Category Archives: Sermons

Lifting Up God’s Face – Naso 5779

Last Shabbat I mentioned the panel discussion at Rodef Shalom’s annual congregational meeting about the future of synagogues, and one of the items that I identified at this discussion regarding the future of American Judaism is our knowledge of Hebrew. Yes, we live in a time in which readily-available online translations of ancient Jewish text have made the learning of our collected wisdom so much more accessible. That is a good thing; many of you know that we are currently in a kind of renaissance of Jewish learning, aided and abetted by Sefaria and other such platforms.

Nonetheless, there is no question that the Hebrew language, the language of the Jews, is the key to engaging with Jewish life. I learned most of my Hebrew as an adult, and I must say that, even though I learned to “decode” (i.e. read without understanding) when I was quite young, I had no idea what I was missing.

In 1845, at the conference of Reform rabbis in Frankfurt, Germany, a line was drawn in the sand over the Hebrew language. Some Reform rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the “founding father” of Reform, advocated for dispensing with Hebrew in Jewish worship in favor of the vernacular. German, Rabbi Geiger argued, was the “language of the soul,” of philosophy, of civilization; for Geiger, prayer in German struck “a deeper chord.” The Jews of the time did not understand Hebrew, and if the purpose of tefillah / prayer is for our words to connect with our hearts, then tefillah should be in a language we understand.

Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, one of the leading lights of the Positive-Historical School, which ultimately became the Conservative movement, argued that Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the language of the Torah, the language of God. How could we jettison such an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish?

Our sensitivity to language is borne of the historical Jewish need to code-switch. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, nearly 2600 years ago, Jews have lived in places where they had to speak another language and manage another culture to get along. The Babylonians imposed the Aramaic language on their entire empire, mostly because they had wiped out the Arameans, and so speaking that language implied no political agenda. And from that time forward, Hebrew became the second language for the Jews, taking a back seat to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and the Jewish dialects of all of those, some of which survived the centuries to be spoken today as Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal, and so forth. We are experts at translation of language and culture, because we have been doing it for so long.

And hence the interest we have in parsing our ancient texts; we are constantly moving from our second language to our first and back again. Most of you have heard me say that it is the continual wrestling with the Torah and Talmud and midrash and poetry and halakhic works that has continued to sustain us to this day. That is one reason we are still here, because, as Pirqei Avot (5:22) suggests,

בּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and over, because everything is in it.”

Our ancient words are a lens that help us contextualize our world, to determine what is right, to improve our lives and our communities.

And of course we continue to wrestle.

In that light, we might consider an unusual Hebrew verb, one which has flown by us several times this morning already, and in particular appears, arguably, as what scholars call a leitwort (thematic word) for today’s parashah, Parashat Naso. The verb is the shoresh / root נ-ש-א, from which the very word “naso” is derived. It usually means, “to lift up, elevate.” But its appearances in the Torah are usually idiomatic. Consider the following, the second verse of Naso, and the line from which the name of the parashah derives (Numbers 4:22):

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ בְּנֵ֥י גֵרְשׁ֖וֹן גַּם־הֵ֑ם לְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָ֖ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.

Now the idiom, “Naso et rosh …” might be literally translated as, “Lift up the head of…” But here it means, “count.” That is, take a census.

And then it appears multiple times in the subsequent verses, which one way that we determine a leitwort. In particular, it appears near the end of the parashah in the passage that we generally know as birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

We also use these words to bless our children on Friday evening. (By the way, we sang this at the ELC graduation on Thursday, as we wrapped our 4-year-olds in a sefer Torah, encircling them with the ancient words of our tradition.)

Did you notice the occurrence of our leitwort? It’s the first word of the third verse: yissa. (If you wondered why there is no letter nun there, there is a reason: the nun is assimilated into the sin; that’s why there is a daggesh hazzaq in the sin, suggesting a “doubling” or “gemination” of the letter.)

But what does it mean here? Again we’ve come against an idiom. Yissa Adonai panav elekha is translated as something like, “May God bestow favor upon you.” But what it literally means is, “May God lift up God’s face to you.”

OK, so now there is something strange in this idiom. Most of us conceive of God as being above us, or all around us, or perhaps as some indeterminate, de-localized force within nature. And many of us conceive of God as not having a particular face. At the beginning of the Amidah, we refer to God as El Elyon – God on high; by comparison, we are lowly and Earthbound.

But whatever your understanding of God, how is it that God might be lifting up God’s face to us? Should it not be exactly the opposite? Should we not turn our faces up to God, for inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge of right and wrong? The second half of the verse, “May God grant you peace,” seems totally reasonable within our range of understanding God; so too the preceding statements. So what gives?

