Monthly Archives: June 2018

Anger Is Not a Strategy – Huqqat 5778

Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, loses his temper at least three times in the Torah. One happens in parashat Huqqat following the death of his sister Miriam, who (the midrash tells us) always had access to water in the desert:

The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord!” Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?  There is not even water to drink!”

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces.  The Presence of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.  Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”

Moses took the rod from the Lord, as He had commanded him.  Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.  Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:2-12)

While commentators propose a range of theories about why Moshe is punished, the prevailing opinion is that it was due to his anger.

anger

We are in a particularly angry moment here in America, and all the more so in Pittsburgh, given recent events. But anger is not a strategy for change; it is a strong motivator, but not an effective path forward. The 15th-century mussar (ethical) text Orhot Tzaddiqim, whose author’s name is unknown, tell us the following:

Orhot Tzaddiqim (15th century German mussar / ethical text) 12:13-14

(13) Anger leads to mistakes. Who is a greater man than Moses, our teacher? Moses, upon him be peace, was angry in three places, and he made what would generally be termed “mistakes.” … And so, you can understand that if these things happened to Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, when he was angry, what can happen to fools who are angry! And therefore Solomon said, “Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry” (Eccl. 7:9).

אורחות צדיקים י״ב:י״ג

הכעס מביא לידי טעות; מי לנו גדול ממשה רבינו עליו השלום, שכעס בשלושה מקומות ובא לכלל טעות:… מלמד שנשתכחה הלכה ממשה (ויקרא רבה יג א). ועתה הבן: אם כך הגיע למשה רבינו עליו השלום, מה יגיע לכסילים הכועסים? ולכך אמר שלמה (קהלת ז ט): “אל תבהל ברוחך לכעוס”.

 

(14) And you must be very careful not to do damage in your anger, for our Rabbis said : “He who rends his garments, breaks his utensils in his wrath and scatters his money should be in your eyes like one who worships idols” (Bab. Talmud, Shabbat 105b). For this is the artful craft of the Evil Desire. Today he says to a man, “Do thus.” And on the morrow he says to him, “Go ahead and serve idols.” And the man goes and serves.

 והיזהר בה מאוד, שלא תעשה שום קלקול מתוך כעסך. כי אמרו רבותינו (שבת קה ב): המקרע בגדיו, והמפזר מעותיו, והמשבר כלים בחמתו – יהא בעיניך כאילו עובד עבודה זרה. שכך אומנותו של יצר הרע: היום אומר לו “עשה כך”, ולמחר אומר לו “עשה כך”, עד שאומר לו “עבוד עבודה”זרה” והולך ועושה.

It is Moshe’s anger that leads him astray; acting on our anger, suggests the author of Orhot Tzaddiqim, ultimately leads us to avodah zarah / idolatry, one of the greatest prohibitions of the Torah and of Judaism.

The Conflict Dynamics Profile* (conflictdynamics.org) lists a series of behaviors to which we often resort in times of conflict. These are the destructive behaviors, a few of which Moshe is guilty in this episode:

 

  • Winning at All Costs – Arguing vigorously for your own position and trying to win at all costs.
  • Displaying Anger – Expressing anger, raising your voice, and using harsh, angry words.
  • Demeaning Others – Laughing at the other person, ridiculing the other’s ideas, and using sarcasm.
  • Retaliating – Obstructing the other person, retaliating against the other, and trying to get revenge.
  • Avoiding – Avoiding or ignoring the other person, and acting distant and aloof.
  • Yielding – Giving in to the other person in order to avoid further conflict.
  • Hiding Emotions – Concealing your true emotions even though feeling upset.
  • Self-Criticizing – Replaying the incident over in your mind, and criticizing yourself for not handling it better.

