Monthly Archives: May 2018

Why Can’t We Edit the Torah? – Naso 5778

One of the greatest points of confusion regarding Jewish law is the following:

The Torah is NOT Judaism.

More accurately, the religious tradition described in the Torah is not how we practice Judaism today. Yes, certain items in halakhah / Jewish law appear in the Torah, and you can make the case that Judaism is derived from the Torah. But Jewish practice today contains far more complexity and subtlety and detail than what is found between the two atzei hayyim (posts) of a Torah scroll.

This is especially important in understanding parashat Naso, which we read today, and in particular, one of the most disturbing passages in the Torah, found therein: the description of the ancient ritual for the Sotah, the woman who is suspected by her husband of being unfaithful.

In short, the Torah’s description is like this: the Kohen (priest) writes a curse on a scroll, and then pours water over the scroll to dissolve the ink. The inky water is collected and the suspected wife is given some to drink. If she dies (or suffers greatly, or miscarries; it’s not exactly clear; the text says “latzbot beten velanpil yarekh,” causing her “belly to distend and her thigh to sag”), she was guilty. If she survives the ordeal, she is innocent.

Antique Print-CEREMONY-BITTER WATER-RITUAL SOTAH-ADULTERY-Cunaeus-1682

Now, you probably did not hear about that in Hebrew school. And for sure you have never heard of such a thing practiced by Jews, and there is a good reason for that: it’s barbaric. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the Talmudic period thought it interesting enough that they put together a tractate on it: Massekhet Sotah, in which they detail the process. However, toward the end we discover that the practice had been discontinued some time in the past, although of course they do not know how far back. (Scholars cannot confirm whether or not the ritual was actually ever practiced.) BT Sotah 47a:

משרבו המנאפים פסקו המים המרים

From the time when adulterers proliferated, [the performance of the ritual of] the bitter waters was nullified; [they would not administer the bitter waters to the sotah.]

This is, it seems to me, a rabbinic cop-out. They can’t say, “When they realized that the ritual was cruel and unjust, they stopped performing it.” Rather, they cite the proliferation of adultery as the reason – i.e. there were just too many adulterers for us always to be performing this ceremony. But this is not really a logical conclusion; it is, rather, in line with the traditional rabbinic attempt to mitigate the harsh punishments encoded in Torah law. The Talmud often seeks to lessen the severity of the Torah’s harshest decrees. We do not put people to death for violating Shabbat in public, or for being disobedient children, both of which appear in the Torah as commandments. Likewise, we do not perform cruel punishments like the ritual of the bitter waters. And we likely never have.

But what do we do about passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable? After all, there are many: the tale of Noah’s drinking and his son Ham’s apparent misbehavior; Lot and his daughters; Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar; the Torah’s apparent condoning of slavery, concubinage, prostitution, etc.*

When I was working on my first master’s degree at Texas A&M University, a very traditional, conservative campus, I would occasionally hear very serious Christians talk about living according to the Bible. My (thought, not spoken) response was, “Aha. So do you check your garments for sha’atnez (mixture of wool and linen forbidden by the Torah)? Do you plan on marrying multiple wives? Should you kill the entire family of somebody who raped your sister?”

The writer AJ Jacobs seized on this idea a few years back in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he describes his attempt to live according to the Torah, literally. What results is an often hilarious series of episodes. But his overarching point is clear: neither Judaism nor Christianity takes the Bible at its word. And we should acknowledge this.

We do not live according to the Torah. We live according to rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, which is colored by centuries of societal development and modifications to account for how we live today.

So what on Earth could be the reason that we still read about the sotah ritual? Can’t we just edit it out? Doesn’t it make us look bad?

