For Shabbat Shirah / the Shabbat of song 5782, I covered a musical topic featured in my current Derekh Lunch & Learn series, “Make a Joyful Noise! Jewish Music Past and Present.” The boundaries of Jewish music are occasionally unclear, but there is a lesson to be found in that. This is the second such musical sermon; my Musical Crash Course in Synagogue Song from Shabbat Shirah 5781 can be found here.
I am captivated by the image of the mycorrhizal network: a system of microscopic pipes produced by fungi which connect individual trees and plants together through soil. These networks enable trees to share nutrients with each other – water, carbon, nitrogen, and so forth – creating a greater system out of what might seem like separate plants. They effectively allow trees to communicate with each other and support one another.
Today is Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the trees, corresponding this year with the observed birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. On this day in particular, we might recall that as human beings we are all connected together, something like the system created by mycorrhizal networks. And those who seek to divide us by emphasizing our differences – racial, ethnic, religious, etc. – work against the unity of purpose that our ecosystem suggests.
In the wake of the synagogue hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, which took place during a Shabbat morning service and for ten hours (!) after, we in the Jewish community are once again on edge. Particularly here in Pittsburgh, where the trauma of 10/27/2018 still ripples through our community, it is very easy for us to bring up the anxiety created on that horrible Shabbat; the pain and grief that we still feel are never far from the surface.
And then I remember that, just as Dr. King envisioned, we have to continue to work toward the day when we all truly see ourselves like trees in the forest – each of us a little different, but deeply connected to one another in ways that are often unseen. We have to lean into that future time, when we shall join hands and sing together, in whatever language or melody we have, somewhat like the interconnected trees.
I am grateful to the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, for protecting the hostages and enabling them to emerge unscathed. I am anxiously hopeful that no congregation of any kind should ever face this kind of terrorism. And I am beholden to the trees, and to Dr. King, for giving us a glimpse of a humanity that could be.
There is a standard rabbinic story about three rabbis, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, who, in a spirited attempt at pluralistic cooperation, decide to meet to discuss issues of halakhah / Jewish law. At their first meeting, they find that they all agree that smoking cigarettes is clearly assur / forbidden. It is damaging to your health, and since we are forbidden from causing deliberate damage to our bodies, God has therefore prohibited smoking.
The following week, they arrive at their meeting, and each of them is smoking. They regard each other with curiosity.
The Reform rabbi says, “Halakhah is a system that was intended for an ancient audience, and this particular aspect holds no meaning for me today.”
The Conservative rabbi says, “Halakhah has continued to develop and change throughout our history, and although we are bound by it, that was last week, and this is this week. Times have changed.”
The Orthodox rabbi shrugs nonchalantly, and offers, “I sold my lungs.”
A few years ago, when we asked members of Beth Shalom to answer a survey question about potential adult learning topics, the topic that was most frequently suggested was effectively, “What are the principles of Conservative Judaism?” That is something that I do try to include in many of my sermons and classes.
So it seemed to me like a natural opportunity to come up with a Conservative response to a recent back-and-forth on a halakhic issue that appeared in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. A few weeks back, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who is originally from Pittsburgh but now serves a congregation in Italy, wrote an opinion piece that suggested that the ancient Jewish calendar, set up during Talmudic times, is an “obstacle” to greater Jewish observance of holidays, and we should therefore set up a “Diaspora calendar” which would fix holiday dates to the Gregorian calendar. For example, Rosh Hashanah would always begin on the third Friday evening of September, and Hanukkah would always be December 21-28.
Not surprisingly, a more traditional, presumably Orthodox Squirrel Hill resident, Reuven Hoch, wrote a response for the Chronicle, in which he calls her suggestion “odd” and “upsetting,” and declares that making changes to suit contemporary patterns of observance is detrimental to Judaism and Jewish life.
The forces of current Western culture — social, political and ideological — that operate against authentic Jewish values and beliefs, can be alluring and overwhelming. These forces must be confronted and met head-on, with a confidence and determination that can only exist in concert with a commitment to a life permeated with traditional Jewish values and allegiance to the Jewish people.
