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High Holidays Sermons

One Jewish Boy’s Story and Three Qofs – Day 1 Rosh Hashanah 5776

Shanah tovah! It’s truly a pleasure and an honor to stand before you here today. I am truly feeling at this moment the spirit of “Hayom Harat Olam.” Today the world is born. It’s a new world for me and Judy and the kids. We are overjoyed to be here in Pittsburgh.

I am going to start off in a sort of unorthodox way (which is completely OK, ‘cause I’m not an Orthodox rabbi…). We all need to get to know each other, and there is only one of me and whole lot of you, so I am hoping that you are willing to cut me some slack, at least for the first few years.

So in pursuit of getting to know each other, I’m going to tell you a story. A true story. But first, I have to lay something out for you that you might find a little unpleasant, an important fact about me that I have hidden from you up until right now:

I know next to nothing about sports. More to the point, I know virtually nothing about the Pittsburgh teams. What I do know, I know about baseball, and most of that is from the late 1970s, when I was collecting baseball cards. (The good news is that 1979 was my first summer at a sleepaway camp, and I remember the Pirates of that year, the summer of “We Are Family,” the gay ‘90s caps. But other than that and a vague notion of who Roberto Clemente was, I’ve got nothin’.)

Prior to consulting with Rabbi Google two weeks ago, I couldn’t name a single Steelers quarterback. And the Penguins? As they say in Brooklyn, fagettaboutit.

So we’re all going to have work a little harder to get to know each other. I’ll try to become familiar with the current teams, but I must admit that I have a pretty long to-do list right now, so I’m not optimistic. Meanwhile, we’re going to have to work with other material. So now that that is out of the way, let me tell you a story.  The story of a boy and 3 qofs*.

Once upon a time there was a Jewish boy, who lived in a small town in the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts. He and his family were very committed to their Conservative synagogue, which was 20 miles away from their home. They spent a lot of time on the road, driving back and forth to synagogue for Hebrew school, for Shabbat morning services, for special events and speakers and classes and semahot and so forth.

This boy loved his synagogue community. He felt very much an integral part of it, and after his bar mitzvah continued in Hebrew High School, read Torah regularly, led services regularly, helped build and decorate the sukkah, led Junior congregation, was a music teacher in the Hebrew school, and so forth. He went to Israel during the summer before his senior year in high school, and felt even more strongly connected to his people.

And then something happened. He left to go to university to study engineering. And he did not have the same qesher*, the same connection with the other Jewish students he met there. He drifted away from them, and away from his qehillah*, his Jewish community, and away from Jewish life. (Ironically, in this time, he also became a vegetarian, mostly because he could not get kosher meat.)

But then something stranger happened: he went even further away from home to go to graduate school, also in engineering, at a huge university in a far-away place, where  there were only a handful of Jewish people like him. And he discovered that he needed qehillah, community, and that he needed qesher, personal connection. And so he re-entered Jewish life.

Eventually, this 20-something engineer had to find a job. So he did. And meanwhile, he maintained his connection / qesher, and joined a community / qehillah or two. He taught Hebrew school again, led a Jewish youth group, sang in a synagogue choir, read more Torah, and even learned to lead parts of High Holiday services. And went to work, where he helped build things. Big things: chemical plants, refineries, and parts thereof. But something was missing.

One Sukkot, our young Jewish man, now almost finished with his 20s, was sitting in his cantor’s sukkah. And the cantor said something like this: “Look, I know you don’t love your work as an engineer. And I know you love Judaism and love to sing. Why don’t you consider going to cantorial school?”

The young man had never thought about that. But after lots of reflection, he began to think that it might address the problem of “something missing.” So, taking stock of his life, he took the next appropriate step: he moved to Israel, to the desert town of Arad, to clear his head, to learn Hebrew, and to reflect, just as the Israelite prophets always did in the Judean hills.

After some contemplation, some hiking in the desert, and a whole lot of falafel, he realized that what was missing was qedushah, holiness, and so he decided to make qedushah a career. And he enrolled in cantorial school.

