Category Archives: Sermons

Courage, Wisdom, and Framework: What Judaism Offers Us Right Now – Vayaqhel/Pequdei 5780

I spent most of this past week at home, talking and praying via Zoom; I presume that many of you were also at home. Schools are closed or have moved online. Restaurants are only open for takeout. Non-life-sustaining businesses are closed. (It’s good to know, BTW, that Pennsylvania considers “Religious Organizations” to be life-sustaining!) My sister and her family just arrived here from Hungary, and are in a self-quarantine for two weeks. 

This is a reality that we will likely face for at least a few months. I am fortunate to be standing here, with a family today as a young woman was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, but of course we are about 16 people standing in a room that seats 1600, maintaining at least 6 feet from each other at all times. And all the rest of yinz are watching this online.

Congregation Beth Shalom’s sanctuary, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

Some of you are of course wondering why, suddenly, live-streaming of services on Shabbat is OK. And how we have been holding weekday minyanim online for a week, with no single, physical room in which there are 10 people. It speaks to the resilience of our tradition, that even while we must be physically separated, we acknowledge the value of gathering, even if it is through means by which just a week ago seemed unacceptable according to Jewish law.

Photo of Beth Shalom’s weekday morning Zoom minyan, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

And let me tell you why this is going to be extraordinarily important in the coming months.

As religious knowledge and participation in America has declined, most of us do not have a spiritual framework. We value our independence over all else. “It’s a free country,” is the refrain that we hear throughout our lives: free from government control; free from limitations on our behavior or speech; free from religious traditions.

In all that freedom, where are the guidelines that help us make the right choices? How do we improve ourselves and the world? Where are the opportunities for holiness that make our lives meaningful?

Our current situation is exceedingly humbling. We have come to think of ourselves as invincible, as not having to wrestle with many of the real physical threats that our ancestors did. Think of the ability we have to cure many diseases today, thanks to antibiotics. Think of the abilities we have honed to manipulate our world such that we can connect with people in real time all over the world. Think of the many brilliant minds humanity has yielded – the Einsteins and the Mozarts and the Shakespeares and Freuds of our species, the people who have unlocked the secrets of nature and produced such great creativity and innovation and technology and beauty.

We seem to have conquered nature, perhaps after God’s command to the first humans in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis (1:28): 

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

“Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is so easy for us to feel that we have done that.

And yet, all of that can be so easily undone by a microscopic strand of RNA wrapped up in a protein shell: a virus. Not even quite a living thing, arguably. But a force within nature that fells the mightiest of economies and the most robust societies. We have been brought low by the devastating force unleashed by this tiny invader.

The ancient world was a much more dangerous place. There were so many things that we could not control. And that’s why our ancestors appealed to an unseen God, a God that offered them land and fertility and protection and success and health. That’s why, when enemies destroyed our Beit haMiqdash, our Temple in Jerusalem and exiled us to the four corners of the world, we stubbornly carried our Torah with us, and continued to read it, to live by it, and to reinterpret it in every age. The Torah is the portable, personal manifestation of that protection, of the Shekhinah, God’s presence in our lives.

And that is why we have inherited this ancient framework. That is why we celebrate today a young woman being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, as one who has fully inherited those mitzvot, those holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

Framework: Jewish tradition. Halakhah / Jewish law. Mitzvot. Customs. Foods. Holidays. Our stories. Our texts, our music. These things have nourished us and kept us whole for thousands of years. They are as integral to our lives as truth and justice. They are the infrastructure of our very existence. They have kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment, as the bat mitzvah’s parents said in gratitude on Shabbat morning.

And that is why we do not merely change everything that we do. That is why the motivating reason for so much in Jewish life is, “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

Our tradition matters so much that it is essential that we grapple with the hard questions, and not merely dismiss them. Sometimes, we cannot do things the way we have always done them. And so too today. 

It is that Etz Hayyim, that tree of life about which we sang just a few minutes ago when we returned the Torah to the ark, to which we continue to grasp. That tree is solid, is sturdy, and yet it is a wee bit flexible. And particularly when times change as dramatically as they have right now.

The word halakhah, which we often interpret in shorthand as “Jewish law,” is derived from the Hebrew shoresh (root letters) heh-lamed-kaf, meaning to walk or to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life, acknowledging God’s presence, and, more to the point, the presence of others around us. As we walk, we make course corrections. When there is an obstacle in the way, we find a way around it. And these guiding principles keep us aware of our context, our relationships, our behavior. 

And they keep us alive, enabling us to go from celebration to mourning to support for one another in all frames of reference.

Ladies and gentlemen, the next several weeks, and maybe months, may be very boring indeed. Maybe you’ll get tired of streaming movies. Maybe you’ll need a new hobby. I am pretty sure that Pesah will be very strange this year, because you can’t invite all your friends and family. We will definitely still be practicing social distancing. We may all be completely confined to our homes by then. Who knows.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the opportunity to think about all the things that are special in your life, and what really matters most. Not the gadgets, or the high-falutin’ degrees from fancy colleges, or all of the trappings of our society. What ultimately matters is the people you love: your family, your close friends. When we make it to the other side of this, whether it is two months or many more, I hope that we will all see that clearly.

But in the meantime, we will need courage. We will need wisdom. And we will need a framework.

Where will we find those things? In the living words of our tradition. Life will conquer this thing, this destructive, nearly-alive thing. Human spirit, ingenuity, and creativity will get us through. But it will take a long time, and we will re-emerge leaner, less sure of ourselves, and definitely more humble.

I want to urge us all, of course to look out for ourselves and our families, but also to look out especially to those who may be sheltering alone and will feel cut off, and of course those who are ill. We have before us the mitzvah of biqqur holim, visiting the sick, which of course we will not be able to do in person, but a phone call or some other means of contact will be so valuable. Make that mitzvah a part of your daily practice.

And we also have guidance from our parashah today, where we read in Vayaqhel about the generosity of spirit that moved the Israelites in the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that became the home of the Shekhinah, God’s presence among them while wandering in the desert for 40 years. Over and over, the text referenced the materials brought by, “kol nadiv libo,” every person whose heart so moved them to generosity. We are a people who understand the value of the common good, and our obligation to exercise that generosity, to let the good of our hearts motivate us.

Furthermore, let the characters from our tradition inspire us to be resolute in this time. Consider the bravery of Devorah the Judge, the wisdom of King Shelomoh, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, and the impressive resilience of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai, a student of Rabbi Akiva’s and the purported author of the Zohar, who, the Talmud tells us, hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, eating only from the fruit of a carob tree.

Please God, it won’t be 13 years. What really counts now, however, is courage, wisdom, and framework. Our tradition gives us all of those things.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/21/2020.)

