Monthly Archives: April 2018

A Light Unto the Nations, With a Touch of Grey – Shemini 5778

Israel turns 70 years old this week. 70 years of independence. 70 years of “lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu” – of being a free people in our land. 70 years of inspiration to millions of Jews around the world.

Pirqei Avot 5:21* reports that 70 is the year of “seivah,” grey hair. As nations go, Israel is still fairly young, and for 70 she’s looking pretty good. Nonetheless, there are few 70-year-olds who can look back over their lives and see a perfectly-rosy picture of simplicity and wholeness. Life does not work that way. Democratic nations REALLY do not work that way. As with the grey hair, it’s mixed. But there is certainly much to be proud of, and to celebrate at this time.

A very curious news item crossed my desk this week. It was about the chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who released a statement appealing to Jews and leaders of all religions to take a stand to help the Syrian people and prevent, in his words, genocide.

Israeli Chief Rabbi berated for comparing black people to ...

Of note, he referred to the Syrians as enemies, but that we need to help them anyway:

As Jews, we cannot be silent. Let the call come out from here: we cannot move on from genocide, not in Syria nor anywhere or with any people, even if they are not our friends… We are all human beings. I call on you, leaders from all religions—lift up your voices. Let each person use their influence. If this happens, perhaps we will be able to prevent such atrocities.

Now, as is the case with most of the world, Israel is reluctant to be involved in Syria’s civil war, and certainly the stakes are much higher for Israel than, say, France or the US.

But Rabbi Yosef’s point is hanging out there, staring us in the face. I do not have the time to explain the complexity of what is going on in Syria, but the most salient fact is that as many as half a million Syrians have been killed, most by Syrian government forces under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, some with the chemical weapons that splattered across our screens this week. More than 5 million have fled what remains of that country and are living in Turkey, Jordan, Europe, the US and elsewhere. More than 7 million have been displaced within Syria.**

With all of that upheaval, with all of that killing and displacement, how can we in the West simply stand by and let it continue? There is a record number of refugees in the world right now, perhaps 60 million people, affecting the social and political landscape across much of the globe. It is not up to us to find a solution, but we are nonetheless obligated to make sure that we urge our leaders to do so. We cannot look the other way.

And, in particular, Israelis cannot look the other way as their neighbors slaughter each other. And they have not: Israeli hospitals have treated over 4,000 wounded and sick Syrian citizens, and supplied food, fuel, construction materials and other items to Syrian areas near the border.

Rabbi Yosef, whose theology and approach to Jewish law is vastly different from my own, used his position to take a moral stand on the value of human life. And all I can say to that is, “Kol hakavod.” (“All the honor to you.”) If rabbis in this world are not going to stand up for saving lives, then who will? (I refer you back to my discussion a few weeks back regarding the easy availability of semi-automatic assault rifles, and our responsibility vis-a-vis the prime directive of Jewish life, that is, the principle of piqquah nefesh, saving lives.)  

What was most surprising to me, however, was Rabbi Yosef’s use of the word, “genocide,” in Hebrew, השמדת עם “hashmadat ‘am.” This is a particularly loaded term in Jewish life, and all the more so in the history of the State of Israel, because we do not take the term “genocide” lightly. Genocide requires an organized approach to killing, a systematic attempt to eradicate a people. The Nazis were guilty of genocide. The Turks attempted to kill all the Armenians in Turkey (and, by the way, the Nazis studied their methods). Tribal killing in Rwanda in the 1990s. The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. I am not sure that what is happening in Syria is a genocide (there is debate on this), but I am sure that it is not a word that Jews should use capriciously, particularly when critics of Israel egregiously apply that word to Israel’s ongoing struggle against Palestinian terrorism.  

Nonetheless, Rabbi Yosef has a point: the world needs to help Syria find a solution. Now, I have expertise in neither military strategy nor in statecraft, but the great powers of this world have many such experts. And regardless of our religion, regardless of who is at war with whom and for how long and over what piece of land, we need to try to prevent humanitarian catastrophe when we can.

