OK, so let’s face it: we are missing right now the most valuable thing that synagogues offer: the opportunity to meet in person, to sing together with your community, to rub elbows at kiddush as you crowd around the last remaining slices of lox. We are missing the glue that holds us all together, the social capital that the synagogue experience is all about.
So what remains? That is the subject of this High Holiday sermon series for the new year of 5781: the essentials. The social shell of shul (say that ten times fast) has been stripped away, and what is left is, well, Judaism. It’s back to basics, folks.
Instead of dwelling on what we do NOT have at this time, I have been trying to lean into what we do have: Jewish tradition, that is, law, custom, values and story. While a synagogue thrives as a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the synagogue also plays a role as the symbolic center of what we do in our homes as well.
My central function as a rabbi is not to run services. It is not to give eulogies at funerals or give a charge to a bat mitzvah, although these are clearly things that I do. Rather, I see my role as a rabbi is to inspire you while using the words and history and customs of Jewish life and tradition, and to be as creative as possible, so that you will actually perk up your ears and listen. While the shofar’s job is to wake you up, my job is to get your attention now that you’re awake, so that you might go out into the world and act.
And these six months of pandemic isolation have been difficult for all of us. In the wake of so much sickness and death, unemployment and economic devastation, our collective emotional health is not good. Statistics are telling us that more of us are experiencing anxiety and depression than before, that one in four young people are experiencing suicidal ideation. And then there is everything else going on in the world: the public clashes over racism, the anxiety surrounding the coming national election, hurricane season, devastating, record-setting wildfires out west, and so forth.
We need something to hold onto, emotionally and spiritually. We need basic, foundational principles that will firm up the earth beneath our feet. And that is why this series of sermons features the essential pieces of what it means to be Jewish today.
The framework I will be following for the four sermons of High Holidays 5781 is: Halakhah / Jewish law, Minhag / Jewish custom, Jewish values, and the Jewish story. Here are the basics.
Part 1 – Halakhah
Over the summer, I read for the first time a wonderful novel: Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, a staple of contemporary African literature that captures the disintegration of traditional Igbo society in Nigeria under British colonialism in the 19th century. The title of the book, as you may know, comes from a poem by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats, and indeed Achebe, were convinced that human beings cannot successfully maintain traditional ways in the face of a new construct. In Achebe’s novel, the Igbo’s way of life is upended when the British colonizers demean their customs and beliefs and kill or jail those who speak out against them. The rich sphere of Igbo tradition and hierarchy was no match for the invaders’ firepower and courts and prisons.
We the Jews are trying to maintain our own traditions while balancing lives that bear little resemblance to those of our ancestors. We have been doing this for 2,000 years, but in particular since the French Revolution in 1789, when Napoleon granted citizenship to the Jews of France, the struggle between tradition and modernity began in earnest. When Jews were allowed to live among their non-Jewish neighbors and attend their schools and universities and mingle in non-Jewish society, they were faced with the question of, “How do I maintain my Jewishness while also joining the wider society?”
And we continue to face this question today. Let’s face it: many of us have given up the struggle. We all have relatives and Jewish friends who no longer belong to synagogues, who no longer participate in Jewish life. And the pandemic has, I know, only exacerbated this situation.
But you’re still here. The very fact that you are participating in this service right now is a strong indicator that you have not yet given up. And that has everything to do with the resilience of the Conservative movement, the ideological center of American Jewish life. Perhaps defying Yeats and Achebe, the center can hold! Let me explain.
Judaism has many, many features. Law, customs, stories, values, practices, wisdom, rabbinic argument, and so forth. But the essential feature of Judaism is doing. Yes, belief is important, but it actually takes a back seat to behavior. And there is real wisdom in that: simply being Jewish will not pass Judaism on to the next generation. So too thinking Jewish thoughts. Only doing Jewish will keep the flame of Judaism alive.
And since our subject is “Back to Basics,” what are those essential Jewish actions?
It all comes down to halakhah. That is a word that is often translated as “Jewish law,” although that is an inadequate translation. Halakhah is, as many of you know, derived from the Hebrew verb, “Lalekhet,” to go. It is the way we go through life as we pursue being holy, an analog of the Chinese philosophy of Tao, the Way. A better definition of halakhah is “the way to walk through life while acting on the imperative to be holy people.”
And we still need halakhah. Trust me on this: our world is more fragmented than ever. The information age has not made us smarter, nor more interconnected in a meaningful way. On the contrary: social media has enabled us to divide more easily, to always see ourselves in opposition. Ever tried to follow an argument in a Facebook thread?
