To Prevent Harassment, Change the Power Dynamic – Vayyishlah 5778

Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Leon Wieseltier, playwright Israel Horovitz, John Hockenberry, etc., etc.

My daughter, who is in 5th grade, asked me a few days ago what “harassment” is. I fumbled through an answer appropriate for a precocious 10-year-old who can’t help but hear what’s going on in the world.

I must say that in the wake of all of the allegations that continue to splash across our collective consciousness, I have had three thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  1. I wish that fewer of the accused were Jewish.
  2. This is not going to stop anytime soon, until people change their behavior such that they do not abuse others based on a power dynamic.
  3. While the inherent sexism in Judaism’s ancient texts might tend to reinforce that power dynamic, we have to ensure that we work to reinterpret our tradition so that it does not.

So I have what may be construed to be some good news on that front: that we at Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement, by standing up for egalitarianism wherever possible, by re-affirming our commitment to the equality of women in all aspects of Jewish life, we are in fact actively working to change the equation. Let me explain.

Let us consider, for example, the Dinah narrative, which is featured today in Parashat Vayyishlah (this week’s Torah reading).

As you may recall from last week in Vayyetze, when Dinah is introduced, unlike all 12 of her brothers, her name is not given an etymology in the Torah. Leah merely gives birth to Dinah (Gen. 30:21), and the event is reported tersely in seven words; no mention of why she is named Dinah; no mention of how Leah rejoiced at giving birth to a girl. Nothing.

What we read today in Vayyishlah then takes it from bad to worse. The passage is downright judgmental; in Gen. 34:1-2, the Torah effectively slurs Dinah as a yatz’anit, which you might translate into English as a “streetwalker”:

א וַתֵּצֵא דִינָה בַּת-לֵאָה, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב, לִרְאוֹת, בִּבְנוֹת הָאָרֶץ.  ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי–נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Ya’aqov, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shekhem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

This is undeniably a classic case of “blaming the victim.” And we should read it as exactly that, through 2017 lenses. The Torah sees this case of rape as Dinah’s fault, for going out and visiting with the women of the land. Rashi even worsens the matter, by pointing out that because Dinah is identified here as “bat Leah” (daughter of Leah) but not “bat Ya’aqov,” (daughter of Jacob) it is an indicator that her mother was also a yatz’anit.

From beginning to end, Dinah is not treated equally to her brothers.

But we have an obligation today to learn from this story that while we cannot change the Torah, we can indeed change the dynamic. It is our responsibility, as contemporary Jews, to make sure that we acknowledge the equal measure of qedushah / holiness allotted to every single human being, and that we reinforce at every turn that men and women be treated equally in a Jewish context and in the wider world.

Why? Because if we internalize the notion that men and women are equal, then we have a better shot at maintaining the qedushah in all our relationships; we have a chance of re-affirming respect for all people, despite their intrinsic differences; and we might be able to eliminate the power dynamic that enables harassment of all kinds.

Those of us who are committed to egalitarianism are still fighting that battle. And, given the demographic trends of the Jewish community, in which Orthodoxy is growing and non-Orthodoxy is shrinking (see, e.g. the Pew Study of Jews and Judaism of 2013), we have to keep fighting it.

You may have heard some people in the Jewish world, who perpetuate the halakhic inequity of men and women say that women are not obligated to the positive, time-bound mitzvot (holy opportunities of Jewish life) because they are “on a higher spiritual plane.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call “apologetics.” (Now, I’m not saying that women are NOT more spiritual; I’m just saying that has nothing to do with their being exempt from most of the mitzvot of Jewish life.)

But I have some even more good news: Orthodoxy is moving, ever so slowly, toward an acknowledgment that times have changed, and that women deserve greater roles in Jewish life. Within the past few months, a new demographic study of Modern Orthodox Jews, produced by Orthodox researchers, revealed the following tidbits:

  • 74% of respondents approved of women serving as synagogue presidents
  • 80% support co-ed classes in an Orthodox context
  • 69% support women reciting Qaddish (the memorial prayer) without men
  • 85% support women giving sermons from the bimah
  • 53% believe that women should have the opportunity for such expanded roles as clergy
  • 38% said they strongly or somewhat support women in clergy holding a title of rabbinic authority.

All of this despite the fact that the Orthodox Union, which the largest Orthodox synagogue movement, earlier this year published a report written by seven prominent rabbis, which concluded that women should be prohibited by serving from rabbinic roles. (There are four such women right now serving in Orthodox congregations; about 50 Modern Orthodox rabbis wrote a letter in response asking them not to “expel” these synagogue.)

As a captivating aside, the report also found that:

One third of respondents said their attitudes towards sexuality have changed, most citing an increased acceptance of gay Jews; 58 percent of respondents support synagogues accepting gay members, and 72 percent report being “OK with it.” While support is highest among the liberal factions, significant support exists on the right as well (24 percent of the right-most cohort support gay Jews joining their synagogues).

Two more interesting anecdotes:

I was unable to attend the Yonina concert, produced by Derekh, which, for those of you who have missed it, is Beth Shalom’s new programming rubric, because I was attending a friend’s wedding in Cleveland. About 350 people did attend, and it was a great and joyous success. But a quick glance at the crowd revealed that there were many Orthodox men in attendance, who were openly flouting their communities’ norm of men not being permitted to listen to women’s voices (from the Talmud, Berakhot 24a, where Shemu’el says, “Qol be-ishah ervah,” a woman’s [singing] voice is a sexual prohibition; there have been a range of understandings of this prohibition, and it is entirely discounted in the non-Orthodox world).