I agree with Mr. Hoch about maintaining the Jewish calendar. To change up the Jewish year according to Rabbi Aiello’s suggestion seems to me such a dramatic break with Jewish tradition that it would sever us from our past in an irreparable way. We have been doing it this way for thousands of years. The Jewish calendar depends on the cycles of the moon; it would make no sense for Rosh Hashanah to be separated from the new moon, and for the Pesaḥ seder not to take place when the moon is full.
Where I disagree with Mr. Hoch, however, is in his reasoning. His argument is that trying to accommodate contemporary secular values by forcing Judaism to adapt has failed repeatedly throughout our history.
So, as you might expect from a Conservative rabbi, I am going to propose that the answers to the future of Judaism lie somewhere in between. We are, in fact, called “Conservative” because the original intent of this movement was to conserve Jewish practice, to be conservative in the slight changes that we make as we adapt. That is the intent of the unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement in the last century: “Tradition and Change.”
Because, of course, Judaism and halakhah / Jewish lawhave always changed and will continue to change. One does not have to dig too deeply into the subjects of kashrut / dietary laws or Shabbat observance to find a rich history of development and disagreement among our sages over centuries and continents. What it says in the Torah (e.g. “Do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” – Shemot / Exodus 23:19) is interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud, and then further in medieval codes, and to the point today where we debate whether a pareve dessert cooked in a pan used in the past for dairy may be served following a meat meal. And God forbid you should use the wrong spoon!
Jews have, by necessity, always grappled with how to treat new technologies, new ideas, and new environments. The Jewish calendar itself is an example of an innovation due to changed circumstances. Prior to the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the dispersion of Jews throughout the world, the date of Pesaḥ was determined by specially-trained witnesses who could tell, at the beginning of the month of Adar, whether the wheat would be ready to harvest in time for Pesaḥ and bake matzah, six weeks later. If it would not be ready in time, they would add in an extra month of Adar. When the Jews were no longer living in the land of Israel, there had to be another way to determine that extra Adar. Hence the system of adding seven such extra months over a fixed 19-year cycle, which we continue to this day. This system keeps the lunar year more or less aligned with the solar year, and Pesah therefore always falls in the spring.*
So the issue with change is not that it detaches us from our roots; some change is necessary. But change should come slowly and thoughtfully and even somewhat reluctantly. You are probably aware of the liturgical changes in our siddur to reflect our egalitarian outlook; thank God, no Conservative siddur opens the morning service with “Praised are You, God, who did not make me a woman.” We say instead, “Praised are You, God, who created me in Your image,” acknowledging that every person is created with a spark of the Divine. It’s a subtle change that you have to know to look for, and you would have to be here at 7:30 AM Monday through Friday, or 9:30 on Shabbat to hear it, but it’s quite meaningful nonetheless.
We in the Conservative movement have a body of rabbis, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which meets regularly to discuss issues in halakhah / Jewish law, using principles that date back to Talmudic times. We live within the halakhic system, and it is up to this body to think about change very carefully, not only to ensure that such change is permitted according to traditional sources, but also that its consequences are considered.
In Parashat Bo, from which we read today, there is a passage that resonates through this process. The Exodus narrative takes a brief break for an aside about how to celebrate Pesaḥ, including instructions on preparing and eating the Paschal lamb, along with matzah and maror, bitter herbs. And then the Torah says the following (Shemot / Exodus 12:24-27):
You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants… And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’
Ad olam, for all time. We have carried this story, this ritual, this Torah / instruction with us for millennia, and we have retold it in many languages and contexts. And whether we are reading from a manuscript, a printed book, or sharing it over the Internet, the Torah still inspires us to be better people. It is because of these verses that we ask the questions at the Pesaḥ seder, and all the other questions we ask and answer throughout the Jewish year, as we go about teaching our children.