I mentioned earlier that Massekhet Sotah (the Talmudic tractate) covers many of the details of the sotah ritual, as if the rabbis discussing it, long after the practice had been abandoned, was meant to be preserved, as if some day, like the Temple sacrifices, it would be reinstated (has veshalom / God forbid!). But the Talmud is not necessarily a linear book, and, as a text devoted to argument, you find within it pieces that comport well with contemporary sensibilities, even when the subject matter is arcane and/or obsolete. Elsewhere in Massekhet Sotah, we read the following (17a):

דריש ר”ע איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן לא זכו אש אוכלתן

Rabbi Akiva taught: When a man and a woman merit it [through their appropriate behavior], the Divine presence stands between them; when they do not, fire consumes them.

I have often used this piece of wisdom at weddings. It plays on the fact that “ish” (man) and “ishah” (woman) share the letters for esh (fire), and the additional letters between them are yod and heh, which spell out Yah, a short name for God. So when you take God out, when you remove the qedushah, the holiness from a sexual relationship, all you have left is fire – empty passion – which will not last, which will consume itself.

So one advantage to studying and re-reading passages that make us uncomfortable is that we might in fact uncover gems of wisdom when we dig deeper. But in order to find those gems, we have to keep reading.

Another lesson we might glean is that our understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism changes. Just as the Talmudic rabbis, living around Baghdad in the 3rd century or so, could not stomach the ritual of the bitter waters (!), so too can we look back on Jewish practices historically and make judgments based on who we are and how we live today. Halakhah, Jewish law, evolves. The world changes, and Judaism changes with it. We treat women and men equally under Jewish law (i.e. egalitarianism). We uphold the values of Shabbat, even as we encourage people to drive to synagogue if they live too far away from the synagogue. We ordain gay men and women as rabbis, and join them in marriage under the huppah (wedding canopy).

At the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (late-night study session on the first night of the festival of Shavuot) last Saturday night, we read the words of Rabbi Neil Gillman, who taught that our understanding of God, the Torah, and halakhah changes as we change, and these things are shaped by our cultural context. “Halakhah is indispensible,” he wrote, “‘because it is what the Jewish community understands God’s will to be.” Not God’s will, but rather our understanding of God’s will. And that changes.

The final message we might glean here is, you might say, related to the current “#MeToo” moment. The sotah tale sits there in Bemidbar / Numbers to remind us that horrible things have been done by people to other people, and in particular by men to women, throughout history, and that these historical wrongs must be righted. Even if it was never performed, even if the tale found herein is merely to scare women and men away from adultery, the descriptions in the Torah and the Talmud are there as a caution: this is the kind of thing that can happen when we do not count women as equals.

Why is this here? As a reminder that we need to struggle to overcome it. We do not edit the Torah; on the contrary, we edit our behavior to reflect the holiness in all of us.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/26/2018.)

* Given the death of Philip Roth this week, one might ask the same question about Portnoy’s Complaint, and other works in his oeuvre that do not necessarily make the Jews look so good.

 

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Everyone Has a Story – Shavuot Day 2 / Yizkor, 5778

Shavuot is kind of a funny festival. It’s one of the least well-known, mostly because it usually falls after Hebrew schools have concluded for the year. It doesn’t really have all the tactile and gustatory experiences of Sukkot and Pesah, say, or the fun-loving, child-centered holidays of Hanukkah and Purim, or the gravitas of the High Holidays. I don’t think it’s even as familiar as Tu Bishvat, which is not actually a holiday at all.

And yet the story that Shavuot tells is so central to what it means to be Jewish – the celebration of the gift of Torah, and everything that flows from it. Shavuot is the story of the ongoing revelation of our tradition, of how we continue to receive and reinterpret ancient wisdom for our time. As such, it should be the central pillar of the Jewish year, the one holiday that unites everything else we do with our most essential spiritual journey, our lifelong quest for understanding ourselves and our world.

OK, and there’s also cheesecake.

Two weeks ago, we laid to rest a long-time member of Beth Shalom, Ruth Lessing. She was a few months shy of a full century when she passed away.