Women, Tefillin, and the Orthodox Schism - Paperblog

In another quarter of the Jewish world, I was party to a discussion a week and a half ago at CDS, where a group of 8th-grade girls are not only putting on tefillin (phylacteries*) regularly, but also advocating that the school change its tefillin policy to be more egalitarian. Right now, the school requires that boys in 7th grade wear tefillin during morning tefillot, and teaches the application of tefillin to all, but does not require girls to do so. I am very happy indeed that these discussions are going on, and that our young women are committed not only to the mitzvah of tefillin, but also to the principles of egalitarianism.

We are continuing to right the historical wrongs of Jewish life and living; we are continuing as a people to lead by example, by changing the dynamic.

To those friends and colleagues who maintain a non-egalitarian position, I love and respect you, but I can only say, “Open up the doors! You have nothing to lose except the inequality.” If you are, in fact, committed to modernity, then be modern! Acknowledge that the world has changed; that the judgment of Dinah in the Torah and rabbinic literature is no longer acceptable. Your wives and mothers and daughters are doctors and lawyers and judges and engineers and programmers and professors; why should they be relegated to second-class status in their synagogues?

We’re past this. We have made that change. And you know what, it works. We in the progressive Jewish world are leading by example, challenging the existing power dynamic. And, by the way, there’s room for you in our tent.

As a final note here, we are approaching Hanukkah, arguably the most-misunderstood holiday of the Jewish year**. I am always in Israel during Hanukkah, and the overarching message I hear about the holiday (other than the omnipresence of various kinds of fancy-schmancy sufganiyot (donuts), is that it is a triumph of Jewish culture over Greek culture. That is certainly one historical message of the holiday, which celebrates the rededication of the Beit HaMiqdash (Temple in Jerusalem) following its desecration of the hands of the Hellenized Syrians in the mid-2nd century BCE.

All about Hanukkah - the 8 night Jewish festival of lights ...

But how should we understand Hanukkah today? About light – about spreading light in this oh-so-dark world:

  • Cast some light on the recently-invigorated forces of anti-Semitism, ethnic nationalism, white supremacy, racism, anti-immigrantism, and so forth
  • Cast some light on the political forces that want to build walls, keep us fighting against each other rather than continuing dialogue
  • And cast some light on the cultural forces that want to keep women from being seen as full, respected equals in all corners of society.

Those are the messages of Hanukkah. So as you light those candles, don’t just think about the latkes  potato pancakes) or the sufganiyot, but think about the ways that we can keep moving forward in light and in enlightenment.

Shabbat shalom.

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/1/2017.)

 

* Nobody actually knows what “phylacteries” are. Tefillin are boxes containing hand-written portions of the Torah that are bound by leather straps to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers by traditional Jews.

** It’s actually something of a stretch to call Hanukkah a holiday – it’s a minor, post-biblical commemoration that is minimal in customs and traditions in comparison to holidays like Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, etc. It has become elevated today primarily due to its proximity to Christmas.

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Reach Out – Toledot 5778

Parashat Toledot opens with a curious image, one that provokes the imagination in a way that few biblical passages do: it is of the pregnant Rivkah, with twins in her womb, and they are wrestling with each other. It is immediately apparent that this is going to end badly.

And it does go badly, for a time. But although Ya’aqov and Esav are estranged from each other for many years, they are eventually reunited (although not until Parashat Vayishlah, which we will read two weeks from now).

I was thinking about this when I heard an interview with Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by the fundamentalist preacher (and Megan’s grandfather) Fred Phelps. This “church” is little more than a band of several dozen Phelps relatives, who travel around the country and protest legally by displaying offensive signs and reciting horrible slogans that are anti-homosexual, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and, well, anti-just about everybody. Typical signs are “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates Jews,” “Thank God for 9/11,” etc.

The WBC actually came to Great Neck, my previous home on Long Island, and stood outside one of the three synagogues on Middle Neck Road, holding their offensive signs, which have been supported in court cases as protected free speech. Our community leaders told us not to engage, because the WBC makes money off of people who get upset and attack them, enabling them to take the attackers to court and sue for damages.

Megan Phelps-Roper was brought to these protests by her parents beginning at age 5, and continued to participate for 20 years, until she left the church. Why did she leave? Was it that she woke up one morning to discover that she had been misled by her family her entire life? Not exactly. Rather, what ultimately led her to renounce her apparent hatred was dialogue with people who disagreed with her.

Strangely enough, the forum that initially enabled that dialogue was Twitter. By engaging in respectful back-and-forth with strangers on Twitter, people whose world-view was 180 degrees from what she believed and had been taught by the church, she came to a different understanding, one that led to her to conclude that saying such judgmental things in public was wrong.

In her TED talk, Megan says, ““The end of my anti-gay picketing career, and life as I knew it, [was] triggered in part by strangers on Twitter, who showed me the power of engaging the other.”

She eventually met one of her Twitter challengers, a Jewish blogger named David, and ended up spending some time with him meeting actual Jews, people of faith, and began to understand that the harsh judgment that her church had taught her was not the Divine way.

“The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the Internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that the people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe,” she said.

Megan Phelps-Roper and David Abitbol in Tel Aviv, April 4, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Megan Phelps-Roper and blogger David Abitbol in Tel Aviv

What we might learn from Ms. Phelps-Roper is that even people who are so far apart on the ideological spectrum can come to a mutual understanding that is healthy and productive, but only when they talk to each other.

We have reached a point in this country where it has become very difficult for people to talk to each other, and this is quite troubling. People on either side of the political landscape are becoming isolated in their own echo chambers, and finding it more difficult than ever to find common ground. While we are each inclined to blame the other side, I think it is very important for us to acknowledge that we are all guilty here. Yes, the tools of social media have made it easier for us to remain in our own news and opinion bubbles, but this is a phenomenon that has been going on for decades prior to the invention of Facebook.