1 Comment

Filed under Sermons

Why You Should Vote for Mercaz – Terumah 5780

(Just in case you don’t get to the link at the end, here it is up front: mercaz2020.org. Vote! If you need to know why you absolutely should, read on.)

In 2014, I was in Israel on a trip with about 35 teens from my synagogue on Long Island. At one point, during the week, we were staying at the hotel at a secular kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Since this was a synagogue-sponsored trip, we were in the habit of holding daily tefillot (religious services) as a group every morning. So we were leaving this hotel that morning, and the plan was, before loading our stuff onto the bus, that we would use the synagogue on the hotel grounds to recite shaharit (the morning service). We approached the front desk to ask if we could use the synagogue. Sizing up our group, the clerk, presumably a secular member of this kibbutz, told us that we were not in fact allowed to use the synagogue.

When asked why, we were told that the mashgiah, the kashrut supervisor for the hotel restaurant, had instructed the hotel that if non-Orthodox groups were allowed to use the synagogue, the local rabbinic authorities would invalidate their kosher certification.

We departed, and davened beside the bus in a parking lot at our next destination. 

So this secular kibbutz, making a sensible business decision from their perspective (i.e. not to lose out on all the kosher-keeping groups who stay there), denied a Jewish kosher-keeping group the opportunity to practice Judaism on their property. And all of this took place in the Jewish state.

Rabbi Jeremy related to me that he found himself in a similar situation around the same time: he was in rabbinical school, and, while traveling in the north of Israel with a group of Conservative rabbinical students, they stayed at a different hotel, which denied this group the use of their sefer Torah (Torah scroll) because they were not Orthodox. Never mind that they would certainly treat the Torah respectfully. Never mind that they would read it the same way that Orthodox Jews do. Never mind that they were rabbinical students. They were denied merely because they prayed in a group of men and women mixed together.

All of this in the Jewish state.

Every now and then we get all upset about different manifestations of this problem, of the delegitimization of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. Remember a few years back, when the Netanyahu government reneged on its plan to complete the construction of an egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel (the Western Wall), away from the “traditional” Kotel plaza? Remember how upset non-Orthodox leaders were in this country? Remember that? And then what happened?

Frankly, nothing. Because American Jews, as much as they claim to care about Israel, might be very concerned about religious freedom in Israel when they are there, but it is all too easy not to worry or even think about it when we are back at home.

Do you remember how, about a year and a half ago, when Israeli Masorti (Conservative) Rabbi Dubi Haiyun was awakened at 5:30 AM in his home in Haifa and detained by police, after the Orthodox rabbinical authorities in Haifa had filed a complaint against him for, get this, performing weddings? (I actually spoke about this here at Beth Shalom, not long after it occurred.) 

You see, in Israel, weddings between two Jews must be performed by Orthodox rabbis approved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. If you want to have me do a destination wedding in the Bahamas, I’m all in. If you want me to do it in Israel, I will apologize and urge you to get married here instead, because I do not want to get arrested. (Although as a proud Zionist, I must say that being in prison in Israel might make for an interesting experience, a new way to experience the Holy Land, and potentially good sermon material.) 

All of this is due to the fact that while the State of Israel is a healthy democracy, there is no separation of State and synagogue there, and political machinations have enfranchised an Orthodox, and increasingly ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life. All official Jewish ritual events that affect personal status – weddings, divorces, conversions, funerals, etc. – are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, which is of course Orthodox. Same for kashrut supervision for restaurants, and hence the hotel problems I mentioned earlier. Also for the Kotel plaza, which functions more or less like an Orthodox synagogue, with a tall mehitzah (traditional synagogue separation barrier between men and women, which we do not have at egalitarian congregations such as Beth Shalom) and limited access for women in general. A service like the ones we hold here at Beth Shalom is prohibited not only by the Western Wall, but in the whole public plaza surrounding it as well. Women are prohibited from reading Torah there, and even from wearing a tallit (prayer shawl).

Change on this front is difficult for the Israeli government because of the nature of the coalition system. As with the canceled plans for the egalitarian Kotel plaza, Netanyahu backed out of the plan because his Likud party required the support of the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox,” although that is not really an accurate description of who they are) parties, who are a part of his coalition. And the number of practicing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, though growing, is quite small; roughly 40% of the Israeli public identifies as Orthodox, while perhaps 8% identify with the Reform or Conservative movements. While many Likud voters and politicians do not care so deeply about what goes on at the Kotel, the Haredi parties feel very strongly that the Israeli government should not kowtow to non-Orthodox Jews, particularly non-Israeli, non-Orthodox Jews (which, BTW, describes 85% of Jews in America), on the freedom to practice Judaism the way we do.

Pluralism, that is, acknowledging that there are different paths through Jewish life and tolerating each other’s presence, is not a thing in Israel. According to the Jewish State, which long ago turned over all religious affairs to the Rabbinate, there is only one form of legitimate Judaism. Even for secular Israelis, usually the shul that they proudly do not attend is Orthodox.

Does this seem wrong to you? It should.

One of the wonderful things about this nation, and one reason why religion flourishes here, is because the government generally stays out of it. That principle is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Those sixteen words have been, shall we say, a Godsend to not just the Jews, but to all religious groups.

Israel has no such principle. And it is very easy for Israeli politicians to ignore the religious practices of American Jews, because, let’s face it: we do not live there. If we are inconvenienced as tourists, well, so be it. We’ll get over it when we take off from Ben Gurion Airport on the way home.

But don’t you think that the Jewish State, which likes to see itself as the center of the Jewish world, should at least allow non-Orthodox Jews to worship according to their custom? Don’t you think that I should be able to perform a wedding in the State of Israel? Don’t you think that people who convert to Judaism under my supervision should be accepted fully as Jews in Israel? Of course you do.

And so I have some good news: you have a voice in Israel. And that voice is the World Zionist Congress.

What is the World Zionist Congress, you may ask? It is an assemblage of supporters of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision of a Jewish state, from all over the world, that convenes roughly every five years, going back to the First Zionist Congress, organized by Herzl himself in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. This is the 38th such assemblage, and it will take place in Jerusalem in October, and we who care about religious pluralism need to show our support by voting

At stake in this election are 152 seats representing American Jews, and it is crucial that a large contingent of those seats speak loudly on behalf of protecting religious freedom in Israel.

(I have some insider information: as of early this past week, only 43 people in the 15217 Zip code had voted for Mercaz. There are at least 1,000 people who are members of this congregation; you do the math.)

Why should you vote for Mercaz? Because critical decisions, influential positions, reputational influence, and funding for the Masorti/Conservative movement are all at stake. The World Zionist Congress “makes decisions and sets policies regarding key institutions that support global Jewish life and which allocate nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry.”