When we pray or study words of Torah, we lift our faces to God. When we pursue outward actions that better our relations with others, God’s face lifts up to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest contemporary figures in Jewish thought and one of the most essential thinkers on the totality of the Jewish bookshelf, taught that the reason the Torah forbids images of God is NOT that God has NO image, but rather that God has just ONE image: that of every living, breathing human being. That is, we humans create the image of God with our lives – by doing mitzvot, by sanctifying time, by highlighting the holiness in all other beings and in all of God’s Creation.

It is when you fashion yourself in the Divine image that “Yissa Adonai panav elekha,” God lifts up God’s face to you.

When we as Jews take our Judaism outside of our homes and synagogues into our work and social lives, God looks up to us.

When we give generously and anonymously to those in need, God looks up to us.

When we act in compassion on behalf of those who are mistreated by governments and other organizations, God looks up to us.

When we support our cousins in Israel with our time and energy, God looks up to us.

When we take seriously the obligation to treat all of the people around us with derekh eretz, with respect, God looks up to us.

And, not insignificantly, when we parse the words of our living texts in our ancient language to inspire us to do these works, God’s face lifts up, and God will grant us peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/15/2019.)

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Memory: The Golden Lacquer of Jewish Life – Second Day Shavuot 5779 / Yizkor

If I were to ask you, what are the primary features of Jewish life, what would you say?

I might argue that the glue that holds all of this together is memory: memory of our personal Jewish journeys, memory of our collective experience, memory of those who came before us. We pay attention to that last one in particular on Yizkor days, but of course our memory is always with us.

I participated in a panel last week at Rodef Shalom Congregation as a part of their annual congregational meeting. Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Jeff Myers of Tree of Life, Cantor Julie Newman of Tiferet, and I discussed the future of synagogues, moderated by Rabbi Danny Schiff. Rabbi Schiff’s first question was, “What is causing the disengagement from synagogues today?” Not a simple question, and of course nobody knows exactly what the answer is. But certainly we have a great challenge before us in making the synagogue “work” the way it has done in the past.

One reason, I think, that it is so much harder today to create the communal Jewish experience in synagogues is that we have become much less reflective as a society. We are so much more in the current moment than ever; the way the news cycle turns over, we hardly process yesterday’s craziness before today’s madness hijacks our attention. And that frantic pace has infected the entire range of our lives. Twitter is not a reflective medium. And I find this deeply troubling.

But Judaism, and synagogues in particular, offer us the reflective framework to reflect, if we only take it. Our tradition, which ideally infuses our lives with holiness, offers a refuge from the cut-and-thrust of life today. And we really need that refuge.

It was with great pleasure that I encountered a recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks that captured a beautiful metaphor for Jewish life. In it, he describes the centuries-old Japanese craft known as Kintsugi bowls. These are ceramic bowls that are hundreds of years old, but what makes them special is not the age or the design of the bowl, but that they have at some point been broken, and then the shards are put back together with the Kintsugi technique, which dates to the 15th century, and uses a combination of gold and lacquer.

Kintsugi bowl

The resulting bowl has exquisite gold veins running through it, making an otherwise-ordinary bowl unique. Every one is different; every pattern is special. As Brooks puts it,

There’s a dimension of depth to them. You sense the original life they had, the rupture and then the way they were so beautifully healed. And of course they stand as a metaphor for the people, families and societies we all know who have endured their own ruptures and come back beautiful, vulnerable and whole in their broken places.

What fascinates me about this concept is that it is very Jewish:

  • On a personal level, what is broken can be made whole again (cf. Yom Kippur). In fact, the Jewish holiday cycle reinforces over and over the idea that we are all individually broken, and that we can always seek and achieve wholeness once again.
  • From the perspective of the Jewish nation, it is our brokenness that has enabled us to continue as a people (cf. Tish’ah Be’Av). Destruction and rebuilding are an essential piece of Jewish history; our nation is conceived in emerging from slavery; the Second Temple follows the destruction of the First; the yearning for rebuilding has spurred us onward since the destruction of the Second Temple; establishment of the State of Israel followed the Sho’ah, and so forth.
  • Memory is the golden lacquer of Jewish life. What makes us unique and special is our personal and collective memories, our having been broken through loss and suffering, and then repairing ourselves with the reinforcement of remembrance.