 

So how do we respond constructively to conflict? Here are some suggested strategies:

 

  • Perspective Taking – Putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand that person’s point of view.
  • Creating Solutions – Brainstorming with the other person, asking questions, and trying to create solutions to the problem.
  • Expressing Emotions – Talking honestly with the other person and expressing your thoughts and feelings.
  • Reaching Out – Reaching out to the other person, making the first move, and trying to make amends.
  • Reflective Thinking – Analyzing the situation, weighing the pros and cons, and thinking about the best response.
  • Delay Responding – Waiting things out, letting matters settle down, or taking a “time out” when emotions are running high.
  • Adapting – Staying flexible, and trying to make the best of the situation.

 

Had Moshe been able to manage his own anger, and channel it into one of the constructive strategies above, his outcome might have been different. And so too with us.

Here’s an idea: print out the destructive and constructive responses above, and post them on your refrigerator or bulletin board. You can use these to help improve your own personal relationships, and even society as a whole.

If we are to get past this angry moment, we will have to think constructively, and not merely act out of anger.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Based on a discussion at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/23/18.)

*Thanks to Bob Leventhal of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Sulam for Emerging Leaders program for bringing the Conflict Dynamics Profile to my attention.

 

 

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Being Jewish in a World Without Boundaries – Qorah 5778

I must say that I have never been particularly interested in the British royal family. While my wife devoured two seasons of “The Crown,” it would always put me pretty much right to sleep.

However, I was captivated by the recent royal wedding. Not the pageantry and fancy hats, mind you, but the powerful statement of change that it presented. In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne due to the public outcry over his intent to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Meghan Markle is an American, a divorcee, and bi-racial. Was there any opposition to Prince Harry’s marrying her? If there was, I did not hear it. (Maybe someday it will appear in Season 38 of “The Crown.”)

Prince-Harry-Meghan-Markle-Wedding-GIFs

Just think about that for a moment. How many institutions in the world are as committed to tradition as the British monarchy? Even a few decades ago, this marriage would have been impossible.

But all sorts of barriers are breaking down in Western society. And this has tremendous implications for the Jews.

And I am going to propose something here: this struggle, the challenge of Jewish identity in a world without social borders, is the greatest challenge we face today. And it is, in the language of the Talmud, a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven. Here is a brief reminder of what we find in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers,” the 2nd-century collection of rabbinic wisdom):

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקיים
ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקיים
איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי
ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו

Every argument that is for the sake of heaven, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven, it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Qorah and all of his group.

Qorah’s struggle against Moshe and Aharon is effectively one of self-aggrandizement: he and his band of complainants feel that they have been cheated of leadership opportunity, and seek to better themselves by challenging the authority of Aharon and Moshe. Their struggle is selfish; it is not leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, but rather only for the sake of their own egos.

But let me paint a picture, for a moment, of the current state of Jewish America. What we have seen for some time is a hardening on the right, that is, greater zeal for fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah / Jewish law and a robust range of occasionally-obscure minhagim / customs, coupled with greater isolation from modernity in the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox,” although this is something of a misnomer) world, along with increased rightward movement in the rest of Orthodoxy for some time. That accounts for only about 10% of American Jewry, although of course they are growing dramatically due to the fact that these families have many children.

For the remaining 90% of American Jews, who are not Haredi or Orthodox, we have seen a gradual move away from traditional practice – particularly from tefillah / prayer, but also from kashrut, Shabbat observances, and even some lifecycle rituals.

There are many factors that have brought us to where we are, but the most essential driving force in our assimilation is that American society has welcomed us as equals. We are fully integrated into American life. The quotas of decades past, the exclusive clubs, the Gentleman’s Agreement of the 20th century, these things are all mostly gone. I’ll be performing a wedding between two Jews at the Fox Chapel Golf Club in a few weeks (I’m told it used to exclude Jews). All doors are open, including, most notably, the exit from Jewish life entirely without the historically-requisite conversion to Christianity.

