Monthly Archives: July 2017

Authenticity and the “Blacklist” – Devarim 5777

A week and a half ago I was in the Newark airport, dropping off my son for his El Al flight back to Israel, and there was a local Chabad rabbi set up with a kiosk just before security, asking Jewish travelers (men only, of course) to put on tefillin. I observed him put tefillin on one guy, and I noticed that, in contrast to the standard Ashkenazi practice of saying two berakhot, one for the arm and then an additional one for the head, he asked the guy to say only the berakhah for the arm.

tefillin-hands-jjep

Now, I know that Sefaradim only say one berakhah, but that Chabadniks are clearly from the Ashkenazi world. So I asked him why he only said one berakhah. And he said, “Because that’s the way it’s done!” I reminded him that widespread Ashkenazi practice was to say two berakhot, for the two separate mitzvot / commandments identified in the Shema,* and I quoted it for him. But he would not accept that. “It’s one berakhah,” he said. “Now you’ve learned something today.”

What I learned, of course, is that the Jewish world is filled with different opinions, and that some of us are more open to them than others. (I don’t think that’s what he thought I learned.)

The book of Devarim ostensibly takes place nearly 40 years after the rest of the Torah. It’s the end of Moshe’s life. And what does he do? He gives a speech. And not a short one, either; it’s long. A whole book. (Sooo Jewish, right!)

It’s an authentic, personal lecture, summarizing not only some of the major laws of the Torah, but also including historical tales as well, retelling the episode at Sinai, for example, and even documenting his own exclusion from entering the land of Israel. It is almost as if he is speaking thus:

“I have been denied entering Israel, because of my anger. I am being punished. But I remain true to the task I have been given, and that task was to lead you out of Egypt and to Sinai to receive the Torah. My work is done; now it will be up to you to carry our tradition forward.”

So here we are now, thousands of years after this story was written down. We have not had a Moshe Rabbeinu for 3 millennia. And yet we’re still here. And much of that has to do with the fact that we continue to interpret and reinterpret the Torah.

There is a well-known and beloved story from the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who lived around the turn of the second century CE, a good 1300 years after Moshe. The story is as follows (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot 29b):

Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah from God, and he sees that God is affixing crowns to the letters. Moshe asks, “Why the fancy illustrations?”

God says, “More than a millennium from now, there will be a great sage named Rabbi Akiva, who will interpret every jot and tittle in the Torah.”

Moshe says, “Can I see this person?”

God says, “Turn around.” And Moshe is instantly transported to the 2nd century, CE, to the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. And there’s Rabbi Akiva, expounding on the Torah, explaining every jot and tittle in the text. Moshe is very confused, because none of this information is in the Torah that God gave him. A student raises his hand. “But where did you learn this?”

Rabbi Akiva replies, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai.” And Moshe felt much better.

**

Rabbi Akiva somehow understood more Torah than Moshe knew; he had gleaned it from the written Torah and its subsequent interpretation. And we today, living 1900 years or so after Rabbi Akiva, know and understand even more, because that interpretation has continued.

With time and commentary and disagreement has come a wealth of diversity of opinion on Jewish law and custom. And with that diversity comes a similar range of customs and interpretation. And you know what? While each of us claim that our way is the “right” way, in many cases, there is no right way. There are different customs, performing one custom instead of another is not wrong; it’s just different.

And, more importantly, no tradition is more “authentic” than any other.

We love the idea of authenticity. And really, how could you not? We live in an age in which we know our politicians lie, the corporations who supply us with food and medicine and transportation and information can be deceptive to benefit their bottom lines, settled scientific fact is openly disputed by authority figures on television, and so forth. Perhaps some of these examples are merely the bad apples that are spoiling the bunch, but the negative continually gets the spotlight, and it is easy to become cynical and distrustful.

We crave authenticity. We yearn for something that we can hold onto that is not layered with marketing or spin. We need to know that in this world where identity is fungible and the truth cannot be found in a Google search, that there are some things which remain untouched by the taint of modernity.

A fascinating article crossed my desk this week, from the Atlantic magazine. It was about how some people are now willing to pay to watch Jews performing “authentic” religious rituals:

Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.

The article goes on to discuss ways in which contemporary Jews and non-Jews are making traditional rituals their own, and how that indicates our current search for authenticity.

What irked me about the article, though, is the assumption, made by many, that if it’s not performed by people in black hats, then it’s not authentic. The very title, “The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism,” suggests that it’s only Orthodox Jews whose authenticity is being sought.

But we know better. We in the Conservative movement, and, well, all of the non-Orthodox world, know that our customs are just as authentic. OK, so the addition of the Imahot, the names of the Jewish matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, were not recited in any Amidah (the standing, silent prayer that is central to every Jewish service) prior to, I think, the 1970s. Does that mean that including them is not “authentic”? Hasidism adopted the black garb because that was how Polish nobles dressed in the 18th century. Is that “authentic”? The Reform movement jettisoned the laws of kashrut / Jewish dietary laws, a move perhaps made most famous at the “Trefa Banquet” of 1883 in Cincinnati. Does that make them “inauthentic”?

