Monthly Archives: January 2017

Open up the Kotel – Va’era 5777

In 1987, on my first visit to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program*, I visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, as every Israel tour group does. And out of nowhere, it seems, tears welled up from deep within me, from some ancient place in which Jewish history and theological yearnings meet and tap into our collective grief and our enduring optimism. I bawled as I leaned against the warm, ancient stones. So did everybody else in my group, including the one guy out of the 80 or so of us who was not Jewish. I was seventeen.

Fast forward thirteen years to 2000, when I was in cantorial school at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I experienced an unusual thing that at the time seemed quite avant-garde, even slightly illicit: an egalitarian shaharit / morning service at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex. At the time, there was no proper area for such a service – it was just a spot on the ancient Roman roadway at the base of the wall, under a rocky outcropping referred to as Robinson’s Arch, within the archaeological park that covers the southern vicinity of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was even a table; just a few cantorial and rabbinical students with tallit and tefillin and our own siddurim.

robinsons-arch

Robinson’s Arch

What seemed like a covert operation at the time, a solution arrived at to allow egalitarian groups to daven / pray in the style that is customary for 85% of North American Jews, was a compromise – an attempt to allow mixed groups to do it their way without upsetting the more traditional, men-and-women-separate prayer that goes on in the plaza that is often thought of as the Western Wall (even though that portion of the outer retaining wall is really only a small fraction of Herod’s rebuilt, 2000-year-old plaza). Our ability to meet there was granted by the Israeli government to solve the problem of Haredi groups harassing egalitarian daveners (people who are praying) and throwing chairs and even human feces at them.

For more than a decade afterwards, that Roman road under Robinson’s Arch became a well-known location for egalitarian groups, and particularly for destination benei mitzvah services conducted by Jerusalem-based Conservative and Reform rabbis who were grateful for the business. The road was uneven, and there were no chairs, and portions were roped off because it is an active archaeological dig, but it was a special and unique experience to don tallit and tefillin and read Torah among the ancient rocks.

But struggles continued at the traditional Kotel plaza, where (in particular) a group known as Women of the Wall gathered regularly on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish, lunar month) to attempt to hold services in the women’s section, wearing tallit and tefillin (according to the various customs of the individual participants) and reading from a sefer Torah. These Rosh Hodesh gatherings became a focal point for many shocking confrontations between more traditional worshippers, the police, and the Women of the Wall participants, who were verbally abused and physically harassed and occasionally arrested.

For the last three years, there has been a solid, yet temporary and somewhat inelegant platform in the Robinson’s Arch area, just south of and out of sight of the “traditional” Kotel plaza, and this platform has made the area seem a little bit more official. About a year ago, the Israeli government agreed to complete the “upgrade” to the Robinson’s Arch area to make it a fully-functioning option for egalitarian groups.

But, Israeli politics being what they are, promises made by the Netanyahu administration were never quite fulfilled. Activity was stalled. Feet were dragged. Religious parties threatened. Nothing happened.

And the groups that had been advocating for change pressed charges, bringing their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Court handed down a verdict which said that the prohibitions against mixed tefillah, against women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading Torah were all the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” (although Israel has no constitution and no principle of separation of church and state), and that the religious leadership of the Kotel (Rabbi Shemuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation) would have 30 days to demonstrate why all people could not pray according to their own customs.

According to the JTA article on the verdict:

[The Israeli Supreme Cout] also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs…

The [administrative] parties “must explain why the petitioners  should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.

Kol hakavod to the Supreme Court for standing up for what is right here, and against the forces of fundamentalism in our midst. It is truly ironic that religious protection seems to exist for non-Orthodox Jews in every democratic country in the world except Israel.

It is worth pointing out that religious restrictions such as these are not limited only to the Kotel. In 2011, I took 37 teenagers to Israel, and we stayed one night at Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv. It so happened that the following morning was Monday, a Torah-reading day, and as we gathered in the hotel’s synagogue for shaharit / the morning service, we were told by the hotel staff, secular Israelis, that we were forbidden from using the hotel’s sefer Torah by the local religious authorities because we were an egalitarian group.