And we, the faithful who are also committed to living fully integrated lives, we have largely failed. We have failed to make an adequate case for why we should continue to highlight Jewish education, say, over soccer; we have failed to give our adult adherents the appropriate language to express why they are Jewishly committed; we have failed to make the positive case for Shabbat, kashrut, holidays, lifecycle observances, and so forth. One staggering statistic in the Federation’s recent study of Pittsburgh Jewry is that only about half of Jewish children in Pittsburgh are receiving ANY kind of organized Jewish education. What does that tell you about the future, ladies and gentlemen?

And yet, I am happy to crow about the fact that in my three short years here, I have brought about thirty new Jews into the covenant of Abraham and Sarah through conversion, including several already-married women and their children. Our tradition still has the power to draw people in. At our Shababababa / Shabbat Haverim services, once a month on a Friday night, we attract a mixed crowd of 120-150 people: Jewish families with two Jewish parents, interfaith couples, even families that are entirely not Jewish. And everybody is singing along, schmoozing, and enjoying Shabbat dinner together.

What is our goal, ladies and gentlemen? Is it to produce Jewish children and grandchildren, who are active and willing members of that ancient covenant? Or is it to bring our wisdom and values to the world, to re-emphasize our commitment to ancient Jewish text and the wisdom therein, and continue to apply and teach and learn regardless of the halakhic implications (that is, with respect to Jewish law) of the contemporary Jewish family?

This is the essence of the mahloqet leshem shamayim: are we focused primarily on covenant and halakhic boundaries at any cost? Or do we instead highlight the moral content of Judaism without regard to the ritual and the laws, allowing the Jewish people to move forward as a civilization (to use Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s term), assimilated and intermingled with the non-Jewish population?

Perhaps you are aware of the discussions going on in the wider Jewish world, mostly as a response to the intermarriage rate of 70% (or so), regarding how we move forward. While the Reform movement sidestepped the halakhic challenge by embracing patrilineal descent (that is, recognizing that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is Jewish, provided that the child is raised Jewish) in the 1980s, the Conservative world continues to argue with itself. On the one hand, we want to keep our Jewish children and grandchildren, regardless of who they marry. On the other, we have our halakhic standards, standards which seem to become increasingly more difficult to maintain.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, scion of a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbinic family, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary a few years back. He now runs a synagogue in New York called Lab/Shul, and last year issued a statement that justified his performing intermarriages based on the rabbinic concept of the “ger toshav,” the resident alien who lives among Jews, who has forsworn idolatry and committed to certain aspects of Jewish tradition, albeit without formal conversion. Without digging too deeply into the halakhic principles in play, Rabbi Lau-Lavie found halakhic cover for marrying Jews and non-Jews together. As you can imagine, not everybody has jumped on Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s bandwagon.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar, also in New York, recently put together a stellar analysis of the halakhic sources surrounding intermarriage, with an eye to the practical. (You can listen to it and read his collected info here.) His conclusion is that we have no choice but to stand for the covenantal aspects of Judaism, to reinforce the traditional boundaries.

Covenantalism is where my training and our heritage wants us to be. But the reality is that the vast majority of us have already accepted the civilization model. And I do not think that we can deny that.

What I would like to propose is a kind of mixed model. Yes, we have to continue to acknowledge the traditional halakhic understanding of who is a Jew, and retain our commitment to the boundaries in Jewish law that we have inherited. (e.g. not performing intermarriages, counting only halakhic Jews in a minyan / quorum of 10 adults for services, etc.)

At the same time, we need to highlight some of the civilizational aspects of who we are as Jews, and promote them as a way into Jewish life. The Torah was given not only to the Jews, folks, but to the world, and it is up to us to teach it to whoever wants to learn. And implicit within that is to welcome all who want to come in, regardless of their religious background, or to whom they are married.

As a final note, it is worth pointing out that this is a healthy struggle. What has kept us together as a people for nearly two millennia, following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE is not rabbinic control, or commitment to halakhah, or living in ghettos. Rather, it is the willingness to keep studying, to keep asking questions, to continue to revisit who we are, what we believe, and how we tackle each challenge that our journey has brought us. That is why this is a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven, and that is why it, and we, will endure.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/16/2018.)

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