Monthly Archives: March 2020

Meeting Virtually and Saving Lives – Vayyiqra 5780

While I am working from home, making Zoom calls or phone calls, I try to sit by a window, so I won’t lose sight of Creation. (You may know that a synagogue must have windows, so that one does not forget the world outside.)

Eldridge Street Synagogue, NYC

I have seen so many people walking and bicycling and running by – couples, families, single people out for a quiet, contemplative stroll. All are keeping their distance from one another. It is definitely far less car traffic than I’ve seen, and far more non-car traffic, and that is somewhat reassuring. We have not receded into our caves. We have not forgotten that life goes on.

I want to take a moment to reflect on where we are right now. We are physically distant from one another, but we remain close spiritually. Some of us are probably starting to feel a bit anxious, wondering:

  • How long will this go on? 
  • How long will we be cooped up like chickens? 
  • How long will it be before we can safely see our friends and relatives again in person? 
  • How long will it take for the wave of infections to crest?

I am beginning to hear the frustration, the anger, the tears of members of this community who feel isolated, who have lost their jobs, who cannot get to the store. I am beginning to hear the sound of loneliness, of depression, of anger at our elected officials, whose job it is to keep us safe and properly informed, to craft a responsible, science-based plan and to make good decisions in the context of international crisis.

And I am beginning to hear those things within myself, as well. And the insistent questions: How do we continue to connect as a community? How do I serve my congregation when I cannot be in the same room with them? How do I continue to teach Judaism, to relay the message that our tradition helps us improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, when I am limited to electronic communications? How do I learn of and bring comfort to congregants in distress?

As is obvious, because I am the only person in this sanctuary right now, I have clearly given a green light to the use of Zoom calls on Shabbat. And I know that this is a halakhic challenge. But let me be clear about this: we are in what the rabbis called, “she’at hadehaq,” the hour of urgency. It is not physically safe for us to gather for minyanim, for services. To do so would violate the principle of piqquah nefesh, the saving of a life. I will come back to that in a moment.

First, two brief thoughts from Parashat Vayyiqra:

1. The first verse of the parashah, which is also the first verse of the book of Vayiqra / Leviticus, is a wee bit curious:

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה֙’ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting [part of the mishkan / sanctuary complex], saying…

God called, and then spoke. The medieval commentators are all over that. Rashi says something simply lovely: that this is leshon hibbah, language of affection. God does not merely instruct Moshe by enumerating laws; God first calls to him in a tender moment, an endearing opening to indicate God’s closeness. And while the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the straightforward and occasionally grisly details of sacrifices in the ancient Temple, this verse reminds us of the imperative to connect, to express our affection to those with whom we are in relationship.

2. In written sifrei Torah, and in some editions of the humash (like Etz Hayyim and the venerable Hertz), the letter alef at the end of the first word, vayyiqra, is small. My favorite explanation for this is as follows: Comparing the small alef with the large bet at the very beginning of the Torah, in the word “bereshit,” (in the beginning), and, knowing that alef has the numerical value of one and bet is two, we learn that Torah must be studied in partnership. When we learn Torah with a partner, we make ourselves greater; when we study alone, we miss something, and we become smaller. Two is always greater than one, not just numerically, but also spiritually.

It is a fundamental statement about the nature of our tradition. The smallest element of doing Jewish, of living Judaism, is two people, learning together, in relationship.

Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves in a very real, very dangerous situation, and our primary goal as a society right now is not to overwhelm our healthcare system. About 10-20% of people who are infected with COVID-19 require hospitalization; some of those will require ventilators; and a small number of those will die.  What percentage is still unknown, but it is definitely much higher than the number who succumb to the flu. If the virus continues to spread unchecked, then the need for hospital beds and ventilators will quickly outstrip the availability of those items, and doctors and hospitals will be forced to decide who lives and who dies. 

As you may know, the principle of piqquah nefesh overrides every single mitzvah in our tradition save three prohibitions: worshipping idols, committing murder, or any of the prohibited sexual liaisons. 

