Category Archives: Festivals

In Every Generation: The Return of Anti-Semitism – Pesah Day 1, 5779

It was indeed tragic to watch Notre Dame de Paris on fire last week, to ache for the loss of a building so deeply connected to the history of Paris and Europe, to lament the destruction of antiquities and works of art. But the burning of Notre Dame is, I am sorry to report, a fitting metaphor for our current moment, when religious engagement is on the decline in the West, and the order of the Old World continues to slip away.

Gargoyles of Notre Dame

It is notable to me that we are living in a time in which many Jewish people feel kinship with our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist neighbors, our partners in faith; consider the interfaith cooperation that has happened here in Pittsburgh in the wake of the 18th of Heshvan (the Hebrew date of Oct. 27th, 2018) – the local Muslim community fundraising, the churches that have reached out to us, the huge interfaith vigil, the members of our community that stepped forward to offer comfort to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh after the Christchurch shooting, and so forth.

That has certainly not always been true. Religious differences, as we know, have historically yielded enmity and outright hatred between people of different faiths; blood libel accusations, wherein Jews in medieval Europe were falsely accused of killing Christian children to use their blood for making matzah, often emerged around this time of year.

One theory about why we actually open the door “for Elijah” during the seder is that it is an attempt to show the non-Jewish neighbors that we are not doing anything nefarious. Nowadays, we might think of the open door as, rather, a metaphor for seeking opportunities to collaborate with our neighbors for the common good. Consider the program 2 for Seder, created by the daughter-in-law of Joyce Fienberg, z”l, an opportunity to share the Pesah ritual with people who have never been before.

***

I attended a meeting last week in New York that I need to tell you about. The meeting was convened by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, at the office of the American Jewish Committee in New York.

The purpose of the meeting was for people knowledgeable about anti-Semitism in America to share information about it with a very special guest, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, who is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Dr. Shaheed, a diplomat from the Maldives whose last big project was documenting human rights abuses in Iran, is preparing a report on worldwide anti-Semitism to be delivered to the United Nations General Assembly next fall.

Seated around the table were a bunch of bold-faced names from the Jewish world who are experts on anti-Semitism. Among them were Mark Potok, formerly of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a well-known authority on hate groups, Ira Forman, US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in the Obama administration,  Oren Segal, director of the the ADL’s Center on Extremism, Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari, head of the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit, Steven Bayme, Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at AJC, Brian Levin, Director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University, San Bernardino, and others. Now I am clearly not an expert on the subject like all of these folks, but Dr. Shaheed had specifically requested hearing from the Pittsburgh Jewish community, so Jeff Finkelstein (CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) and I were also seated around the table.

Among the things I learned were the following:

  • Our nation has seen annual increases in hate crimes for the last five years.
  • Hate crimes against Jews are vastly over-represented; 13% of all hate crimes are anti-Semitic. In NYC they are the majority of hate crimes.
  • The biggest single day for hate crimes in America in recent years was Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Election Day.
  • White supremacists have turned their focus to fighting the “white genocide,” which is, according to their understanding, engineered by Jews.
  • There is, in particular, a spike in online anti-Semitism. White supremacists gather in the darkest corners of the web to foment horrible ideas about Jews. It is worth noting that the Pittsburgh shooter and the Christchurch, NZ shooter were motivated by more or less the same types of online hatred, even if the latter did not go into a synagogue.
  • Anti-Semitism is now evident on the left and the right of the political spectrum, and although we tend to think of these two varieties as coming from different places, they now share memes and other material about the evil of the Jews.

I was asked to speak about how anti-Semitism has affected us in Pittsburgh, and I reported the following:

Five months after October 27th, many of us have returned to what looks outwardly like normalcy.  Even so, I have congregants who are still grieving, whose children are traumatized. I am told that it is difficult to get appointments with local therapists. The recent mosque attacks in New Zealand brought some of the pain back to the surface for many of us in Pittsburgh.

Brad Orsini, the Director of Jewish Community Security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, has informed me that there has been a marked increase in anti-Semitic activity since October 2018 – more graffiti, more threatening phone-calls, leaflets, etc. He is called to respond to new threats almost every day. There are now four white supremacist organizations operating in Pittsburgh, whereas prior to Oct. 27th, there were only two.

Every Jewish building now has expensive armed guards, and is spending money we don’t have on making ourselves harder targets – metal detectors, silvered windows, electronic doors, and so forth. At least one synagogue in my neighborhood is opting to arm congregants with proper training. We cannot manage hatred, but we can at least try to prevent it from entering our communal spaces.

And beneath the surface, while we continue to grieve for those whom we lost in October, we are now all more anxious, more circumspect.”

Toward the end of the day, all of us in the room were challenged to state whether or not there might be some good news in all of this. Rabbi Noam Marans brought us back to interfaith cooperation: religious groups and individuals today are far more willing to cooperate with one another, and we see evidence that civil society is largely united against those who hate.

Certainly, in the wake of the 18th of Heshvan here in Pittsburgh, we all felt a very strong sense of neighborliness infuse the already-pretty-neighborly feel of our city. On Monday, two days after, I was visiting a congregant in the hospital, and after parking my car, an African-American woman saw me on the street, asked “Are you Jewish?” and when I said yes, offered to give me a hug, which I gladly took.

So the bad news regarding this is that, going back to where we started, religion and faithful living have a diminishing audience and therefore much-reduced influence in our society. So while at one time, anti-Semitism flowed to some extent from people of faith, today its primary purveyors are not religious. As you have heard me say before, the fastest growing religion in America is “None.” Rabbi Marans pointed out that 23% of Americans are now people without any religion, so no matter how much interfaith cooperation there is, we are not going to reach them.

Others around the table pointed to various types of initiatives that seek to help skinheads and Klansmen and other disenfranchised haters to see the humanity in the objects of their hatred, and to lift them up out of the swamp of racism and anti-Semitism. But while these groups have had a few successes, these are tiny compared to the challenge of entrenched fear and loathing digging ever deeper online.