If we just throw up our hands and say, “Oh, that’s so far away, and why should I bother?” then the other folks who are voting, those who seek to delegitimize me, you and our friends and family who are non-Orthodox Jews and Jewish practice in Israel, their voices will grow louder, and that funding and influence will go their way.

***

After all of the events I have described above, don’t you think it’s time that our voice is heard? That we ensure that the State of Israel features a Jewish environment that is open and free and pluralistic, one in which your Jewish practice is recognized as Jewish?

You have a voice – use it! Go to www.Mercaz2020.org to register, vote, check out the slate of delegates and the Mercaz platform. Yes, it will cost you $7.50 and a few minutes of your time, but this is a small price to pay to support a pluralist Jewish state. We also have paper ballots in the lobby here at Beth Shalom. And if you let me know that you have voted for Mercaz, come by my office and I’ll give you a sticker!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/29/20.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons

Rethinking Na’aseh veNishma: First Connect, Then Teach – Yitro 5780

Last week in this space, I spoke about my trip in January with Honeymoon Israel, a program which seeks to reach the least-connected Jews by providing a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel for couples in their first five years of marriage. The program is not about Israel, per se, but uses the visit to Israel primarily as a backdrop to discuss issues of Jewish peoplehood. I spoke also about a featured presenter on the trip, renowned Jewish educator Avraham Infeld, and discussed his framework of the “Five-Legged Table” of the supporting pillars of Jewish peoplehood. Those “legs” are:

  • Memory
  • Family
  • Mt. Sinai
  • Israel
  • Hebrew

What is at least initially missing from this list is an acknowledgment that , historically speaking, an essential statement of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people is the covenant of mitzvot, the opportunities for holiness that are the central framework of Jewish living and our relationship to God.

Framing that in the form of a question: Isn’t our responsibility as Conservative Jews, as those committed to halakhah / Jewish law and to conserving Jewish tradition, to teach Judaism as a religious tradition? How can we define membership in the Jewish people without the classical religious content?

You might say that the “Mt. Sinai” leg of Infeld’s table includes that. That is, when the Israelites stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, as we did symbolically today, and then they say, “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do and we will seek to understand (Ex. 24:7), that they were effectively saying that membership in the Jewish people mandates performance of the mitzvot first. That is, ours is a religious tradition, based on fulfilling the specific behaviors commanded by God. And there are certainly Jewish communities in which everybody is expected to toe the line, halakhically. Through much of our history, we have had a bit of a judgy streak – in the shtetl, to live among the Jews meant to live as Jews do, and if you did not, you were a threat to the fabric of Jewish society. In the Old World, keeping the mitzvot was also about personal security – you were safe with the Jews if you kept our ways. God and the community would protect you.

Avraham Infeld bellowed at the Honeymoon Israel participants that Judaism is not a religion, but a people. A family, as he puts it. He spoke of his own father, who was a proud atheist, but a committed Jew nonetheless. Some members of our Jewish family put on tefillin every morning. Some refrain from eating pork, but see no problem with ordering steak in non-kosher establishments. Some proudly walk down Murray Ave. on Yom Kippur eating bacon double-cheeseburgers. But all are Jews.

While I place myself firmly in the tefillin-every-morning crowd (and I of course want you all to join me there, when you are ready, of course, with a special invitation to those of us who identify as women), I certainly want us all to continue to be included in, and proudly identify as Jews, regardless of our relationship to the mitzvot.

From the World Wide Wrap at JJEP, February 2020

But there are many Jews for whom the very idea of identification with the Jewish community is fraught. There are many of us who have been turned away by our community. There are many who have felt judged, who have been subjected to intolerance, who were made to feel not welcome for various reasons. 

We have pushed people away. Yes, it’s true that some wandered off by themselves, uninspired, uninterested. But many were turned off by the very people who wanted them to stay, by those of us who insisted on drawing hard lines about who is in and who is out, about what was acceptable behavior for a Jew and what was unacceptable. 

Our role, as Conservative Jews in the vibrant center of the Jewish world is to build bridges. To build a bridge from peoplehood to religion and vice versa; to build a bridge from non-engagement to engagement; to connect Jews from different backgrounds and practices to one another. We inhabit a Jewish environment that can be secular and religious; where doubt can live alongside faith; where an academic Torah-as-human-literature can sidle up to Torah-as-history and not be rebuffed. 

When we say, as Rosh Hashanah begins, “Shalom, shalom, larahoq velaqarov, amar Adonai. (Isaiah 57:19),” we mean it. “Greetings, greetings to those who are far and those who are near, says God.” We have to be open to all who are close, and all those who place themselves beyond the outskirts of our community.

My work as a rabbi is to teach Judaism, to connect you, and everybody else, with the lessons of our text, our history, our culture, our rituals. And there are some who think that rabbis should teach to the top, to those who are committed, to the members of our community who are already steeped in Torah, who have already drunk the Talmudic Kool-Aid.

There is a time and a place for that. But whenever I can, I am also going to teach to the uninitiated, to invite in the ones who are she-einam yode’im lish’ol, who do not yet know how to ask. Because those are the people we need to reach.

So how do we do this?

It is easy for us to keep doing what we are doing, and not worry too much about the rest of the Jewish world, to assume that everybody knows what to do when they walk into a synagogue, to assume that our customs and wisdom, and indeed the supreme value of what we do are obvious to all. But they are not. I know this because I hear it all the time: it’s not so easy to enter Beth Shalom if you do not know where the door is, figuratively speaking.

So how do we invite in Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks while not scaring them off with our commitment to tradition? Although we know that our approach to tradition is decidedly modern, egalitarian, and inclusive, often those who are unaffiliated or who have been turned off by other Jews and Judaism in the past may not see that. How do we welcome them into our community in such a way that they stay?

And the answer is as follows: First connect, then teach.

And this is, you might say, orthogonal to the principle of “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do first, and then we will understand, which has been so essential to Jewish life for our entire history. The traditional model of teaching Jewish religious practice is to teach the mitzvah, the behavior first, with the intent that the understanding will follow.

But for many today, there has to be a preliminary step, and that step is connection. That is the Mt. Sinai moment. That is where God speaks to each of the individuals standing at Mt. Sinai. Anokhi Adonai Elohekha. “I am the Lord your God.” It’s the first Commandment of the Top Ten. And the “your” is singular! The first commandment is about individual relationship.

It is only after this relationship is established that the doing and the understanding can begin.

(Yes, I know that this image from the Sistine Chapel is God and Adam. But it is also a perfect image for the Sinai moment.)

First connect, then teach. The connection must precede Na’aseh venishma. That’s the element of Jewish peoplehood, of family, of Mt. Sinai.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are not going to compromise on the mitzvot part of the equation; we will uphold our standards of Jewish practice. What goes on at Beth Shalom will always be kosher, shomer Shabbat, and so forth.

