhere in the world, and he did not seem to be at any of his various residences (at least the ones that the reporter was able to check).

I suppose this is not too surprising for a performer who has always seemed to alternately loathe and love his audience. He may be best known for angering fans at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 by pulling out an electric guitar, a deliberate affront to the folk scene of the time. His performances have been unfortunately erratic; you never know when you see Dylan which Dylan you’re going to get.

Regardless, looking back over his 50+ years of music, there is no question that (a) he deserved this award, and (b) his lyrics are essentially timeless. They are as incisive today as they were a half-century ago.

Bob Dylan, in the beginning - CNN.com

So it seems that the Jews have yet another Nobel laureate among our ranks (some count our tribe’s prizes at an impressive 20%, although that requires casting a wide net of the ever-contentious definition of “Who is a Jew?” I’m sure Mrs. Zimmerman is very proud, wherever she is.

But I think I know where Bob Dylan is. He’s in mourning. He’s deeply, deeply embarrassed. He’s nursing his wounds. Actually, our wounds.

When I heard Patti Smith singing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” for the Nobel award ceremony, it hit me. I think I know why Bob didn’t show up.  Bob was not there not because he had another engagement but because his heart is broken. I think that Bob simply cannot handle today’s reality.

Never mind that the CIA believes that Russia hacked our election. Forget that a climate-change skeptic has been nominated to head the EPA, an oil executive with ties to Russia to head the State Department, and to head the Department of Energy a man who once said that if he were president, he would eliminate the Department of Energy. Never mind the chief strategist who used to run the premier website dedicated to peddling racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories.

Leave all that aside for a moment, if you can. The biggest casualty of the current moment is the truth. What has come to the fore in 2016 is that many of us (with, by the way, diverse political views) have been deceived by fake news stories and distracted by social-media’s unquenchable desire for ever more clicks on ever-more-sensational items. When we become committed to false narratives and outright lies that are retweeted by authority figures, when folks in dire straights are so desperate that they are willing to swallow campaign promises that are so obviously far-fetched, I am very concerned for the future of our society. Truth has been compromised, and trust is being eroded.

As a non-political example, try to change the mind of somebody who has accepted the idea that vaccination against measles is dangerous. Although the concerns regarding autism have been debunked, and it is abundantly clear that the benefits of vaccination outweigh any perceived risks, it’s a lie – a fake news story that simply will not go away.

In rabbinic literature, the truth is understandably very important – so important, in fact, that there are multiple passages in our textual tradition about witnesses, people called on to testify to the truth. Witnesses in Jewish law have a whole host of restrictions and expectations. Rabbi Hanina (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55a) tells us that the Hebrew word for truth, emet, is the personal seal of God. We come to kedushah / holiness through truth.

The founding fathers forged this nation on the basis of a handful of simple truths. How will we know the truth, when there is so much falsehood? How will our rights remain unalienable, if those truths are no longer self-evident?

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Bob’s blue-eyed son has traveled the world, observing the depth and breadth of Creation and humanity. His innocence is long gone. His youthful idealism has long since been trampled by the truth. And in the song, the son is a witness to truths that must be told.

I learned from Rabbi Wikipedia that Bob’s Hebrew name is Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham (Wikipedia neglected to mention his mother’s Hebrew name; if he ever shows up here and Milt gives him an aliyah, I guess we’ll find out.)

Bob wrestled with his Judaism for many years. He even toyed with Christianity, but he came back to us.

And meanwhile, this is the week of Yisrael. We who wrestle with God. And the character that assigns this new name to Ya’aqov is the angel with whom he wrestles in Parashat Vayishlah.

The commentators go different ways on who, exactly, the angel is. Rashi cites a midrash (BT Menahot 42a) suggesting that this is his brother Esav’s ministering angel. I have always preferred the beautiful notion, echoed by the Gerrer Rebbe (aka the Sefat Emet, the “lip of truth”), that Ya’aqov is actually struggling with himself.

But rather than focusing on the angel, I’d rather consider the struggle. This is not wrestling, I think. Rather, they are dancing — locked against each other all night long, neither willing to forfeit the lead.

We are all engaged in some kind of holy dance — with ourselves, with our community, with our work, with our leaders, with our family, and so forth.

