Choice vs. Obligation: How Might We Relate to Judaism Today? (Mitzvah, Part 1 of 2)- Emor 5776

I had a couple of very relevant conversations last week surrounding Judaism and choice.

The first was at Community Day School this past Monday morning. I was there for what seemed to me a very curious thing: to promote the wearing of tefillin. Now this might seem totally normal – after all, I promote Jewish observance every day of my life. I in fact promote that particular mitzvah quite often during our weekday morning minyan – when there are men who enter to worship and do not have tefillin, I offer it to them. They rarely take me up on the offer, and I do not push. There is, it seems, something particularly alien about putting on tefillin for those for whom it is not a regular mitzvah.

And just to be clear, the mitzvah of tefillin is on par with all of the other positive, time-bound mitzvot, like the observance of Shabbat, wearing a tallit, sitting in the sukkah, eating matzah and maror on the first nights of Pesah, studying Torah, daily prayer, etc. There is nothing that distinguishes this one as compared with any other particular mitzvot – that is, it is just as valid, and still applies to Jewish adults.

Opinions Vary on Women and Tefillin Question

But what was challenging for me about this discussion was not the promotion of a mitzvah, but rather the assumption that it is a choice for post-benei-mitzvah kids in a Jewish day school whether or not to wear them, particularly while it is not a choice for them to fulfill the mitzvah of daily prayer.

Now, it is not my intent to criticize CDS – I think that they are doing a wonderful job endowing our children with Jewish learning. My intent is to examine where we are today as Jews, a subject that many of you know is exceedingly important to me.

The second conversation was here at the Religious Services Committee meeting on Thursday evening. Among the topics discussed that evening was the question of whether women in our congregation be required to wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin during our services. Now, I do not need to go into the halakhic / Jewish law issues surrounding this question – we’ll save that for another day. (Suffice it so say that it is a very interesting question, but of course we know that traditionally women have not been considered “obligated” to wear these ritual items, but the Conservative movement has said that they may take them upon themselves if they desire.)

What emerged during the conversation is the question of those men who come to weekday morning minyanim and wear a tallit, but no tefillin, to which they are clearly obligated under Jewish law. Generally, we do not force anybody to do anything. So if we were to insist that women were to put on these ritual items, we would have to insist that these men do as well.

The question upon which I am focused is not tefillin, per se, but the idea of choice. Because the way that Judaism has traditionally been understood, we do not really have a choice. God has placed the mitzvot in front of us (613, as you may know, although this is a debatable figure), and it is our obligation to fulfill them. “Kol asher dibber YHWH na’aseh ve-nishma,” said our ancestors back in Parashat Mispatim. “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will obey.” (Ex. 24:7) That’s what the covenant, the berit, with God is all about. God gives us good things – rain, abundant harvests, fertile livestock, etc. – and we perform the mitzvot. (Why do we call circumcision a berit millah? Because millah / circumcision is the sign of that covenant, that berit with Avraham, Yitzhaq, and Ya’aqov and every Israelite who came after them.)

The traditional way of thinking in Jewish life is that if we choose not to fulfill our side of the covenant, God’s expectations of us, we have clearly transgressed.

Now, it is DEFINITELY NOT my intent to make anybody feel guilty about what they do or do not do. I don’t believe in guilt – it’s not a part of my religion.

Nonetheless, I think we do need to feel out this concept of choice. We are not living, after all, in the second century CE, when the early rabbis were codifying these principles, or even the 19th century, when the modern movements (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) are beginning to crystallize. Today we are in a very different place, both in our relationship to Jewish tradition, and the wider society’s relationship to religion. And, as we all know, the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so.

So the question comes down to this: Do we, in fact, feel “obligated” to the mitzvot of Jewish life? Do we feel compelled to fulfill our end of that berit, that covenant? Can we even understand God in such a way that makes the whole idea of berit work?