In the weekly cycle of parashat hashavua, the weekly reading of the Torah, we are right now in the middle of reading the Exodus story, arguably the most powerful and moving narrative of the Torah, and certainly the one that has spawned the best biblical films. It is a tale of the struggle against oppression, against hatred and fear, and of overcoming authoritarian rule. But it is also a tale about egalitarianism, about equality between men and women. Let me explain.

Some of you may have heard (from some others in the Jewish world) that the only positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are lighting Shabbat candles, separating a piece of hallah when making it, and immersion in the miqveh (ritual bath) following the menstrual cycle. But that is not true. Those are, you might say, “alternative facts.”

In actuality, there are many other positive, time-bound mitzvot that are identified in the Talmud to which women are obligated, and one of them is drinking four cups of wine at the Pesah seder (God’s promises to the Israelites that serve as a basis for these four cups were found in today’s parashah, Ex. 6:6-8). The Talmud’s reasoning for this is (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 108a-b):

ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס

Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: Women are obligated to drink these four cups, because they too were part of the miracle [of deliverance].

In other words, the Exodus was not just for men; all of the Israelites were saved. And we all are obligated to celebrate this egalitarian deliverance today. That statement for freedom and against oppression continues to resonate in every corner of the Jewish world, not only on one side of the mehitzah. And given the centrality of the image of our people’s redemption from Egypt as a justification for treating all people with equity, the poor, the widow, the immigrant and refugee among us, it is undeniably an imperative to ensure that all of us have access to God and our tradition, that none of us are excluded due to gender or any other status.

And there is plenty more material here – the idea of a mehitzah (separation barrier between men and women) is actually medieval; it may only date for certain to the 13th century. And never mind the fact that there was no official mehitzah  at the Kotel until 1967.

old-kotel-1

The Kotel in the 1920s

So I am waiting with great excitement to see how the anti-egalitarian forces of the Israeli religious right will justify denying adherents of the progressive movements to daven in our customary way. The Talmud tells us that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was permitted by ancient authorities to wear tefillin (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a). Would our contemporary zealots challenge their authority?

jews_at_western_wall_by_felix_bonfils_1870s

The Kotel in the 1870s

By way of conclusion, it is worth pointing out that there are really no holy places in Judaism. Once the Temple was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in 70 CE, our understanding is that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed from the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies, and has not returned. We have sanctified time, not space or objects, for two thousand years. While there is no question that the Kotel is a place of great sentimental significance – a central connection to our history, the focal point of our prayer, the physical remains of the ancient epicenter of the Jewish world – our tefillah is just as valid right here in Pittsburgh as it is in Jerusalem.

But since the Kotel has been elevated to an unprecedented level in the contemporary world, that spot should be emblematic of all of the different paths we have through our tradition. It’s not a synagogue; it’s just a very moving, very powerful location. And it should be open to all.

Let’s hope that by the time that we take our congregational trip to Israel (coming your way soon! Let me know if you’re interested!) that we will proudly be able to gather there for a meaningful service the same way we are doing right now – acknowledging that we are all equal before God.

Shabbat shalom!

* AMHSI is now offering free scholarships to a few lucky teens from Pittsburgh. Please see me for details.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2017.)

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Be an Upstander – Shemot 5777

You know the old joke about how I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out? There is a related Jewish story. It’s an old fable about two brothers (Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, JPS 1973, pp. 77-78):

One brother had a wife and children, the other did not. They lived together in one house – happy, quiet, and satisfied with the portions which they inherited from their father. Together they worked the fields with the sweat of their brows.

And the harvest came. The brothers bound their sheaves and brought them to the threshing floor. There they divided the crops of the field in two parts equally between them, and left them.

That night, the brother who had no family lay on his bed and thought: I am alone, but my brother has a wife and children. Why should my share be equal to his? And he rose from his bed, went stealthily out into the threshing floor, took from the stalks of his own sheaf, and added them to the sheaf of his brother.

That same night, the other brother turned to his wife and said: “It is not right that we have divided the crop into two equal parts, one for me and one for my brother. He is alone and has no other joy or happiness, only the yield of the field. Therefore, come with me, my wife, and we will secretly take from our share and add to his.” And they did so.

