Monthly Archives: February 2020

Rethinking Na'aseh veNishma: First Connect, Then Teach – Yitro 5780

Last week in this space, I spoke about my trip in January with Honeymoon Israel, a program which seeks to reach the least-connected Jews by providing a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel for couples in their first five years of marriage. The program is not about Israel, per se, but uses the visit to Israel primarily as a backdrop to discuss issues of Jewish peoplehood. I spoke also about a featured presenter on the trip, renowned Jewish educator Avraham Infeld, and discussed his framework of the “Five-Legged Table” of the supporting pillars of Jewish peoplehood. Those “legs” are:

  • Memory
  • Family
  • Mt. Sinai
  • Israel
  • Hebrew

What is at least initially missing from this list is an acknowledgment that , historically speaking, an essential statement of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people is the covenant of mitzvot, the opportunities for holiness that are the central framework of Jewish living and our relationship to God.

Framing that in the form of a question: Isn’t our responsibility as Conservative Jews, as those committed to halakhah / Jewish law and to conserving Jewish tradition, to teach Judaism as a religious tradition? How can we define membership in the Jewish people without the classical religious content?

You might say that the “Mt. Sinai” leg of Infeld’s table includes that. That is, when the Israelites stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, as we did symbolically today, and then they say, “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do and we will seek to understand (Ex. 24:7), that they were effectively saying that membership in the Jewish people mandates performance of the mitzvot first. That is, ours is a religious tradition, based on fulfilling the specific behaviors commanded by God. And there are certainly Jewish communities in which everybody is expected to toe the line, halakhically. Through much of our history, we have had a bit of a judgy streak – in the shtetl, to live among the Jews meant to live as Jews do, and if you did not, you were a threat to the fabric of Jewish society. In the Old World, keeping the mitzvot was also about personal security – you were safe with the Jews if you kept our ways. God and the community would protect you.

Avraham Infeld bellowed at the Honeymoon Israel participants that Judaism is not a religion, but a people. A family, as he puts it. He spoke of his own father, who was a proud atheist, but a committed Jew nonetheless. Some members of our Jewish family put on tefillin every morning. Some refrain from eating pork, but see no problem with ordering steak in non-kosher establishments. Some proudly walk down Murray Ave. on Yom Kippur eating bacon double-cheeseburgers. But all are Jews.

While I place myself firmly in the tefillin-every-morning crowd (and I of course want you all to join me there, when you are ready, of course, with a special invitation to those of us who identify as women), I certainly want us all to continue to be included in, and proudly identify as Jews, regardless of our relationship to the mitzvot.

From the World Wide Wrap at JJEP, February 2020

But there are many Jews for whom the very idea of identification with the Jewish community is fraught. There are many of us who have been turned away by our community. There are many who have felt judged, who have been subjected to intolerance, who were made to feel not welcome for various reasons. 

We have pushed people away. Yes, it’s true that some wandered off by themselves, uninspired, uninterested. But many were turned off by the very people who wanted them to stay, by those of us who insisted on drawing hard lines about who is in and who is out, about what was acceptable behavior for a Jew and what was unacceptable. 

Our role, as Conservative Jews in the vibrant center of the Jewish world is to build bridges. To build a bridge from peoplehood to religion and vice versa; to build a bridge from non-engagement to engagement; to connect Jews from different backgrounds and practices to one another. We inhabit a Jewish environment that can be secular and religious; where doubt can live alongside faith; where an academic Torah-as-human-literature can sidle up to Torah-as-history and not be rebuffed. 

When we say, as Rosh Hashanah begins, “Shalom, shalom, larahoq velaqarov, amar Adonai. (Isaiah 57:19),” we mean it. “Greetings, greetings to those who are far and those who are near, says God.” We have to be open to all who are close, and all those who place themselves beyond the outskirts of our community.

My work as a rabbi is to teach Judaism, to connect you, and everybody else, with the lessons of our text, our history, our culture, our rituals. And there are some who think that rabbis should teach to the top, to those who are committed, to the members of our community who are already steeped in Torah, who have already drunk the Talmudic Kool-Aid.

There is a time and a place for that. But whenever I can, I am also going to teach to the uninitiated, to invite in the ones who are she-einam yode’im lish’ol, who do not yet know how to ask. Because those are the people we need to reach.

So how do we do this?

It is easy for us to keep doing what we are doing, and not worry too much about the rest of the Jewish world, to assume that everybody knows what to do when they walk into a synagogue, to assume that our customs and wisdom, and indeed the supreme value of what we do are obvious to all. But they are not. I know this because I hear it all the time: it’s not so easy to enter Beth Shalom if you do not know where the door is, figuratively speaking.

So how do we invite in Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks while not scaring them off with our commitment to tradition? Although we know that our approach to tradition is decidedly modern, egalitarian, and inclusive, often those who are unaffiliated or who have been turned off by other Jews and Judaism in the past may not see that. How do we welcome them into our community in such a way that they stay?

And the answer is as follows: First connect, then teach.

