Monthly Archives: August 2016

Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

****

What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Sermons

Why I Love Camp Ramah – Mattot/Mas’ei 5776

I love summer camp. And in particular, I love Camp Ramah, with which I have a relationship extending now back 36 years, to my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (In case you do not know, Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement; there are 13 North American camps plus affiliated programs in Israel, Ukraine, and Argentina.)

We arrived at Camp Ramah in Canada pretty late at night – it was 11:00 by the time we found our way to the guest cottage, which was far nicer than any such accommodations that I have seen at any of the other Ramah camps (I’ve now been to five of them, including the day camp in Jerusalem, where I worked in the summer of 2000 as a music specialist). The night air was cool – it was 63 degrees – and the stars were bright and vivid.

This camp really feels like the end of the world. Having never been so far north in Ontario before, I could not help feeling as we drove there that we kept taking turns onto smaller and smaller roads, finally ending up on a dirt pathway as we entered the camp property. The camp’s official address is on “Fish Hatchery Road,” which sounds far more organized than the rural environment reveals. (Curiously, my alma mater, Camp Ramah in New England, is also down the road from a fish hatchery. Coincidence?)

Nonetheless, the camp was alive and pulsing with energy when we pulled in – the staff was having a late-night barbecue, and we were promptly offered hot dogs, which we politely declined.

And, it wouldn’t be camp without some mayhem, so as we were getting into bed, all the smoke detectors in the guest cottages went off, dragging everybody out of bed and frightening my 7-year-old son greatly. But it was an opportunity to meet our neighbors and chat for a bit, so it wasn’t too bad. And that’s sometimes how camp works: you plan as thoroughly as you can, and then something sends your fabulous program gloriously off-course. But you adjust and go with the flow, and everything mostly works out fine in the end.

So we spent three and a half days there, playing soccer and frisbee, dunking in the agam (lake) and davening, dining in the hadar okhel (dining hall), lying around in the sun, welcoming and saying goodbye to Shabbat with all of the nearly 600 campers and staff together in raucous song.

What I love about camp are the following things:

  1. Being away from the craziness of everyday life, and replacing that with a totally different kind of more-rustic craziness.
  2. Kids enjoying themselves away from digital devices, which, if not the scourge of humanity, are at least a plague on those parenting teenagers.
  3. Timelessness. Camp does not change that much, and there is something beautiful in that.
  4. The sounds of camp: the breeze at night; the powerful sound of singing and pounding on the tables in the hadar okhel, the dining hall; the sound of Jewish kids playing basketball and dancing Israeli folk dances and preparing a musical in Hebrew and just hanging around on the migrash (field).
  5. The Jewish framework. OK, so camp teaches a few things about Judaism fairly well, and a few things not so well. But the most essential thing that camp teaches very well is the rhythm of the Jewish week, the implicit foundation on which all other camp structures are built: six days of work, and the seventh day of rest. Tefillah / prayer three times a day. Expressing gratitude before and particularly after eating. Jewish text here and there, as a part of the environment.

But the thing that I love about camp the most is that it is the most successful Jewish educational endeavor that we have ever crafted, mostly because it teaches Jewish kids about Judaism in an informal way, that does not let on that it’s education. The Hebrew language is integrated into all facets of camp, from announcements at meals to learning to play volleyball. Yes, there is formal Judaic learning in daily shi’urim (lessons), but Jewish life saturates every aspect of camp. Love of Israel is reinforced in many ways, from the presence of a delegation of Israeli staff to Israeli pop music played over the PA system in the hadar okhel. Torah and Jewish text are infused into many activities.

It is the informality that makes camp work. Jewish life simply happens in the context of summer activities. Camp is not like Hebrew school, wherein kids get 5 or 6 hours a week of Jewish instruction. It’s actually even more powerful than day school, because it’s a kind of immersion. There is no quick dip into Judaism before returning to regular, not explicitly Jewish activities. Camp is 24/7 Judaism. It never stops.

And the secret to continuity in Jewish life is that ongoing connection. Today’s world is very fragmented: all of our activities are siloed. Work is separated from family time which is separate from school which is separate from entertainment and on and on. It can be very isolating to live in that environment. Judaism, for the vast majority of Jews, is what you do on a Saturday morning, or on Yom Kippur, or when there’s a family bar mitzvah. But our ancestors did not live that way. The rabbis of the Talmud see Torah as a part of all facets of our lives, from business to romantic relationships to recreation to family. And camp endeavors to create that environment in a way that our lives at home may not.

Does it always succeed? No. But the impact of camp can be quite strong, nevertheless.

One of the items appearing in Parashat Mas’ei is the list of places which the Israelites passed through on the way from slavery to freedom. It is a catalog of place names with no detail given as to what each place was like or if anything happened there during their visit. However, a midrash (from Tanhuma) understood this passage as being an important historical record for our ancestors to recall what happened at each stage of the journey through the desert: here is where we slept; here we caught a cold; here you told me that your head hurt. (You know the Israelites… always complaining!)

And, as you know, we have continued to journey as a people. We continue to grow and change as human civilization moves forward. My Jewish world is quite different from that of my great-grandparents. Even so, camp is a model that continues to work, and only at the Ramah camps do our children learn about the open, egalitarian, and yet traditional form of Judaism to which we are committed.

Here is where a young woman donned a tallit for the first time. Here is where we made connections with young Israelis who represent the Jewish state while teaching Hebrew and volleyball. Here is where a boy learned how to chant the Torah from his madrikh (counselor). Here is where a girl played a lead role in a production of the famous Broadway musical, Kannar al haGag (Fiddler on the Roof).

We had seven kids there from Pittsburgh last weekend, including two of my own. But we can do better than that. If we want to help our children along that traditional, egalitarian journey, Ramah is where they should be.

Shabbat ended as it had come in: cacophonously, with music and prayer, and the entire camp gathered together for ritual. And I recalled the camp days of my youth, and the havdalah ceremonies that seemed so powerful, so evocative, so connective. You grow older, you leave camp – camp is for the young, and your journey continues and takes you elsewhere. You leave camp. But camp never leaves you.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2016.)

 

1 Comment

Filed under Sermons