So while there is not a lot of good news, perhaps the only thing we can lean into is Jewish tradition. Anti-Semitism is not new; we have always lived with this. Two items, in particular, from the traditional Pesah haggadah text, might be helpful to recall:

  1. The haggadah reminds us that,
    אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ
    “In every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy us.”
    While for some decades now, many of us believed that this ancient fear was passé, we can no longer think that way. We must be more vigilant than we have been in recent decades.
  2. Later in the haggadah, we read,
    בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
    We are continually obligated to see ourselves as having personally come forth from slavery, and to act on that vision to eliminate oppression from this world. In light of our new reality, this year we will very much see ourselves as being allied with people of faith around the world who are targeted for their religion, and we will act in solidarity with them. No Jew will feel the freedom to worship in safety when people of faith around the world feel that they too are bound by the shackles of fear.

We have to support initiatives that bring people together to breed harmony and compassion for the other. We may not be able to reach everybody we need to reach, but more love and connection will yield a bulwark against hatred.

As we gather once again tonight around the seder table, perhaps you might ask your family members and friends what they have done to gain allies, to raise the bar of cooperation, to ensure that those of us who love our neighbors win out over the forces of those who hate.

There is a custom from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz (Ropczyce, Poland, 1760-1827) that Elijah’s cup, the fifth cup on the table representing our desire for future redemption, be filled with wine from the cups of all the participants around the table. The suggestion is that we all have to play a role in bringing about that redemption; now is the time for us all to work together, even with those who are not at our seder table, to box out the forces of hate.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning and the first day of Pesah, 4/20/2019.)

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Festivals, Sermons

A Great Discussion For Your Seder Table: Let’s Think About Redemption Differently – Shabbat HaGadol 5779

Pesah is the festival of redemption. Yetzi’at mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt is the archetype, the redemption that defines all future redemptions. In our tefillah, our Jewish liturgy, we invoke yetzi’at mitzrayim not only on Pesah, but year-round, every day. The haftarah (prophetic reading) for Shabbat HaGadol draws a fine point on it (Malachi 3:23):

הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the LORD.

This penultimate line, which is then repeated as the last line (so that we don’t end on an unpleasant note), is not only the source of the name of Shabbat HaGadol, but also a reference to redemption, some future redemption. Eliyahu HaNavi is the herald of redemption – that’s why we often reference Eliyahu at liminal moments: havdalah, berit millah, Pesah.

But what are we hoping for, really? “Redemption” could mean many different things. In the ancient rabbinic mind, it meant restoring the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish rule in Israel, united under a Davidic throne, i.e. mashiah. (By the way, that word means “anointed,” as does the Greek word christos, which comes to us in English as “christ.”) For some, it also meant resurrection of the dead, which we still find enshrined in the second paragraph of the Amidah, the standing, silent prayer that is one of the essential building blocks of every Jewish prayer service.

In other words, some of our ancestors yearned for a throwback to the good ol’ days under King David, when all the Jews were in one place at home and the Temple was functioning.

But perhaps the seder, and in particular the “traditional” text of the haggadah (the book that we read from on the first two nights of Pesah), which developed over centuries of exile and dispersion, were trying to emphasize a different, more immediate kind of redemption? Perhaps the great redemption, symbolized by the Exodus from Egypt, seemed simply too big, too unbelievable to be able to wrap our brains around, and so the rabbis conceived of something else

While Jews have focused for millennia on national redemption, perhaps that the haggadah is trying to tell us is that our focus should be on what you might call “personal redemption.”

So how might we see this reflected in the seder? Consider the following: before we tell the story of yetzi’at mitzrayim, during the “Maggid” (i.e. story-telling) section of the haggadah, what do we say (in Aramaic, BTW, so that we can all understand it, at least theoretically)

הגדה של פסח, מגיד, הא לחמא עניא ג׳
הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

Pesah Haggadah, Magid, Ha Lahma Anya 3
This is the bread of poverty that our
ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake of the Pesah sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

Why do we open with this? To focus our attention not only on the ancient, national redemption from slavery in Egypt, but also on redemption that might be achieved in our day. The goal is to remind us, right up front, that there are people in need all around us, and it is up to us to reach out to them – not necessarily in that moment, but tomorrow, next week, next month, and thereafter.
Consider the following from the 20th-c Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, from one of his best-known poems, תיירים / Tourists:

אמרתי בלבי: הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What is the ge’ulah / redemption that Amichai is reflecting? Is it the throwback to the good ol’ days? Is it even national statehood? No. Rather, it’s an understanding not of the value or fantasy associated with ancient stones, but our current reality of relating to each other as people. Not national mythology, but personal relationships. The tourist that understands that the value of the living person and society is greater than the archaeological wonders has achieved personal redemption.

Consider the following midrash:

ויקרא רבה ט׳:ג׳
מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי יַנַּאי שֶׁהָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְרָאָה אָדָם אֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה מְשֻׁפַּע בְּיוֹתֵר, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַשְׁגַּח רַבִּי מִתְקַבְּלָא גַבָּן, אֲמַר לוֹ אִין, הִכְנִיסוֹ לְבֵיתוֹ הֶאֱכִילוֹ וְהִשְׁקָהוּ, בְּדָקוֹ בְּמִקְרָא וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּמִשְׁנָה וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּאַגָּדָה וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּתַלְמוּד וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ סַב בְּרִיךְ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ יְבָרֵךְ יַנַּאי בְּבֵיתֵיהּ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִית בָּךְ אֲמַר מַה דַּאֲנָא אֲמַר לָךְ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִין, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֱמֹר אָכוֹל כַּלְבָּא פִּיסְתְּיָא דְּיַנַּאי, קָם תַּפְסֵיהּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ יְרוּתָתִי גַבָּךְ דְּאַתְּ מוֹנֵעַ לִי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ וּמַה יַרְתּוּתָךְ גַבִּי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ חַד זְמַן הֲוֵינָא עָבַר קַמֵּי בֵּית סִפְרָא, וּשְׁמָעִית קָלְהוֹן דְּמֵנִיקַיָא אָמְרִין (דברים לג, ד): תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ משֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַנַּאי אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן אֶלָּא קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

