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Sermons

We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781

I have always been a fan of the original Star Trek series, and not just because the two leads, Captain Kirk and Spock, were played by Jewish actors. As you may recall, the show began each episode with what used to be considered a grammatical faux pas, boldly splitting an infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

And so too does the Torah open with a grammatical “oopsie.” The very first words of the Torah are (Gen. 1:1)

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

Most of us, when we hear these words, we think, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”

But that is not actually what the text says. Actually, we cannot really understand this line, because it is clearly missing at least one word. That is because the word “bereshit” does not mean “In the beginning,” but rather, “In the beginning of…” If you were to translate directly, the verse as it appears in the Torah reads, “In the beginning of…, God created the heavens and the Earth.” 

Now, that sounds a little funny, right? Well, it sounded funny to Rashi, too, in 11th-century France. And so Rashi proposed that the text could possibly be read as

בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרִיאַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

Bereshit beri-at shamayim va-aretz

“In the beginning of creating heavens and Earth, …”

or,

בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה בָּרָא אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Barishonah bara et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

“At first, [God] created the heavens and the Earth.”

But of course, that is not what we have. Every single Torah scroll in the world opens with what cannot be described as anything other than a grammatical error. A typo. (Except, of course, that Torah scrolls are never typed.)

Rashi himself, in surveying this problem, says, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי! “This passage only tells us, ‘Interpret me!’” And he offers two plausible suggestions. Of course, it is completely possible that neither of these may be the original intent of the text. 

And what might we learn from this? Two possibilities, in my mind:

  1. We should never be so sure of ourselves or our opinions. We might be wrong! Always an excellent lesson.
  2. The plurality of voices in interpreting Torah, both ancient and contemporary, heighten our relationship with the text. 

****

If you were paying attention this past week to events on the national stage, you probably heard the term “originalism” thrown around a lot. Originalism is an idea held by some interpreters of constitutional law that the United States Constitution should be interpreted and applied as it was intended when it was written in 1787.

In terms of Jewish life and Jewish law, we are not and cannot be originalists. That ship sailed about 2,000 years ago. If we take the Torah as our analog to the Constitution, let’s say, and the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah – the Talmud, midrash, the Shulhan Arukh, etc. – as the way we understand how the Torah applies to us today, then we are definitely not originalists. 

For example, the Torah says that the primary means of worship is by sacrificing some of our livestock and our produce by Kohanim (priests) on an altar. Do we do that? No. Rather, we have prayer, an idea more or less created by the rabbis, because the altar in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago. Our tefillah / prayer, is actually a substitute offering, in place of the agricultural sacrifices that our ancestors gave. Although the original intent of the Torah is for us to sacrifice, changes in our circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill that, so we do something else.

The Torah says that we should not do melakhah / work on the Shabbat, but does not define the word melakhah. In this case, we do not even know what the intent of the text is. How do we know, for example, that spending money on Shabbat is prohibited, but peeling an orange is not? That is because the rabbis defined 39 categories of work, ל”ט אבות מלאכה, and created a system by which those categories could be managed and expanded to suit any new type of technology that came along.

The Torah, by the way, does not even mention one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year: Hanukkah. Hanukkah does not even appear in the entirety of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It is, rather, also a rabbinic innovation.

And I could go on. We do not practice the ancient Israelite religion described in the Torah. We practice a rabbinic Judaism that is flexible, that is constantly reinterpreted for the moment and the place in which we live.

And that is true of all movements within Judaism. We may disagree on the interpretation, but none of us are originalists. And that, by the way, is exactly the reason that we the Jews are still here, despite the Romans’ best efforts to destroy us. Had we been limited to the Judaism extant in 70 CE, as originalists, we would have disappeared as soon as Titus’s legions razed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

And sure, the rabbis of the Talmud argued that their innovations came from Mt. Sinai, nearly a millennium-and-a-half prior, and that they were originally intended in the unadorned Torah text even though you cannot find them there. This explanation is an attempt to legitimize rabbinic Judaism, which is, after all, what we call “Judaism” today. We are rabbinic Jews, but you cannot really find most of our practices today in the words of the Torah as they appear in the scroll.