Whenever I perform a funeral, I meet with the immediate family of the deceased to get the full story: who they were, what they enjoyed doing, what they took pride in, their successes and failures, and so forth. With Ruth, this process was not so easy: she had one son who lived in Wisconsin, and was on hospice care when his mother died; he himself passed away a few days later. So I had to rely on a couple of more distant relatives here in Pittsburgh, and they told me what they knew: they gave me as much of Ruth’s story as they could. Getting that information was not so easy. I eventually heard about Ruth’s parents in Germany, who bribed a whole range of officials to get five of their seven children out of Germany prior to the Sho’ah, but who ultimately perished, along with Ruth’s younger brother, at the hands of the Nazis.

But it reminded me of an essential piece of who we are: that each of us has a story.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

One of the poems included in our Yizkor (memorial service) booklet is “Lekhol Ish Yesh Shem / Everyone Has a Name.” It was written by the Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), usually referred to as Zelda:

(Note: Hebrew is a gendered language. Please understand that while Zelda wrote entirely in the masculine, it can be read as “he” or “she”; I have modified the translation to reflect this.)

לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו אלוהים
ונתנו לו אביו ואמו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו
ונתן לו האריג
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו ההרים
ונתנו לו כתליו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו המזלות
ונתנו לו שכניו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חטאיו
ונתנה לו כמיהתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו שונאיו
ונתנה לו אהבתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חגיו
ונתנה לו מלאכתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו עונות השנה
ונתן לו עיוורונו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו הים
ונתן לו מותו
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to her by her parents
Everyone has a name
given to her by her stature and the way she smiles
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to her by her walls
Everyone has a name
given to her by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to her by her longing
Everyone has a name
given to her by her enemies
and given to him by his love
Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to her by her work
Everyone has a name
given to her by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea
and given to her by her death.
(Translated from Hebrew by Marcia Falk, quoted from “Generations of the Holocaust” by Bergmann and Jugovy)
Zelda stamp

Zelda

Our name is our story; captured within those few words, you might say, is all that we stand for as individuals: our likes and dislikes, our deeds and misdeeds, our family connections, our obligations and characteristics and quirks and reputations.

We live in an increasingly dehumanizing world, one in which our individual stories are less and less relevant to all that we do. I am increasingly concerned that, given the way things are moving, we shall all soon be reduced to a pile of numbers. The new algorithms that suck up our information like water, predicting our behaviors, knowing which product we will buy and which candidate we will vote for even before we have thought about it, are sapping our free will. It’s more than a little creepy, and quite alarming. We will soon have no secrets, nothing that is hidden from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s already the case.

Not long after the news broke about Cambridge Analytica, the election research firm that scooped up personal data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge and in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, the New York Times ran a few analysis pieces about the information that Facebook and Google and other big data companies collect and use. The author had downloaded and reviewed all the information. Facebook’s data amounted to 650 megabytes, including all of his Facebook activity (likes, shares, posts, etc.), all of this friends’ contact info, including addresses and phone numbers, and a list of all the companies and organizations that had requested his information for the purposes of advertising on the site. (BTW, I downloaded my own Facebook data after reading this article, and among this latter list was none other than Congregation Beth Shalom, which has purchased a few targeted ads on the site.)

Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than your parents do. Even, by the way, if you do not have a Google account: these companies create files for people that are connected to others who do have accounts. They may not know your name, but they know a lot of things about you, and they assume that some day that info will be useful. Google owns the text of this sermon, by the way; in my own Google drive, there are nearly 6 gigabytes of writings and photos and videos and sermon ideas just sitting there waiting to be delivered.

Your genome, by the way, is small by comparison. Your DNA, the chromosomes found in each of the cells in your body, effectively what makes you you account for about 750 megabytes; it can be further reduced to the essential variations that differentiate individual humans from each other, is maybe only about 125 megabytes, depending on the method of storage.