Vayiqra Rabbah 9:3

Rabbi Yannai was once walking along the road, and saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai said to him: Would you like to come over to my house? The man replied: Yes. Rabbi Yannai brought him into his home, and gave him food and drink. As they were eating and drinking together, he examined him in his knowledge of Bible, and found out that he had none; examined his knowledge of Mishnah, and he had none; his knowledge of aggadah (midrash), and he had none; his knowledge of Talmud and he had none. Rabbi Yannai then told him: Wash and recite birkat hamazon. Said the guest: Let Yannai recite birkat hamazon in his own home. Seeing that he could not even recite a berakhah, Yannai told him: Can you at least repeat what I say? Said he: Yes. Said Rabbi Yannai: repeat the following: ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.’ Offended, the man stood up, and grabbed Rabbi Yannai by the coat! He then said: My inheritance is with you, and you are withholding it from me! Said Rabbi Yannai with puzzlement: What legacy of yours is there with me? He replied: Once I passed by a school, and I heard the voices of the little children saying: ‘Moses gave us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.’ They did not say ‘the inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,’ but the ‘congregation of Jacob.’

The midrash is trying to teach us that Torah is not reserved for the few who know and understand it, but rather for all, and that the way that we act on our textual heritage is by reaching out to everybody, not to the select few whom we like.

While we continue to emphasize redemption in many of our rituals, including the seder, redemption can come in different forms and quantities. Rather than think of the great ge’ulah as an echo of yetzi’at Mitzraim, perhaps we can re-orient ourselves to consider that personal redemption will come when we all recognize the humanity in the other, when we reach out in meaningful ways to the people around us. That Torah is for all, and it teaches us to be in relation with all.

Perhaps that is what Pesah comes to teach us.

חג שמח! Happy Pesah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/13/2019.)

1 Comment

Filed under Festivals, Sermons, Source Sheets

We Need More Nuance – Shabbat HaHodesh 5779

I recently read an article in Harper’s Magazine about the slow death of the long-form book review. It was a lengthy lament on the decline not merely of book reviews, but also an appreciation of nuance overall in our current media environment. The author, Christian Lorentzen, a former book reviewer for New York magazine, opined that even respectable media outlets have focused on covering books in a way that suits today’s climate: shorter bits, recommended lists, author Q&As, thumbs-up-thumbs-down-type coverage. In one passage, acknowledging that the reality is that even the New York Times Book Review is ultimately in search of more clicks, the author drew a fine point on it

… For certain types of journalism the quest for traffic is incompatible with, if not antithetical to, the task at hand. Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it…, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”

Lorentzen takes us all to task. Book coverage, like virtually everything else, has been reduced to black and white. It’s either awesome or horrible, enthusiastically recommended or panned. We either “like” it (with a thumb icon) or we don’t. Not much room in that thumb for nuance, for accepting some good points with some weaknesses. The subtlety that should mark any great work of literature is lost, because such subtlety is virtually invisible in an online environment in which EVERYBODY IS SHOUTING in capital letters.

And so too throughout society. On every issue, we are all polarized. You either agree or disagree. End of story. The middle won’t hold, because it doesn’t attract enough online traffic.

Who has time for nuance? I can’t help but view the world through my professional Jewish lens. And I see a parallel between long form book reviews and (get this!) Conservative Judaism.  Our greatest challenge, being in the middle of Jewish life, is that we cannot be described in a soundbite. An unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement, in the middle of the 20th century, came from Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Great Neck on Long Island for 55 years, from 1947 until 2002. His slogan, “Tradition and Change,” used to resonate throughout the movement. We stand for halakhah, Jewish law, (i.e. tradition) and yet we exercise our right as modern Jews to interpret halakhah (that is, to make some change) to adapt to the framework of contemporary life.

A classic example is that, in 1950, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, in an effort to encourage Shabbat observance when more and more American Jews were moving to the suburbs, passed a teshuvah, a rabbinic opinion, that said that if you do not live within walking distance of a synagogue, it is better that you should drive to be with your qehillah, your community on Shabbat than not to go at all, even though driving a car with an internal combustion engine is clearly prohibited according to halakhah.

The challenge to the Conservative movement is putting forward a nuanced vision of Judaism while living in a dramatically non-nuanced world. The idea of “Tradition and Change” works well on the Jewish bookshelf, but it hardly gets people very excited about our heritage.

We the Jews are masters of nuance. Rabbinic literature is filled with examples of the subtle parsing of words and concepts. One such example that came across my desk this week, courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, the director of Derekh, relates in particular to the language of the haggadah.

One passage which you really should discuss around your seder table, is a direct quote from the Mishnah of Pesahim, the book of the Mishnah dedicated to all aspects of Passover (10:5). You might miss it if you’re only focused on singing the Four Questions and Dayyenu, and for sure if you’re skipping right to dinner

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג), וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם

… In every generation a person must see him/herself as though s/he [personally] had gone out of Egypt, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

This is the call to arms of the seder. It is the line that is most important because it connects our history to who we are and how we live today

What does it say? Each of us must see ourselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. How might that guide our actions? If we are truly internalizing that notion, then it should mean that we should let that vision of ourselves guide us in eliminating oppression from our world.

But hold on a minute. Rabbi Markiz pointed me to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides / Rambam, his 12th century halakhic work that gives a thorough snapshot of living Jewishly. And while Rambam sometimes quotes the Talmud directly, here he changes the words somewhat (MT, Hilkhot Hametz uMatzah 7:6)

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ יָצָא עַתָּה מִשִּׁעְבּוּד מִצְרַיִם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ו כג) “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם” וְגוֹ’. וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה צִוָּה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בַּתּוֹרָה “וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ” כְּלוֹמַר כְּאִלּוּ אַתָּה בְּעַצְמְךָ הָיִיתָ עֶבֶד וְיָצָאתָ לְחֵרוּת וְנִפְדֵּיתָ

In every generation a person must show her/himself that s/he personally had come forth from Egyptian subjugation, as it is stated, “God freed us from there…” (Deut. 6:23). And regarding this, the Holy Blessed One commanded in the Torah, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 5:15, 15:15, 24:22), that is to say, as if you yourself had been a slave, and you came forth into freedom, and you were redeemed.

