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.)

One reply on “The Persistence of Memory, or, Our Future Must Be Rooted in Our Past – Eighth Day Pesah, 5776”

Another intelligent sermon. Just today I heard a group of well-heeled people in Great Neck discuss how the over-20’s are basically finding Judaism irrelevant to them. And these people are Iranians — who foolishly denied they were “immune” to the same forces that affect other American Jews. Wrong, as usual, as you well recall from time here.

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