But we also have to take the first commandment seriously, and read it as, “You’re a part of my family.” Whatever you may have experienced in the past, whether you were turned off by Jewish religious practice or felt judged for your choices or your parents denied you a Jewish education or whatever, you are welcome as a part of our family.

And, to go a step further, I want those who are Jewish-adjacent, i.e. not privileged to have been born Jewish or yet joined the Jewish people, but having the hutzpah to have married a Jew, to think of themselves as a part of our family as well.

A brief coda: I received an email this past week from one of the Honeymoon Israel participants that really made my week, a person who is married to somebody who is not Jewish, who had bad experiences with rabbis and Jewish organizations. And this person expressed gratitude for having been welcomed back, for feeling for the first time like one of the tribe. And I would now not be surprised to see this person cross my orbit again, this time open to learn, open to the idea of belonging, open to the idea of na’aseh venishma

First connect, then teach. Remember that when you are in the building, and as you saunter out as an ambassador for the type of Judaism we live.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/15/2020.)

1 Comment

Filed under Sermons

Honeymoon Israel and Jewish Peoplehood – Beshallah/Shabbat Shirah 5780

Many of you know that I travel to Israel frequently – I have a relationship with Israel that stretches back to the summer of 1987, when I spent eight weeks there at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. Since then, I have returned so many times that I have lost count – somewhere between 30 and 40 trips, and of course I lived there for a year and a half during the central portion of my journey from engineering to the rabbinate.

On this trip, I must say that I did something which I consider profoundly Zionist: I went skiing.

My son and I on one of the Hermon chairlifts

I have actually been thinking about doing this for years. Mt. Hermon, which hosts the only alpine environment in the Middle East, is located at the very top of the Golan Heights, and while most of the mountain is divided between Syria and Lebanon, a sliver is contained within the Israeli section of the Golan Heights. Israel conquered the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967, and officially annexed the area in 1981, and so far only the United States recognizes Israel’s sovereignty there. 

Not long after the Six-Day War, Israeli entrepreneurs beheld the huge amounts of snow that are present for a few weeks every winter, and saw an opportunity. On the day that my son and I were there, there were hundreds of people skiing, and many hundreds more who were sledding, riding the alpine slide, playing in the snow, and taking the gondola to the foggy summit. (The skiing, BTW, was awesome!)

Now as with anything in Israel, there are political ramifications to everything. The businesses on and surrounding Mt. Hermon provides jobs for the Druze residents of the city of Majdal Shams, whose officials publicly state their loyalty to Syria, although it is clear that many of them would much rather be in Israel than in Syria. Should there someday be a peace agreement with Syria, there is a significant chance that the Golan Heights, and the ski area and the Golan Heights Druze with it, will return to Syria, so at least officially they profess their loyalty to the Syrian government. 

Meanwhile, Israelis flock to enjoy a little taste of the Alps in their backyard. At the end of a day of skiing, we were stuck in a VERY Zionist traffic jam as everybody headed down the mountain on the windy road toward Majdal Shams.

I also did something that was not quite as Zionist, in the sense that it was pro-Diaspora, and that was to be the rabbi on the second Pittsburgh cohort of Honeymoon Israel.

You might make the case that HMI is not particularly Zionist, because Israel is really only a backdrop, a set on which to give 20 young couples from Pittsburgh, all within five years of marriage and/or partnership, the opportunity to create a micro-community that will ideally thrive back in their hometown. Every HMI trip is city-based, and each busload of 20 couples from the same city is accompanied by an engagement professional from the local Federation (in our case, Karen Podorefsky from the Young Adult Division), an Israeli tour guide, and a rabbi. The goal, different from Birthright, for example, is not to connect American Jews with Israel, but to use Israel as a pretext to discuss issues surrounding Jewish peoplehood. 

The January 2020 Pittsburgh cohort of Honeymoon Israel at Caesarea

It is actually a brilliant idea, one that emerged primarily from the Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews published in 2013, to which you may have heard me refer from time to time. One of the most important pieces of info which emerged from this study is that there is a growing group of Jews who consider themselves proudly Jewish, but are utterly disconnected from Judaism as a religion. That may not bode well for synagogues, but the creators of HMI see this as an opportunity: how to help this segment of self-identified Jews, and in some cases their non-Jewish partners create community? Furthermore, given the fragmented nature of today’s Jewish world, how do we continue to connect Jews to each other, whether through traditional Jewish activities or otherwise?

On a Tel Aviv graffiti and food tour

This aligns very much with what we are trying to do at Beth Shalom: the very point of Derekh is to provide portals, inviting doorways into Jewish life and community. A synagogue is first and foremost a beit keneset, a Jewish place of gathering, even over and above its role as a beit tefillah and a beit midrash (place of prayer and learning). As such, we need to be a center of Jewish life that invites everybody in, and this has been a focus of my rabbinate since I arrived here four-and-a-half years ago. And that is why, when the opportunity came up to be the rabbi on this trip, I jumped at the chance.

So we spent eight-and-a-half days on the ground in Israel, hitting some tourist highlights, of course, but also allowing plenty of free time for couples to enjoy themselves in cosmopolitan Israel (Since this trip is billed as a honeymoon, one goal is not to subject the participants to a jam-packed schedule of lectures and archaeological sites). There was also time built into the trip for discussions about engaging with Jewish life and connection with the rabbi: services on the two Friday evenings, havdalah, and a few discussions and spontaneous Q&A sessions and group processing.

One of the highlights of the trip was a lecture on Jewish peoplehood by Avraham Infeld, the renowned Jewish educator and former president of Hillel International. Mr. Infeld spoke, or, rather, bellowed, about Jewish peoplehood as seen through the lens of what he refers to as a “Five-Legged Table.” The “legs” of the table are as follows:

  • Memory
  • Family
  • Mt. Sinai
  • Israel
  • Hebrew

Memory: The idea that what connects us to each other as Jews is a shared story. Not history, per se, although that is certainly part of the story. But it is our collective memory of being enslaved in Egypt, for example, that drives us not only to the seder table on Pesah, but also to remember our duty to work toward a world in which nobody is enslaved or oppressed. (You might consider how we rose this morning to chant responsively as we read from the Torah Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, as a prime example of living Jewish memory. We continue to express gratitude for our redemption from Egypt every single day of the year by reciting Shirat HaYam as a part of every day’s morning service.)

Family: We are united by the sense of the Jewish people as being one big, inclusive family. And that means not only people who have roots in the Eastern European shtetl, but also those whose grandparents were traders in the souq of Baghdad, those who were flown from Ethiopia to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991, and even those who were not born Jewish, but, as Infeld put it, had the hutzpah to fall in love with a Jewish person. “You’re a member of my family,” said Avraham Infeld. “and you’re stuck with me.”