In the morning, the brothers went out into the threshing floor, and they wondered that the sheaves were still equal. Each one decided to himself to investigate. During the night each one rose from his bed to repeat his deed. And they met each other in the threshing floor, each with his sheaves in his arms. Thus the mystery was explained. The brothers embraced, and kissed each other.

And the Lord looked with favor on this threshing floor where the two brothers conceived their good thoughts… and the children of Israel chose it for the site of their Holy Temple.

An Israeli variant is about two other brothers who lived on a nearby hill, and did exactly the opposite: each stole from the other in the middle of the night. And that was where the Israelis chose to build the Knesset. (#Rimshot!)

I have become very concerned about the state of our society. I think that something that we have lost is a tangible sense of togetherness. On the contrary: the level of mistrust seems to me higher than it has been in my lifetime. And a related contemporary challenge about which I am particularly concerned is the lack of civility in our public discourse.

On Monday, as part of Community Day School‘s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the themes invoked was the principle of being an “upstander.” To be an upstander means, according to the website of the educational and professional development organization Facing History and Ourselves:

“A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.”

This word was just added to the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016.

Given our history and our tradition, we Jews have a special obligation to be upstanders: to speak out against that which we know is wrong, to intervene on behalf of those who are being persecuted, to call out hatred and racism and anti-Semitism when we see it.

Martin Luther King Day is always an opportunity for us to recall that Jews were there when the civil rights movement in this country was forged. It is a reminder that one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walked with Dr. King on the latter’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Afterwards, Rabbi Heschel declared, “I felt as though my legs were praying.”

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group. (AP Photo)

When Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King, the level of mistrust in America was also quite high. Society was changing. The established orders were being upended. People who had been historically oppressed were throwing off their yoke.

And people were angry. The civil rights movement inspired many Americans, including many Jewish volunteers, to do some really wonderful, holy work. But it also caused many others to behave badly in public, to scream and burn and even murder to try to prevent change.

In 1965, there was no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. So people actually had to confront each other in person. Not so today.

One can hardly read an article of any sort on the Internet without being assaulted by a blast of name-calling, hyperbolic accusations, and general disregard for others. And whether we are participating in these troll-fests or not, even those of us who read the comments sections on popular news sites are somehow metaphorically guilty of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors (from Parashat Qedoshim, Leviticus 19:16).

The relative anonymity of the online environment makes it far easier for us to cut each other down, to trade insults, to grandstand with impunity. And our online behavior is ultimately reflected in our feelings for one another offline.

We read this morning about how the new pharaoh “did not know Yosef.” (אשר לא ידע את יוסף – Ex. 1:8) Rashi points to a disagreement in the Talmud between Rav and Shemuel about whether this was, in fact, a new king or not. And if it was, in fact, the old king, then suddenly he was pretending not to know Yosef.

It is perfectly normal, perfectly human, and definitely Jewish to disagree with each other. And it is completely appropriate for us to stand up for the principles in which we believe. But a functional society depends on our willingness to be able to disagree with each other and continue to talk to each other and work with each other. We are, as I have mentioned in this space before, faced by many contemporary challenges; we will never solve them by demeaning each other.

And, indeed, we cannot be like the pharaoh who pretended not to know Yosef. We cannot pretend not to know our fellow Americans. We cannot dismiss the people with whom we disagree, as if their feelings and opinions cancel our ability to perceive any and all traces of decency.

On the contrary, says the Torah. Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Lev. 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. Even if they believe things that you find absolutely odious. The Torah clearly does not say, love your neighbor as yourself, but only if she thinks like you do. We, the Jews, must lead by example; we must continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.

I offer you the following piece from the Talmud for your consideration:

ת”ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה”ר. מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה”ר, ומצאו חסיד אחד, אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך! לגלג עליו. לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רה”ר ונכשל באותן אבנים, אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך.

Our rabbis taught: “A person should not throw stones from his property into public grounds.

It happened that one man was throwing stones from his property into the public domain. A pious man passed by and said to him, “Foolish one, why are you throwing stones from property that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?”

The man laughed at him. As time went by he had to sell his field and when he was walking on those public grounds, stumbled over his own stones.