We cannot live in a sealed Jewish bubble; we have to be in multiple worlds. While some quarters of the Jewish world believe that they have shut out secular influences, they are kidding themselves. The Hasidic movement and the other right-wing quarters of Orthodoxy are as much a response to modernity as Reform. The Jewish world continues to reshape itself again and again.
And those of us in the middle, who clearly embrace and live in the contemporary world while upholding Torah and mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life, the challenge is upon us to prevent Judaism from becoming a secondary pursuit, squeezed in between school, work, soccer practice and bingeing TV series, but rather a constant force in our lives and our world for good.
It might seem like a good idea to lower certain temporal barriers to Jewish life. But the fact that you have to take time off to observe Yom Tov days is a testament to your commitment to our tradition, and doing so only strengthens our tradition for future generations. Contrary to Rabbi Aiello’s assertions, there is research that shows that the higher the expectations of a religious group, the stronger the adherence of its members.
Ad olam, for all time.
And when your children ask you, why do you cling to this ancient lunar calendar, or this or that quaint custom that my non-Jewish friends do not do, you should tell them that it is because these rituals not only saved us from slavery in Egypt, but they continue to keep us healthy and safe and strong today, even as we live as citizens of the contemporary world.
* The Muslim calendar is also lunar, but does not correct for the approximately 11-day difference between 12 lunar months (354 days) and the solar cycle of 365 days. So Ramadan, for example, the month during which Muslims fast every day, precesses, each year falling 11 days earlier according to the Gregorian calendar. It’s much less burdensome when it falls in the winter, when fasting ends at about 5 in the afternoon, than when it falls in the summer.
Like so many other people I tested positive this week, and I am fortunate that due to the fact that I am vaccinated and boosted, I have experienced a mild case of Covid-19 – a sore throat and some congestion. Thank God for the human ingenuity that has produced vaccines. (And it’s worth it to remind you all that if you are not boosted, you really should be: Friday mornings – walk-in at the JCC in Squirrel Hill.)
A curious bit of fake news came across my computer screen this week. It was an article about a fake New York Times headline, which read, “Teachers Should Tolerate Bullying Towards Unvaccinated Students.” It seems that somebody out there with nefarious intent wanted to rile up people who are anti-vaccine, and produced a mock-up of a NYT opinion piece suggesting violence against the unvaccinated.
Now, of course, there are people out there who will believe anything that they see on the Internet, and of course will repost or retweet extreme content. So as ridiculous as this sounds, the fake headline traveled far enough, provoking its intended reaction, for there to be a genuine news article about it.
The challenge here is that we have reached a point where many of us are willing to believe anything that fits our particular worldview, and not to trust anything that does not. The entire world, it seems, is having trust issues.
Whom do we trust?
I feel this affecting my own behavior: I was recently shopping online for KN95 masks, and I found myself thinking, how do I know that these are really manufactured to the N95 standard, meaning that it filters out 95% of airborne particles? I certainly cannot test that myself. Am I buying a genuine product?
I read elsewhere that a survey determined that 1 in 5 Americans say that it is acceptable to fake one’s vaccination status to keep a job. One might extrapolate that, kal vaḥomer, all the more so for people who are out for a night on the town, where the stakes might be even lower. This does not breed confidence in our fellow human beings.
Maybe the reason I contracted the virus is because the KN95 that I have been wearing in public is not legit, and the people around me who claim to be fully vaccinated are not. Who knows?
Parashat Va-era, from which we read today, includes a handful of questions surrounding trust. As God gives Moshe his mission to liberate the Israelites from the grip of Egyptian slavery, the text challenges us to wonder, does Moshe trust God? Does Pharaoh trust Moshe and Aharon? Does Moshe trust in himself? Will the Israelites trust Moshe, or God? And so forth.
Tied into all of this are the questions surrounding God’s name. Last week, in Parashat Shemot, we encountered in the burning bush episode one take on the name when Moshe seeks to be reassured about the trustworthiness of this whole operation. He asks God directly (Shemot / Exodus 3:13), “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God answers, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” Not easily translatable, we might read this as “I am what I am.” Not so reassuring, right?
And this week in Va-era, God does not wait to be asked. The parashah opens with, (Shemot / Exodus 6:3)
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name י-הוה [YHWH].
In both cases, the names given are apparently conjugations of the verb, “to be.” That is, God’s very name is a form of existence.
And, as you may have heard me mention before, all of those forms of God’s name, and in particular the Hebrew yod/heh/vav/heh which we often express as YHWH, consist of consonants that are formed only from breath. (In ancient Hebrew, as with contemporary Arabic, the “vav” is actually a “w” – hence “waw”.) With all of those letters, no part of the tongue or lips or teeth obstruct the flow of air to create a percussive sound. In fact, all of these letters, alef – heh – waw – yod, serve as so-called matres lectionis, the fancy Latin term that Bible scholars use to describe consonants that sometimes serve as vowels.
If God’s name consists solely of breath, then, how indeed might we be able to trust this mysterious character who somehow surfaces in an inflamed shrubbery in the desert?
Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the point is that trust in God is elusive. There will never be a hard consonant in God’s name because you will never be able to see God, to touch God, to perceive a solid surface or a concrete hint of God’s existence. Maybe the point is that the Torah wants us to take the proverbial leap of faith, to trust in something ethereal, because that is sometimes how life works.
It is, after all, trust in the unseen which has held people together throughout our history. In his monumental review of human history, Sapiens, the Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari points out that basic trust between people erodes in groups larger than 150, since that is the human limit on close acquaintances, and therefore the only way to create trust between people in any larger group is by sharing a common story:
Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins.
Harari is an atheist; he pointedly denies the existence of God. But he speaks to the power which the very idea of God has. Or the ideas of a specific shared culture, or state, or peoplehood, or judicial system, or currency.
Harari’s observation implies that trust in God yields trust in each other. If I know that you are an observant Jew, even if you are from far away and speak a different language and prefer ghormeh sabzi to gefilte fish, then we share a common bond. We adhere to the same traditions, we trust in the same God, and therefore I can trust you.
A fundamental challenge that we are facing today, particularly with the decline of religion, is a decline in trust. In a world that is rapidly transcending statehood, peoplehood, and shared theological principles, how will we trust one another? Will we be able to maintain nation-states, let alone synagogues, if we cannot trust the information we receive? Without a shared story, we have chaos.
The cynics among us will say that it is the bad actors in our world who are creating the trust deficit: Russian or Chinese or Iranian spies, or evil politicians or corrupt public health officials or mad scientists or soulless corporations. But consider how we live today: We are all living in our own silos. We are far removed from where our food is produced, from where our clothing is manufactured, from where our policies are made. And, of course, we are far removed from where our information is emanating, and we often lack the skill, the time, and the patience to verify it. So how can we trust anything?
There will not be a burning bush to show us the truth.
I look out at the future, at the potentially untrustworthy landscape before us, and I can see only one thing that can help us return to a state of trust. And this may be because I am a rabbi, but we have to lean into the traditional institutions that we have, ailing though they are: religious observance. Trust in and fear of God. The democratic processes of our nation. Our sense of shared peoplehoods – the Jewish one, of course, but also the American one, and all the ways we express those relationships. Our sense of the common good.
As much as the forces of chaos want to tear these institutions down, as much as each of those institutions are flawed in their own way, a future without them seems bleak indeed.
We need to support, and likely re-imagine, the institutions that we still have, while we still can. We need to uphold the principles we have received: of democracy, of learning and teaching our tradition, of prayer and academic inquiry and shared culture and music and all the things that build trust between people.
It is inscribed on every dollar bill, a reminder that trust intersects with theology, commerce, and nation at every turn, the official motto of the United States of America: In God We Trust. You won’t find that on any cryptocurrency.
If we cannot live by that motto, I am not sure we can live together at all.