Mt. Sinai: We were together at Mt. Sinai, where we received the Torah as a people from God. Whether you follow the mitzvot / holy opportunities of the Torah to the tiniest detail or you reject them, whether you understand God in traditional terms or reject the idea entirely, the Mt. Sinai moment is still ours, the nexus of Jewish memory, and an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish.

Israel: When we recited the Shaharit / the morning service earlier, we recited “Mashiv haruah umorid hagashem” – God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. We prayed for rain, but not here: Jews all over the world pray for rain in the Land of Israel. (On that front, I have good news: while we were there, it rained almost every day!) Our prayer, our rituals, our texts, and our memory continue to connect us back to that land. Meanwhile, the contemporary State of Israel is an undeniably essential feature of today’s Jewish landscape. While not perfect by anybody’s standard, Israel is here to stay and wherever you are in the Jewish world, you cannot discount the outsize role that Israel, the land and the state, plays in world Jewry.

Masada

Hebrew: Our people has a language, and that language is Hebrew. Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Pittsburghese and so forth are all Jewish languages, but all of them draw on the one language that we all share, the language of the Torah. There is a reason that Eliezer Ben-Yehudah revived Hebrew to make it the spoken language of Israel, and that is that it unites us all as Jews.

These are the things that we share, the essential building blocks of Jewish peoplehood. Infeld believes that if you relate to at least three of them, you feel connected to the Jewish people; as you may know, a table with three legs can stand, but one with two cannot.

Honeymoon Israel’s goal is to connect its participants with at least a few of these legs, and to build on the stability of that table to welcome more Jews into, and perhaps indeed back into the Jewish community. Am Yisrael hai: the people of Israel lives. And I am certain that it is doing that; at this point over 2000 couples have participated in the program; HMI’s statistics report that 85% of participants feel a “new sense of belonging to the Jewish community and connection to Israel” following the trip.

Tzfat

So you might be wondering now, “OK, Rabbi, so this all sounds great, except for one thing: you’re a rabbi, and your job is to teach Judaism according to the traditional view of Judaism as a religion, right?”

Well, yes and no. Religion and peoplehood cannot easily be separated. And I am going to speak about that next week, when we act on the memory of the Sinai moment in Parashat Yitro. So I am concluding today with a sort of cliffhanger: Come back next week to find out why now is the time to reach out to the least connected Jews, and how we should do that.

Work by Israeli graffiti artist Michal Rosen in Nahalat Binyamin, Tel Aviv

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/8/2020.)

1 Comment

Filed under Sermons

A Visit to the Jews of Cuba – Vayyiggash 5780

The portion of the Torah that we read this week, Parashat Vayyiggash, includes what you might call the beginning of the Diaspora, an essential feature of Jewish life effectively as long as there have been Jews. Yosef has already been in Egypt for some time, having been cast out of the family and out of Cana’an by his brothers. Vayyiggash includes what is really the climax of the Yosef narrative: when he is reunited with his brothers, and his father, as they descend into Egypt, fleeing the famine in Cana’an. As Yisrael/Ya’aqov and his entire family – wives, children, and livestock arrive in Egypt, they establish a home there before they have even formally been granted the land of Israel.

Our history is, of course, very much dependent on the principle of Diaspora: that we are united by our heritage and our rituals and our texts despite geographical and, one might say, spiritual separation. Over  the last 2,000 years, in particular, we the Jews ended up in many lands, have spoken many different languages, have survived many environments, and yet have maintained our traditions.

And I have some good news about a relatively far-flung Diaspora community: the Jews of Cuba are maintaining Jewish life.   

Gran Sinagoga Beth Shalom in Havana

OK, so Cuba’s not as far away as some other places where there are Jews. I suppose Whitefish, Montana is much further from a major Jewish center, given that it only took Judy and I about an hour to fly to Havana from Tampa. But there is a Conservative rabbi in Whitefish, and Cuba is only visited by a rabbi once every 2-3 months (Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, a Masorti/Conservative rabbi from Santiago, Chile). It is quite far away, spiritually. And that is a very interesting tale.

When I spoke at length about the situation of Cuban Jews with Adela Dworin, the community’s president, I learned a good deal about the state of Jewish life there. Today, there are only about 1,200 Jews remaining in Cuba; the community peaked out at about 15,000 in the first half of the 20th century; 90% of them left in the context of the Cuban revolution of 1959, leaving behind homes, bank accounts, and businesses that were confiscated by the new government. 

Teens performing at the community Hanukkah party at Beth Shalom, Dec. 29, 2019

On Shabbat morning, at the Beth Shalom synagogue (Conservative) in Havana, there were about 40 worshippers, and at the “Janucá” party that we attended on the last night of the Festival of Lights, about 200 people sang and danced and celebrated together. At the end of the party, the synagogue leadership invited up Muslim and Christian special guests who had been invited specially to attend, as a symbol of interfaith fellowship, and also reminded those in attendance of the recent knife attack at a rabbi’s house in Monsey, NY, a plea for religious solidarity in the face of increasing anti-Semitism around the world. It was hard for Judy and me not to notice, by the way, the lack of a security guard; that synagogue might be one of the few remaining in the world that are completely unprotected.

Adults performing at the Hanukkah party

The Beth Shalom synagogue building, which also serves as the nationwide Jewish community center, dates from 1952, a few years prior to the socialist revolution. The synagogue fell into disrepair in subsequent decades. Following the government’s decision to officially allow religious practice once again in 1992, the community was able to rebuild and rededicate.

They are supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and they have raised money from Jews elsewhere, particularly from Cuban Jews who emigrated to America decades ago. They renovated their main building, which had fallen into a shameful state. They continue to teach their children in the “Majon Albert Einstein” – the school of Jewish studies which serves all the children of the Havana community, and adults as well. The services that we attended, Friday night and Saturday morning, were almost entirely led by teens and college students, and concluded with as many children on the bimah as possible. They send young athletes to Maccabiah games all over the world. The walls of the synagogue building were plastered with photos of young, smiling Cuban Jews. 

And all this despite an intermarriage rate of 99%, exremely limited access to kosher food and Jewish resources, and very little local means of financial support. While the community recently printed its own siddur, there are no humashim in the sanctuary at Beth Shalom with which to follow along with the Torah reading. This is a difficult environment in which to raise Jewish children who are proud and committed and willing to carry our tradition forward.

It is worth noting here that most Cubans, who are of course employed by the government, receive a salary of $25 per month, and that is not enough money to provide for oneself and one’s family, even considering the food ration coupons. While the government is now allowing some forms of private enterprise and foreign investment, that has benefited, it seems,  mostly a small group of Cubans who are engaged with the tourist trade. At one point, Judy and I took a lengthy bicycle tour of Havana, and our tour guide Miguel was an attorney who left his government job, which paid $25/month, to schlep tourists around for much, much more money. 