He then exclaimed, “That pious man was right when he said to me, “Why are you throwing stones from ground that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?” (Bava Qamma 50b)

We have to work hard to protect not only our physical public spaces, but our political, social, spiritual, and emotional public spaces as well. Throwing insults and epithets as a form of discourse into the online cloud is like tossing rocks into the street. We’re all going to eventually trip over them.

If we truly want to be upstanders, we must work hard to rekindle our civility. We cannot allow differences of opinion to fragment our democracy. We have to build a temple to love and compassion in that metaphysical public space. We have to remember and invoke our shared values.

That does not mean we have to agree. That does not mean that we have to tolerate hatred, bigotry, intolerance, or shaming of any kind. But it does mean that we have to speak nicely to each other, and occasionally give our produce up for the benefit of the other, so that we may build that temple.

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/21/2017.)

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Responding to Richard Spencer (or, Torah is Love) – Vayyiggash 5777

Some of you know that my first experience in graduate school was at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas. A&M is one of the largest public universities in the country – today nearly 60,000 students, although when I was there it was only about 43,000 (still pretty big). However, in Texas, if you’re Jewish, you are much more likely to go to the University of Texas in Austin. A&M’s Jewish population is only a few hundred, whereas UT’s is a couple thousand.

Ironically, it was my attending Texas A&M which brought be back to Judaism. Although I had grown up in a fairly traditional household, I had found that at as an undergraduate at Cornell, I was not so interested in Jewish life. It took relocation to the buckle of the Bible Belt, to one of the most socially and politically conservative corners of this country, to one of the most heavily fundamentalist Christian enclaves, to rediscover my heritage. The Hillel rabbi at A&M, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, figured strongly in my return. (His wife, by the way, Dr. Sara Alpern, is a Pittsburgher.)

Texas A&M opt-out bill faces obstacles | The Baylor Lariat

Rabbi Tarlow retired a few years back, and the new Hillel rabbi is a young, energetic fellow named Matt Rosenberg. Rabbi Rosenberg was faced with an unusual challenge recently: Richard Spencer, the white supremacist leader who has come to the fore in recent months, was invited to speak on campus by an alumnus who is known for supporting such causes. Apparently, Texas A&M has a policy that any alum can rent a room in the student union on campus for any event, and the university has no right to cancel an event of which it disapproves.

So, given that Spencer was coming to speak on campus, and given that there was nothing that anybody could do to prevent it, a whole host of student groups mounted an anti-Spencer campaign. The university itself hosted a protest rally at the same time as Spencer’s speech in Kyle Field, the legendary stadium that is home to the Aggie football team and the Twelfth Man tradition.

Among the loudest protesters was Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, who spent tireless weeks rallying A&M students against Spencer. When the day came, Rabbi Rosenberg found himself in Mr. Spencer’s press conference before the speech, and was called on by Spencer to ask a question. The exchange did not go well; Rabbi Rosenberg conceded that it was not one of his best moments. (You can see this online here.)

Rabbi Matt Rosenberg: You come here with a message of radical exclusion; My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love. That love is embodied by Torah. Will you sit down and study Torah with me and learn to love?

Richard Spencer: OK, I can’t promise to study with you. That’s kind of a biggie… I will say this. I will promise to talk with you. And I will say this: Do you really want “radical inclusion” into the State of Israel? And, by that, I mean, radical inclusion: maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that? … You’re not answering.

RMR: I’m not.

RS: Look, in terms of the Jewish people, why are they a people? They are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles. It’s axiomatic. That is why the Jews are a coherent people with a history and a culture and a future. It is because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves. I want my people to survive in the future.

***

In his own defense in the Forward, Rabbi Rosenberg pointed out that he had never been trained in debating skills. I am pretty certain that I would not have done any better, because frankly, I did not see that coming.