So here is the nuance:

  1. Rambam changes the imperative from “see oneself” (lir’ot) to “show oneself” (lehar’ot). The second form is causative (hif’il). Don’t just picture yourself as a former slave, says Rambam. Rather, show yourself. Do something that will bring this understanding home, will make it personal. Go from passive to active.

  2. Rambam also changes the proof-text. Instead of the verse quoted in the Mishnah, about what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt, he cites an explicit statement of what God did, i.e. freed us from Egypt’s clutches, and then backs it up with an oft-repeated line in the Torah about remembering that we were slaves. The impression with which we are left is stronger. Don’t think of freedom merely as a gift from God for which we should be grateful. Rather, remember that you were a slave, and now you’re free, and you have to act on that.

You can feel free to use Rambam’s words in your seder if you’d like. In fact, I encourage you to print them out and compare them back-to-back one night. But you can’t stop there – the point of the seder is not merely intellectual discussion. It is, rather, a call to action.

Show yourself what it means to be free. Contribute your time to help others – by working in a homeless shelter, or joining a group that is working to prevent gun violence, or reaching out to the local Muslim community, or the local African-American community, to work toward better inter-faith and inter-racial relations, or many other such activities, or speaking up when your own government separates migrant families at our southern border. Don’t just picture yourself as a slave; show yourself what it means to be free. Prove to yourself that your freedom moves you to act on the behalf of those deprived of it.

It is a subtle textual emendation by Maimonides. But it could make a huge difference in this world. We cannot afford NOT to parse the nuance. We cannot reduce ourselves to the Like/Dislike sickness that has afflicted our society. We the Jews have a proud tradition of textual interpretation based on subtlety; let’s put it to work as we show ourselves and others that we understand the value of nuance.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/6/2019.)

3 Comments

Filed under Festivals, Sermons

Virtual Visitation – Shemini Atzeret 5779 / Yizkor

We, the Jews, are good at memory. It’s an essential part of our tradition. What are the ways that we remember people who have passed from this world?

  • Reciting Qaddish / other Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) observances
  • Yizkor (memorial services observed four times per year)
  • Book of Remembrance
  • Plaques

We are thorough at remembering. I think that might have something to do with our history. For much of the last two millennia, the Jews have moved around a lot, and every time we had to pick up and move to a new locale, we had to leave the cemetery behind. (Yes, the book of Shemot / Exodus records how the Israelites took Yosef’s bones with them as they fled Egypt, but that was an unusual circumstance.) It could be that we developed these regular rituals for remembrance.

When I look through our list of yahrzeit names, I often see that those who are observing yahrzeits are far away – who have since moved to Florida or Texas or New York – but their mother or sister or cousin is buried here in Pittsburgh. My grandparents are all buried in the Boston area; I don’t know if I will ever get to their graves again to visit. But I of course carry my memories of them, and I have shared some of those memories with my children. My grandmother, who, when she left her shtetl at the age of 8 in 1921, left her grandparents behind in the earth of Volhynia, Ukraine, could never have even thought about going back to visit them after she arrived in Boston. (For years, my mother and I have been thinking about traveling to the Ukraine to see if we can find them. BTW, I am captivated by the fact that I can see my grandmother’s little town on Google Maps. It’s nothing more than an agrarian crossroads, and the likelihood that the Ukrainians have maintained the Jewish cemetery there seems pretty slim.)

As the Jews were uprooted throughout history and went from Israel to Iraq, to Rome, to Spain, to France, to Germany, to Iran, to Yemen, to Morocco, to India and China and Jamaica and Chile and the Lower East Side and all the other places they went, they did not have the luxury of going back to visit.

So we developed virtual visitation. We carry the names, the faces, the memories of our departed loved ones wherever we go. We carry with us at all times those who have left us behind, and we take those memories down from our mental shelves from time to time. One of the great things about how we Jews mourn is that we force ourselves to remember. We are never entirely healed by a loss, but all that active remembering brings us comfort.

A couple of weeks ago on Yom Kippur, as we dedicated the new memorial plaques to be placed on the walls of Beth Shalom, a name caught my eye: Melaku Allen. Usually, the names that I see enshrined on plaques are drawn from the traditional Eastern European canon of names: Bernstein, Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, and so forth. Lots of Irvings and Idas and Morrises and Minnies. Not too many Melakus.

I actually wasn’t sure even how to pronounce the name.** The plaque was being dedicated by our member Dan Schwarcz. So I asked him about it at kiddush on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. This is the story he told me.

Melaku Allen was the son of an Ethiopian Jewish father and a Christian, African-American mother, and he grew up in New Jersey. His father returned to Ethiopia when he was young, but Melaku, captivated by the traditions of his absent father, was drawn to Judaism, and underwent no less than three conversions: first by a Reform rabbi, then a Conservative rabbi, and then an Orthodox rabbi. He met Dan when they became roommates; Dan was in graduate school, and Melaku worked for NJ Transit. That was in the mid-1980s, and Melaku was not young then – he had already served his country in Vietnam, where, among his tasks was the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. Melaku told Dan that he had been regularly covered with the stuff.

Dan and Melaku became very good friends, although they came from very different cultural backgrounds. Melaku occasionally referred to the two of them, jokingly, as the Schwarcz brothers. And they used to daven together at a little shul called the New Freedom Synagogue, so named because it was sponsored by an organization that was helping to resettle Jews from the Soviet Union, who were arriving in greater numbers in the 1980s.

But eventually, the Agent Orange exposure caught up with Melaku, and in 1987 he died of cancer. His funeral, Dan said, was unusually awkward, because his mother’s family was Christian, but it was a Jewish service. The synagogue members wanted to physically bury him, according to Jewish practice, but Melaku’s mother’s family was shocked by the practice. The officiating rabbi, who must have been a skilled communicator, explained gently that this was Melaku’s wish, to be buried according to Jewish tradition, and that the Jews consider it one of the highest forms of hesed, loving-kindness, to bury our deceased loved ones as a community, each of the assembled mourners helping out. So the Jews began the process of burying Melaku, and the assembled group seemed very tense and awkward, until Melaku’s mother stepped forward, picked up the shovel, and put some earth into his grave. There was a feeling of relief, and the Jews and the Christians all buried Melaku together, shoveling the earth together in fellowship while they remembered this man who died too young.