This highlights, by the way, one of the primary distinguishing features between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. We understand that the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah came much later, and although Divinely inspired, it was not the way the Torah was read prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is this subsequent interpretation that allows us to incorporate new ideas and more flexibility into our understanding of the Torah, and really to helping frame our lives in meaning. Consider, for example, contemporary understandings of God which do not reflect the Torah’s traditional views, or the full equality between men and women in our worship spaces, which we base on the reinterpretation of traditional sources.

Now, there is a certain strain of originalism that I learned while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained as a rabbi and invested as a cantor. That type of originalism is found primarily in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, wherein the scholarly study of Scripture devotes most of its energy into trying to determine exactly what the Torah meant when it was written. To do so, scholars in the field of Biblical studies use the tools of archaeology and literary analysis and comparison to literature contemporary to its time and so forth. Modern Jews sometimes also use these tools to interpret Torah as well; they are welcome addition to the שבעים פנים לתורה, shiv’im panim laTorah, the 70 faces of Torah.

So, turning back to Bereshit, we know what the author meant, right? In this case, yes, and that understanding is not likely to change. The originalists in all of us are struggling right now: on the one hand, we know what the Torah implied, even if that is not what it says. On the other hand, there is something that looks conspicuously, to us at least, like a flaw! 

Or perhaps what looks like a typo is just an opening into a richer, more varied palette of understanding?

Right up front, from the very beginning, the Torah gives us insight into an absolutely human trait: the potential to screw up. We should never be so sure of ourselves that we think we are immune to being wrong. 

And that leads us to the second lesson: in the completely human realm of interpreting the text, we can guard against our own hubris by using every tool at our disposal to try to understand it. We may not know the original meaning of this or of many other parts of the Torah; we may not know what God’s intent was in gifting these words to humanity. But we do know that we are obligated to draw on our own intellect, on the range of human creativity and potential, to continue to seek answers. In some sense, it is that absolute unknowability, the obligation to pursue answers while acknowledging that not a single one of them may actually be “right,” which helps us maintain our own humility.

However the Torah came down to us, whether in a moment of fiery dictation on Mt. Sinai or through the hands of many ancient, anonymous scholars channeling Divine wisdom, it is our ongoing willingness to plumb its depths that will continue to fill our lives with meaning and a sense of purpose, and keep us away from the arrogance that comes with declaring our own correctness.

We are not originalists, and we are definitely not perfect. But we are committed to serious and varied inquiry into the Jewish bookshelf, to all the words and ideas which flow from the Torah, even as we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. And we continue to draw on all of those ideas in seeking meaning for today, for how we live and how we can live better.

Shabbat Shalom! Live long and prosper.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/17/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Making Peace Between People: An Essential Jewish Goal – Shemini Atzeret 5781

A few weeks back, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a compelling piece titled, Go Live in Another Decade. I Recommend It, about comparing our current moment to the past. In trying to understand how we got here, to this moment of deep division, of people marching in the streets for racial justice and militia groups brandishing rifles and plotting the kidnapping of a governor, of casting doubt on the reliability of our election process and the politicization of public health, Mr. Manjoo chronicles his deep dive into the chaos of the 1960s. He discovered the wealth of video available on YouTube of news coverage and pop culture from the second half of the 20th century, and zooms in on one speech given by President Lyndon Johnson, his first address of Congress five days after the assassination of JFK and his having been sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in Dallas.

If you listen to the speech, you can feel the heaviness in the room as the Congress applauds the new president, who concedes his reluctance at having to take on the duties of the highest office in the land at such a soul-crushing moment. Johnson speaks of unity in the task of righting wrongs, in improving the lot of people around the world and at home, at facing the challenges of racism, of “poverty, misery, disease, and ignorance.” He reinforces the idea that the “strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.” 

And, pointing to the divisiveness of that decade, President Johnson says the following:

The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defied of law and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.

I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.

It brought tears to my eyes.

A question that we must ask ourselves at this moment, as Jewish Americans, is, “What is our role in seeking the unity that we need right now?” 

As you might expect, I find those answers in the framework of Jewish tradition, starting with a quote from the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 39b):

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא אלו הן כבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והכנסת אורחים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the matters that a person engages in and enjoys their benefits in this world, and the principal reward remains for the World-to-Come, and they are: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, hospitality toward guests, and bringing peace between one person and another; and Torah study is equal to all of them.