This delicate dance — the waltz of ages, you might call it — is an attempt to move forward with our lives even as we acknowledge and try to manage some of the brokenness around us. We cling to our mystical partner for dear life, hoping that the ground does not give way, that we don’t trip or stumble. Just like Ya’aqov and the mysterious heavenly visitor. We dance with the truth.

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Dylan ends with a hopeful note: those of us who are committed to the truth can help repair the world.

The hard rain has begun. It will be up to us to continue to dance through the rain, to take on the struggles that come, to stand up for the many people whose hands are all empty, to illuminate the face of the hidden executioner, to safeguard our waters, to make sure that souls are not forgotten.

Wherever we are headed as a society, I hope that our people will always be able to stand for the truth, even when it hurts. Truth matters more than partisanship. It matters more than victory. Truth outweighs budgets and process and matters of diplomacy. It is the essential check in the system of checks and balances.

As we approach Hanukkah, the holiday wherein we recall our duty to spread light in an otherwise dark world, the optimistic take-away may be that our tradition continues to mandate the pursuit of light and truth: that we as a people will always be compelled to lift up the downtrodden, clothe the naked, take in the homeless, and feed the hungry.

Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham, if you’re listening, please know that hiding from the truth is not what we Jews have ever done. In fact, we stand up for the truth, for the facts on the ground, for what is right for humanity. And we need you now as much as we did in 1962 when you first told us about that hard rain.

Return to us, all of us here on the dance floor as we continue this waltz of ages.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/17/2016.)

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Jewish Sensibilites and Ya’aqov’s Deception – Toledot 5777

One of the essential questions that we as Jews must ask ourselves is, what are the values that guide us? Aside from rituals and Jewish law, how does our textual framework teach us how to live? What are the values we want our children to carry? How can we use the values expressed in our tradition to live better in this world?

Why are these questions so important? Because we see from demographic data that while there is a hardening on the theological right with respect to living a halakhic lifestyle, with ever-more-stringent approaches to Jewish law, the non-Orthodox world is drifting away from that traditional mode of Jewish living. One does not need to see survey data to know that fewer of us observe Shabbat traditionally, fewer of us are showing up for daily prayer, fewer of us are keeping some form of kashrut, fewer of us are marrying fellow Jews, etc.

And yet, most of us are proudly Jewish, acknowledging on some level our Jewish heritage and at least some of our Jewish traditions. (There is no simhah today, so most of us in the room are regulars – people who are committed to some form of traditional Jewish observance, including tefillah / prayer. But you’d probably all be surprised by how many Jews I hear telling me about how they are proud to be Jewish, love our tradition, are committed to raising Jewish families and to being part of a community, but just have no interest in or understand being in synagogue for services.)

Given that many of us want to maintain some kind of connection to Judaism even as we disconnect from Jewish observance, one answer is that we have to focus on the Jewish values that move us.

What are some of these values?

    • Honesty
    • Integrity
    • Charity
    • Doing for others in need
    • Hakhnasat orehim  / welcoming guests
    • Ahavat hinnam /

      boundless love

    • Community, and all it suggests
    • Study
  • Etc.

With help from the Judaism Unbound podcast, I recently came across an interesting article by Dr. Vanessa Ochs, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, entitled “Ten Jewish Sensibilities.” It appeared in the journal Sh’ma in 2003. In it, Dr. Ochs identifies ten Jewish values which, she proposes, many Jews draw on in their daily lives, even if they do not practice any of the ritual aspects of Judaism. I do not need to list them all here, but they include such basic principles as teshuvah / return (she translates as “turning), tiqqun olam / repairing the world, shelom bayit / maintaining peaceful relationships, and so forth.

I would like to draw your attention to two of these sensibilities: top of the list, havdalah – literally separation, but understood here as making distinctions in time and situations. That is, acknowledging that Jews create holy spaces in time, not places or people.

Number 10 on the list is zekhut avot, recalling the good deeds and attributes and acting upon the merits of those who came before us. We’ll come back to these in a few minutes.

Now, of course these values come, as does all of Jewish life, from the Jewish bookshelf. Just as we know that we must drink four cups of wine at a Pesah seder or light the Hanukkah candles from left to right from our ancient literature, so too do we understand that eliminating oppression or questioning authority are Jewish values gleaned from sources in the Torah, Talmud, midrash, codes, and so forth.