Meanwhile, we have the imperative in Pirqei Avot (2:5): Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from your community. We are a communal people, and we are obligated to be together, to be in relationship with one another, to be a qehillah, a congregation. We learn this not only from the first word in Vayyiqra, but throughout our tradition. Relationship is fundamental to Judaism.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, while not expressly permitting it, gave us a basis on which we can rely for counting a minyan virtually. I am reading from their Letter of Rabbinic Guidance on the subject:

The classic sources (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:13, and others cited by Rabbi Reisner) require that a minyan be located in one physical space. However, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:14 does open the possibility that there may be an exception by joining in to constitute a minyan if one can see the faces of the other participants: “One who is standing behind the synagogue, with a window between that person and the congregation, even if it is several stories up and less than four cubits wide, and who shows his face to them, may combine with them to form a minyan of ten.

The possibility of a minyan being constituted by people who are not physically near each other is further expanded by Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein in Hashukei Hemed on Berakhot 21b (p. 135), where he permits constituting a minyan for kaddish yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish) where people are scattered in a field but can see each other. Recently Rabbi Haim Ovadia called attention to this source, arguing in favor of constituting a minyan by means of real-time video and audio connection between ten Jews. Therefore, in this crisis situation, a number of us are of the opinion that a ruling relying on these precedents should be issued.

So yes, the CJLS concedes that this is not ideal; the ideal remains to gather as a community in physical proximity. But this is what we have right now. If this is the only space in which we can gather, then we should gather in it.

In this hour of urgency, and coupled with the principle of saving lives, and relying on a lenient reading of ancient texts, we ARE gathering. We are responding to one another; we are still a qehillah, a congregation. And not just for services – also for all types of learning.

So thank God. Because we need this. We need this right now more than ever. I am grateful that our attendance at weekly minyanim has been higher than it has ever been in the nearly five years I have been in Pittsburgh. We are now averaging 30 people in the morning and 40 in the evening. And I cannot see how many people are on this call right now, but I know it’s a bunch. We are gathering. We are not separating ourselves. And we are saving lives.

Once again, thank God. Thank God for the resiliency of our tradition, and thank God that the Conservative movement is willing to engage with our tradition in a living way, in a way that reflects the needs of the moment. 

We need each other right now. We need to call out to each other with affection; we need to learn Torah together; we need to gather on Pesah, even if we have to do it via electronic means, which are clearly not ideal. Welcome to she’at hadehaq, the hour of urgency.

Remember that, as I said last week, our tradition offers us the framework, the guidance, the values that will get us through this. Take advantage of the tools we have; they will help keep us spiritually nourished and strong in order to stay safe and healthy. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via livestream from Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/28/2020.)

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Courage, Wisdom, and Framework: What Judaism Offers Us Right Now – Vayaqhel/Pequdei 5780

I spent most of this past week at home, talking and praying via Zoom; I presume that many of you were also at home. Schools are closed or have moved online. Restaurants are only open for takeout. Non-life-sustaining businesses are closed. (It’s good to know, BTW, that Pennsylvania considers “Religious Organizations” to be life-sustaining!) My sister and her family just arrived here from Hungary, and are in a self-quarantine for two weeks. 

This is a reality that we will likely face for at least a few months. I am fortunate to be standing here, with a family today as a young woman was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, but of course we are about 16 people standing in a room that seats 1600, maintaining at least 6 feet from each other at all times. And all the rest of yinz are watching this online.

Congregation Beth Shalom’s sanctuary, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

Some of you are of course wondering why, suddenly, live-streaming of services on Shabbat is OK. And how we have been holding weekday minyanim online for a week, with no single, physical room in which there are 10 people. It speaks to the resilience of our tradition, that even while we must be physically separated, we acknowledge the value of gathering, even if it is through means by which just a week ago seemed unacceptable according to Jewish law.

Photo of Beth Shalom’s weekday morning Zoom minyan, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

And let me tell you why this is going to be extraordinarily important in the coming months.

As religious knowledge and participation in America has declined, most of us do not have a spiritual framework. We value our independence over all else. “It’s a free country,” is the refrain that we hear throughout our lives: free from government control; free from limitations on our behavior or speech; free from religious traditions.

In all that freedom, where are the guidelines that help us make the right choices? How do we improve ourselves and the world? Where are the opportunities for holiness that make our lives meaningful?