Yes, you have heard me say that last one many times as a foundational statement of Jewish life, that Torah study is equal to the weight of all other mitzvot combined.

But go back one, to “hava-at shalom bein adam lehavero.” Making peace between one person and another. Quite high up on this list of essential mitzvot is the obligation to repair relationships, to bring people together, to heal interpersonal wounds. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all failing at this task. 

In 1963, President Johnson was speaking to a nation doubled over in pain, not only from the assassination of JFK, but also from protests over racial injustice, Cold War fears of communism spreading abroad and possibly infiltrating at home, American military involvement in distant lands, and of course political division.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is OK to disagree. It is not OK to denigrate people on the other side. It is worth remembering that, while there are certainly bad actors in this world, there are always going to be honest people, good, well-intentioned people, people of faith, with whom you will disagree vehemently. And their opinion, no matter how offensive or ridiculous or oppositional to everything that you believe, if it is based on reasonable, factual assumptions and honest assessment of the situation, is just as valid as yours.

Political division is creating personal rifts between people. I know of people in the same family who cannot even speak to each other and friendships that have been broken as a result.

And, lest you think that electing one person over another in a few weeks will change that, please allow me to burst your bubble. We are going to have to work very hard if we are going to find our way out of this morass. It is not as simple as casting a ballot, or posting a meme on Facebook, or putting a sign in your front yard.

I would rather refocus our energies on fulfilling the spirit of Exodus 23:5:

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃ 

If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might be inclined not to help him, you must make every effort to help him.

Should you help your enemy if he votes for a different party than you? Of course. But what if there is a Confederate flag flying in his front yard? What if he was recently released from prison after serving time for a murder or rape conviction? What if he is the head of the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel?

Not so easy, right?

I would love to hear a leader stand up in front of the American people and speak about love, about loving your neighbor, about working together, even when we disagree, to solve the big challenges we know we all face: the challenges of education, of health care, of unemployment, of mass incarceration, of the ongoing scourge of mass shootings, of the abuse of opioids, of the challenges posed by a warming climate.

I would be happy to see our leaders choosing country over party, understanding that it’s not all about winning, and that they are elected not to throw mud at the other guy, but rather to reach out across the aisle in partnership.

I would be overjoyed to see our journalists and media outlets help us all to understand that the truth cannot be reduced to a soundbite or a tweet, that patience and intellectual engagement are necessary to help find the solutions to the challenges we face.

Tomorrow, hevreh, is Simhat Torah, the day on which we complete the cycle of reading the Torah and go back to the beginning again. And in rejoicing with the Torah (which we will of course be doing, albeit a little subdued from our ordinary celebration; we will just have to remember to dance and sing twice as hard and twice as loud in 5782), we remember that Torah is long form. 

Yes, if you unroll a sefer Torah, you’ll see that it does not even reach half the circumference of the Beth Shalom Ballroom. But all the “Torah” in the more general sense, all of the Torah that flows from it, fills not a room or a building, but our entire lives. It is a lifetime’s worth of learning, of reflecting, of growth and change and reading again and revisiting and re-interpreting. Learning that Torah never ends, just as our own individual pursuits of self-discovery and self-improvement never end.

Torah is long form. We cannot ignore or erase the verses we do not like, but we must contend with them on the page. 

And the same is true for being a good citizen, for making a functioning democracy, for building a just society, as our tradition commands us; we work together, even with those with whom we disagree, to improve our world, to solve the big challenges. Total ideological purity is not a reasonable goal.

There is another tradition that we will perform tomorrow, one that may be familiar to some of you. The Hatzi Kaddish before Musaf on Simhat Torah is often sung to a series of holiday melodies from throughout the Jewish year – tunes from Hanukkah and Purim, the Three Festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and even Tish’ah BeAv. It is referred to as the “Yahres Kaddish,” the Kaddish of the whole year. 