But what happens when values that are apparent in those sources seem to contradict values that we hold dear? Let’s take a look at a passage from Toledot.

Open the humash. Gen. 27:19-27 (98, 156). This is where Rivqah has prepared some meat for Yitzhaq and put an animal hide on Ya’aqov’s arms in order to deceive his father and receive the blessing that he intends for Esav.

יט  וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ–עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי–בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ.

19 And Jacob said unto his father: ‘I am Esau thy first-born; I have done what you have told me. Arise, sit and eat of my venison, that your soul may bless me.’

כ  וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-בְּנוֹ, מַה-זֶּה מִהַרְתָּ לִמְצֹא בְּנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי הִקְרָה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְפָנָי.

20 And Isaac said unto his son: ‘How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?’ And he said: ‘Because the LORD thy God sent me good speed.’

כא  וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, גְּשָׁה-נָּא וַאֲמֻשְׁךָ בְּנִי:  הַאַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו, אִם-לֹא.

21 And Isaac said unto Jacob: ‘Come near, please, that I may feel you, my son, whether you be my very son Esau or not.’

כב  וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב אֶל-יִצְחָק אָבִיו, וַיְמֻשֵּׁהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב, וְהַיָּדַיִם, יְדֵי עֵשָׂו.

22 And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’

כג  וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ–כִּי-הָיוּ יָדָיו כִּידֵי עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, שְׂעִרֹת; וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ.

23 And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.

כד  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו; וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנִי.

24 And he said: ‘Are you my very son Esau?’ And he said: ‘I am.’

כה  וַיֹּאמֶר, הַגִּשָׁה לִּי וְאֹכְלָה מִצֵּיד בְּנִי–לְמַעַן תְּבָרֶכְךָ, נַפְשִׁי; וַיַּגֶּשׁ-לוֹ, וַיֹּאכַל, וַיָּבֵא לוֹ יַיִן, וַיֵּשְׁתְּ.

25 And he said: ‘Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s venison, that my soul may bless thee.’ And he brought it near to him, and he did eat; and he brought him wine, and he drank.

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, יִצְחָק אָבִיו:  גְּשָׁה-נָּא וּשְׁקָה-לִּי, בְּנִי.

26 And his father Isaac said unto him: ‘Come near now, and kiss me, my son.’

כז  וַיִּגַּשׁ, וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ, וַיָּרַח אֶת-רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו, וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי, כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ ה’.

27 And he came near, and kissed him. And he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which God has blessed.

Superficially, this passage does not read so well to me. It highlights Ya’aqov’s deception, and this is in fact a theme that runs through Ya’aqov’s life (e.g. the lentil stew, Gen. 29:34; his marriage to Leah and Rahel, Gen. 29:21-30; his sons’ selling Joseph and lying to their father about his death, Gen. 37:29-35). Although the blessings seem good, at least to an ancient audience, the means by which Ya’aqov achieves them are certainly not.

https://i1.wp.com/www.medart.pitt.edu/image/france/france-t-to-z/vezelay/capitals-nave/veznave30as.JPG

Most of the commentaries seek to excuse Ya’aqov – they argue that he was fulfilling God’s destiny; that Esav was truly evil; that Yitzhaq was not only actually blind, but also blind to the fact that his younger son was really the good son, and so forth. But one midrash, from Bereshit Rabba, actually suggests that when Ya’aqov goes to fetch a few goats from the flock so his mother can prepare them (27:14), he does so “under duress, bent, and weeping.”

יב  אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי, וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ; וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה, וְלֹא בְרָכָה.

12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.’

יג  וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ, עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי; אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי.

13 And his mother said unto him: ‘Upon me be your curse, my son; only heed my voice, and go fetch me them.’

יד  וַיֵּלֶךְ, וַיִּקַּח, וַיָּבֵא, לְאִמּוֹ; וַתַּעַשׂ אִמּוֹ מַטְעַמִּים, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהֵב אָבִיו.

14 And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother; and his mother made savory food such as his father loved.