Our current situation is exceedingly humbling. We have come to think of ourselves as invincible, as not having to wrestle with many of the real physical threats that our ancestors did. Think of the ability we have to cure many diseases today, thanks to antibiotics. Think of the abilities we have honed to manipulate our world such that we can connect with people in real time all over the world. Think of the many brilliant minds humanity has yielded – the Einsteins and the Mozarts and the Shakespeares and Freuds of our species, the people who have unlocked the secrets of nature and produced such great creativity and innovation and technology and beauty.

We seem to have conquered nature, perhaps after God’s command to the first humans in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis (1:28): 

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

“Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is so easy for us to feel that we have done that.

And yet, all of that can be so easily undone by a microscopic strand of RNA wrapped up in a protein shell: a virus. Not even quite a living thing, arguably. But a force within nature that fells the mightiest of economies and the most robust societies. We have been brought low by the devastating force unleashed by this tiny invader.

The ancient world was a much more dangerous place. There were so many things that we could not control. And that’s why our ancestors appealed to an unseen God, a God that offered them land and fertility and protection and success and health. That’s why, when enemies destroyed our Beit haMiqdash, our Temple in Jerusalem and exiled us to the four corners of the world, we stubbornly carried our Torah with us, and continued to read it, to live by it, and to reinterpret it in every age. The Torah is the portable, personal manifestation of that protection, of the Shekhinah, God’s presence in our lives.

And that is why we have inherited this ancient framework. That is why we celebrate today a young woman being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, as one who has fully inherited those mitzvot, those holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

Framework: Jewish tradition. Halakhah / Jewish law. Mitzvot. Customs. Foods. Holidays. Our stories. Our texts, our music. These things have nourished us and kept us whole for thousands of years. They are as integral to our lives as truth and justice. They are the infrastructure of our very existence. They have kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment, as the bat mitzvah’s parents said in gratitude on Shabbat morning.

And that is why we do not merely change everything that we do. That is why the motivating reason for so much in Jewish life is, “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

Our tradition matters so much that it is essential that we grapple with the hard questions, and not merely dismiss them. Sometimes, we cannot do things the way we have always done them. And so too today. 

It is that Etz Hayyim, that tree of life about which we sang just a few minutes ago when we returned the Torah to the ark, to which we continue to grasp. That tree is solid, is sturdy, and yet it is a wee bit flexible. And particularly when times change as dramatically as they have right now.

The word halakhah, which we often interpret in shorthand as “Jewish law,” is derived from the Hebrew shoresh (root letters) heh-lamed-kaf, meaning to walk or to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life, acknowledging God’s presence, and, more to the point, the presence of others around us. As we walk, we make course corrections. When there is an obstacle in the way, we find a way around it. And these guiding principles keep us aware of our context, our relationships, our behavior. 

And they keep us alive, enabling us to go from celebration to mourning to support for one another in all frames of reference.

Ladies and gentlemen, the next several weeks, and maybe months, may be very boring indeed. Maybe you’ll get tired of streaming movies. Maybe you’ll need a new hobby. I am pretty sure that Pesah will be very strange this year, because you can’t invite all your friends and family. We will definitely still be practicing social distancing. We may all be completely confined to our homes by then. Who knows.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the opportunity to think about all the things that are special in your life, and what really matters most. Not the gadgets, or the high-falutin’ degrees from fancy colleges, or all of the trappings of our society. What ultimately matters is the people you love: your family, your close friends. When we make it to the other side of this, whether it is two months or many more, I hope that we will all see that clearly.

But in the meantime, we will need courage. We will need wisdom. And we will need a framework.

Where will we find those things? In the living words of our tradition. Life will conquer this thing, this destructive, nearly-alive thing. Human spirit, ingenuity, and creativity will get us through. But it will take a long time, and we will re-emerge leaner, less sure of ourselves, and definitely more humble.

I want to urge us all, of course to look out for ourselves and our families, but also to look out especially to those who may be sheltering alone and will feel cut off, and of course those who are ill. We have before us the mitzvah of biqqur holim, visiting the sick, which of course we will not be able to do in person, but a phone call or some other means of contact will be so valuable. Make that mitzvah a part of your daily practice.