DNA

But that’s not a story. We are not the sum of our data points, or our clicks or our lists of friends or where we purchased groceries. We are not a set of ones and zeros, or even patterns of genetic nucleotides. We have souls. We have journeys. We have lives. We have names. Everyone has a name, which is shorthand for the life we have lived.

You cannot capture love in a digital file. You cannot describe the palette of human creativity, or the full range of human feelings, or the complexity of interpersonal relations. You cannot record the thrill of watching your daughter perform on stage, or the joy of meaningful conversation, or the exultant abandon of group singing around a campfire. A computer would have no reason to argue with another computer over the meaning of a verse in the Torah, or a Talmudic sugya. Microprocessors do not mourn their parents.

What makes us people, what gives us our names, is the full complement of human experiences that we acquire over years of living. It is learning to walk, and failing at dating. It is hiking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, tasting the most fabulous dessert you’ve ever had. It is staying up all night to write a term paper and getting a mediocre grade. It is scoring the winning point and losing a beloved partner.

I must say that I am slightly concerned over the bold new future, in which companies will reduce us to a pile of numbers, but I am not THAT concerned, because we will always have our souls. Nobody can take that away from you.

And nobody can take away the souls of those whom we have known and lost. We carry them all with us. We carry their names. And we carry their stories.

Lekhol ish yesh shem. Each of us has a name, and each of us has a story.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 5/21/2018.)

 

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The Great Unbundling – Aharei Mot-Qedoshim 5778

Last week I was in Chicago for a few days, at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Between sessions on ancient theology, medieval disputes about Jewish law, and the state of contemporary Judaism, we had some free time, so I took the L to the Art Institute of Chicago, and since I had limited time, I went directly to my favorite period, the French Impressionists. I saw a Renoir that brought tears to my eyes, ogled some Seurat, beheld several breathtaking Monets.

The Two Sisters

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Sisters (on the terrace), (1881)

sunday on la grande jatte

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884 (1884/1886)

We read today in the Torah my favorite verse in the entire Torah (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2):

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

One of the ways in which we as humans are holy is by acting on the creative impulse within us, the Divine gift of art. When I look at beautiful works of art, I am reminded of the fantastic things that humans are capable of; that despite our many flaws and challenges and vulnerabilities, we often have the potential to create great beauty.

Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit other galleries: the American, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Textiles, Photography, Prints and Drawings, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Film, Video, etc., etc. Pity. I paid $25 for entry, just to see the work of a few 19th-century Frenchmen. I could actually see those items on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website for free.

The Petite Creuse River

Claude Monet, The Petite Creuse River (1889)

Nonetheless, I was moved. I am also grateful that this museum has so many things in its collection, among them Renoir and African fertility goddess dolls and ancient Egyptian stelae and Andy Warhol’s pop art. And I probably will not return there for a long time – I’m not in Chicago very often.

But imagine how weak a museum it would be if it only held one of those things. What makes a great museum wonderful is the range, the comprehensive nature of its offerings; the dedication to the entirety of the holiness in human creativity. Even if I could only have paid, let’s say, two dollars to only see the French Impressionists, the extra $23 in my pocket would represent a loss to me – my ability to take advantage of all that the museum offers – and a loss to the museum – its ability to provide all those other things.

The experience was, it occurred to me, relevant to something that I was planning to speak about today, and that is the so-called “unbundling” of Jewish life.

What is meant by “unbundling”? It’s going on all over the place right now. Show of hands: how many of us are still paying for cable? How many of us still buy CDs (or vinyl albums)? How many of us prefer AirBnB to a full-service hotel? We are in the process of unbundling our lives in many ways. Now, if you only want to watch ESPN, you don’t have to pay for CNN and BET and Lifetime. You don’t need to get the whole bundle.