At one point during the tour, we saw a long line of people outside a supermarket. We asked, what are they waiting for? Miguel went to inquire, and found that the supermarket had received chicken and eggs, so people were waiting for hours to get some. Yes, Cubans have nearly 100% literacy, excellent free education and one doctor for every 149 people, but they cannot get access to many over-the-counter medications and officially are limited to 100g of beef per person per month.

So you can see that the community barely has enough money to support itself, and hence the need for external support.

Interfaith leaders at the Hanukkah party

Adela shared with me an adorable anecdote, about how she was invited in the 1990s to an event where she met Fidel Castro, and when given the opportunity, she invited him to their annual Hanukkah party. When El Comandante asked, perhaps inadvertently quoting the Talmud (BT Shabbat 21b: מאי חנוכה?), “What is Hanukkah?” Adela replied confidently, “The revolution of the Jews.” Unable to resist the idea of checking out any sort of revolution, Castro came to their celebration in 1998, and photos in the synagogue lobby attested to his presence.

Nonetheless, despite being warmly welcomed as a visiting rabbi (they invited me to read Torah on Shabbat morning, and gave Judy and I the first aliyah), I must confess that I am concerned for the future of Cuban Jewry. Even as the island nation slowly opens up, one must wonder about the viability of such a tiny community. What we saw and experienced was a functioning synagogue, one in which young people are highlighted. But without resources, and without an infusion of fresh blood, will Jewish life continue to thrive?

To return for a moment to Vayyiggash, Yosef’s words to his brothers when he “outs” himself to them have always resonated with me (Gen. 45:16):

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י וְלֹֽא־יָכְל֤וּ אֶחָיו֙ לַעֲנ֣וֹת אֹת֔וֹ כִּ֥י נִבְהֲל֖וּ מִפָּנָֽיו׃ 

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.

Ha’od avi hai?” The JPS translation interprets “hai” as “well.” However, a more traditional rendering might be, “Is my father still alive?” This line is likely the source material for the B part of the classic six-word song “Am Yisrael Hai” – “Od avinu hai.” Our ancestors are still alive. The people of Israel lives, and their matriarchs and patriarchs are still with us.

Well, the people of Israel still lives in Cuba as well. And their children are thriving, at least for now. I must say, I was filled with a certain amount of hope to know that this tiny “she’erit Yisrael,” remnant of Israel, is still singing and dancing and learning Torah. As we rose at the end of Lekha Dodi to greet la Reina del Shabbat, the Shabbat Queen, tears welled up in my eyes as I reflected on the resilience of a community whose tradition was devastated by the revolution, and yet they were able to recapture it. Such is the power of Judaism, and of the Jewish spirit.

A street scene in the colonial city of Trinidad

The good news is that we can help. After the Friday evening service, I spoke with Yanet Rodriguez, the music director and accompanist who played keyboard during the Kabbalat Shabbat service. I offered to send her more music, and she was absolutely thrilled, since she has no access to Jewish music resources in Cuba. Judy and I asked the director of Majon, Hella Eskenazi, what the community needed to further their work, and she immediately responded with, “Purim costumes and graggers for kids.” And so, as Jews have always done for one another, we reach out. Judy and I will be collecting these things to send, and we hope that you will help us out.

The trip filled me with both doubt and hope, but I am left with a modicum of the limitless optimism of the Cuban people, who endure despite challenging circumstances. 

A cigar-rolling demonstration at a tobacco farm in Vinales

Od avi hai. Am Yisrael hai. Our people continue to grow like raqefet, the gorgeous pink and purple cyclamen flowers that one finds in the Israeli desert; we continue to draw on our Torah, to live our traditions, to bask in the glow of Shabbat, to give the gift of Judaism to our children and grandchildren.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/4/2020.)

1 Comment

Filed under Sermons

Illuminating the World Through Dialogue – Vayyeshev 5780

Two weeks ago, our congregation sent a delegation to Boston, to the convention of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Markiz and I presented on all the wonderful, connective programming we are doing through Derekh, and we all learned a whole bunch of useful stuff for continuing to build our congregation and make it more sustainable.

Boston is the Old Country for me; it’s kind of like Vilna (the Yiddish name for the capital of Lithuania). While I did not grow up there, my parents did, and so did three of my grandparents. For them, Boston was the New World. For me, it feels like history. 

On Tuesday morning, I took a taxi to Logan Airport, driven by a friendly man from Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. I could feel the lump of history in my throat. My maternal grandfather, Edward Bass, alav hashalom (may peace be upon him), drove a taxi in Boston in the middle of the 20th century, at one point owning his own taxi medallion. He used to hustle for fares, hanging around the airport to get well-heeled visitors into his cab. He was proud that he had driven celebrities – the singer Lena Horne was one that I recall.

And, as we traveled through the Ted Williams Tunnel, I reflected back on my family’s story as one tiny piece in the American Jewish experience, that of immigration and assimilation and trying to fit in, and the next chapter in the ongoing odyssey of the Jewish people.

My grandfather was poor. He was a foster child from age 3, grew up on a farm outside of Boston owned by a Jewish farmer, Mr. Slotnick, and never completed high school. Nonetheless, he provided for his family: my grandmother, an immigrant from what is today Ukraine, and three kids, the youngest of whom was my mother. My mother completed nursing school and married a tall, very smart young man whose father worked as a bottle-washer at the Hood dairy plant in Boston. That young man, my father, went on to get a doctorate in mathematics.

They all grew up in a Boston that was quite segregated, not only along racial lines, but along ethnic lines as well. People from different groups did not mix so much. Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitic attitudes and threats of violence, and thus kept to themselves. And in the mid-1960s, my father’s family ultimately left the neighborhood of Dorchester, where all their neighbors had been Jewish. They were pushed by the documented practice of redlining, through which banks and real estate agents encouraged white people to move out to the suburbs and penalized African-Americans by refusing them loans. They were concerned about how their neighborhood was changing, about the black folks who were moving in as the Jews left.

All the more so in those days, people were suspicious and fearful of those unlike themselves. And today we are all still feeling the reverberations of that unfortunate legacy. The question that we face now is, how might we overcome old mistrust? How might we as a society overcome that deep-seated fear of the other?

***

The attack in Jersey City last week, occurring at a cemetery and a kosher market, left four people dead, many families bereft, and a community in agony, the kind of agony that we know in Pittsburgh all too well. You may know that there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitic activity in the last few years, and we are feeling the pain. Coupled with two other incidents in LA, the last few weeks have been truly nerve-wracking.