And we also have guidance from our parashah today, where we read in Vayaqhel about the generosity of spirit that moved the Israelites in the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that became the home of the Shekhinah, God’s presence among them while wandering in the desert for 40 years. Over and over, the text referenced the materials brought by, “kol nadiv libo,” every person whose heart so moved them to generosity. We are a people who understand the value of the common good, and our obligation to exercise that generosity, to let the good of our hearts motivate us.

Furthermore, let the characters from our tradition inspire us to be resolute in this time. Consider the bravery of Devorah the Judge, the wisdom of King Shelomoh, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, and the impressive resilience of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai, a student of Rabbi Akiva’s and the purported author of the Zohar, who, the Talmud tells us, hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, eating only from the fruit of a carob tree.

Please God, it won’t be 13 years. What really counts now, however, is courage, wisdom, and framework. Our tradition gives us all of those things.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/21/2020.)

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Why You Should Vote for Mercaz – Terumah 5780

(Just in case you don’t get to the link at the end, here it is up front: mercaz2020.org. Vote! If you need to know why you absolutely should, read on.)

In 2014, I was in Israel on a trip with about 35 teens from my synagogue on Long Island. At one point, during the week, we were staying at the hotel at a secular kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Since this was a synagogue-sponsored trip, we were in the habit of holding daily tefillot (religious services) as a group every morning. So we were leaving this hotel that morning, and the plan was, before loading our stuff onto the bus, that we would use the synagogue on the hotel grounds to recite shaharit (the morning service). We approached the front desk to ask if we could use the synagogue. Sizing up our group, the clerk, presumably a secular member of this kibbutz, told us that we were not in fact allowed to use the synagogue.

When asked why, we were told that the mashgiah, the kashrut supervisor for the hotel restaurant, had instructed the hotel that if non-Orthodox groups were allowed to use the synagogue, the local rabbinic authorities would invalidate their kosher certification.

We departed, and davened beside the bus in a parking lot at our next destination. 

So this secular kibbutz, making a sensible business decision from their perspective (i.e. not to lose out on all the kosher-keeping groups who stay there), denied a Jewish kosher-keeping group the opportunity to practice Judaism on their property. And all of this took place in the Jewish state.

Rabbi Jeremy related to me that he found himself in a similar situation around the same time: he was in rabbinical school, and, while traveling in the north of Israel with a group of Conservative rabbinical students, they stayed at a different hotel, which denied this group the use of their sefer Torah (Torah scroll) because they were not Orthodox. Never mind that they would certainly treat the Torah respectfully. Never mind that they would read it the same way that Orthodox Jews do. Never mind that they were rabbinical students. They were denied merely because they prayed in a group of men and women mixed together.

All of this in the Jewish state.

Every now and then we get all upset about different manifestations of this problem, of the delegitimization of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. Remember a few years back, when the Netanyahu government reneged on its plan to complete the construction of an egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel (the Western Wall), away from the “traditional” Kotel plaza? Remember how upset non-Orthodox leaders were in this country? Remember that? And then what happened?

Frankly, nothing. Because American Jews, as much as they claim to care about Israel, might be very concerned about religious freedom in Israel when they are there, but it is all too easy not to worry or even think about it when we are back at home.

Do you remember how, about a year and a half ago, when Israeli Masorti (Conservative) Rabbi Dubi Haiyun was awakened at 5:30 AM in his home in Haifa and detained by police, after the Orthodox rabbinical authorities in Haifa had filed a complaint against him for, get this, performing weddings? (I actually spoke about this here at Beth Shalom, not long after it occurred.) 

You see, in Israel, weddings between two Jews must be performed by Orthodox rabbis approved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. If you want to have me do a destination wedding in the Bahamas, I’m all in. If you want me to do it in Israel, I will apologize and urge you to get married here instead, because I do not want to get arrested. (Although as a proud Zionist, I must say that being in prison in Israel might make for an interesting experience, a new way to experience the Holy Land, and potentially good sermon material.) 