“Authenticity” is just more spin. Customs come and go. Rituals change. Even halakhah / Jewish law changes. What we do here is just as authentic as what happens at Poale Zedeck, or Shaare Torah, or Rodef Shalom. Moshe did not wear a black hat, and neither did Rabbi Akiva. We are firmly based in Jewish tradition, and the process of interpretation that Rabbi Akiva taught.

And that brings me back to Israel, and recent political events there. To summarize briefly:

  1. PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to suspend the completion of a respectful, fully-accessible egalitarian area at the Kotel, where non-Orthodox Jews can worship unmolested by those who just can’t stand seeing men and women davening together.
  2. The cabinet also advanced a bill in the Knesset that would ensure that the Israeli Rabbinate (the “Rabbanut”) would have sole control over conversions in Israel. This bill would mean that any conversions to Judaism conducted in Israel by non-Orthodox or even individual Orthodox rabbis not under the Rabbanut’s auspices would not be recognized by the State of Israel.
  3. The Rabbanut published a list of 160 rabbis from around the world whose letters affirming the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel were rejected in 2016. Rabbi Steindel and I were on that list, even though I have never written such a letter. (The Post-Gazette actually ran a story on this last week.)

I spoke about this a few weeks back when I addressed the Kotel issue, but the problem comes back to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel. The government of Israel turned over the keys to religious decisions to a certain group of Orthodox rabbis 69 years ago, and Judaism has suffered for it. I am not insulted by being “blacklisted.” I suppose it’s a badge of honor. But I am certainly no less a spiritual leader, and no less inclined to continue to teach the diversity of opinion and custom and tradition that we have.

On the contrary, I am more inclined to speak up:

To speak up for the range of what it means to be Jewish.

To speak up for the 85% of the Jewish world that does not identify as Orthodox.

To speak up for those who think that development in Jewish life did not end in the 19th century.

To speak up for those who understand that all Jewish people, women and men, and even those who identify as neither, be recognized as equal recipients of the Jewish heritage and equal participants in Jewish life and learning.

To speak up for my fellow rabbis who are being disenfranchised by the Jewish state.

To speak up for the ongoing engagement with modernity as we continue to unravel the project of what it means to be Jewish today.

Authenticity infuses all of these people and principles. And I’ll speak up for that. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/29/17.)

* וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and wear them as frontlets between your eyes (Deut. 6:8). This has been understood as two separate commandments, and hence two berakhot.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Sermons

Life and Death of the Egalitarian Kotel – Huqqat 5777

A little more than three years ago, I went with my family to celebrate my older son’s bar mitzvah in Israel. We had, as is customary in some places, a ceremony on Thursday morning, when he put on tefillin for the first time, and then a service and lunch on Shabbat. Thursday morning was just immediate family, and we were at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

But not quite at the Kotel. We were actually in an area known generally as “Robinson’s Arch,” because of the ancient piece of an arch that sticks out from the the southern end of the Western Wall, visible from the Ophel Archaeological Park complex below. At the time, there was a new, temporary platform that had been built over the ancient ruins of that park.

The women’s section of a synagogue is referred to in Hebrew as “Ezrat Nashim,” a reference to the area designated for women in the Beit HaMiqdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that was on the other side of the Kotel. There was also a separate area of the Temple known as the Ezrat Yisrael, which was reserved for men.

That temporary platform where egalitarian services have been held for the last 3+ years is called Ezrat Yisrael, a kind of Hebrew wordplay that suggests an area reserved for all Jews. And yet it has been something of a lightning rod.

Israel Tour Connection & Masorti Kotel clip - YouTube

For one thing, it has remained controversial since its inception; some of the people who had been advocating for egal prayer groups at the traditional Kotel plaza rejected this plan as something akin to a “separate but unequal” solution to the challenge posed by the fact that the Kotel has become a de facto Orthodox synagogue.

And, without going into all the battles that have occurred at the Kotel plaza, it is worth pointing out that in February of this year, a large group of Orthodox Jews descended upon a mixed group having a service in the Ezrat Yisrael, set up a mehitzah, and prevented the egal service from taking place. In the scuffles that ensued, the female Masorti (that’s Conservative in Israel and in the rest of the world) rabbah (female rabbi) that coordinates services there was physically attacked.

And this platform has remained unchanged now for more than 3 years, although it was not intended to be permanent. About a year and a half ago the Netanyahu government agreed to a plan, coordinated by Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (and former MK and famous refusenik) Natan Sharansky, to widen the area and make it accessible, with appropriate security, around the clock, just as the rest of the Kotel plaza is. But the Israeli government began dragging its feet over the plan almost as soon as it had been agreed upon, and just this past week, PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to freeze the plan (which had never quite been put into motion in the first place). As it happens, lay leaders representing Diaspora communities were in Jerusalem at the time for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting, including Beth Shalom member (and PGH Federation head) Jeff Finkelstein, and so the cabinet’s decision was immediately met with an outcry from the Diaspora Jewish leadership.

