Monthly Archives: November 2016

Welcoming Brokenness – Vayyera 5777

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

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

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

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

Photos | The Official Leonard Cohen Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folks, Listen!: Embracing Brokenness

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Positive Judaism – Noah 5777

Those of you who have been to the melaveh-malkah-in-the-sukkah that my family and I have hosted for the last couple of years know that I love folk music. Way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I saw Pete Seeger perform. Just a tall, gangly guy with a banjo. He was not young then, but he was magical. Mr. Seeger had the amazing ability to ask the audience to sing along with him, and they would do so in four-part harmony. Magic.

My physical chemistry professor, a man whom I still think of to this day as the most boring person on Earth, was seated a row in front of me to my left. He nodded off during the concert, and I felt a certain satisfaction in that my opinion of him was confirmed.

When Pete Seeger died nearly three years ago at the age of 94, his obituary in the New York Times chronicled all the political turmoil of his life: protests of his concerts by members of the John Birch Society, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and so forth. But that obit concluded with a striking statement of Mr. Seeger’s personal take on life. “The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

I have said on multiple occasions in this space that I am an optimist: on Israel, on the Jewish future, on life in general. Those of you who were here on the High Holidays may recall that I mentioned that the Judaism we need to emphasize, if we want our children and grandchildren to embrace it, is positive Judaism. By that I mean that we have to give them Jewish experiences that are affirming: being welcomed warmly into a Jewish community, having prayer experiences that make one feel transformed and invigorated, having affirmative interactions with Jewish institutions, interacting with clergy and communities that validate who we are and why we are here, that are not judgmental, that do not draw lines to exclude people.

Now, if you know a little about the history of contemporary movements in Judaism, you might know that the Conservative movement’s origins are in a group of scholars in the mid-19th century known as the “Positive-Historical School.”

The Reform movement emerged in the early 19th century in the German-speaking lands as a congregational movement led by rabbis who wanted to reform Judaism – to make it possible for Jews to live like Germans on the street and Jews in the home.

At the Reform conference in 1845, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and other early reformers were advocating for German to be the sole language of Jewish prayer. A more traditional reformer, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel and his allies argued that Hebrew was the language of the Jews, and should always be the language of prayer. In less than a decade, Rabbi Frankel & Co. launched the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, the original home of the Positive-Historical School: “positive” because they affirmed the binding nature of halakhah / Jewish law, and “historical” because they embraced the critical, scientific approach for understanding how Judaism developed over millennia, a philosophical stance which the Orthodoxy of the time opposed vigorously.

We, the Conservative movement, emerged from the Positive-Historical School. Yeah, I know, it’s not such a great title.

But, to quote Rav Kook, “הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש.” “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified. Together, they shall become torches that shall illuminate Zion.”

For more than a century, we in the theological center of Jewish life have been called “Conservative,” mostly because in changing Judaism for contemporary times, we have moved conservatively. The siddur that you hold is very similar to a traditional siddur; only a very few can readily identify how it is different.

And we have never lost our positive, historical roots. But we have to understand those words differently in the 21st century.

To be positive today, we have to be open. Open to change, open to new ideas, open to new members of the community whom we may have traditionally excluded. We have to be open to the principle that what goes on inside this prayer space reflects how we live outside; that is, that women and men are treated equally with respect to Jewish law; that we consider how the ways we live differently today affect our relationship to tradition.

We have to make sure that we do not merely force our children to memorize ancient words in a strange language, but that we teach them the underlying values of tefillah. We have to ensure that whatever we do here, it’s not just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but because it’s meaningful and brings us closer to God, closer to ourselves, and fills our lives with kedushah, holiness.

A good example of what it means to be positively Jewish is in a part of the service that very few of us hear, and yet it is such an essential statement of who we are as contemporary Jews.

Take a moment to open your siddur (Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s most recent Sabbath/Festival prayerbook) to p. 103. You’ll see on this page and the one that follows a series of 14 berakhot, blessings. We recited them at 9:01 this morning, and we recite them every single morning here at Beth Shalom. They are known as “birkhot hashahar,” the morning berakhot.

There are two patterns that might be discerned here. For the eleven of them (the first and then the fifth through the 14th) they follow the trajectory of how one begins the day: the rooster crows (are there any roosters in Squirrel Hill?) at dawn, then you open your eyes, get dressed, and go on about your morning routine. All of these eleven come from one passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) as things you should say as you start each day.

But the second, third, and fourth berakhot do not match the pattern. They say the following:

Praised are You, God, who made me in the Divine image.

… who made me free.

… who made me a Jew.

Now, anybody who has some familiarity with a traditional siddur knows that that’s not how these berakhot are worded. Rather, they are phrased in the negative, based on the language found elsewhere in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). In contemporary Orthodox siddurim you’ll find:

… who has not made me a gentile.

… who has not made me a slave.

… who has not made me a woman.

These berakhot were designed to acknowledge in ascending order the different levels of commandedness: classically speaking, free, adult male Jews were obligated to 613 mitzvot; slaves in Jewish homes were obligated to somewhat less than that, and gentiles are obligated to very few mitzvot (some say seven – as reported in today’s parashah).