But the even greater point, and the one that goes to the reason that we celebrate 70 years of the State of Israel, is that underneath his message is the essential Jewish imperative to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is a principle that (roughly) quotes a line from the book of Isaiah (49:6):

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥ לִי֙ עֶ֔בֶד לְהָקִים֙ אֶת־שִׁבְטֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּנְצוּרֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהָשִׁ֑יב וּנְתַתִּ֙יךָ֙ לְא֣וֹר גּוֹיִ֔ם לִֽהְי֥וֹת יְשׁוּעָתִ֖י עַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God has said: “It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, That My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

As with the principle of piqquah nefesh, the obligation to save a human life, which outweighs just about every other mitzvah, another Jewish value is in play here: the obligation to stand up for what is right. While immigrants and refugees are roiling European governments, while the United States argues with itself about our responsibility to needy neighbors, while Medinat Yisrael / the State of Israel herself struggles with the challenge of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the chief rabbinate of Israel stands up and speaks the truth. We may not be able to resolve Syria’s internal mess, but Israel could save even more lives by setting up dedicated field hospitals at the border, by sending in more aid. Crates of flour and chickpeas and cooking oil with huge Israeli flags proudly displayed on the side.

That is what it means to cast light in this world. That is what it means to be a Jew, to radiate some light in the darkness.

Slate Path | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

And yes, like the grey hair of the 70-year-old invoked in Pirkei Avot, reality is complex. Being a sovereign nation is difficult. Sometimes the light we cast is not pure; sometimes it is inflected with a touch of grey.

70 years after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, we are still figuring out what it means to have a Jewish state and what that state looks like. But although it’s a work in progress, although we in the Diaspora continue to examine and re-examine our relationship with Israel, the good news is that, 70 years later, Israel is still strong, and her light will shine as a beacon to all the nations of the world.

Let’s continue to work to make the State of Israel better. And there are many ways to do that, but the best way by far is to go there, to learn about Israel and the land and all the people who live there. We are celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday tomorrow evening with a Yom Ha’Atzma’ut program including a dance troupe from Karmiel/Misgav, sponsored by Derekh and the Federation. There will be food; come join us at 5 PM.

But even better than that, and also a Derekh project, in the Israel portal, is an actual trip to Israel for adults. We’ll be going there as a Beth Shalom group from October 28th to Nov. 8, and the goal will be to provide an Israel experience for the whole self, mind and body. It’s not a family trip (we’ll get around to doing one of those eventually), but whether or not you have been before, you should join us on this trip. (Click here to check out the itinerary!Click here to check out the itinerary!)

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/14/2018.)

***

 

* Pirqei Avot (literally, “Chapters of the Fathers”) is a book of the Mishnah, the earliest piece of rabbinic literature, dating to roughly the 2nd century CE in Israel. It is a collection of wisdom about how we should conduct ourselves, and emphasizes learning and teaching Torah as an essential imperative in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the consequent end of the ancient Israelite sacrificial cult and priesthood.

** Over 3,000 non-Syrian residents have been killed, and the vast majority of those have been Palestinians.

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May (S/He) Remember – 8th Day Pesah 5778 / Yizkor

In last week’s New York Times, there was a column by Nicholas Kristof about clergy in America (“The Rise of God’s Spokeswomen,” Sunday Review, April 1, 2018), and how clergy of most denominations are increasingly female.

We in the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and as their numbers have grown, the idea of a female rabbi has become more widespread and more acceptable. I have female colleagues who are in large congregations, who are the senior spiritual leaders of their flocks, and who are as respected and as effective in their positions as men. And that is a good thing.

Kristof says something that I found particularly moving: that our changing attitudes to spiritual leadership, that our increasing openness to women in the role of rabbi or minister or priest will ultimately transform our theology. He cites Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary (just across the street, by the way, from my rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), who suggests that women will ultimately dominate religious leadership in America, and that this will reshape our understanding of the role of God in our lives, moving from “stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

The student body at Union is now nearly 60% female; at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 63% of rabbis ordained since 1998 have been women. About one-fifth of all Conservative rabbis are women, and that percentage grows a bit each year; this spring’s ordination class is 16 women and 12 men, or 57% female. The membership of the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization that consists primarily of cantors serving in Conservative synagogues, is 35% female.

Women Rabbis Lean In

Conservative rabbis

With so many more women joining the ranks of clergy, our relationships with the various faith traditions, at least in the progressive movements, will naturally change. And so too will our theology.