It is worth it to remember that what you read online has been selected for you by algorithms that know, based on your browsing history, what links you will click on, and putting more of them in front of you so that you will click even more links. So our range of exposure is narrowing without our even being aware of it.

Why is this important? Because, as Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately.” The future of our society depends on it; we have to learn to talk to each other. We have to think beyond the narrow range of ideas in which we are all living.

Here’s an example:

At one time, Jews and African Americans were allies in the fight for civil rights. Two of the three activists who were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 were Jewish. Many Jews were involved in the NAACP. Our peoples shared a common bond in persecution, and bonded over the historical images of our people coming forth from slavery, albeit in different ages and places.

When I first heard of the Black Lives Matter movement, I thought, “Great! Here is something I can get behind. I too am concerned about police brutality; I too want to make sure that everybody in our society is treated equally by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”

https://i1.wp.com/static1.972mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/jewish-black-lives.jpg

And then, of course, as the movement crystallized in the wake of killings in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, Baltimore, and elsewhere, many of us discovered that the organizers were not going to limit themselves to those issues.

Black lives matter. They do. And I know that most of us truly believe that, and understand that it is hard not to see the inherent discrimination that exists across American society against African-American citizens and others. Nonetheless, the unfortunate reality is that the Black Lives Matter movement platform contains an explicitly anti-Israel passage:

The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people…

(Whenever I hear the words “apartheid” and “genocide” in relation to Israel, I must say that it makes my skin crawl.)

All of this has nothing to do with relations between law enforcement and black Americans. And the likelihood is great that not too many of the people who display BLM signs know about these passages in the platform. Nonetheless, it’s there.

So what is a pro-black lives, but also pro-Israel person to do?

Megan Phelps-Roper defines the challenge that we face as a society thus:

I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things — justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity.

We do not have to be in either this camp or that camp. The way forward is to engage in dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

What ultimately happens with Esav and Ya’aqov is reconciliation! There is a good end to the story, but only because Ya’aqov reached out to his brother. Gifts in tribute, a hug, and so forth. And it is notable because the Torah went out of its way to tell that story! Was there any need for Esav to reappear in the narrative? Ya’aqov would have been just fine without him. But the Torah wanted us to take note of that reconciliation, to feel the catharsis.

We do not solve problems by creating division. We solve problems by working with each other.

So, nu, Rabbi, what’s the take-away?

Reach out. Find somebody with whom you disagree, and discuss. Try to listen to and understand their position. Don’t dismiss them merely because you disagree. Don’t revile somebody merely because of their beliefs. The response to being ideologically under siege is not to entrench ourselves deeper, but to open a channel of communication.

The future of our society, the well-being of our communities, our schools, our infrastructure, our public health, our ability to tackle the huge challenges posed by addiction, the easy availability of firearms to potentially dangerous people, the ongoing challenge of how we deliver healthcare to the American population, all of these things depend on our inclination to talk to each other. If we merely burrow deeper into our respective political holes, that may be good for a few media conglomerates, but it’s certainly not good for us.

Reach out. Our future depends on it.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/18/2017.)

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Gandhi on Prayer

A friend recently forwarded this quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, about prayer. Gandhi came from a prayer tradition quite different from the Jewish one, and yet his words speak powerfully about our own experience with tefillah (prayer). I have appended comments, Rashi-style:

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

ghandi

“A longing of the soul

We need to express that longing, to acknowledge the need to heal our spirits, to seek wholeness in a fragmented world.

The soul does not speak English or Hebrew or Aramaic. It speaks yearning. It speaks prayer wordlessly.

“Admission of one’s weakness”

We go through life trying to demonstrate to everybody else and to ourselves how strong we are, how resilient we are, how talented we are.

We do not willingly admit weakness.

It is only through prayerful moments that we allow ourselves to admit even privately that we are vulnerable, that we are broken, that we need more from God or from others or from the universe.

“Better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”

Tefillah / prayer is not intended to be an empty recitation of words in a language we do not understand.

Rather, the ancient yearnings of our ancestors, found on the pages of the siddur, transport our own longing; those words provide a conduit for the heart, a tap into the soul.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:18), Al ta’as tefilatekha qeva, Do not make your prayer a prescribed routine, but a plea for mercy and grace before God. Your words of tefillah should not be fixed, but filled with kavvanah: intention, spontaneity, honesty to yourself.

So as we sing / chant / mumble / meditate on the words of our own tradition, as we let the longing of our souls flow, remember that the kavvanah, the heart behind the words, matters more than the words themselves.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

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Welcoming Ourselves, or, the Stranger Within – Vayyera 5778

This is a parashah that is chock full of good material, but I must concede that the episode to which I always return is the story in the beginning of Vayyera where Avraham welcomes a trio of traveling strangers into his tent. He runs to greet them. He brings them water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet. He brings them food. He literally waits on them.

Avraham Avinu the father of our tradition and our people, the progenitor of the entire monotheistic world, the one whom we invoke at the beginning of every Amidah – teaches us to welcome the stranger. Yes, we know that they are angels, but Avraham does not. He sees unfamiliar people walking by, and he reaches out and grabs ’em.

Now how do you think that makes the visitors feel? The Torah does not record their reactions, but I can tell you this: when I have been a stranger in a strange land, I am always grateful for the help and care of locals. The postal clerk in Jodhpur, India, who not only sold Judy and me stamps, but also took us into a back room of the post office to give us a table on which to write our postcards, supplied us with glue (which apparently Indian stamps lack), and even gave us his address so that we could stay with him if we ever returned to Jodhpur. The nice gentleman who stopped to help me fix a flat by the side of a highway late at night in a rural part of upstate New York, and even offered me a sandwich. The Israeli Bedouin who invited a friend and me, while we were hiking near the desert town of Arad, to actually sit with him in his tent and drink water and tea and to schmooze with him in Hebrew.