We are not the people who shy away from brokenness. On the contrary, Judaism highlights the fragility of human life. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during the central Untaneh Toqef prayer of the Musaf service, we are reminded in a stream of Tanakhic and midrashic references of our frailty and our capacity to be healed once again:

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ
וְכַחֲלום יָעוּף

Our origin is dust, and our end is dust.
With one’s soul a person brings bread
[Jewish text compares humanity to] a broken vase
Dried-up grass and a withering bud
A passing shadow and a fading cloud
Blowing wind and blossoming dust
And like a dream that floats away.

As we recite these words on High Holidays, we acknowledge that we are as much a product of our cracks as we are our whole pieces, that the essence of life is being broken and repaired; that our brokenness makes us stronger, more beautiful, more resilient.

Leonard Cohen (zikhrono livrakhah / may his memory be for a blessing) sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Montreal, May 2019

It has been speculated that Cohen was referencing here the concept, from Rabbi Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic formulation, of the shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. It’s a complicated tale, but in brief, when God created the world, said Rabbi Luria in 16th-century Tzefat, the primordial vessels (kelim) were unable to contain the light poured into them, and they shattered, casting sparks of light into the universe. Creation of the world necessitated the breaking of these vessels. The world begins with an act of brokenness, and those Divine sparks that are still out there for us to uncover are there due to that breakage.

The cracks within each of us are there for good reason – they help us see the Divine, the kedushah / holiness in ourselves and the kedushah in others.

Like the Kintsugi bowls, our lives, our personalities, are enhanced by the fracturing and repairing. We are made more beautiful by our unique flaws, and the Godly light that shines through each of us, reflected by the golden glue of memory, helps us illuminate each other and the world.

And all the more so, on a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those who came before us, we recall that those who gave us life did so not that we should be perfect, not that we should be without flaw, but quite the opposite. Our parents, our spouses, our siblings, all those whom we remember today, their imperfections were what made them who they were, made them holy. And so too did they see the cracks in us that make us all individually, uniquely human and yet infused with Divine light.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have often remarked that we, the Jews, do death and mourning very well. Yizkor, yahrzeits, plaques, shiv’ah, sheloshim, qaddish, etc.. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around the grief that comes with loss. We have the communal framework that enables us to support each other in times of great pain. We are awesome at reflection and remembrance.

But even more so, it is the memory of losing those whom we love most that makes us who we are. That memory is what holds the shards of our souls together, that stitches us back up, scarred from the experience, but ultimately making us stronger, more nuanced, more human, more able to perceive and reflect the holy sparks all around us.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot 5779, 6/10/2019.)

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We Support Abortion Rights Because We Are Pro-Life – Behar 5779

My primary rabbinic mission is to make the words of Torah relevant – that is, I want everybody who hears me teach to come away thinking, “Oh, that was useful and meaningful to me today.” I must say that there is so much going on in the world right now that is just begging for a meaningful Jewish framework.

I could speak today about the war of terror on American synagogues that continues, with a firebombing of a synagogue in Chicago and two in the Boston area the previous week.

I could speak this morning about the recent report released by the UN on biodiversity, and the coming extinction of a million species on the planet; coupled with the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to roll back emissions controls on power plants by downgrading the estimates of deaths caused by particulate pollution. This one fits nicely with Parashat Behar, since it details the requirement to give agricultural land a shemittah, a seventh-year rest. This suggests a fundamental sensitivity in our tradition to God’s Creation. (Also, my first job after graduate school, in environmental consulting, required that I use computer models of air pollutant distribution in permit applications for things like power plants, so I actually have a little professional expertise there.)

I could speak this morning about slavery, which Parashat Behar describes in detail, and how slavery is still a real thing in our world. There is a great sermon to be given on this subject regarding speaking truth to power, since there were rabbis in slave states in the early 19th century who actually used the words of Torah to support the type of slavery that drove the economy of the American South.

I could speak about the grossly inaccurate retelling of history by Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who suggested on a podcast that Palestinians provided a safe haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust. (The historical record shows that their leaders actually fought against this, and their efforts led directly and indirectly to the deaths of more Jews.)

Alas, I will not be giving any of those sermons today. Rather, we need to talk about abortion and Jewish law, because as efforts multiply around the country by state legislators to deny abortions to women who need them, we the Jews should know what our tradition teaches us on the subject, particularly since this will, I am certain, be very much a part of our national discourse in the coming years.

As a sort of preamble, let me point out that this is an issue which is important not only to women, but to all of us. While it is true that the progressive Jewish movements have done an admirable job in approaching full egalitarianism in Jewish life, the perception remains, not unreasonably, that Judaism is not entirely fair to women. It is only within the last century, for example, that Jews began celebrating bat mitzvah; it is only within the last half-century that synagogues started calling women to the Torah and counting them as equals in minyan (the quorum of 10 Jews needed for certain parts of religious services), and inviting them to lead services. It is only 34 years since the Conservative movement ordained Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first female Conservative rabbi.