After 4 years of study he became a hazzan.  But he was reveling in the qedushah so much he decided to remain a few more at the Jewish Theological Seminary to become a rabbi as well.

And that is the story of how I came to stand before you today, this day on which the world was born. I am proud to say that I have built my rabbinate around these three qofs, these three ideas: qesher / connection, qehillah / community, and qedushah / holiness.  My greatest desire is to help others to find their paths into these three things, and with all the excitement and anticipation that comes with starting a new position, I hope to take these principles to a whole new level.

CCQ

Together, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to be partners. We are going to build that qehillah that brings qesher and qedushah to all who enter. And all the more so, we are going to reach out beyond these walls to bring all three of those things to those who don’t yet know they need them.

This won’t be easy. It will require love. Love of everybody. Love of all humanity.

It will also require resources, energy, and people.

And that’s where you come in. The first step is to build qesher between all of us. And we have to start with the fundamentals: the sharing of stories. I have just told you one of my stories, and I have many more to share .And each of you has many stories as well, stories that define who you are, that have the potential to connect you to everybody else here.

What makes a community function well, ladies and gentlemen, is that we feel interconnected. And one of my primary goals during my first year here is to build connections. Many of you are already connected to each other, I know. Even for three and four generations. But that’s not enough. We have to reach higher. If we are going to make this truly a qehillah qedoshah, a community bound together in holiness, a community that is so inspiring that others will want to join or participate in more fully, we have to be even more interconnected. We have to raise our qesher quotient, our QQ, if you will.

I have already begun this process. I have met with a few small groups already to get the ball rolling in raising that qesher quotient. Throughout this year, every single person in this room will be invited to a parlor meeting where you will meet me, I will meet you, and we’ll share some of ourselves as a group to further the goal of building qesher, of raising ourselves up in the context of community.

Some of the ideas that have surfaced at these meetings we are already putting into place. Many of you attended the instrumental service that I led here with several musical partners a few Friday evenings ago. More than 200 of us learned some new melodies, sang joyously, and considered the Jewish value of compassion; it was really quite moving. We will be doing that again on October 23rd, and ideally every fourth Friday night of the month thereafter. We will be having more Shabbat dinners as well, paired with upbeat, Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat services. We will step up our social action activities. And there will be more.

Another new vehicle for building qesher is the New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, which we will be hosting in coming months for those that have recently joined our congregation. On that day we will incorporate our newest members by giving each of them the opportunity to hold a sefer Torah, visibly demonstrating how we can all take hold of our tradition. Judaism is not something that the rabbi does for you; it’s yours to take hold of, and we will be finding ways to lower the bar to participation.

And we are launching yet another new, engaging way to connect. We don’t even have a name for it yet, but we will be reaching out beyond the synagogue walls to host a series of discussions in people’s homes, led by a group of ideally ten members with whom I will be personally working. So it goes like this: I meet with my ten scholar/facilitators, discuss a Jewish topic with them, and then they go off to discussions hosted by some of you in your living room to discuss the same material. The goal is to engage far more people, some of whom may not even be members of Beth Shalom, in making Jewish values and text relevant to who we are today. (If you have an idea for what to call this, or if you want to lead or host, please let me know!)

The true holiness to be found in synagogues, in being here today, is not in the celebration of an ancient ritual, of the welcoming of 5776, of the opening of the Book of Life. Those things are all important, but they are not the essential reasons that we are gathered here today.

The most important reason that we are together today is community. We are here to be with each other, to be a part of something big, to connect with our heritage. To grasp our tradition.

Because let’s face it, people. We need this. Not Rosh Hashanah. Not “shul,” per se. Not the wonderful lunch that you’re going to have in an hour or so. But each other. Together, we make part of a whole, a connection with our past, our ancestors, our tradition, our Torah. And you can’t find that on your smartphone. You can’t buy it on Amazon. You can’t get it with vanilla syrup and steamed milk at Starbucks.

The holiness to be found in connection and community can only be acquired right here, with your fellow Jews.

As we celebrate the start of 5776, as we begin this 10-day journey of cleansing, of spiritual inventory-taking and ultimately atonement, we should take note of each other. We are all here together at this moment, but that does not mean that when we leave this room that we are no longer inter-connected. On the contrary – we will share these bonds when we leave the building as well. And even if many of us do not see each other for a whole year, until we gather again for the beginning of the year 5777 (whoa…), we will continue to be connected to each other, and ideally to draw more of us into our qehillah circle.

I am very much looking forward to hearing your stories: what it means for you to be Jewish, what powerful Jewish experiences you have had, how you see yourself connected to Beth Shalom or the Pittsburgh Jewish community or the entire Jewish world, and, most importantly, what action items might inspire you to help us build an even more engaged, more vibrant community.

At our Selihot evening discussion last week, we spoke about understanding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as being about spiritual yearning, about the closeness of God at this time and our desire for a revelatory encounter with God.

Just after we heard the shofar this morning, we chanted the line (Ps. 89:16):

אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם, יֹדְעֵי תְרוּעָה; ה’, בְּאוֹר-פָּנֶיךָ יְהַלֵּכוּן

Ashrei ha’am yode’ei teru’ah, Adonai be’or panekha yehalekhun.

Joyous are the people who know the calling of the shofar; Adonai, they walk by the light of Your presence.

Why are we joyous for having swooned to the sound of the shofar? The Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudilkov, a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov who lived in the latter half of the 18th century, saw this line as being essential to the entire enterprise of Rosh Hashanah.

He taught (in his work Degel Mahaneh Efraim), that the sound of the shofar breaks open our awareness on these days, opening us up to our penimiut, our true spiritual inwardness. And inside these depths, buried within our mundane reality, we find the radiance of God’s holy name, glowing within us.

We are the yode’ei teru’ah, those who intimately know the shofar’s call. And this deep familiarity inspires us to seek that encounter, that breaking of the external to get to the light hidden within, to reach the Divine spark found within each of us. That is what happens when we hear the sound of the shofar.

But you can’t do that at home, alone; you can only do it with your community. The shofar unites us on this day to uncover that internal radiance. This verse describes us all in both plural and singular:

Ashrei ha’am = Happy is the nation (singular, i.e. one people)

Yode’ei teru’ah = Those who know the shofar’s call (plural, i.e. individuals)

American culture highlights the power of “one,” of the individual; our tradition speaks to the power of “us.” What makes the shofar moment work is that we are all together, that we stand together, joined as one nation, one “am,” to listen for that sound that opens us up. We share this together as individuals, personally connected to one another, and also as a community. This is the qedushah found in that moment of shofar.

It’s a new year. It’s 5776. And we are all going to get to know each other. We are going to seek those holy moments together. We are going to open up together. We are going to pray together, to sing together, to weep together, to dance, to celebrate, to learn, to share stories, to eat, and on and on. We are going to break open those tough, exterior shells to get to the inner radiance that we share. That is how we will build qesher / personal connection and qehillah / community; the qedushah / holiness will follow in spades.

And, to that end, I am going to suggest a small “action item,” one that I hope will help us in the building of qesher and qehillah on Yom Kippur: Wear a white outfit. I know that some of you  already do this, and I will obviously be wearing white. But the tradition of wearing white on YK is not just for the rabbi and cantor. It’s for everybody! It’s a symbol of purity: the purity of the soul that we seek as individuals and as a community during these ten days of teshuvah, of repentance. Yes, I know that the custom is to dress in nice clothes for synagogue. But don’t worry about that so much! YK is not about your nicest, cleanest suit! It’s about your nicest, cleanest soul. It does not have to be a kittel or a robe – anything white will do. I hope that some of you will join me in participating in this symbolic gesture next Wednesday, and that it will connect more of us to each other and our tradition as we raise the bar of community and qedushah.

Shanah tovah!

* Apologies if the “q” seems strange. One way of representing the Hebrew letter ק (qof) in English transliteration is q, because (as you can readily see if you look at them right next to each other) the Latin q is actually related to the Hebrew ק. (The Latin “k” comes from the Hebrew כ (kaf).) By transliterating this way, it helps English speakers learn or remember the Hebrew spelling of the transliterated word.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/14/2015.)

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Sermons

United We Stand (Against the Yetser Hara) – Ki Tetse 5775

I was asked a very important question last week at kiddush. So important, in fact, that it became the basis of today’s derashah.

I’ll come back to the question itself, but first, let me give you the context. Those of you who were here last week may recall that I spoke about the future, about building this community, about tradition and change (and particularly the “change” part of that equation). I suggested three basic principles for moving forward:

  • to ask good questions about why we do what we do, and not to accept “Because we’ve always done it that way!” as an answer;
  • to be open, that is, open to new people coming in and joining us, and even to seeking them out to invite them in; and
  • to think in terms of the relationships that we build here as a community, rather than merely programmatically.

Many of you responded favorably to the ideas that I presented, and I am happy about that. (If you were not here, please note that you can read the sermon on my blog: themodernrabbi.com, but please note that it’s always better live!)

At kiddush afterwards, a couple of members pulled me aside and asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Rabbi what are you going to do to heal the rifts between members of the congregation?” To unpack this question a bit, I will have to assume that it was precipitated by the sermon – that is, “OK, it’s nice to talk about change and building community. But in order to do so, we must first be able to get along with each other. What are you going to do about that?”

One of the foundations of the very idea of a kehillah, a congregation, is that we have some commonalities. We must at the very least get along with each other, but we should also have some principles to which we all agree. In our case here at Beth Shalom, some of those principles are the guiding values of Conservative Judaism: a positive, historical approach to halakhah and Jewish life; an acceptance of contemporary authority in our Jewish choices; a commitment to egalitarianism, the idea that women and men are understood to be equal with respect to Jewish law and ritual; a willingness to engage with modernity and not isolate ourselves, to make choices and changes that are respectful of tradition and yet sensitive to where we are and who we are today.

But let’s face it: even if we agree on these values, that does not mean that we all agree about everything. In fact, as one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us, the synagogue in which everybody agrees about everything and there are no political divisions is a dying shul.

There is a classic story that I am sure some of you know and love, the one about the congregation where they can’t agree whether to stand or sit during the Shema. Half stand, half sit, and they are arguing with each other in a particularly non-decorous manner. They resolve to go to find the oldest living member of the congregation, Mr. Goldberg, to find out what the original custom was. He is in an assisted living facility, lying in bed, and a group of congregants descends on him.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a stander, “It was always the tradition to stand during Shema, right?”

Goldberg says nothing, seems to stare off into space.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a sitter, “We always sat for Shema, correct?”

Goldberg still does not react.

The synagogue president comes forward. “Mr. Goldberg, you have to help us. Right now, half are standing, half are sitting, and all are yelling at each other.”

Goldberg’s face lights up. He raises his hand with a flourish. “That’s the tradition!” he says.

Disagreement has been the Jewish tradition for at least two millennia; it is the basis of most discussions in the Talmud. In fact, you might make the case that it is exactly Judaism’s tradition of diversity of opinion which has enabled us to survive for these thousands of years, since the Romans destroyed the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Had we not moved from a tradition of hierarchical, regimented, centralized sacrificial worship during Temple times to the more democratic mode of teaching, learning, and personal fulfillment of ritual, we may have simply disappeared when the center was destroyed. But we are still here, and where are the Romans?

We may argue, or not see eye-to eye, or we may not even like each other. But it is essential, for the good of this congregation, the wider Jewish community, and the world at large that we treat each other respectfully, even as we disagree. In fact, it is an imperative of rabbinic Judaism to do so.

We learn in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a)

אלו דברים שאדם עושה אותם ואוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא, ואלו הן: כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום שבין אדם לחברו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in the world to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; and bringing peace between people; but the study of Torah outweighs them all.

Among the holiest tasks we can perform is to create peace bein adam lehavero, between each other. And that is something that we must all pursue.

Even greater than that, Parashat Ki Tetse speaks to the power of togetherness. The 20th-century Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, observed that there is one place in Ki Tetse where the text refers to the Israelites as going out to war as a troop (Heb: mahaneh; Deut. 23:10):

כִּי-תֵצֵא מַחֲנֶה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ,  וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע

When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on guard against anything untoward.

While it seems that the Torah is speaking about actual war, the kind fought over territory, Rabbi Berezovsky reads it not as a war between peoples, but the individual war that we all fight against the yetser hara, the evil inclination. So this becomes not an unholy battle with dangerous weapons and blood and death, but a holy battle for control of our souls. It is this battle that we are heading into as we round the halfway point of Elul in our ascent to the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this battle for the soul, says the Slonimer Rebbe, we must go out together, united as a troop. We join for the purposes of restoring kedushah, holiness, to our lives. “By losing some of our own identity by subjecting it to the needs of the collective,” he writes, “we are given the hedge against the yetser hara.” He points out that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) suggests that the power of minyan, of a quorum of ten Jews for some ritual purposes, lies in the understanding that when ten of us gather together, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is there too.

In other words, the Torah is teaching us that united we stand (against the yetser hara), and divided we fall. This is a huge lesson for today, when we live in dramatically independent times.

united-we-stand-divided-we-fall-variation.jpg

It is this togetherness that enables us to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. We are a communal people; we need a minyan to attain a particular level of kedushah. How much more so do we need togetherness to achieve kedushah as a community for all our endeavors, for all the things that synagogues do, from running a nursery school to tending to our cemetery to hosting cultural events to having individual conversations with each other in the parking lot. We have to maintain the level of kedushah in all of our activities.

To that end, I have introduced an overarching theme for the upcoming High Holidays: Connection, Community, and Kedushah, which we are representing graphically by the letters CCק. Yes, the holidays are a time to gather with family for meals (and fasting), to seek teshuvah / repentance, to hear some fabulous sermons, etc. But they are also about maintaining our personal connections with each other, gathering as a community, and seeking kedushah / holiness. And these are things that can only take place when we think of ourselves as a united troop, one in which we are connected to each other, giving up (as the Slonimer suggests) a little piece of our own personal independence for the sake of the greater good, the collective.

Now I know, some of you are thinking, “Oh, you naive rabbi. That all sounds so pat. But you really want me to be nice to so-and-so, that lousy (insert epithet here)?”

And the answer is, yes. Yes, you can. Actually, you have to, for the benefit of this congregation.

We are going to build. I am happy to report that I have heard from a number of people in the past two weeks that will be joining Beth Shalom as new members and re-joining veteran members, and that is wonderful. (Is anybody here right now that has just joined or is about to?) And so we will incorporate all of them into our kehillah kedoshah, and know that those of us who are new may not agree with those of us who have been here for a long time. And that’s OK, just as long as we treat each other with respect, in public and in private. We would not want to give the yetser hara a foothold.

Really, we’re not going to agree. And you don’t have to like everybody. But we all have to be civil and respectful to each other. Not doing so is NOT OK. Everybody here is welcome.

Remember that it is diversity of opinion that has enabled us to survive, along with our willingness to stick together. Let’s increase our diversity, and work together to continue to build.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/29/2015.)

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Sermons

Looking Forward: Tradition, Change and the Future – Shofetim 5775

A few years back, my previous congregation, Temple Israel of Great Neck, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Rabbi Mordecai Waxman’s seminal work, Tradition and Change. Rabbi Waxman had been the rabbi at TIGN for an astonishing 55 years, from 1947 until he retired in 2002. The book’s title (apparently coined by his wife Ruth) became the de facto slogan of the Conservative movement.

Since the book was published in 1958, the world has changed dramatically. Consider just one thing: technology. The ubiquity of small computers for personal use has changed our lives in ways that are so profound that many of us cannot even imagine a world without them.

And of course, the Jewish landscape has changed as well. Jews have many more options today for their Jewish involvement, including, of course, the option of opting out entirely.

When Tradition and Change was published, the Conservative movement accounted for half of American Jewry. Today, demographic studies suggest that about one-third of affiliated American Jews are members of Conservative synagogues. And the number of Conservative synagogues is going down as smaller congregations merge or close.

In Rabbi Waxman’s original introduction, he indicated the following as essential features of our movement:

  1. A commitment to Kelal Yisrael. Rabbi Waxman uses Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s term, “Catholic Israel,” the idea that all Jews are one people, united by common texts, rituals, and values, a common language and shared history.
  1. Positive-Historical Judaism: This is a concept that originated in the 19th-century German-Jewish sphere, that our approach to Judaism is at once aware of the historical changes within Jewish law, halakhah, and custom, minhag, and that we emphasize our connection with history as we look to the future.
  1. Acceptance of modern thought: Our approach to Torah demands that we open our minds to the changing currents of science, philosophy, archaeology, Biblical criticism, and so forth, and not ignore them or obfuscate when they challenge accepted tradition.
  1. Authority and interpretation: We are bound by Jewish legal tradition, and our reading of halakhah depends on the classical methods of interpretation that Jewish scholars have used for millennia in different lands. And yet we are able to make serious changes in halakhic practice based on our engagement with modern thought and values.

I believe firmly in this formula. Growing up attending a Conservative synagogue,  I knew that although driving a car to synagogue on Shabbat would violate several traditional Shabbat prohibitions, nonetheless the Conservative movement had decided that it was more in the spirit of Shabbat to drive there than not to go to synagogue at all.

No matter the numbers of the Conservative movement, we are still here. And we still stand for the principles of Tradition and Change – of the approach to halakhah / Jewish law, as halakhic decisors have guided it for centuries.

The Conservative movement has changed in the last half-century. In particular, in the 1950s, the extent of egalitarianism in American Judaism was mixed seating. I think we have also witnessed a change in Conservative clergy. The Rabbi Waxman model was rabbi-as-academic-scholar. Today’s Conservative rabbis and cantors are scholarly, yes, but are also expected to make personal connections and work harder at community-building initiatives, to focus on pastoral care and engaging contemporary Jews in new ways.

And, of course, the Conservative laity has changed dramatically. While the bulk of Jews in the Conservative pews in 1958 were immigrants and children of immigrants, today’s membership is in a different place. We are largely not naturalized Americans. We are simply Americans. The State of Israel is a given, and its influence both in the Jewish world and out is far greater than its size. Attendance at synagogue services is way down. Sermonic pyrotechnics and cantorial recitatives that moved congregations of the last century are rarely heard, let alone appreciated, by Jews under the age of 60.

And American society has changed dramatically as well. Formality is out; digital interconnectedness is in, even while our actual, physical interconnectedness (that which sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”) is down. Personal choice is our highest ideal. Membership in organizations of all kinds, including religious institutions, is declining. Intermarriage of all kinds is commonplace; homosexuality has moved into the mainstream.

And for all these reasons, the need for synagogues like Congregation Beth Shalom is as prominent as ever. Ladies and gentlemen, Judaism needs the American middle. Let me tell you why:

While most Jews will never commit to the halakhic expectations of Orthodoxy,  most still want some kind of Jewish experience, and many of those, when they come for their Judaism fix, they want it to be traditional, and yet open to contemporary thought and sensibility.

Consider the recent Conservative publication, The Observant Life. Meant as a successor to the classic halakhic work by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (1979), The Observant Life contains all you need to know not only to practice the ritual aspects of Judaism (kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, daily tefillah / prayer, mourning practices and so forth), but also includes chapters on such non-ritual topics as business ethics, civic morality, sexuality, intellectual property, caring for the needy, and so forth.