Bedouin Tent Wiki images

(As an aside, tomorrow is our annual New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, when we invite in those who have joined our community within the last year, bring them up onto this bimah, discuss what brought them all here, and give everybody a sefer Torah to hold while we recite Tefillat HaDerekh, the prayer for those who are starting a new journey.)

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks back when I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about anxiety. Apparently, we are living in a time in which there are more and more people, and particularly teens, who are living with severe anxiety. The article cites statistics about the growing rates of anxiety; about a third of adolescents and adults live suffer from an anxiety disorder. Almost two-thirds of university undergraduates report feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year.

Man at bridge holding head with hands and screaming

Perhaps you know somebody like this – I do. Anxiety is a very serious disorder. While we all have moments of anxiety, for most of us they pass. But for people with disorders like this, life is a daily challenge of trying to manage one’s constant fears.

Nobody knows, of course, what causes anxiety, or why the rates are increasing. But we all know the contemporary exacerbating factors: things like the pressure that high-achieving teens feel in school, our addiction to social media, threats of terrorism, and so forth. You might think that privileged teens would have lower rates; actually, rates are higher among the affluent

Left untreated, anxiety does not go away. But there is a disagreement about how to treat it: some say that the way to reduce anxiety is to remove the stressors; some say that greater exposure to the things that arouse their fears helps the anxious person learn to cope.

But I am going to suggest a different approach.

Now, I am not a psychologist, and in no way is it my intent to trivialize this challenge by glibly offering ancient words to soothe the contemporary soul.

But as one who can speak from personal experience, that third way is the framework of Jewish tradition.

What does Judaism offer? What is that framework?

Family togetherness, a holy purpose to life, communal support in times of joy and grief and everything in-between, slowing down for Shabbat and relating to others, the critical thinking that comes from talmud torah, learning our ancient wisdom – these are all things that give us a healthy framework, one that might help us feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious.

And here is the final thing that our tradition offers, and this comes back to Avraham’s welcoming the wayfarers into his tent. Judaism reminds us that we must not only welcome the stranger, but that we also must welcome ourselves in.

What on Earth do you mean by that, Rabbi?

Most of us have a fairly lukewarm relationship with our tradition. That is, we are tentative about entering too deeply into the actions, about throwing ourselves bodily into our customs and rituals. I mentioned this briefly a few weeks back, on Shemini Atzeret. Most of us like to maintain our reserve, our cool, academic distance from the curious customs that we have inherited from our ancient ancestors.

In the middle of the 20th century, changes in our society led to a revolt against the old order. Some of the ways in which our society changed were good: the struggles for civil rights and the equality of women and men, the breaking down of many traditional barriers.

But the baby went out with the bathwater. For most of us, the framework that religion provided disappeared. Many of us grew up thinking that people who were committed to religious tradition were unthinking sheep. Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, documents the distancing from Judaism by the Baby Boom generation in particular in his book with Steven M. Cohen, The Jew Within. They discuss the elevation of the “sovereign self” in place of traditional religious involvement.

As a result, there are many of us today who are not quite sure of what to do in the synagogue – how to behave, when to stand up or sit down; many of us wonder how on earth the person leading services could possibly have gotten to the bottom of the page so fast. And all the more so with Jewish traditions that we practice outside the synagogue.

But engaging with our tradition, “practicing” Judaism, is not merely about being an expert davener, or fulfilling every iota of Jewish law and custom. It is about all the meaningful aspects of holy living: the primary mitzvah of engaging with our holy texts, through which we learn to acknowledge the holiness in all our relationships, maintaining our sense of wonder and gratitude about the world.

And, rather than think you may not be “good” at “doing Jewish” because you can’t mumble the second paragraph of Aleinu fast enough, think instead about this: Have you, over the past week, say, done something to bring honor to somebody around you? Did you teach your child the value of doing charitable work? Did you help resolve a conflict between friends or neighbors? Did you spend an unhurried, pleasurable meal with your family? Have you thought twice before uttering an unkind word?

If so, welcome. Welcome yourself to our tradition, to that framework. We’re glad to have you aboard. And we need you to welcome yourself, because those who have not welcomed themselves in, who have not actually opened the metaphorical door of Jewish life and walked through it, cannot really welcome others.

Structure of Welcome Emails

Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, goes out of his way to welcome strangers into his tent. And when these same strangers, who we know to be divine messengers, give the news to his wife Sarah that she will give birth to a son at age 90, she laughs. Was it anxious laughter? Perhaps.

Maybe she was not quite ready for the news. Or maybe she was not ready to welcome the strangers in, because she had not yet welcomed herself.

A final note: on Thursday, I attended an interfaith program for clergy and community leaders at the JCC, entitled “Faithful Responses to Strangers, Immigrants, and Refugees.” One of the speakers, a Muslim woman who immigrated to Pittsburgh from Sudan, spoke about her experience in getting to know her neighbors. They were not forthcoming in introducing themselves, so she hatched the plan of inviting herself over to their houses to get to know them. Her friends said, “No, you can’t do that. Americans don’t do that.” But she ignored them, and more or less went door-to-door, welcoming herself into her neighbors’ homes – really the opposite of what Abraham did. And it worked! She is now very close with her neighbors, none of whom are like her, and prouder than ever to be an American.