Still, the sense of “maleness” in Jewish tradition is ever-present, and hard to miss. Consider the special service that we will perform in a few minutes, the proper name for which is “hazkarat neshamot,” the “remembering of souls.” But almost everybody in the Ashkenazi world refers to it as Yizkor (accent on the “yiz,” since both Yiddish and English tend to accent the penultimate syllable in most words; the original Hebrew, properly pronounced, accents the “kor”). “Yizkor” is the first word in the memorial prayers that we recite during that part of the service; these prayers are recited only four times per year: on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesah, and the second day of Shavuot.

What does “yizkor” mean? Literally, “May He remember,” and since it is followed by the word Elohim (one of the common terms for God), it should be understood as, “May God remember,” as in, May God remember my mother, my father, my sister, etc. Now, in English, the translation is non-gender specific. But in Hebrew, the word yizkor is totally, unapologetically masculine. There is actually nothing we can do about it – there is no gender-neutral third person conjugation in Hebrew. It’s either yizkor or tizkor, may She remember, and with that latter term there is the same challenge. So, while we might avoid the issue by referring to the service by its proper name, Hazkarat Neshamot, we can’t really do much about the memorial prayer itself.

There is a midrash that I truly love about the creation of humans as described in Bereshit / Genesis on the sixth day of Creation. It’s about the verse, Genesis 1:27:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

The midrash interprets the verse to indicate two stages of the fashioning of human beings. The first adam, the first human creature, has two sides, a male side and a female side. Because the Hebrew in the first half of the verse has a singular direct object (“vayivra et ha-adam… bara oto,” “God created man… He created him”), it is clear that God created only one creature at first. Furthermore, one may also extrapolate that, since the text tells us twice that this being is fashioned in the image of God, that God also has two sides, a female and a male.

adam and eve

Adam and Eve, by Tsugouharu Fujita

The second part of the verse, “zakhar uneqevah bara otam,” “male and female He created them,” has a plural direct object, so the midrash’s perspective is that God took this two-sided figure and split it into two distinct beings, a female human and a male human. Both are therefore equally in the image of God. Both are God-like, and God is neither male nor female but actually both.

I must concede that when I think and speak about God, I am trying not to envision a specific image. On the contrary, my personal understanding is much more along the lines of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s view of God as kind of force within the natural world, a process that works through and around us, and such a force has no gender, no body, no clear “actions” as described in the Torah and midrash. But I know that if you scratch two Jews, you’ll get at least three different theologies. And, of course our text and liturgy is saturated with images of God as a distinct character, and in particular, a distinctly male character: Avinu malkeinu, Avinu shebashamayim, God sitting on a heavenly throne, God creating the world, God dictating to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and so forth. And all that language is unquestionably masculine.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share a personal anecdote, one that might help illustrate a different model for understanding God.

A few of you know that I lost my first cousin, Anne Lerner, last week. She was 50 years old, and taught in a middle school for “inner-city” kids in Hartford. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and we were all shocked and raw, particularly in the context of Passover, to be burying her at such a young age. Anne was never married; she did not have children of her own. But she was so loved by all her students, current and former, that there were about 300 people at her funeral. The school where she taught actually closed on Monday so that teachers and students could attend, and the school actually brought the students in buses to the synagogue in Manchester, CT where the funeral was held.

I am telling you this not to share with you my grief over the loss of my cousin, but rather because in discussing the arc of my cousin’s life with my family members in preparation for delivering a eulogy, I came to understand that she saw her students as her children. She was to them like a nurturing mother, leading and guiding and nudging where possible, making sure they were taken care of, making sure that their needs were met, that if they were not receiving love and support at home, then at least they would get it at school.

Anne loved those students. She loved them dearly. And they loved her right back.

Teaching is holy work, and although my cousin would not have thought of herself as holy, she was in some sense modeling for all of us a way that we might understand God: our teacher, our guide, our provider, our nurturer, the one who makes it possible for us to love. God need not be “Our Father, Our King,” but rather, “The One who loves us and gives us the ability to love.”

That is a theology that appeals to me, and arguably an understanding that is made even more reasonable as the clergy becomes more female.