And this is, you might say, orthogonal to the principle of “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do first, and then we will understand, which has been so essential to Jewish life for our entire history. The traditional model of teaching Jewish religious practice is to teach the mitzvah, the behavior first, with the intent that the understanding will follow.

But for many today, there has to be a preliminary step, and that step is connection. That is the Mt. Sinai moment. That is where God speaks to each of the individuals standing at Mt. Sinai. Anokhi Adonai Elohekha. “I am the Lord your God.” It’s the first Commandment of the Top Ten. And the “your” is singular! The first commandment is about individual relationship.

It is only after this relationship is established that the doing and the understanding can begin.

(Yes, I know that this image from the Sistine Chapel is God and Adam. But it is also a perfect image for the Sinai moment.)

First connect, then teach. The connection must precede Na’aseh venishma. That’s the element of Jewish peoplehood, of family, of Mt. Sinai.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are not going to compromise on the mitzvot part of the equation; we will uphold our standards of Jewish practice. What goes on at Beth Shalom will always be kosher, shomer Shabbat, and so forth.

But we also have to take the first commandment seriously, and read it as, “You’re a part of my family.” Whatever you may have experienced in the past, whether you were turned off by Jewish religious practice or felt judged for your choices or your parents denied you a Jewish education or whatever, you are welcome as a part of our family.

And, to go a step further, I want those who are Jewish-adjacent, i.e. not privileged to have been born Jewish or yet joined the Jewish people, but having the hutzpah to have married a Jew, to think of themselves as a part of our family as well.

A brief coda: I received an email this past week from one of the Honeymoon Israel participants that really made my week, a person who is married to somebody who is not Jewish, who had bad experiences with rabbis and Jewish organizations. And this person expressed gratitude for having been welcomed back, for feeling for the first time like one of the tribe. And I would now not be surprised to see this person cross my orbit again, this time open to learn, open to the idea of belonging, open to the idea of na’aseh venishma

First connect, then teach. Remember that when you are in the building, and as you saunter out as an ambassador for the type of Judaism we live.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/15/2020.)

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Honeymoon Israel and Jewish Peoplehood – Beshallah/Shabbat Shirah 5780

Many of you know that I travel to Israel frequently – I have a relationship with Israel that stretches back to the summer of 1987, when I spent eight weeks there at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. Since then, I have returned so many times that I have lost count – somewhere between 30 and 40 trips, and of course I lived there for a year and a half during the central portion of my journey from engineering to the rabbinate.

On this trip, I must say that I did something which I consider profoundly Zionist: I went skiing.

My son and I on one of the Hermon chairlifts

I have actually been thinking about doing this for years. Mt. Hermon, which hosts the only alpine environment in the Middle East, is located at the very top of the Golan Heights, and while most of the mountain is divided between Syria and Lebanon, a sliver is contained within the Israeli section of the Golan Heights. Israel conquered the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967, and officially annexed the area in 1981, and so far only the United States recognizes Israel’s sovereignty there. 

Not long after the Six-Day War, Israeli entrepreneurs beheld the huge amounts of snow that are present for a few weeks every winter, and saw an opportunity. On the day that my son and I were there, there were hundreds of people skiing, and many hundreds more who were sledding, riding the alpine slide, playing in the snow, and taking the gondola to the foggy summit. (The skiing, BTW, was awesome!)

Now as with anything in Israel, there are political ramifications to everything. The businesses on and surrounding Mt. Hermon provides jobs for the Druze residents of the city of Majdal Shams, whose officials publicly state their loyalty to Syria, although it is clear that many of them would much rather be in Israel than in Syria. Should there someday be a peace agreement with Syria, there is a significant chance that the Golan Heights, and the ski area and the Golan Heights Druze with it, will return to Syria, so at least officially they profess their loyalty to the Syrian government. 

Meanwhile, Israelis flock to enjoy a little taste of the Alps in their backyard. At the end of a day of skiing, we were stuck in a VERY Zionist traffic jam as everybody headed down the mountain on the windy road toward Majdal Shams.

I also did something that was not quite as Zionist, in the sense that it was pro-Diaspora, and that was to be the rabbi on the second Pittsburgh cohort of Honeymoon Israel.

You might make the case that HMI is not particularly Zionist, because Israel is really only a backdrop, a set on which to give 20 young couples from Pittsburgh, all within five years of marriage and/or partnership, the opportunity to create a micro-community that will ideally thrive back in their hometown. Every HMI trip is city-based, and each busload of 20 couples from the same city is accompanied by an engagement professional from the local Federation (in our case, Karen Podorefsky from the Young Adult Division), an Israeli tour guide, and a rabbi. The goal, different from Birthright, for example, is not to connect American Jews with Israel, but to use Israel as a pretext to discuss issues surrounding Jewish peoplehood. 

The January 2020 Pittsburgh cohort of Honeymoon Israel at Caesarea

It is actually a brilliant idea, one that emerged primarily from the Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews published in 2013, to which you may have heard me refer from time to time. One of the most important pieces of info which emerged from this study is that there is a growing group of Jews who consider themselves proudly Jewish, but are utterly disconnected from Judaism as a religion. That may not bode well for synagogues, but the creators of HMI see this as an opportunity: how to help this segment of self-identified Jews, and in some cases their non-Jewish partners create community? Furthermore, given the fragmented nature of today’s Jewish world, how do we continue to connect Jews to each other, whether through traditional Jewish activities or otherwise?