It is a musically frivolous moment, coming at the end of a raucous service at the end of a long holiday season. But there is also a reflective quality to it – a reminder that this is the end of the holiday season, as we enter Marheshvan, the bitter month of Heshvan in which there are no joyous days, 

and we look back to the year that has passed, 

and we look forward to the one that we have just begun, 

and we consider our joy and our grief and our pleading to be sealed in the Book of Life and our remembrance of those who have passed, 

and we sense the cool wind of fall and smell the fallen leaves, 

and we remember that we are frail, that we are older, that we have suffered loss even as we move from strength to strength.

And we remember that one of our fundamental duties, as we look to the next holiday and begin the cycle anew, drawing on our memories and what we have learned and our apprehension of what is to come, and the inexorable march of time, is the obligation to make peace between people. That is an essential role that we the Jews aspire to fulfill on this Earth. 

President Johnson’s words were prophetic. As we mourn the 213,000+ fellow citizens who have died needlessly, and we remember all those for whom we grieve today during the Yizkor service, I too hope “that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.” 

Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning of Shemini Atzeret 5781, 10/10/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Fantasy Ushpizin: The Seven Guests I Would Love to Have in My Sukkah This Year – Sukkot 5781

Do you remember how, when you were very young, your mother could make everything better? She had magical powers. When you got hurt playing with other kids down the block; when you had a stomach ache; when you saw a really scary movie and couldn’t sleep; when you were devastated by a horrible grade or being teased or when the president encouraged a white nationalist group to “stand by,” (OK, so just kidding about that last one), your mother would give you a hug and make it all go away.

America needs a mom right now. 

One of the traditions of Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, the custom of inviting our tribal ancestors to come dwell with us in the sukkah at evening meals. The custom is a kabbalistic one, apparently derived from a statement in the Zohar:

Zohar 3:103b:8

תָּא חֲזֵי, בְּשַׁעֲתָא דְּבַר נָשׁ יָתִיב בְּמָדוֹרָא דָּא, צִלָּא דִּמְהֵימְנוּתָא, שְׁכִינְתָּא פַּרְסָא גַּדְפָהָא עָלֵיהּ מִלְּעֵילָּא, וְאַבְרָהָם וַחֲמִשָּׁה צַדִּיקַיָּיא אָחֳרָנִין שַׁוְיָין מָדוֹרֵיהוֹן עִמֵּיהּ

“Come and see: When one sits in this dwelling, the shade of faith, Shekhinah spreads Her wings over him from above, Abraham and five other righteous heroes come to dwell with him!”

Maybe the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is the mother who is going to spread her wings over all of us as we dine in our sukkot this year. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

The Aramaic term “ushpizin,” you may have heard me say in the past, is a Hebraicization of the Medieval Greek word hospition, meaning an inn, also connected to the Latin root hospes, which is the source of our English words hospitality, host, and hospital. The custom is that each night of Sukkot, for seven nights, we welcome Sarah and Avraham, Rivqah and Yitzhaq, etc. (You can see the whole egalitarian list in Siddur Lev Shalem, pp. 424-5)

OK, so the Zohar did not include the women, only men. But we know better.

But it is also an interesting exercise, as we are inviting towering figures from the Tanakh into our sukkot, to also ask ourselves, if we could invite any person into the sukkah as a guest, whom would we invite?

And to keep this focused, I have picked Jewish values for each of the seven nights, so each of the ushpizin will represent a certain value. The values are: Hemlah / compassion, nedivut / generosity, redifat shalom / seeking peace, anavah / humility, adivut / civility, manhigut / leadership, and Talmud Torah / learning the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf.

And since we are all nervous this year about having guests (or being guests) in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of spiritual guests rather than physical guests is a welcome practice! 

Caveat: it would be impossible for me to come up with a list of names about whom all would agree. Most likely someone on this list will be objectionable because of something in their history: something unsavory they did, but as with the Biblical characters of the classical ushpizin, the people we admire from more recent history are complex and sometimes in the wrong, and that does not necessarily detract from their accomplishments or the values they lived.

And for sure, I know that you could come up with a better list than I can. But that’s what makes this exercise so much fun! 

  1. Hemlah / Compassion – German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Chancellor Merkel is our ushpizah for compassion. Back in 2015, a month or so after I moved to Pittsburgh, there was a huge migrant crisis in Europe, people flowing through Turkey, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As you may recall, European nations responded differently. While Hungary’s autocratic prime minister Viktor Orban threw up fences and confined thousands of refugees to a Budapest train station, Merkel and her government took in over a million people. They resettled them, arranged housing and job training and language instruction. This was a stunning act of unparalleled compassion and generosity. While there was of course a political backlash and no shortage of cultural issues surrounding the resettlement, the overarching message was clear: asylum seekers are people, and we have to be responsible for our fellow human beings.

  1. Nedivut / Generosity – Bill and Melinda Gates

Say what you will about the founder of Microsoft, but it is undeniable that Bill Gates is generous. The foundation that he and his wife created invests nearly $5 billion per year in international programs that focus on poverty, hunger, and public health, among other things. Now, if Bill and Melinda were actually in my sukkah, I of course would use it as an opportunity to vent about why he let Windows push out DOS, which was just fine with me. But among the people in their tax bracket, they have been a model of generosity. And all the more so in the time of this pandemic, when the resources and leadership regarding public health and vaccines that the Gates Foundation supplies are more important than ever.

  1. Redifat shalom / pursuit of peace – Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin  

Rabin was a soldier, a man of war who commanded forces in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-49. And yet, over the course of his life, he became a man of peace. Yes, it was the Norwegians who coordinated the Oslo Accords. But in order to make peace actually happen, Rabin and Shimon Peres had to agree to talks with the PLO, then clearly understood to be the mortal enemy of Israel. When Rabin found himself shaking the hand of Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, he could not even believe such a thing had happened. 

Wherever you stand on the Oslo process and its tragic failure, there is no question that Rabin taught us all an essential message: you cannot make peace without talking to your enemy.

  1. Anavah / Humility – Rosa Parks

Yes, what Rosa Parks did on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 by not relinquishing her seat was an act of defiance, but her action was a humble one. Three months after the brutal murder of Emmett Till, Ms. Parks, a seamstress for a local department store, exerted her will not by marching, not with a bullhorn, but by sitting down, one of the more humble human activities. Her action led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott a few days later, a seminal moment in the nascent civil rights movement. Ms. Parks later described what she did, somewhat ironically as, “an opportunity to take a stand,” a proud description of a humble moment.

  1. Adivut / Civility – President Abraham Lincoln

So you think the United States is divided today? When Abraham Lincoln accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for Senate in 1858, he began by paraphrasing the assertion from the Christian Bible: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” Through the deep division that led to and continued after the bloody Civil War, Lincoln stood eloquently and steadfastly for the abolitionist cause. As president, he emancipated the enslaved people in this nation, and as the war drew to a close, he stated in his Second Inaugural Address: 

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” 

To understand one’s enemy as a human being, something that the Torah exhorts us to do in multiple ways, is a challenge that we all have; Lincoln (for whom, by the way, there is a street named in Tel Aviv), rose to that challenge with grace, even as he sent Union troops to quash the Confederacy.

  1. Manhigut / leadership –  Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Not even a month after the brutal massacre by a white supremacist at a Christchurch mosque, Prime Minister Ardern managed to compel the New Zealand parliament ban most semi-automatic weapons. She is only the second head of state to give birth in office, and her successful management of the coronavirus pandemic embarrasses the rest of the developed world: 19 New Zealanders have died, out of a population of 5 million. By comparison, the per capita rate of death in the United States is 165 times higher. I would say that Ms. Ardern has been a model leader.

  1. Talmud Torah – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Steinsaltz passed away in August, and there has been no other contemporary rabbi whose authority and knowledge is as respected across the Jewish world. His father, although descended from the first Slonimer rabbi, was a Communist Zionist and had no interest in religion; young Adin Steinsaltz not only excelled in secular studies, but also became a ba’al teshuvah, and ultimately accomplished what may be the most important Jewish task of the current age: popularizing the study of Talmud by translating it into contemporary Hebrew and English. He wrote many other books for popular consumption, and was at one point the head of a (failed) effort to re-establish the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

***
That is my list; I strongly encourage you to play this “fantasy ushpizin” game with your family as you gather in your own sukkah this year. America may not have a mom to give us a hug, but we do have the Shekhinah, and perhaps these illustrious guests will bring us all some comfort.

Mo’adim lesimhah! Haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Sukkot 5781, 10/3/2020.)