Now, I must concede that officially freezing the agreement to make a permanent, accessible egalitarian prayer area is an affront to world Jewry, a cowardly move by the Prime Minister to maintain his coalition and sacrifice the good will of Diaspora Jewry, who already feel that the Judaism they practice is at best unfamiliar in Israel. However, I must also state for the record that the situation now is somewhat better than it was when I lived in Israel in 1999-2000, when there was really no egal prayer space and groups with people davening together at the Kotel risked their personal safety. Indeed, at the time there had been several violent incidents when chairs and other things were thrown at egalitarian worshippers on the plaza.

However, along with this particular, symbolic act, I hear more about incidents that deny non-Orthodox groups access to prayer spaces, sifrei Torah, and other ritual items. This happened to me at the hotel run by Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz on the coast just a stone’s throw north of Tel Aviv, when the teen group I was leading in 2011 was denied the use of the hotel synagogue because we were openly egalitarian.

And, add to that the cabinet’s advancing of a bill this week designed to turn over all affairs related to conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, and we have a growing pattern of disenfranchisement of Diaspora Jews.

***

There is a moment in Parashat Huqqat when we are reminded that there are both delicate and blunt ways to get what you want.

You may recall the story in which the Israelites are complaining of thirst (Numbers 20:2-13), and God instructs Moshe to command a particular rock to give water. But then Moshe is emotionally thrown off-balance by the boisterous Israelites, who have been complaining with abandon about everything that is wrong with this whole journey. And so Moshe strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, and as a result is not permitted to enter the land of Israel.

But you may argue that the end justified the means! The Israelites received their water. What difference does it make how he did it?

I’m not worried about egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. That will continue to be available, even if it is shunted to the side and has the sting of second-class about it. Even the current platform is beautiful, if not “permanent,” and on the whole, most egalitarian services that go on there are, I believe, unmolested.

What I am more worried about is the use of the blunt instrument of the Knesset by Haredi parties to force not just Jewish tourists but also Israelis to conform to their extreme vision of what Judaism is. One might say that it is ironic that the only democracy in the Middle East does not give religious freedom to Jews!

One of the great things about America is the lack of an established state religion. That has enabled a multitude of religious traditions from across the spectrum of human spirituality to flourish and thrive. There is a wide range of Christian and Jewish practice, as well as many, many other types of faiths that are practiced here. While our system is not perfect, I think that it’s fair to say that the ongoing struggles over where to draw the lines are still healthy and benefit the overall spiritual bottom line for Americans.

But Israel has no such separation, and the state religion is becoming more and more Haredi.

The free practice of religion enables different groups to compete in the marketplace of ideas for people’s attention and support. That kind of “competition” encourages me, for example, to try to be the most inspiring rabbi I can be, and devote my time to building this community so that it will attract new adherents. It encourages us to be the best congregation we can be, and not be limited by government strictures.

The Israeli Rabbinate, has become state-sponsored coercion, with those in power exhibiting extreme hubris while simultaneously ignoring that Judaism’s very survival for the last 2,000 years has relied on our tradition of disagreement. The Talmud famously states that while Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed about matters of Jewish law, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14a). Today, religious forces within the government seek to deny some Jews access to Judaism, and to deny the very Jewishness of many others.

If the Haredim are so certain that their way is right, I would hope that they would be subject to the same market forces that the Masorti and the Reform and the Modern Orthodox streams, rather than wielding the clumsy gavel of parliamentary politics. They should speak to the rock to try to get their way, rather than hitting it.

I am sorry to say that nothing will change in this regard until the Israeli government gathers the legal fortitude to cut loose the rabbinate, and create a free environment for religion in Israel like we have here.

The Israeli Rabbinate will not be going away in the near term; this may be a decades-long fight. But in the meantime, what can we do to ensure that our voices continue to be heard, at the Kotel and everywhere else in Israel? First, by continuing to go there. Nothing gives you a voice in Israel more than being there and supporting the Israeli economy with your tourist dollars. We are currently in the early planning stages for a Beth Shalom trip to Israel in 2018; watch for that info.

(I should point out that this first item is actually second to making aliyah; that’s a bigger step than visiting, but if you’re interested in aliyah, please talk to me.)

Second, drop an email to the Israeli Prime Minister’s office: http://www.pmo.gov.il/English/PrimeMinister/Pages/ContactUs.aspx

Tell them how much you care about Israel, and how Israel must continue to be a haven for all Jews, and that religious freedom is an essential plank of democracy.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

2 Comments

Filed under Sermons