Female Conservative rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2013

But the Jewish case for permitting abortion highlights the fact that we are, in fact, “pro-life,” and in particular, pro-women’s life.

What do I mean when I say that we are pro-life? Judaism is an ongoing celebration of life. Every morning we express gratitude for our lives as the first words of tefillah / that emerge from our lips. Every day we thank God for the ability to open our eyes and behold the sunrise and start our day with all of our body parts functioning properly. Every day we ask for peace, multiple times, so that more people in this world will be able to thrive. On this day of Shabbat, we emphasize life through words of prayer, for example A few minutes ago, we recited an Aramaic prayer for “zar’a hayya veqayama,” – living, thriving children, but also we highlight life implicitly by celebrating with meals and family time together.

And not only that: we celebrate life at all of its transitional moments: birth, bat/bar mitzvah, marriage; even funerals and mourning customs are forms of celebration of the life of the deceased. We celebrated life today when our bar mitzvah stepped forward into direct relationship with the 613 mitzvot / commandments of Jewish life.

We are indisputably pro-life. And abortion is understood in Jewish tradition, going all the way back to the Mishnah in the 2nd century CE, as promoting the life of the mother (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6):

האשה שהיא מקשה לילד מחתכין את הולד במעיה ומוציאין אותו אברים אברים מפני שחייה קודמין לחייו יצא רובו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש

If a woman’s labor becomes life threatening, the fetus is dismembered in her womb and then taken out limb by limb, for her life comes before (the life of the fetus). If most of the child has emerged [naturally] it is not be be touched, for one life is not put aside for another.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France and commenting on the Talmud’s elaboration on this mishnah, clarifies as follows (Sanhedrin 72b):

יצא ראשו – באשה המקשה לילד ומסוכנת, וקתני רישא: החיה פושטת ידה וחותכתו ומוציאתו לאברים, דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לאו נפש הוא וניתן להורגו ולהציל את אמו, אבל יצא ראשו – אין נוגעים בו להורגו, דהוה ליה כילוד ואין דוחין נפש מפני נפש

This concerns a woman whose labor proves so difficult as to threaten her life…The midwife should reach and dismember and remove it limb by limb. For as long as it has not emerged into the air of the world it is not a nefesh/person and one is allowed to destroy it in order to save its mother. But if its head has emerged, it is not to be harmed, for at that point it is considered born, and one nefesh/person is not to be put aside for another.

And here is Maimonides, MT Hilkhot Rotzeah UShmirat haNefesh 1:9, writing in 12th century Egypt:

הרי זו מצות לא תעשה שלא לחוס על נפש הרודף. לפיכך הורו חכמים שהעוברה שהיא מקשה לילד מותר לחתוך העובר במיעיה בין בסם בין ביד מפני שהוא כרודף אחריה להורגה, ואם משהוציא ראשו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש וזהו טבעו של עולם

This is a negative commandment: one must not take pity on the life of a rodef/pursuer. Therefore the sages taught: if a pregnant woman’s labor becomes life-threatening, it is permitted to dismember the fetus in her womb, either by a medication or by hand, for it is like a rodef who is pursuing her to kill her. But from the moment his head emerges he is not to be touched, for one life is not to be put aside for another, for this is the natural course of things.

Here, Maimonides describes the fetus as a “rodef,” rabbinic shorthand for a pursuer who intends to kill or injure somebody, suggesting that the pregnancy is physically dangerous. His position is more stringent than Rashi’s, but even so, there are certainly cases where Maimonides permits.

With such sources in our canon, including some of the greatest interpreters of Jewish law, it is clear that:

א. Abortion is clearly permitted under some circumstances in Jewish law, since the fetus is considered a potential life, but not a full human being with the same status as the mother.

ב. The permissibility is dependent upon the mother’s life being threatened in some way.

Now, the complicated part is, what does it mean for the mother’s life to be threatened? As you may anticipate, there are a range of opinions, and they do vary in the Jewish world.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly, which determines matters of Jewish law for the Conservative movement, has published several teshuvot, rabbinic opinions on the matter of abortion, going all the way back to 1980. (In case you are unfamiliar with the way the CJLS works: it is a body of Conservative rabbis who meet regularly to consider issues in Jewish law that are brought up with new situations.)