So while the hermeneutic conversation, the discourse of rabbinic interpretation surrounding this passage in general supports Ya’aqov and Rivqah and the whole operation, there is in fact at least one voice, echoing across the ages that suggests that deception is not, in fact, a value we should support. And I think that most of us agree with that opinion, despite the conspiracy to defraud Yitzhaq.

So that brings us back to Vanessa Ochs’ Jewish sensibilities. On the one hand, we aim to emulate our ancestors and follow their lead based on their merits: zekhut avot. On the other, we also know that nobody in the Jewish canon is without fault, that they are all exceedingly human characters. Thus we must draw distinction (havdalah, if you will) between having the means justify the ends, as in this case, vs. always behaving in an upright, honest way. Ya’aqov, according to the midrash, knows that what he is doing is wrong, and we do too. So we can acknowledge and learn from this story, even as we concede that Ya’aqov’s outright deception of his father is reprehensible.

While the Torah itself may suggest that the end may justify the means, the rabbinic lens, the midrash, disagrees. And yet both of these ideas sit on the Jewish bookshelf in the same corner of the whole panoply of human behavior described by our tradition.

The lesson that we may draw from this is that havdalah is not just what is recited on Saturday night (the separation of Shabbat from weekday), it is not only about the division of time between holy and ordinary. It is an essential tool in how we relate Torah to who we are and the choices we make. Real wisdom comes from making distinctions. And we do that very well as Jews.

And to come back to where we started, the greater Jewish value that we must teach and live is discernment, perhaps a more refined version of havdalah: digging into our collected body of wisdom to extract the best way to handle a situation, given all the factors in play. I think that if we can relate that to the next generation, we will have a rosy Jewish future.

Shabbat shalom.

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Welcoming Brokenness – Vayyera 5777

I had a wonderful moment last week. It was the moment when this sermon came together. It was on Wednesday, my day off, and I was actually on the elliptical machine at the JCC (I sometimes do my best thinking when I’m working out). I was listening to Leonard Cohen (zikhrono livrakhah – may his memory be for a blessing), to his song “Take This Waltz,” from his 1988 album, I’m Your Man. The song is actually a loose English translation of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem, Pequeño vals vienés, (a little Viennese waltz):

Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost

Ay, Ay-ay-ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

This song speaks of the pain of love, the fragile beauty of life, the infinite transience of the human experience. It makes me yearn: for desire and loss, for happiness and grief, for perfection and failure, the whole continuum of what it means to be benei Adam, the descendants of Adam and Eve.

Photos | The Official Leonard Cohen Site

Leonard Cohen passed away nearly two weeks ago; he was suffering from cancer, although a statement released by his manager on Wednesday said that he had taken a fall in the night which hastened his death. His oeuvre – songs, poems, prose – speaks of all of the yearnings that make our lives meaningful and rich and sad and joyous.

Now if you have been listening to me speak over the past year and change, you may have noticed that I constantly talk about making Judaism meaningful – that our task as a synagogue and indeed as a community is to create meaning in a Jewish context. And let’s face it: this is not easy.

What is it about synagogue services that is meaningful? Here are some possibilities:

  • Prayer
  • Meditative moments
  • Reading the Torah
  • Learning
  • Community
  • Singing

But what about for people who don’t know how to pray, or do not understand Hebrew, or are unfamiliar with the Torah, or do not know anybody in the room? How will they derive meaning from what we do? What about visitors who have never been in a synagogue before? What about guests or even members of the congregation who are not Jewish? Do we want them to have a meaningful experience as well?

The answer is yes. Yes, we want everybody who enters here to appreciate what we do and how it might elevate us.

Synagogues tend to run on momentum – the momentum of “this is what we do; this is how we do it.” We have done things this way for a long time, such a long time that many of us who do it regularly cannot imagine doing it any other way, and that we have difficulty imagining that some might not appreciate it or know what to do. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has made a career of helping synagogues improve themselves by trying to make members appreciate what it’s like to those who are not “insiders.” He tells the story of the uncle of a bar mitzvah, who is called to the Torah, and he’s really nervous because he hasn’t done this in a long time. So the gabbai, trying to help him out, says to him in an undertone, “Now kiss your tzitzis.” The man is taken aback and reacts audibly, so that the whole congregation can hear, by exclaiming, “Kiss my WHAT?”