Anti-Semitism, of course, is not new; it is truly ancient, and sits alongside the entire spectrum of fear and hatred. People distrust those whom we do not know – who have different rituals, who eat different foods, who speak a foreign language, who dress funny, who do not mix with everybody else.

And all the more so, this inclination to be wary of the other, when coupled with harmful stereotypes, occasionally leads to violence. What drove the Pittsburgh shooter to attack the three congregations at the corner of Shady and Wilkins, murdering 11 holy Jewish souls? He was convinced by white supremacists that Jews are actively working to replace white Americans with dark-skinned immigrants. Why did the attackers in Jersey City seek Jewish targets? It seems that they were motivated by the hatred of Jews espoused by some Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “black supremacist” group. 

(I must point out at this point that this group, which is, to my knowledge, in no way “Jewish,” is entirely unrelated to other black Jewish groups and individuals who are not supremacists. I myself have been warmly welcomed by their congregations: I once attended a very interesting Shabbat morning service at the Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Harlem, and my congregation on Long Island had a relationship with the black synagogue in St. Albans, Queens.)

Ethiopian Jewish kessim at a festival in Jerusalem

Fear, and indeed hatred of the other, is something that humanity will always live with. And there is really only one solution, and it is not necessarily an easy one. And that is dialogue. We have to talk to one another. We have to sit together. We have to break bread together. We have to share stories. We have to establish depth of relationship in order to overcome mutual apprehension. To defuse the time-bomb of hatred, we must proactively seek to understand each other.

Now, before we go any further, I have to confess something: 

This discussion makes me anxious, because I do not think that I am equipped with the tools for having the conversation. But I care, and I want to get it right. And I am trying to listen, and to learn.

Anti-Semitism is the type of hatred with which we are most familiar, and it is the one to which we as Jews are most attuned. And statistics have shown that anti-Semitic activity is double what it was in 2015, just a few years ago.

But let’s face it: Boston is still quite racially segregated. So too are Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, NYC, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and yes, Pittsburgh. And there is not only a physical segregation in our cities, but also a kind of segregation that exists in our hearts. And that segregation in all its manifestations – schools, neighborhoods, income gap, healthcare outcomes – is not just unhealthy; it is in fact dangerous. It continues to reinforce an incarceration rate that is more than five times higher for African-Americans than for caucasians. A recent study in Pittsburgh, which I mentioned on High Holidays, showed that the local black infant mortality rate puts our fair city in the 6th percentile among African-Americans in the whole country. And there are plenty of other horrifying statistics.

We need as a society to have dialogue between people of different groups. And that is not easy, and it’s not always comfortable. And frankly, most of us do not even know where to start. But here is the good news: we at Beth Shalom are trying to move the needle on this, and we have several initiatives already in progress.

And here is another piece of news: we have before us a “teachable moment.”

A few weeks back, at our Comedy Tonight fundraiser, a joke crossed a line that made many of us uncomfortable. In a bit about airports, the comedian mocked agents of the TSA, drawing on stereotypes of African American and Muslim employees. Elsewhere in his routine, he also made fun of old people and, of course, Jews, and particularly old Jews. It is to some extent the job of a comedian as an artist to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to make us consider our own absurdities. Comedy is a study in human failure.

But for us to truly be in dialogue, to be in the deep kind of dialogue that not only brings people together, but rather enables us to address honestly the challenges that we all face as a society, we all have to make sure that nobody is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of the other. 

Now, if you were in attendance that night, and you enjoyed yourself, you might be wondering, “What was harmful about the routine? Maybe there was a tasteless joke we could have done without, but harmful?”  Well as it turns out, yes. One study about humor and racism from 2011 demonstrated that, 

…if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.

Ladies and gentlemen, words matter. We chanted earlier this morning, “Barukh she-amar vehayah ha’olam.” Praised is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. We understand our world as having been created through words. And it can be destroyed through words as well.

When I was a student at Cornell, and the Black Students Union brought Louis Farrakhan to campus, I was out there protesting with Hillel. When local groups have presented one-sided, inaccurate portrayals of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, we the Jews have called them out. And had we as a community heard that a Christian comedian performed a routine in a local church that denigrated Jews using well-worn stereotypes about us, I am sure that we would be up in arms. Even in the context of comedy, words matter.

This teachable moment does not take away from the wonderful spirit of the evening that we shared together as a community. But we must be in dialogue, and dialogue requires that our house is in order first. We must look inward first, before looking outward. So, understanding that while we as a community were not responsible for what came out of the comedian’s mouth that night, we must acknowledge that it happened in our house. To all who may have been insulted by his portrayal of African-Americans or Muslims, we as a community are deeply regretful.

And to all who are ready to reach out your hand in dialogue for the betterment of ourselves as individuals and for the greater good, we welcome your partnership.

And, for everybody among us who is interested in moving the dialogue forward, you should be aware of the following opportunities that Derekh is creating in our community:

  1. We have a book group that is reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be an Antiracist.
  2. As part of our Beth Shalom Speaker Series, on March 25th we will be featuring Marra Gad, the Jewish and multi-racial author of The Color of Love
  3. We have an ongoing partnership with the local Episcopalian community, which continues to bear fruit in dialogue.
  4. We hosted both Richard Carrington and Rev. Tim Smith, who work in the front lines of the local African-American community.
  5. A group of us went on a civil rights tour of the South last spring, and we will be doing it again in April – be on the lookout for more info.
  6. And there are other dialogues and workshops that are flying below the radar right now, which we hope will continue and soon become more visible.

We are working toward making tzedek, that is, justice, an essential part of what we do at Beth Shalom.

My friends, I am going to close with the following thought:

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tomorrow evening. Why is it called “Hanukkah”? That word literally means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Second Temple following its defilement at the hands of Hellenized Syrians in the second century BCE. 

We cannot allow our Jewish spaces, or our lives, to be diminished by prejudice of any kind, and we should expect that of our neighbors as well. In this season, as we light those candles in the symbolic act of illuminating the dark corners of this world, we should rededicate ourselves to reaching out, to real dialogue, which leads to the holy work of tzedek. This is one way we may continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations of this world.

Ve-ahavta lere’akhah kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. And in order to love your neighbor, we must expand our sense of neighborhood.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally presented at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/21/2019.)

1 Comment

Filed under Sermons

Angels for Anxiety – Vayyetze 5780

I had a captivating conversation this week in the context of an ongoing interfaith discussion in which I participate called the “Priest-Rabbi dialogue.” We meet two or three times a year, a group of about 10, evenly divided between Catholic and Orthodox priests and Reform and Conservative rabbis, and we generally discuss matters of theological interest. The initial subject of Thursday’s meeting was trans-substantiation, which is the Christian concept of the wine and bread used in some church rituals that are understood to turn into the body and blood of Jesus.