All of this is due to the fact that while the State of Israel is a healthy democracy, there is no separation of State and synagogue there, and political machinations have enfranchised an Orthodox, and increasingly ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life. All official Jewish ritual events that affect personal status – weddings, divorces, conversions, funerals, etc. – are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, which is of course Orthodox. Same for kashrut supervision for restaurants, and hence the hotel problems I mentioned earlier. Also for the Kotel plaza, which functions more or less like an Orthodox synagogue, with a tall mehitzah (traditional synagogue separation barrier between men and women, which we do not have at egalitarian congregations such as Beth Shalom) and limited access for women in general. A service like the ones we hold here at Beth Shalom is prohibited not only by the Western Wall, but in the whole public plaza surrounding it as well. Women are prohibited from reading Torah there, and even from wearing a tallit (prayer shawl).

Change on this front is difficult for the Israeli government because of the nature of the coalition system. As with the canceled plans for the egalitarian Kotel plaza, Netanyahu backed out of the plan because his Likud party required the support of the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox,” although that is not really an accurate description of who they are) parties, who are a part of his coalition. And the number of practicing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, though growing, is quite small; roughly 40% of the Israeli public identifies as Orthodox, while perhaps 8% identify with the Reform or Conservative movements. While many Likud voters and politicians do not care so deeply about what goes on at the Kotel, the Haredi parties feel very strongly that the Israeli government should not kowtow to non-Orthodox Jews, particularly non-Israeli, non-Orthodox Jews (which, BTW, describes 85% of Jews in America), on the freedom to practice Judaism the way we do.

Pluralism, that is, acknowledging that there are different paths through Jewish life and tolerating each other’s presence, is not a thing in Israel. According to the Jewish State, which long ago turned over all religious affairs to the Rabbinate, there is only one form of legitimate Judaism. Even for secular Israelis, usually the shul that they proudly do not attend is Orthodox.

Does this seem wrong to you? It should.

One of the wonderful things about this nation, and one reason why religion flourishes here, is because the government generally stays out of it. That principle is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Those sixteen words have been, shall we say, a Godsend to not just the Jews, but to all religious groups.

Israel has no such principle. And it is very easy for Israeli politicians to ignore the religious practices of American Jews, because, let’s face it: we do not live there. If we are inconvenienced as tourists, well, so be it. We’ll get over it when we take off from Ben Gurion Airport on the way home.

But don’t you think that the Jewish State, which likes to see itself as the center of the Jewish world, should at least allow non-Orthodox Jews to worship according to their custom? Don’t you think that I should be able to perform a wedding in the State of Israel? Don’t you think that people who convert to Judaism under my supervision should be accepted fully as Jews in Israel? Of course you do.

And so I have some good news: you have a voice in Israel. And that voice is the World Zionist Congress.

What is the World Zionist Congress, you may ask? It is an assemblage of supporters of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision of a Jewish state, from all over the world, that convenes roughly every five years, going back to the First Zionist Congress, organized by Herzl himself in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. This is the 38th such assemblage, and it will take place in Jerusalem in October, and we who care about religious pluralism need to show our support by voting

At stake in this election are 152 seats representing American Jews, and it is crucial that a large contingent of those seats speak loudly on behalf of protecting religious freedom in Israel.

(I have some insider information: as of early this past week, only 43 people in the 15217 Zip code had voted for Mercaz. There are at least 1,000 people who are members of this congregation; you do the math.)

Why should you vote for Mercaz? Because critical decisions, influential positions, reputational influence, and funding for the Masorti/Conservative movement are all at stake. The World Zionist Congress “makes decisions and sets policies regarding key institutions that support global Jewish life and which allocate nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry.”

If we just throw up our hands and say, “Oh, that’s so far away, and why should I bother?” then the other folks who are voting, those who seek to delegitimize me, you and our friends and family who are non-Orthodox Jews and Jewish practice in Israel, their voices will grow louder, and that funding and influence will go their way.

***

After all of the events I have described above, don’t you think it’s time that our voice is heard? That we ensure that the State of Israel features a Jewish environment that is open and free and pluralistic, one in which your Jewish practice is recognized as Jewish?

You have a voice – use it! Go to www.Mercaz2020.org to register, vote, check out the slate of delegates and the Mercaz platform. Yes, it will cost you $7.50 and a few minutes of your time, but this is a small price to pay to support a pluralist Jewish state. We also have paper ballots in the lobby here at Beth Shalom. And if you let me know that you have voted for Mercaz, come by my office and I’ll give you a sticker!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/29/20.)

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