On a Tel Aviv graffiti and food tour

This aligns very much with what we are trying to do at Beth Shalom: the very point of Derekh is to provide portals, inviting doorways into Jewish life and community. A synagogue is first and foremost a beit keneset, a Jewish place of gathering, even over and above its role as a beit tefillah and a beit midrash (place of prayer and learning). As such, we need to be a center of Jewish life that invites everybody in, and this has been a focus of my rabbinate since I arrived here four-and-a-half years ago. And that is why, when the opportunity came up to be the rabbi on this trip, I jumped at the chance.

So we spent eight-and-a-half days on the ground in Israel, hitting some tourist highlights, of course, but also allowing plenty of free time for couples to enjoy themselves in cosmopolitan Israel (Since this trip is billed as a honeymoon, one goal is not to subject the participants to a jam-packed schedule of lectures and archaeological sites). There was also time built into the trip for discussions about engaging with Jewish life and connection with the rabbi: services on the two Friday evenings, havdalah, and a few discussions and spontaneous Q&A sessions and group processing.

One of the highlights of the trip was a lecture on Jewish peoplehood by Avraham Infeld, the renowned Jewish educator and former president of Hillel International. Mr. Infeld spoke, or, rather, bellowed, about Jewish peoplehood as seen through the lens of what he refers to as a “Five-Legged Table.” The “legs” of the table are as follows:

  • Memory
  • Family
  • Mt. Sinai
  • Israel
  • Hebrew

Memory: The idea that what connects us to each other as Jews is a shared story. Not history, per se, although that is certainly part of the story. But it is our collective memory of being enslaved in Egypt, for example, that drives us not only to the seder table on Pesah, but also to remember our duty to work toward a world in which nobody is enslaved or oppressed. (You might consider how we rose this morning to chant responsively as we read from the Torah Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, as a prime example of living Jewish memory. We continue to express gratitude for our redemption from Egypt every single day of the year by reciting Shirat HaYam as a part of every day’s morning service.)

Family: We are united by the sense of the Jewish people as being one big, inclusive family. And that means not only people who have roots in the Eastern European shtetl, but also those whose grandparents were traders in the souq of Baghdad, those who were flown from Ethiopia to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991, and even those who were not born Jewish, but, as Infeld put it, had the hutzpah to fall in love with a Jewish person. “You’re a member of my family,” said Avraham Infeld. “and you’re stuck with me.”

Mt. Sinai: We were together at Mt. Sinai, where we received the Torah as a people from God. Whether you follow the mitzvot / holy opportunities of the Torah to the tiniest detail or you reject them, whether you understand God in traditional terms or reject the idea entirely, the Mt. Sinai moment is still ours, the nexus of Jewish memory, and an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish.

Israel: When we recited the Shaharit / the morning service earlier, we recited “Mashiv haruah umorid hagashem” – God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. We prayed for rain, but not here: Jews all over the world pray for rain in the Land of Israel. (On that front, I have good news: while we were there, it rained almost every day!) Our prayer, our rituals, our texts, and our memory continue to connect us back to that land. Meanwhile, the contemporary State of Israel is an undeniably essential feature of today’s Jewish landscape. While not perfect by anybody’s standard, Israel is here to stay and wherever you are in the Jewish world, you cannot discount the outsize role that Israel, the land and the state, plays in world Jewry.

Masada

Hebrew: Our people has a language, and that language is Hebrew. Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Pittsburghese and so forth are all Jewish languages, but all of them draw on the one language that we all share, the language of the Torah. There is a reason that Eliezer Ben-Yehudah revived Hebrew to make it the spoken language of Israel, and that is that it unites us all as Jews.

These are the things that we share, the essential building blocks of Jewish peoplehood. Infeld believes that if you relate to at least three of them, you feel connected to the Jewish people; as you may know, a table with three legs can stand, but one with two cannot.

Honeymoon Israel’s goal is to connect its participants with at least a few of these legs, and to build on the stability of that table to welcome more Jews into, and perhaps indeed back into the Jewish community. Am Yisrael hai: the people of Israel lives. And I am certain that it is doing that; at this point over 2000 couples have participated in the program; HMI’s statistics report that 85% of participants feel a “new sense of belonging to the Jewish community and connection to Israel” following the trip.

Tzfat

So you might be wondering now, “OK, Rabbi, so this all sounds great, except for one thing: you’re a rabbi, and your job is to teach Judaism according to the traditional view of Judaism as a religion, right?”

Well, yes and no. Religion and peoplehood cannot easily be separated. And I am going to speak about that next week, when we act on the memory of the Sinai moment in Parashat Yitro. So I am concluding today with a sort of cliffhanger: Come back next week to find out why now is the time to reach out to the least connected Jews, and how we should do that.

Work by Israeli graffiti artist Michal Rosen in Nahalat Binyamin, Tel Aviv

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/8/2020.)

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