The CJLS has generally reaffirmed that abortion is permitted in cases in which “continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.” I do not need to go into details about what these various types of physical and psychological harm might be, but I am sure that you could consider any number of situations in which a pregnancy could cause such harm, in which the fetus is a rodef, a dangerous pursuer.

Nonetheless, there is no question that even though abortion is not considered murder, it is not a desirable outcome. It should not be used as a means of contraception, where avoidable, and it should not be taken lightly. The CJLS has also affirmed that contraception is always a better path than abortion when pregnancy is not desired.

Halakhah is all about boundaries of kedushah / holiness, and reinforcing those boundaries is an essential aspect of what we do as Jews. If you or anybody you know is facing this question, please know that I am always available as a spiritual and halakhic resource.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are pro-life. And how do we highlight life? By valuing the actual life, and not the theoretical, by prioritizing a mother’s life over that of her unborn child. That is why our tradition understands that abortion, while never the ideal, is sometimes necessary, and should certainly be available, safe, and legal.*

Shabbat shalom.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, Shabbat morning, 5/25/2019.

* After hearing this sermon, a congregant suggested that the message of “we are pro-life” should translate to Jewish support for greater availability of health care for women (as well, one presumes, as for men). While of course I agree, that is a subject for another sermon, on another Shabbat. My goal here was to present Jewish sources on the halakhic permissibility of abortion.

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Torch Song for Optimism – Emor 5779

At the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in Montreal two weeks ago, I led a session for fellow Conservative/Masorti rabbis. It was the first time I had been asked to do so, although I have attended conventions for more than a decade. The chairs asked me to do something musical, so I led the attendees in a bunch of early Israeli and Mandate-period Hebrew songs, from the ‘30s through the early ‘60s, a period of music that I find particularly fascinating, particularly since the composers of the time were effectively creating the soundtrack for a new nation.

Some were about life as a חלוץ / pioneer working the land (“Mah Yafim Haleilot,” “Hora Mamtera,” etc.); some were about love and camaraderie in the time of war (“Yatzanu At,” “Hayu Zemanim”); some were reflective songs about the range of human emotion (“Ruah Stav,” “Kalaniyot”). Afterwards, one of the participants told me about how much she loved these songs, how they had transported her to, as she put it, “simpler times.”

We are fortunate this week in Pittsburgh to hear the music of one of the most hopeful artists in the Israeli pop canon, David Broza. Broza’s career now spans four decades, and while I am sure that he will display his artistry on Thursday evening in playing the Spanish music that he truly loves, there is no question that he will play, probably toward the end of the concert, his most well-known song, the anthem that put him on the map: Yihyeh Tov. This song is almost absurdly hopeful; an ode to peace and a torch song for optimism. In 1977, when the lyrics were written by the poet and songwriter Yehonatan Geffen, peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors was a mere fantasy; the text references, as we shall see, the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel of that year, which ultimately led to the Camp David Accords, signed a year later.

I must confess from the outset that this song makes me cry, not only for its unbounded optimism, but also for the tragic sense of loss that I feel when I read the lyrics closely. I don’t need to review the history of Israel’s armed conflicts since the song was written, but we all know that real peace has not yet arrived.

And the bloodshed continues, yielding so much more pain and grief and loss. Just two weeks ago, there were rockets from Gaza and return fire from Israel, with casualties on both sides.

As was pointed out at the Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day, a very somber day) ceremony that I attended at the convention, led by our Israeli Masorti colleagues, 23,741 Israelis have died fighting in Israel’s wars, and 3,146 more have died in terrorist acts in Israel.

What makes me misty-eyed when I hear this song is that for many Jews in Israel, in America, and around the world, looking forward to a vision of peace as Broza does used to be the norm. Despite the situation in the 1970s, when Israel was still at war with the entire Arab world, when you could not buy Pepsi or Toyotas in Israel due to the Arab boycott, when the “Three Nos” of the 1967 Khartoum Resolution still hung in the air: No peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel, even so, there was still a palpable sense of optimism. Mahar, we sang, tomorrow there will be peace.

In the final stanza, the song references Isaiah’s messianic vision of a time of peace:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot live in a context in which we throw up our hands and say, “We tried and failed; end of story.” I cannot live in a world in which we pessimistically believe that every option has been tried and exhausted, and there is nothing left to do; lo yihyeh tov – it will not be good.

I cannot allow myself to think that those 23,741 Israeli soldiers will be solely martyrs to the cause of Israel’s ongoing existence rather than to the cause of peace, and that those numbers will only continue to rise. In every single Amidah, and virtually every Kaddish that we recite, the final request of God is for peace. How can we resign ourselves to eternal struggle, when we accept that people will continue to die? How can we not recommit ourselves again and again to finding a peaceful solution?