Dan did not have to take upon himself the obligation for remembering Melaku. He was not a relative.

But Melaku did not have anybody else to recall him in the Jewish way. So Dan took the virtual visitation upon himself. And then he went a step further to recall him with a plaque, which will now sit on the wall in Beth Shalom as long as this building stands.

One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that remembrance is all-encompassing. We remember and grieve for all those whom we have lost. The sibling from whom one was estranged. The abusive parent. The stillborn child*. Those that perished in the Shoah, and of course for many of them there is nobody to mourn. Those that gave their lives to defend their country, and in particular those who gave their lives for the state of Israel.

That is one reason that I urge people not to follow the old Ashkenazi custom of not staying in the room for Yizkor. We need more remembrance. We can always offer words of Yizkor. The need for recalling those for whom there is nobody saying qaddish is far greater than old-world superstitions.

And even for those for whom there is no plaque, and no living relative, we continue to recall them. Just as Moshe fulfilled the promise that the Israelites made to Yosef, hundreds of years prior, to take his remains up from Egypt with him, we fulfill that obligation to all who came before us, carrying the spiritual remains, if you will, of all Jews who came before.

There is a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, which I once visited on a tour of Jewish sites there, where Moses Mendelssohn is buried. Mendelssohn, of course, is the father of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began in the 18th century, as Jews stepped out of the shtetl and into Western society. Mendelssohn was, arguably, the first modern Jew: he lived an observant life and wrote extensively on Jewish topics, but also entered the salon culture of Berlin, wherein he schmoozed and sparred with non-Jewish German philosophers of the time, most notably Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He is one of the three great Moseses invoked in the piece of Jewish intellectual folk wisdom: From Moses [the biblical one] to Moses [Mendelssohn], there is none like Moses [Maimonides].

The Nazis destroyed the cemetery, and as you walk through it you see fragments of the matzevot (gravestones) in the ground. But when I visited in 2001, there was one matzevah standing: that of Mendelssohn. It’s a recreation, of course – it’s not the original. But it’s a stark, powerful statement of memory.

MosesMendelssohn 2

Does Mendelssohn need a marker? No. We recall him every time a contemporary Jew acts like a citizen of the world: dressing like an American, or studying at a French university, or voting in a democratic election in the State of Israel, or recording a hit rap album (with a nod to Mac Miller, z”l). Our virtual visitation of Mendelssohn consists of living proudly as Jews who are welcomed into the broader society.

We continue to mark Moses Mendelssohn’s passing, and Melaku Allen’s, and all those whom we recall today, as we make our way through life, virtually and physically. But the essence of remembrance is not what’s on the wall, or in the Book of Remembrance that you all hold, or even in reciting Qaddish or lighting a candle. It is in what is in our hearts as we remember them, the things that they gave us, the moments we shared, the times we hear their voices coming out of our own mouths. Those are the items that sustain and honor our beloved parents, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands and partners, our sons and daughters and friends and all those whom we recall, as we continue through life.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret 5779, 10/1/2018.)

* Yes, some have the custom not to mourn children who do not live past 30 days. But first of all, that is because in the pre-modern world, many, many children died this way. Also, it’s just a custom. If it helps you heal to mourn for a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a baby who died soon after birth, then you have every right to do so.

** Dan tells me that while his mother accented the first syllable, “MEL-a-ku,” his Jewish friends accented the second and turned the k into a khaf: “mel-A-khu.” I cannot confirm this, but my suspicion is that it is an Amharic (Ethiopian) cognate of the Hebrew melekh, meaning “king.” Amharic and Hebrew are both in the Hamito-Semitic family of languages.

1 Comment

Filed under Festivals, Sermons, Yizkor

Un-Defaulting the Default – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5779

A powerful public figure – a politician, a comedian, a big-shot producer, a judge – attracts our attention. Somebody, or perhaps several somebodies, usually people of whom we have never heard, publicly accuse this person of horrible things. These are deplorable, unimaginable things – actions that we really don’t want to picture the people who lead us doing. And these allegations are splayed across our screens, coming out of our radios, shouting at us from print headlines, such that we cannot avoid them. Our children ask us: Why? What? How? We struggle to answer.

This detestable ritual has long played itself out in the American public square. It’s not new, although it is happening much more frequently. And nearly every time, the accused is a man, and the accusers are women.

I cried this week. I cried in particular yesterday when I heard this, a female protester addressing a male senator of the United States:

I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me… and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you are telling all women in America, that they don’t matter. They should just keep it to themselves because if they have told the truth you’re just going to help that man to power anyway.

I struggled greatly this week to balance the joy of Sukkot with our collective national anxiety. Sukkot is the most joyous festival of the year (even as we remind ourselves of our vulnerability by living in temporary shacks). It’s referred to rabbinically as “hehag” – i.e. THE festival. The pre-eminent festival. The one that will still be observed even after the mashiah / messiah arrives.

And yet, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz and I were trying to make sense of the news on Thursday. And he gave me a useful framing of our current predicament.

Sukkot is a festival of invitation, one in which we invite holy guests into our sukkah. This ceremony, known as Ushpizin, is derived from the Zohar; it’s a mystical custom that welcomes guests from the Tanakh / Hebrew Bible into the sukkah to dine with us each night.

The challenge facing our nation at this precise moment, said Rabbi Jeremy, is one of invitation. It is only relatively recently that women have been welcomed into certain quarters of society – voting rights, some professions, positions of power, and so forth.

sarah verivqa

And yet, even when women are invited, are they actually allowed in on the same terms as men? Is the invitation extended to men somehow more forgiving? Are we hearing women’s voices the same way we hear those of men? And who is actually doing the inviting, anyway?

Let’s consider the Jewish world.

Rabbi Regina Jonas (1902-1944) was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in 1935, her semikhah (ordination) granted by Rabbi Max Dienemann, the head of the German Liberal Rabbis’ Association. Following Rabbi Jonas, the next woman to be ordained was Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, ordained by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi was Rabbi Amy Eilberg, in 1985.