Any of you who have ever discussed theology with me, in a class or my learners’ service or one-on-one, knows that I am all for re-thinking how we understand God, because the traditional images do not work well for me. And some of you may also know that I draw heavily from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (zekher tzaddiq livrakhah / may his righteous memory be for a blessing) in this matter, whose bottom line was that we have to seek the understanding of God that works for us as individuals. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about this, come to my session at the Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Saturday night, May 19th at the JCC. I will be discussing Rabbi Gillman’s legacy and why connecting to theology is so essential.)

What works for me is to see the entire palette of humanity as reflecting the image of God: God is male and female, black and white and everything in-between. And God is also none of these things.

As we embrace more women in the clergy, we will surely welcome a broader understanding of the Divine, a more balanced sense of God that incorporates both paternal and maternal aspects.

While I am almost certain that we will always continue to refer to hazkarat neshamot as “Yizkor,” may He remember, I think it would be a good thing to, when we recall our loved ones who are no longer with us, to remember that they were as much subject to God’s nurturing love as to God’s justice.

May that God, the one that reflects the balance of humanity, remember all of those whom we recall today. May our God-given ability to love inspire us, in their memories, to spread more love in this world.

anne lerner

My cousin, Anne Lerner z”l

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning / 8th day Pesah, 4/7/2018.)

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Make It Meaningful! A Passover Charge – First Day Pesah 5778

Ritual. The very word, in English, at least, suggests something that is done the same way with regularity. Your morning coffee, for example. Or shaharit, the morning service.

Some of us find meaning in sameness, in holding on to the framework that shapes our lives. Think of Tevye’s words in the classic Broadway musical: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” Some of us are satisfied with synagogue services that are as they always were. Some of us are satisfied with the institutions of the Jewish world – the synagogues, the Federation, the JCC, etc., doing what they have always done. Some of us are satisfied with knowing that what goes on at Beth Shalom will continue to go on at Beth Shalom forever.

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Some of us in the Jewish world are satisfied with the idea that this is the way we have always done it, and it always will be done this way. That there is no need to change anything.

But not everybody is satisfied. Not everybody agrees with the idea that Jewish ritual should not change. In fact, what makes us the Conservative movement is that, at least historically, we have maintained the vast majority of our tradition while allowing for some conservative, i.e. minimal and gradual change. And, of course, ritual has always changed. What we do today as Jews looks quite different from what our ancestors were doing in Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, or in 9th-century Baghdad, or 12th-century Spain, or 16th-century Tzfat, and so forth.

You may not believe this, but there really is no Hebrew word for ritual, at least the way we use it in English. Yes, if you ask an Israeli, s/he will tell you that the word is minhag, custom, or perhaps pulhan (or even a Hebraized version of the English, ריטואל, ritu’al). But this is actually a borrowed word from Aramaic, from the Talmud and ancient targumim (Aramaic translations of the Tanakh / Hebrew Bible), using a shoresh / root not found in Hebrew; the word is effectively a synonym for the Hebrew avodah, in its ancient meaning of service to God.

But the concept of ritual, which in our language unites the sacred and the mundane, does not exist in Hebrew.

What is the source of meaning in ritual? Is it the safety or comfort of doing something the same way every time? Is it knowing that my ancestors have done it this way for a long time? Is it that the performance of the ritual itself is meaningful? Is it, as may often be the case with a Pesah seder (the evening discussion and festive meal held on the first two nights of Passover), that it is the ancillary stuff that is most meaningful: the gathering of family, the comedic uncle who takes a sip from Eliyahu’s cup when nobody is looking, the time that so-and-so was clearly drunk from four cups of Manischewitz, etc.

Let me propose something: we make our rituals meaningful. We frame our lives in holiness. Do you want to be moved? Then reach higher in seeking and making meaning.

Yes, I know that’s not easy.

My father has told me that when he was a child, his grandfather (alav hashalom / may peace be upon him) would lead the family seder. He would sit at the head of the table, mumble through the haggadah (the book used as a guide for conducting the seder), and pause here and there to instruct everybody to do something: dip the karpas / green vegetable; spill ten drops of wine; eat some maror / bitter herbs, etc. Nobody had any idea what was going on, and then they ate.

Was that meaningful? Maybe in some ways – it still satisfied what you might call the implicit meaning of the seder: a family gathering, a traditional meal marked with ritual, the seder symbols on display, reminding us of our past and the meaning of freedom. But perhaps the explicit meaning – the text and the questions and the discussion and the soul-searching – was absent.