How can we abandon the visions of Isaiah, of Yehonatan Geffen, of David Broza? How can we so easily dismiss the possibility of laying down our sword and shield?

It is true that we are no longer living in the “simpler times” that nostalgic songs invoke. Nonetheless, we cannot succumb to the forces of pessimism. I am not going to resign myself to that kind of future. Will you? Will we?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/18/2019.)

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A Din Toyre / Lawsuit Against God – Aharei Mot 5779

There is a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, a prominent 18th-century Hasidic rabbi, that he brought a “din toyre” (Yiddishized Hebrew for a lawsuit) against God. In the folk song that sets this din toyre to music, he points out that all the other nations thrive; this one has a huge kingdom, that one has a powerful ruler. But the Jews, what do we have? All we have is the Qaddish, the prayer most strongly associated with mourning. All we have is suffering and mourning and grief.

As the melody rises in intensity, Levi Yitzhaq affirms proudly before God, in Hebrew and then in Yiddish:

Lo ozuz mimkoymi!I will not move from my place! (Hebrew)
Ikh vel zikh fun ort nit rirn!I will not stir from my place! (Yiddish)
Un a sof zol dos zayn!An end there must be [to this suffering]
Un an ek zol dos nemen!
It must all stop!

This song flipped through my head this week following the attack on the synagogue in Poway, a brief and painful six months following the 18th of Heshvan (Oct. 27th) in Pittsburgh. I went through some of the same emotions we all felt on the last day of Pesah when we found out – shock and horror and grief. And then I detected a new emotion in this particular swamp: anger.

I am angry. And disappointed. And frustrated. And, like Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq, I am bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I imagined us as a community similarly raising an accusatory finger heavenward:

Ribbono shel olam, Master of the Universe:

Why? Why again? Why so soon? Have we done something wrong? Have we failed to serve You adequately? Have our transgressions outweighed our fulfillment of mitzvot / commandments? Have we not sought repentance?

Look, I know You do not work that way. I know that You are not about tit-for-tat, reward and punishment. That whole “Book of Life” thing, I know that’s a human artifice to help us wrap our brains around how You function. I know You don’t even have ears, in the human sense, to hear these words. But I know You’re listening. So listen up good. Please.

On the Shabbat of the 18th of Heshvan, we continued to pray, even though we knew what was going on a few blocks away. We recited the words of Psalm 130 and Psalm 121, the words of Your servant, King David: ממעמקים קראתיך – we cried out to You from the depths, and אשא איני אל ההרים, מאין יבוא עזרי, we lifted up our eyes unto the mountains, asking from where our help would come. As funerals unfolded and tears flowed and the shock on everybody’s faces at shiv’ah houses and daily minyanim (services) reminded each other of our individual and collective pain, we continued to seek comfort and protection in the words and rituals of our tradition.

We have leaned into those words and rituals, and we have come up empty. Because here we are again.

Did that help come, as You told us it would? If so, it did not prevent the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye.

Did our voices reach up to You from these depths? If so, they did not move You to action.

And speaking of the Psalms, You may know that the Talmud remarks that when the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, the Levitical choir used to chant a different Psalm for each day of the week, a custom that we continue to this day. The Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92 includes the line, “Tzaddiq katamar yifrah, ke-erez balevanon yisgeh.” The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, and grow mighty like a cedar in Lebanon.”

Eloheinu velohei avoteinu, I am sure that You still appreciate “hearing” those Psalme, but are we flourishing? Are we mighty?

Rather, perhaps we are stuck in the Psalm that is recited on Wednesdays, Psalm 94 (3-4):

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה
עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃
יַבִּ֣יעוּ יְדַבְּר֣וּ עָתָ֑ק
יִֽ֝תְאַמְּר֗וּ
כָּל־פֹּ֥עֲלֵי אָֽוֶן׃

Ad matai resha’im Adonai
Ad matai resha’im ya’alozu
Yabi’u yedabberu ataq
Yit’ameru ol po’alei aven

How long yet, Adonai, will the wicked —
How long yet will the evil ones prosper?
Boasting their malice,
They talk each other into greater evil.

Because the wicked are moving ahead with their plan. Why should we be frightened in Your house? Why should we continue to suffer?

So maybe we are going to have to solve this ourselves, God. Maybe we are going to have to rely on guards, and silvered glass, and electronic door locks. Maybe we are going to have to learn self-defense. Maybe we are going to have to rely on law enforcement. Maybe we will have to implore our political representatives to protect Jewish institutions, to spend even more resources on cracking down on the forces of hatred. Maybe the dark web is beyond even Your reach.

Nonetheless, I am not going to let You off the hook entirely, because I know that You did not make these people do this. I know You did not intend for humans to create assault rifles, devices crafted only to kill people quickly and efficiently, and make them available to the civilian public. I know that You did not create sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred; that was also a human invention. I know that You do not want Your people to murder each other. I know that You did not create anti-Semitism, or white supremacy, or the concept of “white genocide,” or the whole “Jews will not replace us” thing.

But, Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu ve-imoteinu, we have trusted You. We will continue to offer the words of the Psalmist, and the words of tefillah, and welcome the weekly redemption of Shabbat and argue over the words of Your Torah.

But please know this: we feel betrayed.

So please, Ribbono Shel Olam, mima’amaqim qeratikha Adonai. We continue to call out to You from the depths.

Shema qoleinu, Adonai Eloheinu. Hus verahem aleinu. Hear our voices. Have mercy upon us.

We have grieved for too long; our wounds are fresh.

Help us find the human and political will to save our people. Steady the hands of those who protect us, those who seek out the resha’im, the evil people in this world who foment hatred against others and urge the weak of spirit to kill.

Because, like Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, we are not going anywhere. We will not be frightened. We will not be huddled into bomb shelters or safe rooms. We will not back away from doing what we do proudly as Jews.

On the contrary, we are just going to pray louder and harder, until You hear our voices.

That’s my din toyre, my lawsuit against God.

A footnote: We marked yet another Yom HaShoah this week, another Holocaust Remembrance Day, now nearly seven and a half decades after the Nazis were vanquished by the Allies. But you may know that the official name of that day, the 27th of Nisan, is “Yom HaZikaron LaSho’ah veLaGvurah,” the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.” In abbreviating the name, we are actually emasculating it somewhat. It is not merely the day of the Sho’ah, a day on which we recall the destruction wrought by the Nazi regime, the efficient murder of 6 million of our people, but also a day on which we remember the gevurah, the heroism of those who fought against it: Jews, non-Jews, partisans, industrialists, farmers, diplomats, ordinary righteous folks who knew right from wrong. And we remember those who survived, and that we as a people continue to survive, due not only to our own tenacity and loyalty to our heritage, but also to partnership with other good people around us.

The jury is still in recess, but we will not wait to do what we have to do to – to protect ourselves, to urge our leaders to act, to partner with others of faith who care and understand the need to stamp out the evil in our midst, the ancient hatred, invigorated by modern technology, that has emboldened killers.

Now is the time to work for the redemption of the world from hate. We cannot wait for God to act; we must do it ourselves.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/4/2019.)

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We Need More Ritual – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5779

A little more than a week ago, two days before Pesah, Rabbi Amy Bardack, a member of this congregation whom many of you know, walked into my office to sell me some hametz. Now, of course, you know how this works: members of the community sell their hametz to me, usually by filling out a form that declares the sale, and then I in turn sell their hametz, plus my own, plus all the hametz in this building, to somebody who is legally permitted to own it during Pesah, according to halakhah / Jewish law. (As you may know, it is not only forbidden to eat any form of the five species of hametz – wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye – during the eight days of Pesah, but also it is forbidden to own or benefit from it. And, by the way, if you do not sell your hametz or get rid of it all, and you own it during the holiday, then it may never be eaten by a Jewish person, ever.)

So the stakes are pretty high here, particularly for expensive items like single-malt Scotches, etc.

So most people fill out the form and send it in with a donation, and my assistant Audrey collates all the addresses and makes a list for our communications director Anthony.

But Rabbi Bardack did not merely send the form in, along with a donation for ma-ot hittin, providing for the needy in our community before the holiday. She felt she needed to make a complete ritual out of it, so she came to my office and made the exchange the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.

I asked her why it was so important to make the sale in person. She responded that she wanted to do it “right,” and that there was something particularly holy about performing a ritual in the traditional way.

Ritual, said Rabbi Bardack, gives us a moment of purity. No matter what kind of craziness might be going on in our lives, our work, our families, no matter what sort of political insanity is taking place on the national stage, no matter what sort of bloodshed might be taking place in the world, performing a ritual is a brief respite, an opportunity to feel holy, at least for a moment.