Now, there is an obvious difficulty with the third berakhah; in traditional prayer books, women say “she-asani kirtzono,” “… who has made me according to His will.” And there is another difficulty: the Talmud does not say “… who has not made be a gentile,” but DOES say, “who has made me a Jew.”

farsi-birkhot-hashahar

Endings of these berakhot with Farsi translation, prepared for a Persian siddur. This order differs slightly from that found in Lev Shalem, although it is the same as that found in older Conservative siddurim.

So in 1946, with the publication of Rabbi Morris Silverman’s venerable “Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook,” which was found in the pews of virtually all Conservative synagogues until the 1980s, the language of those berakhot was changed to reflect who we are, rather than who we are not. Rabbi Silverman “positivized” all three, based on the positive formulation of she’asani Yisrael, and other positively-formulated variants of these berakhot used in various places and times throughout the last 2,000 years. We still use them today.

Leaving aside the problem of insulting most of humanity, I think the greater good of emending these berakhot is the statement of positivity. We should begin each day by saying, I am proud to be a free Jewish person, made in the image of God. I am exhilarated by the prospect of beginning my day by acting on the positive relationships suggested by those statements.

And not only that, but I also read another message about liturgical change here. While there are certain key elements of the siddur that have remained fixed for nearly two millennia, there are far more specifics that were in flux for many centuries, until the printing press arrived in the 15th century and caused standardization across vast swathes of the Jewish world. Prior to that, there was much more creativity in tefillah. (Another two points for history.)

The message is, “We have the power to make our Judaism positive. We can embrace the optimism. We can look into our future and see that change will yield positive benefits to how we connect Judaism with who we are, and thus ensure the future of our tradition.”  

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to be free, to have the imprint of divinity on my spirit, to be an inheritor of our two millennia of tradition. I love all those things, and I say them proudly every morning.

Having a positive approach to Judaism, not throwing up walls and dividing people, is an attitudinal shift that is good for the Jews. To paraphrase Pete Seeger, the key to the future of our people, and maybe the world as well, is finding the positive stories and letting them be known.

Shabbat shalom!

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A Post-Election Thought

You may have noticed that I have until now studiously avoided speaking about the presidential election explicitly, even though of course we have all been thinking about it (and perhaps agonizing about it) for months. There are several reasons that I have avoided this subject, and I identified those reasons in the Chronicle article on the subject a few weeks back.

The American people have spoken, and regardless of your own political views, there is no question that this election has upended the establishment. This vote came, I think, from a place of anxiety, of deep frustration and a measure of hopelessness from across large swathes of America. We are a nation gripped by many, seemingly intractable problems: the epidemic of addiction, the decline of manufacturing jobs, the divide between rich and poor and the related squeezing of the middle class, the ongoing challenge of racial justice, the continuing rise in health care costs, the rising temperature of the Earth, and so forth.

I hope that these issues will be addressed by our leaders in the coming months and years. I hope that we will have the fortitude to take on these challenges as an undivided nation.

One thing of great concern to me, however, is that the fissures in American society inflamed by the discourse of the past year will hinder that progress. I am worried about all of the “isms” that have been let out of the bottle: the anti-Semitism, racism, anti-immigrant-ism, anti-Muslim-ism, the mocking of people with disabilities, fat-shaming, and perhaps most troubling, the sexism: flagrantly disrespectful language and behavior meant to denigrate and objectify women.

I want our leaders to reflect the holiness in human relationships; I want those who serve the public to be role models for my children, particularly since such role models seem to become more and more scarce.

I pray that the man who will soon be president will take a different tack, that he will, when he occupies the Oval Office, discover a humility that will compel him to lead in a way that embraces our differences, that acknowledges that America is greatest when it is both diverse and inclusive.

I have been thinking this week a lot about George Washington. President George Washington, who worked more than 300 slaves on his Mount Vernon property even as he led this country; the same President George Washington, who said, in his letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

There is, no doubt, some irony in these words, delivered just three years after the Constitutional Convention declared an African-American man to be counted as only three-fifths of a man for election purposes. And we should also remember that the 19th Amendment, giving women full suffrage, was only ratified in 1920. It is abundantly clear that, 226 years after Washington’s letter, we are still working on the project of making these states a more perfect Union. This journey is not complete.

The Talmud notes that the reason the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE at the hands of the Romans was due to sin’at hinam, baseless hatred; this malignancy on the human spirit is still found within us. We all have the capacity to hate. But we also have the capacity for ahavat hinam, unbounded love.

As we enter the next in a long line of peaceful transfers of political power, I hope not only that we can rise to the challenges of the 21st century, but that we can also continue the work of eliminating the toxic -isms which continue to plague our society. We must stand up to hatred and fear, name-calling and conspiracy-mongering, bigotry and persecution of all kinds, so that we may continue to move forward together. Let’s make the future one of ahavat hinam, a love that will envelop and empower all within our midst for the betterment of our society.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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