We, the synagogue regulars, often fall into the trap of assuming that everybody knows or understands what we do and why we do it. But that is, of course, far from the truth. On the contrary: even some of us who are regulars do not know what we do or why we do it. (That’s why I am offering a learners’ service once a month, starting in three weeks – the third Shabbat morning of each month.)

But one thing that should draw people to synagogues, whether they know the service or not, is the human desire to seek wholeness, to seek healing of the soul. There is no heart that is as whole, said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, as a broken heart. That is one reason that our siddur is called Lev Shalem, a whole heart – because we enter tefillah broken-hearted with the intent to make it whole again.

We all know that this is a fractured world, one in which hopes are easily crushed, where idealism is squelched, where we sometimes find pain when we look for solace. And sometimes, when we are truly in adversity, those are the times we need God the most, however we understand God. And we want all who enter this space, regardless of their familiarity with Jewish ritual, to feel that they can satisfy this need here.

Every now and then, those solace-seekers come into a synagogue seeking to mollify the pain. And here’s the message for the day: we have to welcome them in. We have to embrace all who enter so that they may find comfort. We have to go out of our way to make this sanctuary, this respite from the cruel world that awaits outside, a place of warmth and inclusiveness and caring.

Our synagogue happens to be place where any new face will invariably be greeted by numerous people.  Based on what I have seen, it’s a rare instance where newbies are not engaged in conversation during Kiddush.  These are all wonderful things – you are all refreshingly friendly. But there is always room for improvement.

At my last congregation, we made an effort once to improve our lobby to make it more inviting. We bought some comfy chairs, put in a K-cup coffee machine, and encouraged people to hang around. We also put up a display of little pamphlets on Jewish topics, with the intent of helping people find easy info on topics relevant to their lives. Some of the pamphlets had to do with grief and loss, such as “Talking to Children About Death” and “Making Sacred Choices at the End of Life” and “Taking Your Sadness to God.”

A long-time member of the congregation, a former president, came up to me not long after installing this display, and waved her hand dismissively at the display.  “This,” she said, shaking her head, “this is not us.” She meant that the face that the congregation should put forward is an uplifting one, not an image that reminds us of pain and suffering and loss.

But she was wrong. It was us. It is us. We all suffer. Thank God, we have moments of joy. Thank God, we have moments of life and light and ecstasy. But we also have moments of grief and pain. And it is in those times that you need a synagogue, a community, a ritual framework.

Whenever Parashat Vayyera comes up, I have to speak about hakhnasat orhim, the welcoming of guests. Any of you who have been to a parlor meeting with me over the past year know that we study the first part of today’s parashah, what we read this morning, to parse out from it the actions that Abraham performs in welcoming strangers into his home. It is an episode in the Torah that speaks very heavily to how we must conceive of ourselves today. This is our tent – Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov – how good are your tents, O Jacob – and we want people to come in. All people.

I made an observation on Thursday morning at shaharit that, while it is architecturally sensible for the door into a sanctuary to be located at the back, it might be spiritually wrong. How do you think it looks to somebody coming to synagogue for the first time to walk in and see only the backs of others?

Perhaps the entrance should be up front, near the aron haqodesh, the ark. Maybe we should rise for visitors as we do when we take out the Torah. That’s how important it is to welcome others into our tent – to acknowledge the holiness in each person who enters.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the visitor who comes in, particularly the one who needs comfort in the context of grief, is greeted at the door by somebody who can sit with that person and help her/him through the service experience? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if the regulars among us were to offer a place at a Shabbat table to all who are in need?

Folks, Listen!: Embracing Brokenness

To return to Leonard Cohen, the bard of brokenness, I’ll remind you of a line from his 1992 song, “Anthem,” which I mentioned in the study passage last week.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Embedded in the reference to Lurianic kabbalah is the suggestion that fracture yields light; that being broken enables us to receive the goodness that God gives, the support of community, the wisdom of the generations. Brokenness, in some sense, enables us to thrive.

And that is why we as a community need to reach out to all who enter and embrace them in all of their humanity. That is why we are here, and that is why we need to keep thinking about what we can do to make Beth Shalom the place where people want to come, to bring their joy, their sorrow, and their whole heart.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/19/2016.)

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