Halakhah is how we connect to other people and to God. We have a need to be connected to each other right now through low-tech, traditional means. We need traditional structures for communal support. We need guideposts to assist us in making good choices. And the best way to do that is to engage with Judaism’s traditions, to walk through life in the way that our ancestors have handed down to us. And we can still do that without compromising our contemporary existence.
Yes, halakhah has many intricacies, and applies to all facets of our lives, from how we eat to how we speak to how we interact with others. But the most essential aspects of halakhah are those that enable us to frame our lives in qedushah, holiness. And the most enduring, regular features of halakhah, the three that are most beneficial, are Shabbat, kashrut / mindful eating, and tefillah / prayer.
- Tefillah: I spend at least an hour in prayer every day. It not only connects me to my community, it also connects me to myself. I wrap myself in tallit and tefillin every morning, and I am energized by being literally swaddled in our tradition, and asking myself the hard questions as I start my day: Who am I? What is my life? What are the acts of hesed / lovingkindness I perform every day? My life is enriched by these self-reflective moments.
And, yes, there are days when my mouth utters the words but my mind wanders, allowing mental space and time for reflection, which are also healthy and stimulate my creativity.
Whether you do it every day or just a few times a year, tefillah is an essential Jewish act.
- Kashrut: Mindful eating. You are what you eat. Paying attention to what we eat, to the lines drawn in Creation, to the limits set on our behavior, ensures that our sensitivity to what we have been given by God and how we should respect it rises dramatically.
We have so much choice, and it is killing us. Not every option is a good one. Furthermore, making good choices about what I put into my mouth also reminds me that what I say, i.e. what I do with my mouth when I am not eating, must be just as holy. Kashrut.
- Shabbat: Respect yourself; respect your neighbor; respect the world. You need a day off, a separation from all of the craziness of the week. Shabbat helps me tune out the anxiety, reconnect with family, reconnect with myself. Those magical 25 hours are a gift that restore the soul. Take that break every week; you need it.
Three things – a simple halakhic formula for improving your life and our world.
Those are the fundamentals. But what about the ideological center of Jewish life? How does our being affiliated with Conservative Judaism help us act on these imperatives?
In 1950, the Conservative movement made the halakhic decision that if you lived too far to walk to the synagogue on Shabbat, that it was better that you should drive than (a) stay at home or (b) be so ashamed of driving on Shabbat that you have to park three blocks away. The whole raison d’etre of the Conservative movement was to enable traditional Jews, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants, to adhere to halakhah while living as proud, integrated Americans. The intent was and still is to conserve halakhah by occupying the central area between tradition and change. That is a principle that has held now for more than a century.
The fact that you are participating in this service right now, in this virtual space, is the best example of why you, and the Jewish world, need the Conservative movement. At the beginning of the pandemic, way back in March, synagogues all over the world shut down for in-person services. Most Orthodox congregations could not meet for services at all. Most Reform congregations do not have daily services. So the overwhelming majority of synagogues that continued meeting for daily tefillah / prayer were Conservative-affiliated. And Conservative rabbis paved the way for a halakhically-acceptable way of conducting these services online, to both protect the health of our participants and still make it possible for people to grasp the daily framework of Jewish tradition that is tefillah, Jewish prayer, to enable folks to get that daily jolt of energy and mindfulness that tefillah gives.
One of the hallmarks of my own approach to halakhah, and the one that I think is most important for our community, is that I acknowledge that we have a range of practices within our own congregation: some folks who are very traditional, and some who are not at all. And I do not believe in shaming anybody for what they do or do not do in a Jewish framework, but I do want you to reach higher.
Your commitment to halakhah, to engaging in the traditional way of living Jewishly, will be paid back to you in the form of more sanctified relationships, a better sense of self, and a healthier world. We at Beth Shalom strive to give you the space and the tools you need to reach higher. That is why we still do many things the traditional way; that is why we adhere to halakhic principles surrounding Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillah.
We in Conservative Judaism have held the center of American Jewish life for more than a century. Despite Yeats’ assertion that the center cannot hold, we are still here, providing a space for tefillah, a means of pursuing the benefits of a life lived in a halakhic context while accounting for how substantially the world has changed since the creation of the halakhic system.
And you know what? We need this, now more than ever. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to be part of a congregation that does not offer live services for their people on this day. You are here because you need this, because we need this; this virtual gathering space, a testament to the strength of the idea of “Tradition and Change,” is a sign of the vitality of the Conservative movement, and the ongoing value of halakhah, the way that we go.
The center must hold. We are it. The world needs tradition, and the Jewish world needs the flexibility of Conservative Judaism.
Tomorrow, we will talk about the rich palette of minhag, customs which illuminate and flavor Jewish life.
Shanah Tovah! A healthier 5781 to all.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5781, 9/19/2020.)