I have been a lifelong Conservative Jew, and mitzvot such as tefillin have never been presented as optional. On the contrary, it was clear that although many Conservative Jews clearly did not keep kashrut or Shabbat in a traditional way, there was always the expectation that, at least in the synagogue and other public Jewish contexts, the communal standard of observance was higher. To this day, of course, we mandate that food served in the building is kosher, that tefillot are recited thrice daily, that hilkhot Shabbat, the laws of Shabbat observance, are observed, and so forth. In short, we offer an environment in which it is clearly possible to fulfill the mitzvot. And we encourage people to do so, regardless of what they do once they leave.

When I was a camper at Camp Ramah, an arm of the Conservative movement, boys who were post-benei mitzvah were required to wear tefillin at morning services. There was no choice. I did not mind this – as you may imagine, I’ve always enjoyed putting on tefillin. It is likely that not everybody was where I was.

But when I was not at camp, I only rarely put on tefillin as a teenager, and only when I was at a weekday morning service, which happened perhaps three times in high school (the morning of Purim, since I was a regular megillah reader).

Let’s face it: the highest value in American society today is choice. Have you purchased any toothpaste lately? While it used to be that there were about four toothpastes available to the American consumer, today there must be hundreds. What could possibly justify so many choices?

I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA describe America as, “Choice on steroids.” And all that choice has transmogrified our brains. We expect it in all corners of our lives.

Is this good for the Jews? When we have seemingly infinite choice, isn’t it natural to assume that we will have it in our relationship with Judaism as well? Ours is not really a tradition of choice. It is a tradition of mitzvah, of commandment.

The reality, of course, is that we have choice in Judaism, and I don’t merely mean davening at Rodef Shalom, Beth Shalom, or Poalei Zedek. There was a brief period in American Jewish life when converts to Judaism were referred to by the politically-correct-sounding, “Jews by choice.” But today we have to acknowledge that we are ALL Jews by choice, even those of us born to a Jewish mother and steeped in tradition.

So how, then, may we understand mitzvah? This is a particularly relevant question today, when we celebrate a member of our community becoming bar mitzvah, i. e. one who is now endowed with the opportunity for complete spiritual fulfillment of the 613 mitzvot of Jewish life.

There is no question in my mind that the mitzvot are an obligation; some rabbinic writings refer to them as a “yoke,” (ol malkut shamayim – the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, the Empire of God). The very word mitzvah means commandment – something that God has effectively ordered us to do. But these are all alienating terms. Perhaps those of us in the know should refer to the mitzvah as a holy opportunity.

With every potential fulfillment of a mitzvah, with every available holy choice, we have the opportunity to raise our own personal holiness quotient. When you wrap yourself up in a tallit, when you bind the words of the Shema to your arm and your head, when you place a mezuzah on your door frame, when you avoid certain foods or avoid spending money on Shabbat or have a holiday meal with family, you raise your holiness quotient. Whenever you take an opportunity to fulfill a traditional ritual, you elevate yourself and your community just a little bit.

Here are five possible reasons for continuing to take those holy opportunities. Perhaps one of them speaks to you.

  1. Mitzvah. Berit / covenant. The traditional conception of obligation.
  2. Tradition. My ancestors have done this for millennia. Perhaps I should too.
  3. Boundaries. Healthy living requires limits.
  4. Physicality. We need daily reminders of being Jewish to connect us to our tradition, and physical acts (eating, wrapping tefillin, etc.) are the best reminders.
  5. Qedushah .It makes you feel holy.

Ultimately, even though it’s not a choice, many of us perceive it to be. But it’s the right choice, the set of choices our people have been making for perhaps as long as 2,000 years. And maybe, just maybe the reason we are still here, thousands of years after the Roman Empire, the Babylonians Empire, the Persian Empire, even the Ottoman Empire (OK, so it’s only been a century since that one fell), is because we have continued to pursue this path of holiness, because we have continued to make the holy choice when it has been presented to us, to act on those sacred opportunities. The Empire of God, malkhut shamayim, is still here.

(To read part 2 in this series on the concept of mitzvah, click here.)


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/21/2016.)


The Holiness of Being Together – Qedoshim 5776

Last weekend, my family and I were on the first annual Beth Shalom Family Retreat, which was targeted at member families that will be celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah in the coming year or two (that is, with children in the 5th and 6th grade). Altogether, we were 49 people: eleven families (including my own), plus JJEP Director Liron Lipinsky, Youth Director Yasha Rayzberg, and JLine Director Carolyn Gerecht, on loan from the JCC, which also supported the trip with a generous Partner in Teen Engagement grant.

From Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, we were together. We held Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh services together. We dined together. We played together, sang together, went for a nature walk in the woods together, recited the Amidah for Shabbat minhah under a lean-to in the rain together, learned Torah and discussed mitzvot and parenting and the future of Judaism together, and so forth. And, not only this, but we also managed to find some moments of down-time, doing nothing but hanging around and schmoozing and enjoying each other’s company. (We were at Camp Guyasuta, a Boy Scout camp just over the Highland Park Bridge.)

As far as I can tell, it has been a very long time since Beth Shalom has done something like this, if ever. The goals of this retreat were as follows:

  • To connect benei mitzvah families to each other and to their synagogue by creating opportunities to engage with Jewish life together
  • To discuss issues important to families surrounding bat and bar mitzvah, like the meaning of mitzvah, and how we might understand Judaism in relation to our lives today
  • To reinforce the sense that Jewish learning goes on in formal and informal settings
  • To create a sense of continuity in Jewish education before and after benei mitzvah
  • To promote post-benei mitzvah opportunities for Jewish learning, particularly JLine
  • To give the participants a traditional Shabbat experience
  • To expose them to Jewish learning in age cohorts as well as inter-generational
  • To break down social boundaries between children in day school and those in supplementary religious school (about half of our families were JJEP, and half were CDS)

And, of course, the overarching goal amidst all of this was for everybody to come away thinking, “That was awesome.” To create positive memories of Jewish involvement, of Shabbat, of Beth Shalom, and so forth.

And I think that we achieved all of those goals.

Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of feedback that we received, when we solicited the participants for reactions to the weekend, was that it was a pleasure for these families to spend time together, in simple surroundings, not watching the clock (well, they weren’t, but I can assure you that we, the staff, were), enjoying the qedushah, holiness of Shabbat, and the time that we spent together.

Parashat Qedoshim, which is really one of my handful of favorite parashiyyot (and not just because it happens to be my bar mitzvah parashah), is notable for many reasons. It features a portion of the book of Leviticus known as “the Holiness Code,” an echo of the Decalogue, aka the Ten Commandments. But the mitzvot included here are more about interpersonal holiness then the Decalogue (i.e. 10 commandments) . While the passage in Exodus speaks of the big commandments, not killing, stealing, coveting, etc., stated in the cold abstract, the Holiness Code tends to speak about mitzvot in the context of human relationships.

Just a few examples: judging people fairly (Lev. 19:15), not bearing a grudge (19:18), leaving portions of one’s field and produce for the poor among us (19:9-10). And while the Decalogue says simply, Lo tignov / do not steal (Ex. 20:13), Parashat Qedoshim says, Lo ta’ashoq et rai’akha, do not defraud your fellow; do not commit robbery, and do not keep the wages of a day laborer overnight. (Lev. 19:14), all forms of theft, but continually referring back to the other.

And the effect is that these statements in Qedoshim are much more human. They are about the people we love, the people we work with or employ, the people who live next door, the people we encounter in the marketplace or gleaning sheaves of wheat in the field. The mitzvot of the Holiness Code are as much about the people as they are about the actions.

When I read this parashah, I think about society. I think about making a human environment in which people understand and appreciate the others around them, and about how we see ourselves through the lens that focuses on the other.

The reason that retreats work well is because they take us all out of our regular environment, the context of all the craziness and busy-ness that fills our lives: sports leagues, playdates, homework, texting, ballet lessons, saxophone lessons, math lessons, cleaning, shopping, fixing the house, and so forth. Because all 49 of us were in such close quarters, with limited options and no appointments and no constant interruption, we were simply able to enjoy Shabbat, and each other’s company. Adults schmoozed while kids played nearby. It was blissful. And then there were s’mores.

What you can easily create in a 40-hour retreat that is much harder to create in, say, the synagogue, is the sense of togetherness. This is a good feeling, one to which we used to be accustomed. Today, the sense of togetherness often seems quaint, because each of us is so wrapped up in doing our own thing, getting through our own to-do list, dealing with our own problems.

We are living in a zealously independent age. Unlike our ancestors, most of whom lived in poor, cramped environments in which (a) you had to depend on others for help, and (b) you could not avoid sharing space and food and life with other people. Today we live far more comfortable and isolated lives. If we want to shut ourselves off from others, we can. Given the digital innovations of today, it’s not hard to go through life without actually speaking to anybody, let alone relying on them for all manner of assistance.

We are all, in the words of sociologist Robert Putnam, bowling alone. There are more single people today, on a percentage basis, than there have ever been in history. There are fewer bridge games and adult softball leagues. All forms of civic engagement are down, from voting to going to club meetings to, of course, membership in synagogues and churches. The “social capital” (Putnam’s term) that once infused American life, drawing people together, has diminished dramatically in the past half-century, and nobody knows why.

But qedushah, holiness, flows not only from our relationship with God, but also through our relationships with each other. Why do we require minyan, a quorum of 10 people for services and for weddings? Why do we build synagogues (batei kenesset, houses of gathering) for group prayer and learning and socializing? Why do we call 13-year-olds to the Torah in front of the entire community? Why do we have rituals to mark any lifecycle event in synagogues?  Why do we publicly mark the passing of our beloved friends and relatives multiple times a year as a community with Yizkor? Because community is the essence of what it means to be Jewish. And our sense of qedushah flows through that gathering together.

Togetherness yields holiness. And we need more of both.

So how do we achieve togetherness? We have to make room for it in multiple dimensions: time, space, in our minds and hearts.  We have to set aside a piece of our lives to be with other people.

Convincing ten families to come with us on this retreat was the hard part; people had to accept that they would be giving up a whole lot of other things to commit to this. But when they came to the end, the participants appreciated the value of setting aside that time for the pursuit of holiness in being together.

Communicating with friends and family with your electronic devices does not satisfy this need for togetherness. Texting, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, etc. may keep you informed (perhaps too much so!), but they do not create the feeling that human contact creates. And they certainly do not allow us to be fully present, enjoying personal moments with others.

You have heard me speak many times over the last nine months in various ways about re-thinking what we do here at Beth Shalom, re-orienting our relationship with Judaism to be more engaging, more connective. The retreat is just one way of doing this. I think we need more retreats, organized by cohort: empty nesters, families with young children, seniors, singles, and so forth. But we also need to create other opportunities for people to gather and satisfy that human need for togetherness: the trip to Israel, the social action project, the discussion group for parents, the kosher wine tasting night, and so forth.

We have grown accustomed to “Jewish” being something that we do when in the synagogue. But it’s not at all. On the contrary: Judaism should infuse our lives with holiness. Not just for the few minutes that we are gathered here. Not just for the six-and-a-half hours per week that our children spend in Hebrew school. Not just for the moments that we celebrate or grieve at lifecycle events.

Rather, every interaction we have with friends, family, strangers, loved ones should be marked by a reminder that our relationships are holy, that God expects us to uphold that holiness with everybody. And that is the whole point of the Holiness Code of Parashat Qedoshim. And it is also the whole point of seeking qedushah / holiness through togetherness. And that’s why we took a retreat last weekend.

I hope you’ll be on the next one. Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2016.)


The Persistence of Memory, or, Our Future Must Be Rooted in Our Past – Eighth Day Pesah, 5776

Back in February, I spent two days in Florida, visiting members of Beth Shalom on both the east and west coasts. I was on the ground for less than 48 hours, but managed to visit a whole bunch of our “snowbird” members and bring them a little bit of Pittsburgh and Beth Shalom warmth.

My parents are also snowbirds, and in-between I managed to squeeze in a brief visit with them in the St. Petersburg area, including a stop at the Salvador Dalí museum in St. Pete. Dalí, one of the most familiar artists of the 20th century, may be best known his work, “The Persistence of Memory,” which you all know as the desert landscape featuring what appear to be melting clocks. It is an iconic painting, among the most familiar images of 20th-century art. But I have often wondered how Dalí squared the title with the painting’s content.

The Persistence Of Memory Salvador Dali - Wallpaper, High Definition ...

I bring this to your attention because today is one of the handful of days of memory of the Jewish calendar, a Yizkor day. Today is a day when we focus on the persistence of memory, when we recall those who have passed from this world and actively remember what they gave us. But memory is not merely something we exercise when we recite the Yizkor liturgy – it is an essential part of who we are as Jews. Memory keeps us connected not only to our deceased loved ones, but also to our past, to our stories, to our bookshelf, to our families. And it will also be the cornerstone of our future.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the Jewish future, and in particular how to ensure that my children and grandchildren, should they choose to embrace their heritage, will have the option of participating in Jewish rituals that count men and women as equals, of being part of communities that celebrate the diversity of the Jewish world in the context of our wider society, of studying Torah and rabbinic literature in an environment that is not only open to all who want to participate but also incorporates contemporary ideas and theological approaches as well as academic scholarship. We have the ability to guarantee that kind of Jewish world, but we have to act now.

As a part of this thought process, I also consider the tremendous challenge we are facing today in the progressive Jewish world: the vast indifference of many Jews to what goes on within the synagogue walls, the tremendous gap in understanding between what you and I know to be the value of Judaism in today’s world vs. what most not-yet-engaged Jews understand or appreciate.

I have been listening to a new podcast about the future of Judaism, called “Judaism Unbound,” which is a product of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, of which I had never heard until last week. This podcast features discussions by Jews who are willing to think outside the box about Judaism. I wanted to share with you something that these discussions have taken as a sort of postulate: that Jewish life as we know it, particularly the form of Jewish involvement fostered by established Jewish institutions (like this one), is barely alive.

On what basis do they make this assessment? Surely, you say, there are plenty of Jews for whom Jewish life as we have known it throughout our lives is thriving! Look at how many people there are here today! Look at how many families have joined Congregation Beth Shalom in the past year! Look at how many outwardly-traditional Jews you see walking down Murray Avenue!

Yes, it is true that there are many people who are still committed to our classic model of Judaism. But recent demographic data clearly paints a different picture: The overall trend that we see, even as there is new growth and development and activity among traditionally-inclined Jews, is a gradual decrease in involvement in Jewish life by most of American Jewry. We all know this anecdotally, but every demographic study of American Jews of the last several decades (see, e.g. the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study) has confirmed that, even as virtually all Jews profess to be proud of being Jewish, fewer and fewer are practicing traditional forms of Judaism.

Rabbi Benay Lappe, a fellow Conservative rabbi and alumna of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a guest on one of their podcasts. She discusses her theory of the Judaism of the future (largely drawn from her ELI Talk), framing the challenge of today’s Jewish world in the context of Jewish history: in terms of response to a cataclysm in Jewish life (a “crash”), there are only three options: (1) Cling to the past; (2) Reject the past; or (3) Create a new paradigm. She cites the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in the year 70 CE as one significant crash in Jewish history. Some Jews (particularly the Kohanim / priests) wanted to retain the old order (i.e. Option 1). Some (sources say 90%) moved on without the Temple, but with nothing with which to replace it (Option 2).  A very small, fringe group, to whom we today refer as “the Rabbis,” created a new order: study and prayer, and wrote down their ideas in a new set of books that came to be known as the Talmud. That’s Option 3.  And guess what? That’s what we call Judaism today.