We all have the opportunity to push aside everything else for a moment of qedushah, of holiness. In fact, we have that opportunity multiple times every day. One tradition suggests that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings every day; you can almost fulfill that merely by reciting shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv (the three regular daily services in Jewish life). But even if you cannot pray that much, you have opportunities to raise your HQ (holiness quotient) all day long: every time you eat something, for example, you can say a berakhah that will elevate your sandwich or snack food from the mundane to the divine. (The Talmud, in Berakhot 35a, tells us that eating food without saying a berakhah is something akin to theft.) Or every time you smell a fragrant plant or flower or tree. Or see a rainbow or a beautiful mountain. Or hear good news, or bad news. There are many such opportunities for holiness – they need not be relegated to Shabbat morning in the pews.

Ritual gives us a moment of purity. We cannot control so many aspects of our lives. But we can be momentarily holy.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently opined that we need ritual. He describes playing a game called, “There should be a ritual for…”

There should be a ritual for when a felon has finished his sentence and is welcomed back whole into the community. There should be a ritual for when a family moves onto a street and the whole block throws a barbecue of welcome and membership. There should be a ritual for the kids in modern blended families, when they move in and join their lives together. There should be a ritual for when you move out of your house and everybody shares memories from the different rooms there.

He points to various religious rituals to make his case. Brooks, who is Jewish, also notes that the majority of rituals in Judaism involve a physical action: putting on tefillin, lighting candles, and so forth. And they help frame our days, our lives, with the sense of connection – to God, to community, to family, to others around us who also need that connection.

So great is our hunger for rituals that when we come upon one of the few remaining ones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras — we tend to overload them and turn them into expensive bloated versions of themselves.

Between these lavish exceptions, daily life goes unstructured, a passing flow of moments. This means we don’t do transitions well. Rituals often mark doorway moments, when we pass from one stage of life to another. They acknowledge that these passages are not just external changes but involve internal transformation.

Our society has become so informal, he suggests, that we have let old rituals go and not replaced them with new ones. We are therefore running a kind of “ritual deficit,” wherein we need to mark the holy moments of our lives, but we do not have the tools or even the framework in which to do so.

And that brings us back to today. Yes, this is the eighth day of Pesah, a holiday marked with a plethora of associated rituals: the cleaning, the hunt for hametz and the burning thereof, the aforementioned sale, the siyyum (learning a tractate of Talmud in order to celebrate and not fast on the day before), the seder and everything associated with it (lots of discrete sub-rituals there), services with special melodies for the festival, the recitation of Tal, and so forth. Loads of rituals. In fact, I am often surprised by the staying power of Pesah rituals. We had 80 or so people show up for the siyyum eight days ago, far more members of our community than are aware of, say, the 10th of Tevet or the 17th of Tammuz, other minor fast days. We know from our own survey data that virtually all the members of Beth Shalom attend a Pesah seder. This is a holiday that continues to draw us into ritual like no other.

And then there’s Yizkor, more properly referred to as Hazkarat Neshamot, the ritual of remembering the souls of those whom we have lost. This is, in fact, our first such public remembering since the 18th of Heshvan, just over six months ago. This is a ritual that is so deeply connected to who we are as Jews.

There is something very important here – not only the value of ritual in general, but in particular, the way that we grieve for those whom we have lost. We do death well. Memorials, remembrance. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around grieving for a lost loved one.

And, let’s face it: this is not the way our society is moving. Everything that happens in the world today is so viscerally current. It’s what scrolls by on our phone from one moment to the next. By the time one piece of news has hit the media, we barely have time to process it before we are on to the next item. We went in the last week or so from lamenting the burning of Notre Dame to mourning the murder of over 300 Catholic Sri Lankans.

But we take time to remember those whom we have lost. We have seven days (shiv’ah) surrounded by friends and family during the deepest days of grief; we have thirty days (sheloshim); we have a full year of mourning for parents. And then we have yahrzeit, an annual commemoration. And four times a year we have Hazkarat Neshamot (Yizkor). So many opportunities to remember. So much time in which to live with our grief, to recall those who gave us life, to hear their words echoing in our heads, to remember what they gave us, how they made us who we are.

David Brooks draws a fine point on it:

People can understand their lives’ meaning only if they step out of their immediate moment and see what came before them and what they will leave behind when they are gone.

It is through remembering those whom we lost that we draw out the meaning of our own lives. Why am I here, if not to live out and teach the values that my parents gave me? Why am I here, if not to strive to leave this world in a better state than it was when I entered it? Why am I here, if not to seek those moments of holiness, of purity, through ritual?

We need ritual. We need memory. We need meaning to fill out the whys of our lives.

Shabbat shalom, and hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning and the eighth day of Pesah, 4/27/2019.)

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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.)

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