Now of course, we Jews also use wine and bread in our rituals, but for us they are symbols of the luxury of Shabbat (and Yom Tov holidays), symbols that set apart the 25 hours of Shabbat as being sanctified time. But this led to a fascinating back-and-forth about what we consider holy – time, objects, places, and so forth. One could make the case that in Judaism, there are really no holy objects or places, only sanctified time (we can argue that one over kiddush – literally, sanctification of the day – if you’d like). Likewise, while for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, relics – bones and body parts of dead saints – are considered holy and in some cases necessary for the building of worship spaces, to Jews that is anathema.

The discussion sparked my thinking about angels, which feature heavily in Parashat Vayyetze. After waking from his vision of angels, Ya’aqov says (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16), “Akhen yesh Adonai bamaqom hazeh ve-anokhi lo yada’ti” – “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” In other words, the presence of angels here, whether in a dream or not, gave Ya’aqov the sense that it is a holy place. He dubs the location “Beit El,” or Bethel, the house of God – the angels indicate God’s presence.

I must say that I have been fascinated by the angel passages in Bereshit for quite a long time. Avraham and Sarah are visited by angels multiple times; Lot offers up his daughters to the evil men of Sodom, rather than let them have his angelic guests; an angel saves Yitzhaq’s life; Ya’aqov has two run-ins with angels, and the next one will be when he wrestles with one, who renames him Yisrael, the one who has struggled with God. Midrash has angels there at the creation of the world; when God says, in first-person plural, “Na’aseh adam betzalmenu,” “Let us create a human in our image,” the midrash envisions the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One as consulting with the heavenly court of angels.

And we continue to invoke them over and over. How many of us sang, last night, “Peace unto you, O ministering angels”? (I.e. Shalom aleikhem, mal’akhei ha-sharet.) How many of us sing Had Gadya on Pesah, during which we recall the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death? How many of us see the wings of the keruvim, representing those on top of the Aron haBerit / Ark of the Covenant up on the wall behind me?

Over the ark at Congregation Beth Shalom

And how many of us noticed the angels in the first berakhah this morning in Shaharit, the morning service, who are calling to one another with the words from the prophet Isaiah (6:3):

וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה’ צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.

And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”

… and the words of Ezekiel (3:12), who describes the great noise of the angels’ wings beating against one another as they say,

וַתִּשָּׂאֵ֣נִי ר֔וּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַ֣ע אַחֲרַ֔י ק֖וֹל רַ֣עַשׁ גָּד֑וֹל בָּר֥וּךְ כְּבוֹד־ה’ מִמְּקוֹמֽוֹ׃

Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Presence of the LORD, in His place.” *

And then we repeated those lines in the Qedushah, when we recited the Amidah aloud, only this time, we were actually acting like angels, standing with our feet together as if they are fused (Ezekiel 1:7), and lifting ourselves up heavenward.

(Actually, I recently learned from Dr. Reuven Kimelman, a scholar of Jewish liturgy who teaches at Brandeis, that we are actually imitating angels who are imitating humans! But that’s another story.)

But you probably did not notice any of those things, because we do them all the time without thinking about them.

Judaism is saturated with angelology. And I think the reason we have not focused on them is that, well, they’re kind of hard to explain. And, as heavenly beings, they challenge somewhat the idea of the unity and supremacy of God, in the monotheistic ideal. And, let’s face it: we’re all rational, and angels are not. The two centuries of history of the contemporary movements in Judaism have leaned heavily into rationalism, and thus Jewish angelology and Jewish mysticism were jettisoned. And, frankly, the whole idea seems vaguely Christian.

But to come back to Ya’aqov, on the run, being pursued by his angry and possibly violent brother Esav, the angels in his dream, climbing up and down that ladder on missions to and from Earth, are reassuring. They are an indicator that he’s OK, that he’s on the right path. Sure, he has deceived his father Yitzhaq to get his blessing, aided and abetted by his mother Rivqah, but that was the way it was meant to be from the outset. He must be in an anxious, uncomfortable place.

And yet he is in Beit El, the house of God.

Let’s fast forward to the present. My guess is that nobody here has seen an angel, at least as far as we know. I have no idea what an angel looks like, except that maybe some of them have fused legs, and that some of them (ofanim) are wheel-shaped, and some of them (serafim) must appear as though they are burning, and that keruvim (cherubim, in “English”) have wings. I don’t think I have seen any of those things. Maybe they are not meant to be seen, but rather merely imagined. Or dreamt about.

But meanwhile, we are living in anxious times. We are daily assaulted by the misdeeds of our fellow humans. 

  • Great political division
  • Disinformation campaigns
  • Racism and other forms of hatred
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Mass shootings in every imaginable context

I must say, the world is an increasingly scary place, especially for the Jews. But then I remember that this is why we have Judaism: when life is challenging, our tradition is a source of comfort and strength. When we mourn, when we fear, when we celebrate our freedom and our enlightenment and our striving to be better people, we rely on our customs and texts and wisdom for framework. And, almost everywhere we look in Judaism for that framework, we find hints of angels.

So I’ll let you in on a little secret: they are here. One midrashic opinion understands that our words of prayer are carried to God by angels.

When Ya’aqov awakes from his dream and understands that the presence of angels indicates that God is “bamaqom hazeh,” in this place, we too must understand that the heavenly court is right here with us, even right now. And this is a reminder that we are in the right place, the place of truth and justice. The place where God’s will is fulfilled. The place where all is good in the world, even when circumstances tell us to be anxious, to fear for our present and our future.

What do we say to those who are in shiv’ah, the deepest period of mourning during the first week after burial? Hamaqom yenahem etkhem. May God comfort you. But the euphemism for God here is maqom, place. We say literally, “May The Place comfort you.”  Wherever we gather, God is in that place. Maybe God even IS that place, marked by the presence of angels.

  • Whenever we comfort those who mourn, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we work for the benefit of the wider society, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we support those who are needy, God is in that place.
  • Wherever and whenever we pursue acts of qedushah / holiness, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we study the words of our ancient tradition, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we express gratitude for what we have, God is in that place.

Look for the angels. You will not see them, but they are there. They are all over the place. And their presence bamaqom hazeh, in this place, indicates that God is with us as well. I hope that this presence will bring us all some comfort in anxious times.

The Shabbat window at Beth Shalom

Shabbat shalom!

* It is a common scholarly opinion that the word “barukh” in this verse should be emended to “berum,” so that the verse should instead be understood as not recording words that the angels are saying, but that the sounds of the wings beating against each other create a great noise “as the Presence of the Lord rose from where it stood.” This makes a lot more sense in context, and does not change the fact that the angels feature heavily in this passage in Ezekiel. It does, however, render apparently incorrect the doxology that Jews have used in prayer for thousands of years.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/7/2019.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons