Reality Takes a Bite Out of Nostalgia – Vayiqra 5783

I had one very Zionist day this past week. 

It was not Monday, when my older son completed his service in the IDF, where he has been serving as a combat medic for 2.5 years, packed his bags and went home to his kibbutz. He is thrilled to be free, and we are all relieved.

On Sunday, my family and I were in New York City for the 30th anniversary concert of HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir. This is an annual concert at Lincoln Center which brings together HaZamir chapters from all over the United States and from Israel, about 200 teens sing together after having practiced back home for months. Our Pittsburgh chapter sent eight teens to sing along, a healthy representation. It is an event which is extraordinarily powerful and moving to me, and not just because my daughter was singing along with a sea of sopranos.

The concert is a nexus of some of the things which I hold most dear: Jewish life and culture, Hebrew choral music, an unabashed love of the State of Israel and its musical culture, and to some extent a certain nostalgia. Truth is, I wept more tears at this concert than I had in a long time. It was extraordinarily moving. To hear Naomi Shemer’s anthem Lu Yehi, based on the Beatles’ classic Let it Be, in 4-part harmony, sung by the generation of young people who will inherit all of our worldly messes, fills me with a certain yearning and pride and sadness and hope that can only be captured in the language of the Torah, which is very much a living language today:

מה קול ענות אני שומע
קול שופר וקול תופים
כל שנבקש לו יהי
לו תישמע בתוך כל אלה
גם תפילה אחת מפי
כל שנבקש לו יהי

The anguished voices I hear,
The sound of the shofar and the sound of drums,
All that we ask for, let it be,
And if within all of them should be heard,
A single prayer from my lips,
All that we ask for, let it be.

That was Sunday afternoon. Judy and Zev and I spent the morning prior to the concert walking around Manhattan and taking in some of the sights. And it just so happened that we stumbled across a very different form of Zionist engagement going on in Washington Square Park: a protest against the Israeli government attended by a few hundred people, and judging from the Hebrew spoken all around us, most of the attendees were Israelis living in NYC. The park was filled with Israeli flags; there were speakers and chants and signs. They decried the Netanyahu government and the current judicial reforms package with chants of “Bushah, bushah.” Shame, shame. 

The contrast between these two events was quite stark. One was primarily a celebration of Israeli culture and music (OK, so there were a few compositions by American Jewish composers, but a majority of the music was Israeli) and included a brief address by Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN. The other brought into focus all of the challenges and divisiveness facing Israeli society at this moment.

I hope by now that you have heard about these protests. They are taking place all over Israel, as well as in cities all over the world which have significant Israeli ex-pat communities, including London, Berlin, New York, and even Pittsburgh. In Israel, for example, on Thursday, perhaps as many as 500,000 Israelis went into the streets all over the country in what was billed by organizers as a “day of paralysis.” In Tel Aviv, water cannons were even used to disperse crowds who were blocking roads.

Israeli politics are complicated, occasionally vicious, and always in your face. Israelis are not shy about telling you how they really feel on any subject, and it is not unusual to go at it with your cab driver about politics or even with a stranger in a cafe. And given that the governing coalition which has proposed these reforms in the Knesset has a 64-56 majority, the nation is extraordinarily divided right now, to the point where many observers of all stripes are calling it a “constitutional crisis,” despite the fact that Israel has no constitution.

This is, however, the greatest existential threat that Israel has ever faced. Yes, Iran might soon have nuclear weapons. Yes, Hizbullah and Hamas are right nearby, occasionally sending rockets and flaming balloons and digging tunnels under the borders. But Israel has never faced a threat of this nature, and the threat is entirely internal. Half a million protesters on the streets of a nation of 9.5 million people would be equivalent to about 18 million Americans stopping traffic on the streets of our nation. Imagine what it would take to cause that kind of disruption. Military reservists are not showing up for duty. High-tech companies and entrepreneurs are pulling their capital out of the country. High-profile retired politicians and judges and military officers have spoken out against the reforms. The president, who usually plays a ceremonial role, has stepped into the fray to try to bring about a compromise. 

Israel’s enemies are licking their lips at the internal chaos. (See Amos Harel’s piece in Foreign Policy.)

Tel Aviv, March 25, 2023.

This Netanyahu-led government came together at the end of December, and includes not only the center-right Likud party but also Orthodox and right-wing parties, the leaders of some of which are in fact convicted criminals and also express views which many of us find odious. 

They have proposed an onslaught of legislation, including the judicial reforms, the first one of which was passed Thursday, shielding the Prime Minister from criminal prosecution while in office. This particularly benefits Netanyahu, who is currently facing corruption charges.  

But the most controversial legislation on the table would grant the ability to the Knesset to overturn decisions of the Supreme Court and to have a heavy hand in picking Supreme Court judges, thereby dramatically reducing the independence of the judiciary.

Other bills which the coalition has indicated that they will introduce would allow greater political control of the police, increase the authority of rabbinical courts (which of course are Orthodox), and, of greatest concern to Diaspora Jewry, modify the Law of Return to eliminate the current provision that any person with at least one Jewish grandparent, regardless of halakhic status, may become a citizen. 

You may know that this law, the first law established by the State, is guided by the intent to ensure that there will always be a safe haven for Jews; having one Jewish grandparent was enough for the Nazis to put you on a train to a death camp.

While there are certainly arguments on either side of these proposed changes, a healthy segment of Israelis feel that these changes would fundamentally alter the nature of Israel’s democracy, endangering minority rights, elevating religious control in the public sphere, and creating an environment that smacks of dictatorship. Israel has no formal constitution, but democracy requires that majority rule respect minority rights, and this is what many feel the Netanyahu government is threatening to destroy.

Much of what we do as Jews is based on a kind of national nostalgia. We have a theoretical ideal of behavior, identified in the Torah, and a blueprint in the Talmud and later literature to help us attempt to live out that ideal in changing times and circumstances. We read in Parashat Vayiqra about the qorbanot, the sacrifices carried out by our Israelite ancestors in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary used while wandering in the desert for 40 years, and then later, in already changed circumstances, in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

The very idea of animal sacrifice is anathema to us today. When the Romans destroyed the Beit haMiqdash in the year 70 CE, we ended that practice. Thank God! We have a better method of worship today, with a lot less blood, which is more portable and more sustainable. And yet we still read about the theoretical ideal, which we long ago replaced. And there are plenty of other examples from Jewish life. The reality of Jewish practice today includes, if you will, the nostalgia for what we used to do, even though we no longer do it.

The State of Israel is about to turn 75 years old. And as much as we should maintain our nostalgia for the theoretical ideal of what the Jewish state is, contemporary reality has taken a bite out of nostalgia.

Why am I telling you about all of this? Because all the more so at this moment, we as American Jews who care about Israel need to pay attention. We need to ensure, as much as we can from a distance, that the crisis in Israel does not tear the Jewish state and the Jewish people apart. Several major American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America, have issued statements urging compromise to preserve democracy and minority rights in Israel.

It is not necessarily up to us in the galut / Jewish diaspora to help identify the compromise position which, I hope, the Knesset will hammer out. But we must raise our voices in support of democracy in Israel.

We cannot only play in the nostalgia for the past; we must also be a part of the current moment. We too are part of the picture. We have a stake in the future of Israel – of its safety and security, of its stability, of its presence in our lives as the merkaz ruḥani, the spiritual center of the Jewish people, and, God forbid, as a haven if needed.

Every Shabbat morning here at Beth Shalom, we recite the Prayer for the State of Israel, which we sang just a few moments ago. And we prayed to God that the leaders and advisors of the Jewish state be guided by God’s light and truth, and that the inhabitants of the State and the entire region be blessed with a lasting peace and joy.

Ladies and gentlemen, please pray harder. And also consider the following:

  1. Local Israelis are hosting a weekly protest here in Pittsburgh on Sundays at 4 PM at the corner of Forbes and Murray. All are invited to join.
  2. Beth Shalom will be hosting a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on Yom HaAtzma’ut, in celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday, and in acknowledgment of our desire for Israel to maintain its foundational values.
Pittsburghers protesting judicial reforms in Israel, March 2023. The Hebrew sign says, “Without an independent judiciary, there is no democracy.” Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle / photo credit: David Rullo.

כל שנבקש, לו יהי

May everything that we seek be granted; may peace reign once again in Israel and among all the people who call themselves Yisrael.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/25/2023.)


The Most Beloved Employee of Beth Shalom, Bar None – Ki Tissa 5783

This is the most ironic period of the Jewish year, from a gastronomic perspective. In order to fulfill the Purim day mitzvah of mishloaḥ manot, sending packages of food and treats to one another, as described in chapter 9 of the book of Esther*, many of us pack extensive and sometimes quite fancy bags full of stuff – candy, chips, fruits, nuts, and of course hamantaschen – and distribute them far and wide. And, of course, we get similar packages from others. It’s a lovely, friendly, neighborly project that has a downside: then you have piles of snack food sitting around the house.

Now, as happens every single year, Pesaḥ is exactly one month after Purim. Prior to Pesaḥ, of course, your house should be free of ḥametz, five species of grains identified in the Talmud. The most essential halakhah surrounding Pesaḥ is that from the morning of the day prior to the first seder, it is forbidden by Jews to eat, possess, benefit from and even see ḥametz. So all products containing even the tiniest amount of exposure to wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye, which is basically everything you received in those mishloaḥ manot bags, must be eaten (or regifted, although none of your friends are going to want their mishloaḥ manot stuff to come back to them, so to do that you’re going to have to pawn it off on your non-Jewish neighbors).

As I sat at my kitchen table last Thursday evening typing out this sermon, surveying the array of Purim goodies calling out to be consumed, I hatched a great theory about the origin of hamantaschen. Some Jew at some point in the Middle Ages, on the week before Purim realized, “Hey, I have lots of flour that I’m going to have to use up before Pesaḥ. I should make a bunch of cookies for Purim and give them to all my neighbors! Then the ḥametz will be their problem!” It was such a great idea that all the neighbors did it the following year, thus neutralizing the original intent. But a fabulous Ashkenazi custom was born.

It is clearly NOT ironic, however, that foodstuffs and eating are an essential part of Jewish holiday practices, be it Adar or Nissan or Tishrei or whatever. On the contrary, it is hard-wired into the Jewish year. We are the people for whom what you put into your mouth is as important as what comes out of it as words of prayer. 

And it is also therefore not ironic that, as we honor Michelle Vines today, we must acknowledge that she has been the most important member of the staff here for many, many years. I will say a lot more on that in a few minutes, but first a word of Torah, brought to you courtesy of Parashat Ki Tissa, which we read today.

The subject of eating comes up at least six times in Parashat Ki Tissa

  • The Israelites’ first act after making the Molten Calf is to declare a festival, and so they offer sacrifices and then they sit down to eat and drink and perform all sorts of horrible acts (Ex. 32:6). 
  • Later on, when Moshe goes up Mt. Sinai a second time, God lays down the law about idolatry and intermarrying with the Canaanites, because it will lead to eating from their unholy, idolatrous sacrifices (34:15).
  •  Immediately after, there is a reminder of Ḥag haMatzot, the feast of Unleavened Bread which we associate with Pesaḥ, when we are obligated to eat matzah (34:18). 
  • In the same holiday passage, we also find a commandment to bring as a sacrifice the biqqurei admatekha, the first fruits of your land, which we associate with Shavu’ot, and in the same verse, the prohibition on boiling a calf in its mother’s milk, a commandment which yielded a whole bunch of practical laws which are in play to this very day (34:26). 
  • And near the conclusion of Ki Tissa we learn that in the 40 days and nights that Moshe was up on Mt. Sinai, לֶ֚חֶם לֹ֣א אָכַ֔ל וּמַ֖יִם לֹ֣א שָׁתָ֑ה, “he ate no bread and drank no water” (34:28). (He must have been quite hungry when he returned.)

You might even say that the latter half of the book of Shemot / Exodus, following the Israelites’ having escaped from Pharaoh’s army at the Sea of Reeds, is food obsessed. No sooner have they chanted Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea, that they are desperate for water (Ex. 15:24). And then they are pining for the “fleshpots of Egypt” (16:3). And then there are the manna and the quail. And so on.

When we comb through the text for this dietary thread, we see it everywhere. Why does the Torah go out of its way to tell us who is eating and drinking and why, what they are permitted and what they receive, what is forbidden and what is associated with idolatry or with proper festivals? Do those food references further the narrative? 

The theme of food in the Torah reinforces the principle, which we all know, that eating is essential to what we do. Taken together, the episodes of eating and drinking remind us that this most mundane feature of our lives, the physical source of our energy and our spirit, cannot be overlooked. Our holidays surround food; our joy and our grief are expressed over platefuls of cookies and platters of smoked fish. Food is ritual. Food is an opportunity each day to frame an ordinary act in holiness with berakhot before and after. Food is the source of our strength, and our meals punctuate our lives. And, as you may know, it is food that enables us to perform the most fundamental mitzvah of Jewish life: learning Torah. As we learn in Pirqei Avot (3:17):

אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח

Im ein qemaḥ, ein Torah. Im ein Torah, ein qemaḥ.
Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no flour.

The Maharal of Prague, a 16th-century rabbi, notes that the Mishnah here uses the term qema, flour, rather than leem, bread. Flour is a fine powder, he says, while bread has other characteristics: it can be rough and thick; flour thereby relates to the fine qualities of the soul, while bread, in its thick roughness, does not. Also, flour is a fundamental need, like Torah. If you have no bread, but you have a reserve of flour, you can make bread. If you have no flour in the jar, once you finish your bread, you are out of luck. Torah is the very source of our spiritual sustenance; when we have no Torah, we have nothing left. 

But whether we are speaking of bread or flour or pareve cookies, food, like Torah, is essential to our lives. The Jewish army of God marches on its stomach. And we should remember this all the more so on this day when we are honoring Michelle in her retirement.

Now, this may surprise some of you, but Michelle is not Jewish. Yes, it is true that she knows as much about kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) as any rabbi in the neighborhood, and can almost cite chapter and verse of the Shulḥan Arukh, the 16th-century codification of Jewish law, in the original Hebrew regarding certain Jewish dietary practices. And not only that, she also knows which customs are in play in which communities – which hekhshers (kosher certification marks) are acceptable in which synagogues, who among us allows broccoli and asparagus, etc. And she has an encyclopedic knowledge, acquired over many years of dealing with benei mitzvah, weddings, beritot milah (ritual circumcisions), shiv’ah (mourning rituals), and every other lifecycle and communal event, of every aspect of every party. She has managed the most complex of build-outs for celebrations in the Ballroom; she has poured at least 8 million shot glasses of grape juice for Shabbat kiddush; she has been spotted at every type of affair imaginable, always with a friendly smile and a nod, always with a calm, reassuring attitude of understanding. Members of this congregation and throughout the community know that we can not only trust Michelle, but that she has long been the one to rely on. She is, and has been for half a century, the most-beloved Beth Shalom employee, bar none.

And we are extraordinarily grateful for her half-century of service to Beth Shalom and to the wider Jewish community. We want you to know, Michelle, that in addition to honoring you this morning, the Congregation Beth Shalom and other synagogue friends are also providing a special gift for you, and we hope you will use it to take a nice, comfortable vacation.

Michelle has helped carry us through all sorts of moments, the joyous and the painful, the holy and the mundane. She has been there for all of us; holding us all up. She has been maintaining that figurative flour jar of spiritual sustenance as we have drawn from it, for many years.

And we are so grateful. Kol hakavod! All the glory is yours. 

When you see Michelle at kiddush today, please don’t ask her if we are out of egg salad. Instead, please just thank her for her many years of service, and wish her good luck.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/11/2023.)

* Esther 9:22

כַּיָּמִ֗ים אֲשֶׁר־נָ֨חוּ בָהֶ֤ם הַיְּהוּדִים֙ מֵאֹ֣יְבֵיהֶ֔ם וְהַחֹ֗דֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר֩ נֶהְפַּ֨ךְ לָהֶ֤ם מִיָּגוֹן֙ לְשִׂמְחָ֔ה וּמֵאֵ֖בֶל לְי֣וֹם ט֑וֹב לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אוֹתָ֗ם יְמֵי֙ מִשְׁתֶּ֣ה וְשִׂמְחָ֔ה וּמִשְׁלֹ֤חַ מָנוֹת֙ אִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֔הוּ וּמַתָּנ֖וֹת לָֽאֶבְיֹנִֽים׃

[The 14th and 15th of Adar were] the days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.


The Future – Tetzaveh 5783

When I consider where we are as a society and where we might be headed, the words of Leonard Cohen, from the title track of his fantastic 1992 album, “The Future,” continue to ring in my ears:

Things are gonna slide
Slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it’s overturned
The order of the soul

We, the Jews, are excellent at history. Regarding the future, not so much. 

Just consider what will be happening, Jewishly speaking, for the next few weeks: 

  • On Shabbat we remember Creation. 
  • On this Shabbat Zakhor, we remember Amaleq
  • On Purim, Monday evening and Tuesday, we remember how Esther saved the Jews of Persia. 
  • On Pesaḥ, we remember how we came from slavery to freedom. 

And so on. We are excellent at history.

But where in Jewish life do we remember the future? The most enduring symbol of the Jewish future to be that one that is right behind me, above the ark. Parashat Tetzaveh opens (Shemot / Exodus 27:20) with the mitzvah of kindling the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, which symbolizes the continuity of our connection with God and Torah from all the way back to Exodus. It is tamid – always burning, always reminding us of our past and the eternity of the future before us, always serving as a beacon to call us back to our tradition.

We frequently invoke yetzi-at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, in our liturgy. We do so because it serves as a template for our future redemption, the redemption of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. But admittedly, the Olam HaBa model is somewhat inchoate, and frankly, we are in disagreement as to what the real goal in Jewish life is. There are certainly some who understand our performance of mitzvot on this Earth to bring the mashiaḥ, the anointed, supposed descendant of King David, and lead us to Olam HaBa. There are others who see our mitzvot as serving their purpose in the here and now; that is, we fulfill them because it is the right thing to do in the moment, and their reward is intrinsic. (I am in this latter camp.)

But in general, except for mashiaḥ-based ideology, which is somewhat murky and controversial, we do not really speak too much about the future. We are simply not wired that way. Judaism is fundamentally focused on the present.

Which is why Rabbi Danny Schiff’s new book, Judaism in a Digital Age, is so striking. Well-researched and thoughtfully presented, the book addresses not only the future from a Jewish perspective (and in particular, the future of the modern non-Orthodox movements), but also the future from a general point of view, the future of all humanity. And let me say this: the view is mostly pretty bleak.

He opens with a biting critique of the Conservative and Reform movements, explaining in excruciating detail about why movements which emerged “when horses were the dominant means of transportation” are not only no longer relevant, but also destined for continued decline as they confront the “hyper-emancipated” world of the digital age. 

He moves on to take a snapshot of society as it is today, how “modernity” ended in 1990 with the widespread availability of the Internet, and all of the ways that immediate access to information through digital means has changed how we live and think and socialize. He revels in the current thinking by notable futurist authors, including the very real threat to society posed by artificial intelligence, and dangles before the reader the promise of immortality based on so-called “transhumanist” ideas about the blending of technology and the human body, which may ultimately serve to destroy any traditional concept of corporeal human life as we now know it.

And here and there he asks the hard questions about Judaism’s confrontation with post-modernity. What value will there be to having rabbis and teachers when all information is available to us without the intermediaries? How can halakhic principles regarding privacy or leshon hara remain in play when all of the details of every person’s life is available to anybody else through a search engine? How can we confront the challenges posed by rising rates of isolation and economic inequality, the availability of pornography, or the endless amplification of self-importance which social media platforms encourage?

Whatever happens in the future, we will certainly respond by (a) failing to consider adequately the full consequences of new technologies, and (b) managing to eke out a new way of living despite dramatically changed circumstances. Rabbi Schiff cites David Zvi Kalman, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, regarding the way we passively accept potentially harmful innovations:

There’s a new technology in town. A few years ago it seemed like a pipe dream, but it’s now arrived on the commercial market in a big way. Large corporations are lining up to use it even as watchdogs point out serious potential for abuse. Reporters look into it, agree that there is a problem, and pen dozens of articles fretting about the downsides, demanding regulation and responsible use. The public grows concerned, and then they grow resigned. Meanwhile, the technology is adopted. Sometimes it is well regulated, more often it is not. There are a few horror stories. We learn to live with it. We move on. This is the ethical life cycle of modern technology, and its major problem is that it doesn’t know how to distinguish between technologies that complicate morality and those that destroy it – this is, it lacks the ability to say no, absolutely not.

We are seeing this tale play out over and over; consider facial-recognition technology, which is now widespread. Our response, according to Rabbi Schiff, must be to accept that the world has changed, and respond within the new paradigm:

Viewed from a Jewish perspective, the digital age is no longer about adapting Jews and Judaism to a slowly opening world of belonging and enlightenment; it is about asking how human beings should optimally function within the cacaphonous tumult of an accelerating epoch of hyper-emancipation, hyper-connectivity, and hyper-individualism.

And this is where I believe that the modern movements have the greatest potential. We are particularly well-positioned to engage with the Jewish future, perhaps in ways that more traditional forms of Orthodoxy cannot.

So first of all, I want to reassure you all that reports of the Conservative movement’s death are highly exaggerated. People have been declaring us dead for years, but I do not think that you have to look around too much here at Beth Shalom to see that this is a thriving, multi-generational community that rejoices and grieves together, that cherishes life and celebrates Jewish living and constantly engages with Jewish text and ritual. And while our membership decreased slightly during the pandemic, we are gaining members once again, continuing to buck the national synagogue trend. 

I am grateful for our excellent and committed staff. Our lay leadership is in fine shape, and we are preparing for a capital campaign so we can make much-needed repairs to our building. חזק חזק ונתחזק / Ḥazaq, ḥazaq, venitḥazzeq. Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthen one another.

And even Rabbi Schiff concedes that if there is a new model for how to be Jewish, we have not yet found it. So meanwhile, while we are waiting for that new paradigm to emerge, we are going to continue to do our traditional-yet-contemporary thing. We will continue to pray together, to learn together, and to offer imaginative new programming through Derekh and otherwise.

Now onto the thorny questions about the future: 

  • Will we all soon be immortal cyborgs? 
  • Will the chips planted in our brains which connect us all to the shared data storage of all of human history extinguish our individual personalities? 
  • Will the AI machines we have created overthrow us or imprison us or simply exterminate us all when they realize that we are weaker and far less efficient than they are? 
  • What will happen to Judaism in a future in which God seems powerless compared to the technology we have created?

Jews have lived through many centuries of change, of social upheaval, of wars and genocides and life-changing innovations. We have made the transition from hand-copied documents to printed books to instantly-searchable gemara on smartphones. And yet, here we are, still reading Torah from a scroll produced essentially the same way for thousands of years, still basking in the glow of a Ner Tamid that – OK, so this one is electric, not an olive-oil lamp – but it is still shining as a beacon, here on Beacon Street.

We have navigated a changing world, and we will continue to do so. We will determine whether halakhah permits us to eat cultured meat that was never actually attached to any animal. We will find a way to grapple with the potential immortality awaiting us in the near future; as Rabbi Schiff points out, our sources do speak here and there about immortality. We will manage to make minyanim a few times a day, even when our physical presence and our consciousness are not in the same place. We will ask the hard questions and answer them within the Jewish system, just as Jews have always done.

Rabbi Schiff lands in a somewhat reassuring place. Regarding the AI-infused future, he says, “No matter how animated, intelligent, responsive, or reliable our AI creations might become, AI will never attain the combination of qualities that will merit the status of being ‘created in the image’ [of God].

We can do this. We in the Conservative movement are especially well-placed to do this. We have been addressing cultural, societal, and technological change for a while, and we will help us all make this transition to whatever awaits us. I’m counting on that Ner Tamid to continue shining, to continue reminding us of the turbulence of our past, the constancy of our present, and the brightness of our future. Our unofficial historical slogan has been, “Tradition and change,” and I expect that we will continue to balance the two successfully.

In the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 2a), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “All the good deeds Israel does in this world will bear testimony in Olam HaBa.” Perhaps Olam HaBa will not look quite like what R. Yehoshua ben Levi envisioned, seventeen centuries ago. But whatever form it takes, Jews will be there, still meditating over our words yomam valaila, day and night, and looking to the Ner Tamid as a reminder of past and future.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/4/2023.)