Don’t be a stranger! Open the door, and welcome yourself into our tradition. Be a part of our framework. It’s a gift that you can give yourself and your family. You’ll be glad you did.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, November 4, 2017.)

 

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The Power of #metoo – Lekh Lekha 5778

I am grateful to be the spiritual leader for a large and growing congregation. I am always honored to be there for people in need, members who are grieving, congregants who need guidance. It is a very special part of my work that few see, but that gives me a great amount of satisfaction with my job.

Frankly, I hope that Harvey Weinstein has gone to his rabbi for counseling.

I concede up front that it is far too easy for me to say from this comfortable position that Mr. Weinstein, and a host of other celebrities who have recently been named in similar incidents, need to do some teshuvah, to seek repentance. Perhaps Mr. Weinstein should have spent more time learning some of the messages of our tradition regarding respect for others.

Harvey Weinstein's A-list accusers come out, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie recount their ...

But what are those messages, exactly? And here we encounter a slight difficulty.

Whenever possible, I try to remind Jews of the essential value of Jewish tradition, the most fundamental aspect of Jewish life and learning: that our ancient wisdom teaches us to elevate the holiness in our relationships with others. That the primary benefit to learning the words of our tradition is that they will improve our marriages, our friendships, our work/life balance, our parenting insight, and our society.

But sometimes, the way that some of the female characters are treated in the Torah does not match our understanding of human relationships today. Times have changed; gender roles have changed. And so, we have to read the Torah with contemporary eyes, sensitive to the way that these stories might be read today.

Most of these tales hit the cutting-room floor in Hebrew school, edited for the sake of decency, or for the complexity of trying to explain them. But to me they speak of two things:

  1. There is no human experience that is not captured in our holy texts.
  2. We have to continue to learn not only from the admirable traits of our ancestors, but also from their failures.

Consider the unnamed wife of Noah, from last week’s parashah, who must have been a saint to have managed 40 days and 40 nights of human and animal chaos, but is barely acknowledged in the story of the tevah / ark. For everything that she did, she gets no credit. (Gen. 6-8)

https://68.media.tumblr.com/c5f62373ac20f9da15070b7ef827df7b/tumblr_mzo9z22Pb91sjkt9jo1_500.jpg

Or the tale of our matriarch Sarah, who has no choice but to be taken into the harem of the Egyptian Pharaoh with the apparent blessing of her husband Avraham so that he can save himself. (Lekh Lekha, Gen. 12:10-20)

Or the story of Lot’s wife, also nameless, who exercises some individual agency in looking back in pain and/or longing at her home town as it is destroyed in fire and brimstone, and is punished for it. (Vayyera, Gen. 19:23-26).

Or the story of Jacob’s only daughter Dinah, taken by force by Shekhem the Canaanite and slurred in the Torah as a yatz’anit, effectively a streetwalker, in what amounts to a classic case of blaming the victim. (Gen. 34)

Or the tale of Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, who is denied Judah’s third son after his first two die, in violation of the Torah’s law of the levirate marriage. In desperation, Tamar resorts to dressing as a cultic prostitute to fool Judah into lying with her himself, arguably a foil to Judah’s “male privilege.” (Gen. 38).

And we also should not forsake an obvious case of harassment in the Torah, the tale of Yosef, who is coerced by the wife of his employer Potiphar in Egypt, and imprisoned when he does not fulfill her desire. (Gen. 39).

For most of Jewish history, nobody read these stories as being about “blaming the victim” or “male privilege.” But we are living in different times. One principle, which you have all heard me say by now, is that we have to read the Torah in the context of today, as a text that brings meaning to how we live right now.

A few weeks back, when the accusations against him began to emerge as numerous women came forward, Harvey Weinstein stated, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse…”

When I read that, I had two thoughts: (a) many decades have passed since the 1970s; did it really take him this long to get the message? And (b) the changing of the times and what is acceptable behavior is something that we, the Jews, are acutely aware of.

Jews have survived for thousands of years precisely because rabbinic Judaism, our belief system as conceived by the rabbis of the Talmud, was conceived to be malleable.  From generation to generation we have been charged with reviewing our tradition and figuring out how to apply them in every new age.

You might even make the case that it is the series of changes that have made us who we are today: the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The paradigm shift from Israelite religion and sacrifices to study and prayer of rabbinic Judaism. The expulsion from Spain. The establishment of the State of Israel. Each of these reshaped the contours of the Jewish world dramatically.

And when was the very first such change? In Parashat Lekh Lekha, which we read from today. At the beginning of the parashah, Avraham was given the command to pick up and leave his homeland and his family behind and head from Mesopotamia to Canaan, which would ultimately be known by the name given to his grandson, Israel. But it’s not yet Israel, and Avraham cannot properly be called an Israelite. Instead, he was referred to today (Gen. 14:13) as “Avram ha’Ivri,” Abram the Hebrew. It’s the first time that anybody is given this label.

There are midrashim that suggest etymologies of the Hebrew word for “Hebrew,” that is, “עברי” / “ivri.” It comes from the shoresh / root meaning “to cross over.” Avraham is the first ivri, the first Hebrew, because he crossed over the river Euphrates to get to Canaan, but also because he crossed over from an idolatrous society to a monotheistic one.

We are the people who have metaphorically crossed many rivers to get to where we are today, and every time we do so, things change: language, dress, foods, of course, but also, society changes; what is socially acceptable changes; the understanding of gender continues to change.

What has not changed is that our tradition understands that each of us has a certain spark of the Divine within us; that every person deserves love and respect; that there are good, solid reasons for boundaries in our behavior, boundaries that protect the qedushah / holiness that exists between us in all our relationships.

The Talmud teaches us (BT Sanhedrin 82a):

כל מקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב

Wherever the desecration of God’s name [hillul hashem] is involved, one does not show respect to the teacher.

It comes in the context of a discussion of prohibited liaisons. The suggestion is that, no matter the power or rank or knowledge of the transgressor, the subordinate is forbidden to allow inappropriate behavior to continue; rather, the teacher or manager or politician or celebrity must be called to account for his/her actions.

God help us if “the casting couch” at which Mr. Weinstein hinted in his statement was at one time considered acceptable in Hollywood or anywhere else. The very idea is revolting. Such behavior can only be described with the rabbinic term, “hillul hashem,” a desecration of God’s name.

But if we are to truly prevent people from the kinds of abuse that have been splashed across headlines in recent weeks, we have to make sure that the abusers know that those whom they abuse will not be silent. We have to ensure that the power dynamics that enabled Mr. Weinstein and others to do what they have done to so many is eclipsed by the strength of #metoo, by the strength of knowing that if all of us speak up, then the power of the abuser is broken. That those of us who have been abused can take the control away from the abusers.

We cannot be rendered anonymous and silent, like Noah’s wife, or powerless like Sarah; we cannot allow people to be shamed, like Dinah, or forced into desperate situations like Tamar, or harassed like Joseph.

Instead, we have to stand up and raise our voices. To say, “Me too.” “Gam ani.” To make sure the abusers of this world are cast out of the shadows and into the light. To make sure that the young women (and young men) who are called to the Torah this year are not victims in the next.

And whatever happens with Harvey Weinstein, I just hope that he has an opportunity to reflect on the words of our tradition, about changing times, and about how his actions have caused such damage to so many.

If you have been a victim or know somebody who has, speak up, even if it is just a phone call to the right person. I or my assistant Audrey can put you in touch with somebody who can help. Change does not happen overnight, but Ani veAtah neshaneh et ha’olam – you and I will change the world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/28/2017.)

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The Divinity of Vulnerability – Bereshit 5778

The holidays are over; we have concluded three weeks of introspection, of asking for forgiveness from God and each other, of celebrating and building and dancing and eating and praying and so forth.

You might be inclined to think that the High Holiday season ended yesterday, when we paraded the Torah and danced and sang with abandon. A better case could be made that they actually ended on Wednesday morning, on Hoshanah Rabbah, when we marched seven times around the chapel with our lulavim and etrogim, and then beat willow branches on the floor until the leaves came off, chanting three times, “Qol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer,” “A voice proclaims, proclaims and says.”

‫הושענא רבה - נוסח חבאן (בי"כ מפעי, מושב ברקת, תשס"א ...

Says what? A curious statement, indeed. The piyyut, the liturgical poem that features these lines in the siddur / prayerbook is incomplete; there is no direct object to the two verbs, mevasser (proclaims) and omer (says).

The line seems to reference a passage in Isaiah (52:7) heralding redemption.* But why did the author of this poem in the siddur, El’azar ben Qillir, the 6th-7th century CE Palestinian payyetan, leave off what it is that the voice is announcing?**

Well, I’m going to propose an answer: that the mysterious voice is God’s (OK, not such a stretch), the still, small voice (I Kings 19:12) that will guide us as we move forward into the new year, and yet reminds us of the vulnerability that we emphasize on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is this vulnerability, after all, in which you may find the Divine spark that makes us at once profoundly human and yet Godly. And the origin of this vulnerability is to be found in Parashat Bereshit, which we read today.

The fourth most-viewed TED Talk of all time (videos of short, inspirational lectures, usually by people who are not celebrities) features the “researcher-storyteller” Dr. Brené Brown, and is titled, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Has anybody here seen it? Dr. Brown is a professor in the social work school at the University of Houston. Some of her research has been devoted to recording and analyzing people’s stories of shame and vulnerability.

She speaks of her own fear of being vulnerable, and how, while she is trying to manage this fear, her research reveals that it is, in fact, embracing being open and vulnerable that makes us feel worthy, that makes us live, as she says, “wholeheartedly.”

Among the wisdom revealed by her research, we find the following gems:

  • Our essential goal is connection. The ability to feel connected is what gives us purpose and meaning in our lives.
  • Shame is the fear of disconnection.
  • People who have a strong sense of love and belonging feel that they are worthy of love and belonging, and the way to achieve this is to expose your vulnerability, to embrace it, to allow your true self to be seen.

Dr. Brown’s point is that we as a society tend to misunderstand the importance of vulnerability. None of us is perfect; that we leave for God. But it is, in fact, our vulnerability that makes us strong; it is our vulnerability that makes us attractive to others, the willingness to pursue love, careers, parenting, and other types of human relationships despite our fears of failure and rejection.

And that is one of the primary messages of Bereshit – that we are not perfect. We are not immortal. Rather, we are human. We are fundamentally flawed.*** When we lose Eden, we learn the extent of our vulnerability. What does God say to Adam as he and Eve are being shooed out of the Garden? We read this a little while ago:

אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה, בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ, בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכְלֶנָּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

Cursed be the ground because of you;

By toil shall you eat of it

All the days of your life…

By the sweat of your brow

Shall you get bread to eat,

Until you return to the ground —

For from it you were taken. (Gen. 3:17-19)

Henceforward, says God, human life will be difficult. Nothing will be provided for us; we must work hard to eat, to live, to love. And we will try and fail, try and fail again. We will try to plant wheat, and thorns and thistles will grow instead. We will reach out to others for love and be rejected. We will work hard at making senior partner, only to be passed over.

This is, of course, from the second Creation story, the more human of the two, Gen. 2:4b ff. The first story (Gen. 1:1 – 2:4a) is about order: six days of God admiring God’s own perfect work, and then resting. Shabbat is today that aftertaste of perfection, a little hint of the Garden of Eden here in Pittsburgh and everywhere else for 25 hours every week.

But the other six days are days of toil and suffering. And that is what makes us human. We are subject to the elements, to the economy, to the vagaries of human relationships, to political forces, and so on. We are vulnerable.

But wait a minute. Didn’t God make us this way? Is not our tendency to feel shame also Divine?

When Adam and Eve eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they suddenly realize that they are not wearing clothes. And what happens? They feel ashamed. They feel vulnerable. Recognizing this new emotion in the creatures God has created, the Qadosh Barukh Hu asks them (Gen. 3:11), “Mi higid lekha ki eirom atah?” “Who told you that you were naked?”

Rashi glosses this verse as follows: “Me-ayin lekha lada’at mah boshet yesh be-omed arom? Ha-min ha-etz?!” “From where did you learn what shame there is in standing naked? From the tree?!”

That’s when they start pointing fingers, blaming each other and the serpent to alleviate their shame. (Dr. Brown: “blame” is defined in the relevant academic literature as, “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.”)

Of course it was not from the tree. Shame was also created by God in those first six days of ostensibly “perfect” Creation.

So when Adam and Eve lose paradise, and are told that they are on their own, that fundamental vulnerability comes from God. It is Divine. It is the essential piece of humanity, the finishing flourish, if you will, of Creation.

So what is the voice proclaiming at the end of the holiday season? Embrace that God-given vulnerability. That is what the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, are all about: we are frail, we need help. And carry that sense of frailty into the rest of the year. Live with it, because it will make you more wholehearted.

Dr. Brené Brown concludes her talk by pointing out that the way that we deal with our vulnerability is by trying to numb it through addictive behaviors. “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history,” she says.

But the problem with this is that you cannot selectively numb particular emotions, and so we have also numbed our ability to experience joy, gratitude, and happiness, and this has led to a whole host of other social ills. We are increasingly isolated, increasingly certain and inflexible in our beliefs, increasingly willing to assign blame rather than accept who we are.

She offers that what we need to be teaching our children is, it’s OK to be imperfect. It’s OK to be flawed and wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. I would append to this the idea that God created us that way, way back in Bereshit / Genesis.

During Sukkot, we “invite” key figures in Jewish folklore to come and sit with us in our sukkah, in a ceremony known as Ushpizin. We call on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth to honor us with their presence. But we often forget that these characters were human, and hence imperfect. Abraham twice identified his wife Sarah as his sister, because he was afraid of being killed. Sarah laughed when promised a son late in life. Moses was ashamed of what may have been a stutter. Aaron made the Molten Calf, for crying out loud! And David, the great King David, slept with his neighbor’s wife and then had her husband killed in battle, because he was ashamed. These were flawed people!

Love and I love on Pinterest

But they lived with their vulnerabilities. They are on display for all to see in the stories of the Tanakh. And we too must embrace our own insecurities, and raise our children to accept their shortcomings. Nobody’s perfect, my friends. Qol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer. Remember the still, small voice, calling out from the New Year. The imperfection within us is Divine; now get out there and be proudly vulnerable.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/14/2017.)

* Isaiah 52:7, a verse that we read over the summer in the Fourth Haftarah of Consolation:

מַה-נָּאווּ עַל-הֶהָרִים רַגְלֵי מְבַשֵּׂר, מַשְׁמִיעַ שָׁלוֹם מְבַשֵּׂר טוֹב–מַשְׁמִיעַ יְשׁוּעָה; אֹמֵר לְצִיּוֹן, מָלַךְ אֱ-לֹהָיִךְ

How welcome on the mountain

Are the footsteps of the herald

Announcing happiness,

Heralding good fortune,

Announcing victory,

Telling Zion, “Your God is King!”

** Yes, if you study the words of the piyyut / liturgical poem carefully, you will find that it speaks of “various prophetic descriptions of apocalyptic events in the end of days,” (Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, p. 211). But the repeated lines at the beginning and the end are incomplete, and we repeat them five times.

*** Please note that while some Christian denominations point to this episode as the source of “original sin,” Judaism reads the first few chapters of Bereshit / Genesis differently. God did not create humans to be immortal, and the first humans were not perfect. In other words, the expulsion from the Garden was inevitable, like the classic arc of tragedy.

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Ani Ma’amin / I Believe – Shemini Atzeret 5778

We are in difficult times. Wildfires. Hurricanes. A horrific mass shooting. A president who thrives on insults and can’t distinguish between Nazis and “fine people.”

I’m going to talk today about faith, about commitment to our spiritual tradition, in the context of challenging times. Ani Ma’amin. I believe.

Belief is a funny thing. My sense is that we don’t believe in too much today, do we? We like our distance, our cool, reserved, “let’s wait and see” stance.

How many of us believe so strongly in something that we can actually put ourselves into it bodily? How many of us fully invest ourselves in a cause, for example, that we’re actually out in the streets, marching? How many of us feel so strongly about our tradition that we commit to the actions of the tradition, rather than merely checking the “High Holiday” or “Yizkor” box?

There is really no greater figure on the Jewish bookshelf than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka Rambam. He lived in the 12th century, primarily in Egypt, and wrote two major works: the Mishneh Torah, and the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed. These two works come at Judaism from two different perspectives. The Moreh Nevukhim is written for the skeptic, the one who has not yet bought into the idea of Judaism. It’s written to try to initiate the uninitiated; it presents the meaning of our rituals and customs and texts with an eye to inspiring connection. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the language of the Jews of Egypt of the 12th century.

Spain - Cordoba - statue of the Jewish scholar Maimonides ...

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

The Mishneh Torah, on the other hand, is a halakhic guide. Its title means, literally, the second Torah, boldly titled to almost suggest that if you read this book, you would not need to read the original Torah. It’s for the already-convinced, the committed Jew who wants to know how to do Judaism properly. It’s for the one who throws his or her whole body and heart and mind into it. It’s written in beautiful, crisp medieval Hebrew, easily understandable to those who have studied our essential tongue.

Sitting next to each other on the shelf, what might this suggest about the Jews that Rambam knew in 12th-century Cairo? Certainly, the Mishneh Torah suggests that there were some Jews who were committed to halakhah and wanted to know more, wanted to know from a master interpreter of our tradition what exactly makes a sukkah kosher, or what Psalms to recite for Hallel. But the Moreh Nevukhim, The Guide for the Perplexed, suggests that there were many that were not yet ready to believe, not yet ready to commit.

Having just completed the odyssey of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, I must say that I find it extraordinarily ironic that one of the best-known piyyutim (liturgical poems) of those days is “Vekhol Ma’aminim.” It includes a litany of statements about God that “all [of us] believe.” And yet, I know that in the sanctuary on those days, there are many who do not believe – do not buy into fundamental traditional understandings of our tradition, of Jewish theology, of the halakhic system, of mitzvot, and so forth. Many of us do not believe, even some of us who are singing along.

Whenever we say the word “amen,” we are saying, I am in a state of faith with you. I believe.

But tefillah, prayer, is not a portrait of what is; it is a vision of what could be. So it’s certainly possible to be in a state of faith that tefillah helps us along the path to building that vision. And that’s certainly where I am.

I believe in the power of Judaism to change your life. I believe in the richness of wisdom that is found in our ancient texts. I believe in the holy spark that may be found in all people, and in all of God’s creation. I believe in the power of that force that flows around and through us that we refer to as the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, to change us and to change the world.

Maybe that makes me an outlier. But it puts me in good company.

A few years back, Elie Wiesel was featured at a performance at the 92nd St. Y in New York. He told a story about how his mother, who came from a well-known family of Vizhnitzer Hasidim, brought him on one Shabbat in 1943 to the court of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. Elie was 15, and although rumors had reached his home town, Sighet, Romania, about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Poland, nobody knew for certain.

Elie Wiesel: 1928-2016

Also there on that Shabbat was a nephew of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a young man who had been in Nazi-occupied Poland, but managed to find his way back Vizhnitz, in the Ukraine. The Hasidim there that Shabbat pressed him for information, but he would not say a thing. He simply could not tell them what he had likely seen: the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen, SS mobile killing squads, rail transports to death camps in cattle cars, and so on. On all these things, the young man was silent. Instead, he only sang. He sang the words of Ani Ma’amin, Maimonides’ fundamental statement of faith in the coming of the mashiah. But embedded in the words, and in the melody, was the message that they needed to maintain faith despite the coming cataclysm:

(You can hear the recording of Elie Wiesel singing this song by clicking here.)

אני מאמין
באמונה שלמה
בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה
עם כל זה אחכה לו
בכל יום שיבוא

Ani ma-amin
Be-emunah shelemah
Bevi-at hamashiah
Ve-af al pi sheyitmahmeah
Im kol zeh ahakeh lo
B
ekhol yom sheyavo

I believe
With perfect faith
In the coming of the mashiah (the anointed one)
And although he tarries
Nonetheless, I wait for him
Every day, that he may come

What did the Jews of Vizhnitz and Elie Wiesel learn that Shabbat? That whatever unspeakable horrors lay in front of them, they would survive. That whatever fate was awaiting them at the hands of their oppressors, that some of them would make it to the other side. That there would be Jews at some future time, Jews who would be on this Earth to greet the arriving mashiah. That even though there are dark times ahead, that they would eventually pass.

There is always hope for the future. Our tradition teaches us to be patient, and to look past the current darkness to the better days ahead. Ani ma’amin. I believe.

To be sure, Elie Wiesel lost his faith; he chronicles that moment in his first book, Night, his account of the Shoah, when he arrives at Auschwitz and is hustled out of the cattle car, and an SS officer points to the flames coming from the crematorium and screams, Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there-that’s where you’re going to be taken. That’s your grave, over there.And in that moment, reports Wiesel, he loses his faith. A God that could have allowed such a thing did not deserve his reverence. His faith, he says, was consumed in those flames.

At some point, later in life, he found Judaism again. But anybody who survived the camps had to struggle with belief. I had a congregant back on Long Island who, late in life, authored an account of her own Shoah story. It was particularly striking to me that, in the book, she conceded that, while she raised a family in Jewish tradition, and her children and grandchildren were believers, she could not find the same belief within herself.

And yet, it is that belief that enabled some to survive. It is that sense of “Ani ma-amin,” I believe, that has given our people hope for millennia, through destruction and exile and Crusades and Inquisition and expulsion and genocide.

I believe that we are here today because of our belief.

Because we will be here forever, if we all just reach a little deeper, if we all just put a little more of ourselves into learning our tradition, into acting on our tradition, in keeping the holy opportunities, the mitzvot of our tradition in front of us. If we let go of some of that cool reserve, if we put ourselves bodily into our rituals and customs bodily, if we pray with fervor, if we reach higher to keep the mitzvot, if we yearn to reach past the perplexity to seek answers, to act on that belief, we will survive whatever challenges we face.

Ani ma-amin. I believe. And I’ll wait, and continue to daven every day, until we get to the other side.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shemini Atzeret, Thursday, 10/12/2017.)

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