Unbundling is a term that has come to the fore recently by people in the Jewish world who are advocating a different approach to living Jewishly: to separating the offerings of legacy institutions, particularly synagogues, from each other. That is, if you need a rabbi for a funeral, you hire a rabbi. If you want to learn Talmud, you can go online to find a Talmud class. If you have a 13-year-old child, you can rent an event space for a bar mitzvah. Why do we need big, full-service institutions? Can’t we just cobble together a few Jewish things by ourselves, DIY-style, and call it Jewish life?

The idea has been tossed around liberally by both hosts and guests of the Judaism Unbound podcast, which, for the last two years, has been examining the new ways in which people are engaging with Jewish living and learning today. And it also came up at a recent discussion hosted by Rodef Shalom Congregation about the Jewish future. The featured panel consisted of one of the hosts of Judaism Unbound, Dan Libenson, Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL: The Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, and two members of Beth Shalom: Rabbi Amy Bardack of the Federation, and Danielle Kranjec, the senior Jewish educator at the Hillel Jewish University Center.

It may be that unbundling is the way we are moving as a society. But that presents a kind of dilemma for synagogues. If I only want High Holiday tickets, or I only want my 2-year-old in the ELC, or I only want JJEP, or to celebrate a bar mitzvah, I have to buy the whole membership. I am effectively paying  a lot of money for services that I do not necessarily need or want.

Now, I am a big fan of Judaism Unbound, the podcast and the idea. It has been a forum for many good ideas, some of which I have happily appropriated.

But unbundling is short-sighted. It misses the fact that the synagogue is a home for the community. It’s an extension of your living room. It is, literally, a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the Hebrew term for the Greek word synagogue. This is a place to gather. Not just for services. Not just for baby namings and dancing with the Torah and Shabbat dinners. It’s also a place where we learn about each other, where we share our stories, where we grow together spiritually as individuals, as families, as a community.

What makes us a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community, is that we understand that in order to have this gorgeous building, in order to have the staff that keeps it open, the people to send our yahrzeit and birthday notices and new baby announcements, in order to be able to host Shabbat dinners or the Hod veHadar instrumental service that we had last night, we have to support it. Just like you cannot have Impressionists without Diego Rivera, Ai Weiwei, and Botticelli, you also cannot have a bar mitzvah or Ne’ilah without a community or an ark to open.

Still, there are skeptics who will say, “So tell me, Rabbi, what does a synagogue offer? Why do I need it?” (I am, in fact, asked variations on this question quite often.)

The synagogue is the place that offers you all the tools you need to thrive in today’s world. We offer you a framework to help you live a better life: one characterized

  • by tzedakah, charity;
  • by understanding and supporting the others in our midst – our family and friends but also the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the unprotected;
  • by modeling what it means to be a family and to do familial things together in the context of community and Jewish life;
  • by providing opportunities to gather, not in front of a screen, but in real time with real people across multiple generations and demographics;
  • by bringing people together for a multitude of holy purposes, social, ritual, and otherwise;
  • by highlighting the holy moments in our lives and giving us a framework of gratitude, of celebration, and of grief;
  • by teaching ancient wisdom, translated into today’s context, which will:
    • heighten your relationships,
    • improve your understanding of yourself and the world around you, and
    • make you feel more grounded.

We need this.

I am grateful that the Art Institute of Chicago has a solid collection of Impressionists; I am also grateful for the all the other parts of the museum that I did not take advantage of. But just as you cannot unbundle a museum, so too must the synagogue, as the communal center, include and highlight all the aspects of Jewish life.

As we unbundle ourselves, we grow more isolated; synagogues are on the front lines of fighting that isolation. That’s why we need at least 10 people for a minyan, a prayer quorum, and that sense pervades Jewish life. We are a beit kenesset, a house of gathering. That is what this building, this community is here for. We will continue to improve the model of how we bring people together, to connect our ancient traditions and wisdom with how we live today. And we need you to be a part of it to make it happen, and to help shape our future together.

 

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/28/2018.)

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