What Spencer did, in a few sentences, was to twist all of recent Jewish history to suit his own purposes.  There are multiple reasons why the Jews are still here: Yes, because we have held fast to our traditions and our ancient texts; yes, because we have stuck together, but also yes, because for thousands of years we were prohibited from mixing with non-Jews – by ourselves, our own customs and institutions, but even more so by the people who oppressed us: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans, but also the English, who kicked the Jews out of England and Wales in 1290, the French, who kicked the Jews out of France in 1306, the Austrians, who kicked the Jews out of Austria in 1421, and so forth.We cannot forget the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and the centuries of persecution which preceded it. We cannot forget the pogroms of 19th-century Eastern Europe. We cannot forget Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. And the waves of Arab hatred and riots of the 1950s. And the Iranian revolution of the 1970s. And let us not forget the Jews of Silence, the Soviet Jews, who, once applying to leave for Israel, were punished by the Soviet authorities.

In short, it is people like Richard Spencer who have kept the Jews isolated throughout history. And here is the irony: freedom is a double-edged sword. As much as clinging to our traditions and texts has kept us distinctive, so too has that distinction been reinforced by those who despise us. Let’s face it: why is the intermarriage rate in America so high? Because we have finally gained acceptance. Jews actually make appealing spouses to non-Jews, something that not too long ago was anathema. And you may know that many of those Jews who can now marry non-Jews (since they will now marry us) still feel proud to be Jewish, still feel connected to Judaism in some way. In prior centuries, the only way to join the wider society was to become not Jewish. Today, all doors are open.

So when Richard Spencer tried to cast Jews as an isolationist success story, about people who maintained their identity because they refused to mix with others, he was spinning history for his own agenda, cynically using the Jewish tale of persecution across the ages to justify that very persecution. His people, the haters, are the ones who kept us apart, who kept us in ghettos. His people passed humiliating laws and carried out expulsions and forced conscriptions and forced conversions. People of his kind promulgated the blood libels and ultimately genocide.

White Nationalist Richard Spencer Sparks Protests at Texas A&M

But that was only half of his statement. The other half was about Israel, and it’s an argument that is even more loathsome. He said facetiously, “Maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that?” His hyperbole played on the fallacious argument that Israel is an apartheid state and used it to justify the separation of Jews from non-Jews. Spencer’s subtext was, “You Jews should understand keeping another people down, right? Because you’re doing it right now in Israel.”

Spencer smiled at this point, because he knew that he had hit Rabbi Rosenberg where it hurts most.

Where to begin on this one? Should I start with my son’s soccer team, HaPoel Deir Hanna, on which Jewish and Arab 16-year-olds, young citizens of the democratic State of Israel, cooperate on the field, on the same team? Should I mention the Muslim and Christian members of the Knesset? Should I recap the entire history of Jewish-Arab conflict on that small strip of land, the opportunities lost, the blood that has flowed on both sides? The very present and immediate need for Israeli security?

The reality of Israel, her internal demographic realities and external struggles are much more complex than can be captured in a provocative soundbite. But Israel is an open, democratic society that has its share of challenges, just as every nation does.

Rabbi Rosenberg was right: the Torah is love. Earlier this morning, as we do every single morning of the Jewish year, we said this explicitly when we wrapped our tzitziyyot (the fringes hanging from the four corners of our tallitot / prayer shawls) around a finger, as we prepared to recite the Shema. “Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu.” With great love you have loved us, God. And you have demonstrated your love by giving your Torah to the world. And it is up to us to “lilmod ulelamed, lishmor vela’asot, ulqayem et kol divrei talmud Toratekha be’ahavah,” to learn and teach, to keep and do, and uphold all the teachings of your Torah in love. Torah is love. Love is Torah. And it is upon us to share this love with everybody – to share with the world the idea of “Ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha” (Lev. 19:18) – love your neighbor as yourself, with that ahavah rabbah, that great, unbounded love.

What can we learn from this? That we have to be ready to make the case for who we are, not only to respond to haters like Richard Spencer, but also to ourselves. What we must have on the tips of our tongues is the following:

We are Jewish, and continue to be Jewish, because our tradition has value: it brings us knowledge about ourselves and others, it brings us joy, it provides a framework to celebrate and grieve as a community. And it teaches us love through the ancient words of Torah. And that is why we are still here.

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So, Mr. Spencer and your white supremacist friends, please don’t look to the Jews to justify your twisted rationale for hate. Rather, learn from our history and our tradition and see that respect and love for all is the source of our continued existence. That is humanity’s divine obligation. That is Torah. That is love.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/7/2017.)

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