There have been other such crashes in the last two millennia, among them the Expulsion from Spain, the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment of the late 18th and 19th centuries), the Shoah. And we have responded. And here we are again – though there has been no one particular event to which we can point, Rabbi Lappe points out that when statistics say that far more people have rejected the current offerings of Judaism (that is, they are going with Option 2) than continue to embrace it (Option 1 – that’s us), we have reached the point of crash. And one can read the statistics that way. 73% of American Jews say that “Remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. Only 19% say that about “Observing Jewish law.”

I present this to you neither to cause you to grieve or lament what is past, nor to make you feel guilty for what you may or may not be doing, but rather to create the positive from the negative. If something is not working, ladies and gentlemen, we have to find the collective will to change it. We have to craft that new paradigm, even as we continue functioning and doing what we traditionally do. And I hope that we can do that in partnership.

And the challenge to institutions like this, and to us as individuals, is that we are still working under the old paradigm. And that makes sense, because our individual and our collective memories are powerful and connective. That is, of course, the persistence of memory.

To return for a moment to Salvador Dalí’s painting, the landscape is Dalí’s native Catalonia. It is familiar, ancestral, brimming with history and culture and heritage. But the other features of the painting are altered and dream-like.

To me, the persistence of memory suggests the moment of paradigm shift. The clocks, representing the regimented time of the past, are no longer functioning in a linear way. One of them is in the process of decay, swarmed with ants who are busy consuming it. The figure in the middle is often thought to be a self-portrait – Dalí himself, warped and oozing, saddled with time that is weighing on him and perhaps holding him down, even as it melts.

But, call me crazy, but I see this as an optimistic portrait. This is at dawn! Look at the light – the sun is rising. The clocks are all between 6 and 7, a time when we wake up and move into a new day. Dalí himself is sleeping, ready to rise and face the world, the old clocks disfigured and perhaps ready to be discarded as life continues. Some see stagnation here; I see hope.

I see in this painting where we are today: on the cusp of a new day.

Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was here two weekends ago not only to install me as your rabbi, but also to bring the message of change in the Conservative movement here to Pittsburgh. He reminded us that while many Conservative synagogues have continued to do what they have always done, the Jews have voted with their feet to go elsewhere, or nowhere at all. But he also pointed out that there will always be a need for synagogues to play the traditional role of helping people through their lives, in sanctifying holy moments and creating a space for people to rejoice and grieve and share stories and learning together. So we have to build on the latter while perhaps re-considering some of the things we have been doing forever.

We are going to work to envision that Option 3. We are going to adapt. But we must remain rooted in the past. Our history, our culture, our literature and liturgy and rituals must be a part of the Jewish future.

My own vision of the Jewish future is in small-group experiences: learning the words of our tradition in intimate settings to glean from them wisdom for how to live in today’s world. Gatherings like our monthly lunch & learns, or like the Melton class on Jewish parenting that was team-taught by our member Danielle Kranjec and myself, which is now continuing as a self-run program by the parents involved.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, on every single Shabbat and Yom Tov, there were eighteen families hosting Shabbat meals for other members of the community? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a monthly passage of Talmud or some other rabbinic text, curated by yours truly, and there were thirty-six study groups of 5-10 people each meeting over the course of the month to study the same passage? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if there were a series of regular social action activities coordinated by members of the congregation in various places all over Pittsburgh? These experiences could be much more powerful, engaging, and popular than what we are currently doing. But we’ll have to think even further outside the box than that.

There will always be, as I said, a need for synagogues, but in order to adapt we will have to think of ways to foster these small groups by providing space and materials and organization, even as we continue to offer traditional services.

Some of us will surely mourn for the kind of Jewish life that we grew up with, the memories of the day when Yizkor days saw the sanctuary packed to the rafters. Some of us will take refuge in other spheres of Judaism. But we will move forward as a people. And we do not really have a choice – the time is now.

So, as we take a moment now to recall those who have left this world, we should also remember how they lived their lives as Jews, and how they would also want their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to continue to live as Jews, and what we can do to make that happen not just tomorrow, but today as well.

Shabbat shalom, and hag sameah.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning and the eighth day of Pesah, 4/30/2016.)