But for many of us today, the implicit is not enough.

A moment of gentle, internal criticism: I mentioned two weeks ago that the Federation’s 2017 Community Study said that only 22% of self-identified Conservative Jews have found their “spiritual needs met, very much.” That number is, in my mind, embarrassingly low. Much lower than Orthodoxy, and even lower than Reform. Why is that, ladies and gentlemen? Is it that your rabbi is uninspiring? Is it that your synagogue is not spiritually-inclined? Is it our rituals?

Well, if that’s the case, let’s change it! Let’s find the meaning together. Help me out.

How do we make it meaningful? In my mind, the best way to make it meaningful is to talk about it. We do an awful lot of “davening” here at Beth Shalom – and I use the Yiddish/English term deliberately, because I am not confident that what we do is really tefillah, in the spiritual sense of the word. (Tefillah / lehitpallel means “self-judgment.”)

You see, true tefillah requires understanding. It requires stepping away from your tough exterior to expose the mushy stuff underneath. It requires that the words that you say have something underneath them – that they are being spoken from the heart (Pirqei Avot 2:18):

רבי שמעון אומר, הוי זהיר בקריאת שמע ובתפילה; וכשאתה מתפלל, אל תעש תפילתך קבע–אלא תחנונים לפני המקום ברוך הוא, שנאמר “כי חנון ורחום, הוא” (יואל ב,יג).

Rabbi Shim’on says: Be careful when you say the Shema and Amidah, and when you pray, do not make your prayer rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy before God, as it says (Joel 2:13), “For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers.”

An awful lot of words of tefillah go by at this synagogue (and many others), and I just can’t believe that they are all saturated with pleas for mercy before God. Much of it is merely mumbling. Granted, that mumbling is part of the tradition. (One of my cantorial school professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Boaz Tarsi, had an academic jargon term for the buzz of synagogue prayer: “heterophonic chant mumbling.”) But it seems to me a whole lot more like qeva (rote recitation) than kavvanah (intention).

So here is the good news: the seder is actually a low-hanging fruit with respect to finding meaning in Jewish practice. Why? Because (א) there are lots of great haggadot out there that have good translations and commentary for a whole range of interests and levels; (ב) because it’s not shul / synagogue, and you can take your time and your creativity to personalize and discuss your seder. Most of us spend far more time on the food preparation than we do on the discussion part. But the Maggid section (in which we tell the story) is often left unloved – hurried through without dwelling on what it all means. What does it mean to be free? Where are the slaves in this world, and what are our obligations to them? What are the questions that the story of the Exodus raises for us today? How does our contemporary relationship with the Torah fit in?

800px-Maxwell_House_1933_Haggadah_cover

In fact, we find in multiple places in the traditional haggadah what seem to be direct commands to make the seder meaningful. One such place is the following (a direct quote from Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו. כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים. שנאמר (שמות יג, ח) והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר. בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים.

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim

In every generation one must see oneself as having come forth from Egypt, as it is written (Exodus 13:8): “You shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”

Each year at the seder, and arguably every day of our lives, our tradition requires us to see ourselves as having personally gone from slavery to freedom. For many of us who remember the events of the 20th century, that meant recalling the Sho’ah / Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, and the intimate connection between these two events. Or those of our people who left the Soviet Union. Or those who left Iran in the context of the Iranian Revolution.

What sort of meaning will our children and grandchildren derive from these rituals? What is the meaning that we are making today? Will it be triumph over rising anti-Semitism? Will it be an end to the scourges of drugs, mass shootings, and demagoguery? Will it be a solution to rising tides, melting polar ice caps, and flooded cities?

A ritual is never simply a ritual, unconnected to who we are and how we live. A ritual is never entirely meaningless. But sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, implicit or explicit. Sometimes we have to think about it and talk about it. Sometimes we need our rituals to help us hold on for dear life.

I hope that most of us will be attending a second seder tonight. If you did a straightforward, “let’s just hurry through this and get to dinner” seder last night, maybe tonight is the night to go deep. Take your time. Have some more karpas if you’re hungry, and spend some more time talking. That’s the ritual we need. Make it meaningful.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Pesah, 3/31/2018.)

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