220px-ReginaJonas

Rabbi Regina Jonas

So let’s run the numbers here for a moment: let’s say that rabbinic Judaism, that is, what we call Judaism, has been around since the redaction of the Mishnah, roughly the end of the 2nd century CE. So from the year 200 until the year 1935, the only rabbis were men. That’s more than seventeen centuries. The first bat mitzvah was in 1922 (Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan). While the practice of mixed seating was common in liberal American synagogues from the first half of the 20th century, counting women in a minyan did not become widely practiced until the 1970s.

Yes, the Talmud, written entirely by men and concluded by the 5th century, did not seek to include women. Despite the towering presence of Rabbi Meir’s wife Beruriah in the pages of the gemara, she of great learning and quick wit, the overarching theme in the Talmud is that free, adult Jewish males are the highest form of person. All others are in lesser categories, obligated to fewer mitzvot, and excluded from some of the central rituals and activities of Jewish tradition. And that is the way things remained until the late 20th century, even in the most liberal quarters of the Jewish world.

I was not too far into my journey to the rabbinate when I realized that female rabbis and cantors were judged by a totally different standard. A married cantorial classmate was regularly hit on by male congregants at a student pulpit. A rabbinical classmate was told that her outfits were unacceptable. Though they could not state it explicitly, some congregations made it clear that they were not interested in female applicants for clergy positions. And that was, by the way, a full 20 years after Amy Eilberg was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

And maybe you heard about my colleague Rabbi Keren Gorban’s tale, delivered at Temple Sinai over the High Holidays, about her being targeted by a teacher and mentor at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary.

So even though it has been almost a century since men invited women into the same rituals and positions of authority that they have enjoyed for two millennia, we have still failed to see them as equals; perhaps they have not truly, honestly been invited.

There is of course nothing new here; men have done horrible things to women as long as people have walked this Earth. Several women that I have known, including some very close to me, have told me about being raped. It’s impossible to know exactly how many incidents of sexual violence take place in this country, since estimates suggest that at least 60% of them go unreported, but one common figure I have seen quoted is that 1 in 3 women will be victims of sexual violence in their lifetime (see, for example, http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf).

Is it a good thing that we are hearing more such stories, particularly the high-profile ones come to our attention? Unquestionably yes. As uncomfortable as it is for all of us to hear, we have to acknowledge that there is a serious problem in human society – that some people can and do abuse dynamics of power, both power of position as well as physical power, and inflict intense pain and suffering on others.

How on Earth can we expect to change that dynamic if we do not hear these stories? How can we teach our boys not to accept the old, lascivious standard of “boys will be boys”? How can we invite all in equally? How can we create a new “normal,” one that represents a step forward as a species, wherein every boy or man will understand that power is not to be abused? Wherein we will no longer laugh away the sexist remark, the demeaning gesture, the dismissive rolling of the eyes?

To be sure, society is changing, gradually. We are moving to a position in which the male-centered default of old is being abrogated. I am sure that you have heard that there are many more female candidates for public office running this year than in past years. Thank God, we have three women on the Supreme Court, but of course we can do better.

Sukkot is about un-defaulting the default. We take ourselves out of our climate-controlled, comfortable homes; we spend the week living (or “living”) in a temporary shack that, if we’re lucky, has electric lighting, but not much of a roof. It’s meant to be a reminder that all of what we have is temporary. Don’t forget where you came from, where you’re going, and before Whom you will be required to give an accounting (Pirqei Avot 3:1). It reminds us not only of our own vulnerability, that no matter how much we try to insulate or cloister ourselves, we can always be stripped of our stuff, but also of the imperfection of this world, of how much work there is to be done to right the wrongs and feed the hungry and roof the roofless.

How much more so, then, in this season of joy, to remember that we still have a long way to go before a woman is invited in, with equal force and equal attitude to the man who is already there.

Some of you may recall that two years ago on Sukkot, I spoke about the egalitarian Ushpizin found in our siddur. (If you want to check it out, it’s on p. 424). While the medieval kabbalistic tradition highlighted Avraham, Yitzhaq, Ya’aqov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and David, our Conservative siddur lists seven women whom we invite in as well: Sarah, Rivqah, Rahel, Leah, Miriam,  Devorah, and Ruth. And so we invite them, women and men as equals to join us in the sukkah.

rahel veleah

It’s an esoteric custom, not well known in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. But it’s essential today – just as we invoke the Imahot / matriarchs every time we say an Amidah here at Beth Shalom, just as we count women as equals under halakhah / Jewish law, just as we call a bride and groom to the Torah before their wedding, just as we celebrate bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah with no distinction between them, just as we welcome girl babies into the world with a ceremony that parallels the boys (with just one small omission…), we must continue to invite women into the sukkah, into the synagogue, and into all spheres of society as equals. We have to listen to and elevate their voices. And we as a society need to do some serious teshuvah regarding the realities of sexual violence. We need to un-default the default. That is the lesson of this Sukkot.

Shabbat shalom. Mo’adim lesimhah, haggim uzmanim lesasson.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/29/2018.)

1 Comment

Filed under Festivals, Sermons

Everyone Has a Story – Shavuot Day 2 / Yizkor, 5778

Shavuot is kind of a funny festival. It’s one of the least well-known, mostly because it usually falls after Hebrew schools have concluded for the year. It doesn’t really have all the tactile and gustatory experiences of Sukkot and Pesah, say, or the fun-loving, child-centered holidays of Hanukkah and Purim, or the gravitas of the High Holidays. I don’t think it’s even as familiar as Tu Bishvat, which is not actually a holiday at all.

And yet the story that Shavuot tells is so central to what it means to be Jewish – the celebration of the gift of Torah, and everything that flows from it. Shavuot is the story of the ongoing revelation of our tradition, of how we continue to receive and reinterpret ancient wisdom for our time. As such, it should be the central pillar of the Jewish year, the one holiday that unites everything else we do with our most essential spiritual journey, our lifelong quest for understanding ourselves and our world.

OK, and there’s also cheesecake.

Two weeks ago, we laid to rest a long-time member of Beth Shalom, Ruth Lessing. She was a few months shy of a full century when she passed away.

Whenever I perform a funeral, I meet with the immediate family of the deceased to get the full story: who they were, what they enjoyed doing, what they took pride in, their successes and failures, and so forth. With Ruth, this process was not so easy: she had one son who lived in Wisconsin, and was on hospice care when his mother died; he himself passed away a few days later. So I had to rely on a couple of more distant relatives here in Pittsburgh, and they told me what they knew: they gave me as much of Ruth’s story as they could. Getting that information was not so easy. I eventually heard about Ruth’s parents in Germany, who bribed a whole range of officials to get five of their seven children out of Germany prior to the Sho’ah, but who ultimately perished, along with Ruth’s younger brother, at the hands of the Nazis.

But it reminded me of an essential piece of who we are: that each of us has a story.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

One of the poems included in our Yizkor (memorial service) booklet is “Lekhol Ish Yesh Shem / Everyone Has a Name.” It was written by the Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), usually referred to as Zelda:

(Note: Hebrew is a gendered language. Please understand that while Zelda wrote entirely in the masculine, it can be read as “he” or “she”; I have modified the translation to reflect this.)

לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו אלוהים
ונתנו לו אביו ואמו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו
ונתן לו האריג
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו ההרים
ונתנו לו כתליו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו המזלות
ונתנו לו שכניו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חטאיו
ונתנה לו כמיהתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו שונאיו
ונתנה לו אהבתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חגיו
ונתנה לו מלאכתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו עונות השנה
ונתן לו עיוורונו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו הים
ונתן לו מותו
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to her by her parents
Everyone has a name
given to her by her stature and the way she smiles
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to her by her walls
Everyone has a name
given to her by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to her by her longing
Everyone has a name
given to her by her enemies
and given to him by his love
Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to her by her work
Everyone has a name
given to her by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea
and given to her by her death.
(Translated from Hebrew by Marcia Falk, quoted from “Generations of the Holocaust” by Bergmann and Jugovy)

Zelda stamp

Zelda

Our name is our story; captured within those few words, you might say, is all that we stand for as individuals: our likes and dislikes, our deeds and misdeeds, our family connections, our obligations and characteristics and quirks and reputations.

We live in an increasingly dehumanizing world, one in which our individual stories are less and less relevant to all that we do. I am increasingly concerned that, given the way things are moving, we shall all soon be reduced to a pile of numbers. The new algorithms that suck up our information like water, predicting our behaviors, knowing which product we will buy and which candidate we will vote for even before we have thought about it, are sapping our free will. It’s more than a little creepy, and quite alarming. We will soon have no secrets, nothing that is hidden from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s already the case.

Not long after the news broke about Cambridge Analytica, the election research firm that scooped up personal data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge and in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, the New York Times ran a few analysis pieces about the information that Facebook and Google and other big data companies collect and use. The author had downloaded and reviewed all the information. Facebook’s data amounted to 650 megabytes, including all of his Facebook activity (likes, shares, posts, etc.), all of this friends’ contact info, including addresses and phone numbers, and a list of all the companies and organizations that had requested his information for the purposes of advertising on the site. (BTW, I downloaded my own Facebook data after reading this article, and among this latter list was none other than Congregation Beth Shalom, which has purchased a few targeted ads on the site.)

Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than your parents do. Even, by the way, if you do not have a Google account: these companies create files for people that are connected to others who do have accounts. They may not know your name, but they know a lot of things about you, and they assume that some day that info will be useful. Google owns the text of this sermon, by the way; in my own Google drive, there are nearly 6 gigabytes of writings and photos and videos and sermon ideas just sitting there waiting to be delivered.

Your genome, by the way, is small by comparison. Your DNA, the chromosomes found in each of the cells in your body, effectively what makes you you account for about 750 megabytes; it can be further reduced to the essential variations that differentiate individual humans from each other, is maybe only about 125 megabytes, depending on the method of storage.

DNA

But that’s not a story. We are not the sum of our data points, or our clicks or our lists of friends or where we purchased groceries. We are not a set of ones and zeros, or even patterns of genetic nucleotides. We have souls. We have journeys. We have lives. We have names. Everyone has a name, which is shorthand for the life we have lived.

You cannot capture love in a digital file. You cannot describe the palette of human creativity, or the full range of human feelings, or the complexity of interpersonal relations. You cannot record the thrill of watching your daughter perform on stage, or the joy of meaningful conversation, or the exultant abandon of group singing around a campfire. A computer would have no reason to argue with another computer over the meaning of a verse in the Torah, or a Talmudic sugya. Microprocessors do not mourn their parents.

What makes us people, what gives us our names, is the full complement of human experiences that we acquire over years of living. It is learning to walk, and failing at dating. It is hiking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, tasting the most fabulous dessert you’ve ever had. It is staying up all night to write a term paper and getting a mediocre grade. It is scoring the winning point and losing a beloved partner.

I must say that I am slightly concerned over the bold new future, in which companies will reduce us to a pile of numbers, but I am not THAT concerned, because we will always have our souls. Nobody can take that away from you.

And nobody can take away the souls of those whom we have known and lost. We carry them all with us. We carry their names. And we carry their stories.

Lekhol ish yesh shem. Each of us has a name, and each of us has a story.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 5/21/2018.)

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Festivals, Sermons, Yizkor

May (S/He) Remember – 8th Day Pesah 5778 / Yizkor

In last week’s New York Times, there was a column by Nicholas Kristof about clergy in America (“The Rise of God’s Spokeswomen,” Sunday Review, April 1, 2018), and how clergy of most denominations are increasingly female.

We in the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and as their numbers have grown, the idea of a female rabbi has become more widespread and more acceptable. I have female colleagues who are in large congregations, who are the senior spiritual leaders of their flocks, and who are as respected and as effective in their positions as men. And that is a good thing.

Kristof says something that I found particularly moving: that our changing attitudes to spiritual leadership, that our increasing openness to women in the role of rabbi or minister or priest will ultimately transform our theology. He cites Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary (just across the street, by the way, from my rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), who suggests that women will ultimately dominate religious leadership in America, and that this will reshape our understanding of the role of God in our lives, moving from “stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

The student body at Union is now nearly 60% female; at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 63% of rabbis ordained since 1998 have been women. About one-fifth of all Conservative rabbis are women, and that percentage grows a bit each year; this spring’s ordination class is 16 women and 12 men, or 57% female. The membership of the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization that consists primarily of cantors serving in Conservative synagogues, is 35% female.

Women Rabbis Lean In

Conservative rabbis

With so many more women joining the ranks of clergy, our relationships with the various faith traditions, at least in the progressive movements, will naturally change. And so too will our theology.

Still, the sense of “maleness” in Jewish tradition is ever-present, and hard to miss. Consider the special service that we will perform in a few minutes, the proper name for which is “hazkarat neshamot,” the “remembering of souls.” But almost everybody in the Ashkenazi world refers to it as Yizkor (accent on the “yiz,” since both Yiddish and English tend to accent the penultimate syllable in most words; the original Hebrew, properly pronounced, accents the “kor”). “Yizkor” is the first word in the memorial prayers that we recite during that part of the service; these prayers are recited only four times per year: on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesah, and the second day of Shavuot.

What does “yizkor” mean? Literally, “May He remember,” and since it is followed by the word Elohim (one of the common terms for God), it should be understood as, “May God remember,” as in, May God remember my mother, my father, my sister, etc. Now, in English, the translation is non-gender specific. But in Hebrew, the word yizkor is totally, unapologetically masculine. There is actually nothing we can do about it – there is no gender-neutral third person conjugation in Hebrew. It’s either yizkor or tizkor, may She remember, and with that latter term there is the same challenge. So, while we might avoid the issue by referring to the service by its proper name, Hazkarat Neshamot, we can’t really do much about the memorial prayer itself.

There is a midrash that I truly love about the creation of humans as described in Bereshit / Genesis on the sixth day of Creation. It’s about the verse, Genesis 1:27:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

The midrash interprets the verse to indicate two stages of the fashioning of human beings. The first adam, the first human creature, has two sides, a male side and a female side. Because the Hebrew in the first half of the verse has a singular direct object (“vayivra et ha-adam… bara oto,” “God created man… He created him”), it is clear that God created only one creature at first. Furthermore, one may also extrapolate that, since the text tells us twice that this being is fashioned in the image of God, that God also has two sides, a female and a male.

adam and eve

Adam and Eve, by Tsugouharu Fujita

The second part of the verse, “zakhar uneqevah bara otam,” “male and female He created them,” has a plural direct object, so the midrash’s perspective is that God took this two-sided figure and split it into two distinct beings, a female human and a male human. Both are therefore equally in the image of God. Both are God-like, and God is neither male nor female but actually both.

I must concede that when I think and speak about God, I am trying not to envision a specific image. On the contrary, my personal understanding is much more along the lines of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s view of God as kind of force within the natural world, a process that works through and around us, and such a force has no gender, no body, no clear “actions” as described in the Torah and midrash. But I know that if you scratch two Jews, you’ll get at least three different theologies. And, of course our text and liturgy is saturated with images of God as a distinct character, and in particular, a distinctly male character: Avinu malkeinu, Avinu shebashamayim, God sitting on a heavenly throne, God creating the world, God dictating to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and so forth. And all that language is unquestionably masculine.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share a personal anecdote, one that might help illustrate a different model for understanding God.

A few of you know that I lost my first cousin, Anne Lerner, last week. She was 50 years old, and taught in a middle school for “inner-city” kids in Hartford. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and we were all shocked and raw, particularly in the context of Passover, to be burying her at such a young age. Anne was never married; she did not have children of her own. But she was so loved by all her students, current and former, that there were about 300 people at her funeral. The school where she taught actually closed on Monday so that teachers and students could attend, and the school actually brought the students in buses to the synagogue in Manchester, CT where the funeral was held.

I am telling you this not to share with you my grief over the loss of my cousin, but rather because in discussing the arc of my cousin’s life with my family members in preparation for delivering a eulogy, I came to understand that she saw her students as her children. She was to them like a nurturing mother, leading and guiding and nudging where possible, making sure they were taken care of, making sure that their needs were met, that if they were not receiving love and support at home, then at least they would get it at school.

Anne loved those students. She loved them dearly. And they loved her right back.

Teaching is holy work, and although my cousin would not have thought of herself as holy, she was in some sense modeling for all of us a way that we might understand God: our teacher, our guide, our provider, our nurturer, the one who makes it possible for us to love. God need not be “Our Father, Our King,” but rather, “The One who loves us and gives us the ability to love.”

That is a theology that appeals to me, and arguably an understanding that is made even more reasonable as the clergy becomes more female.

Any of you who have ever discussed theology with me, in a class or my learners’ service or one-on-one, knows that I am all for re-thinking how we understand God, because the traditional images do not work well for me. And some of you may also know that I draw heavily from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (zekher tzaddiq livrakhah / may his righteous memory be for a blessing) in this matter, whose bottom line was that we have to seek the understanding of God that works for us as individuals. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about this, come to my session at the Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Saturday night, May 19th at the JCC. I will be discussing Rabbi Gillman’s legacy and why connecting to theology is so essential.)

What works for me is to see the entire palette of humanity as reflecting the image of God: God is male and female, black and white and everything in-between. And God is also none of these things.

As we embrace more women in the clergy, we will surely welcome a broader understanding of the Divine, a more balanced sense of God that incorporates both paternal and maternal aspects.

While I am almost certain that we will always continue to refer to hazkarat neshamot as “Yizkor,” may He remember, I think it would be a good thing to, when we recall our loved ones who are no longer with us, to remember that they were as much subject to God’s nurturing love as to God’s justice.

May that God, the one that reflects the balance of humanity, remember all of those whom we recall today. May our God-given ability to love inspire us, in their memories, to spread more love in this world.

anne lerner

My cousin, Anne Lerner z”l

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning / 8th day Pesah, 4/7/2018.)

2 Comments

Filed under Festivals, Sermons, Yizkor