American Judaism needs the middle. And that means that we in the middle are going to have to work harder to maintain ourselves. We need to take a longer, harder look at the “Change” part of Rabbi Waxman’s slogan, and consider ways to make the middle more viable. To that end, I am going to suggest three important areas that we need to address here at Beth Shalom, in the spirit of Tradition and Change:

  1. To ask ourselves serious questions about why we do what we do. You will hear me frequently quote Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University. Dr. Wolfson has observed that although most synagogues have “Da lifnei mi atah omed” / “Know before whom you stand” written over the bimah, most of us think that what it says is, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” In re-examining ourselves – our services, our programs, our schools – the question, “Why are we doing this” can never be answered with, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” This is not an acceptable answer.On the contrary: rabbinic tradition requires us to ask questions, and the Jewish way is to come up with good answers. Sometimes, “Because it says so in the Torah,” is sufficient. But that is never really the answer. Why do we say the Shema twice a day, evening and morning? Because it says so in the Shema itself. But the real reason is because it keeps us focused on the big picture: loving God, teaching our children, and keeping the words of Torah around us at all times.
  2. To be as open as possible. It is worth pointing out (although I know that there are safety reasons for this) that there are many entrances into this building, almost all of which are always locked. The metaphor for entry into Beth Shalom is unfortunate: it’s not so easy for outsiders to get in.Every single one of us should be leaping over each other to pull others into our circle. That means the following:
    1. We are all ambassadors for Congregation Beth Shalom, and that means that we should all be promoting this congregation, what we do, why we do it, and the benefits of belonging. We should all be reaching out in particular to those who have left to welcome them back, but also to unaffiliated members of the community to make the case for belonging.
    2. For people to join, this has to be a place that they would want to join. And that means that at every opportunity we need to welcome people in. We need a group of greeters – people who are skilled at making others feel welcome, and to do so not just at services, but at all events in the building.On a related note, I am aware that on some seats in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary, there are names. However, there are no names here or in the Helfant Chapel or in the Homestead Hebrew Chapel. What that means is that no seat belongs to anybody. So if a guest is sitting in what you think is “your” seat, please greet that person kindly, and sit somewhere else. There is nothing more awkward and humiliating than coming into an unfamiliar synagogue and immediately being told to move.
    3. We have to be open to all the types of people who come in here. Gay, straight, transgender, Jewish, not yet Jewish, in-married, inter-married, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, single parents, and so on, and so on. The changing face of America is not just in New York and California, it’s here too. We are not in a position to make any judgments. We must welcome all who come here with open arms.
  3. To think relationally. This again courtesy of Dr. Wolfson’s most recent book, Relational Judaism. We live in a very impersonal world – anybody who has ever had to call a customer service number knows that. But the synagogue must be a place that builds relationships; the Greek etymology of the word “synagogue” is “place of coming together,” and is a direct translation of the Hebrew, beit kenesset.What makes a group of Jews a beit kenesset? Personal relationships. This is a place where relationships are forged. We have to work harder to build stronger relationships among ourselves, and to create them with others. And that means thinking relationally. The true measure of the success of a program, says Ron Wolfson, is not how many people there were or whether or not they liked it, but rather how did it build relationships between people?

All of this will require that we work for change, that we stretch ourselves a bit, perhaps beyond what is comfortable for us. But from my vantage point of having just arrived, I can see no other way forward.

****

Today in Parashat Shofetim, we read about the commandment to the (at this point theoretical) Israelite king that he must keep a copy of the Torah next to his throne. Nobody is above the words of the Torah, the words of God. But a flesh-and-blood king deals with real problems; he must be engaged with society in real time. The Torah is not to keep him in the past, but rather to help him confront the present.

When Rambam was asked why he rejected astrology, when the rabbis of the Talmud clearly believed in it, he answered by saying that our eyes are in front of us, so that we look to the future, and not to the past.

We will continue in the spirit of Tradition and Change, and change we must if we are continue to provide a home for the much-needed Jewish middle ground.

One final note: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is holding its biennial convention in Chicago, Nov. 15-17, where members and professionals from synagogues from all over will gather to learn tools for communal change. Our president Dave Horvitz and I will be there, and Rabbi Waxman will be there in spirit. Please let me know if you will be coming.

Join us as we look to the future, and consider how to move forward. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/22/2015.)

Categories
Sermons

Halakhah and The Big Picture – Re’eh 5775

I am particularly fortunate to have started this week in Pittsburgh for Parashat Re’eh. It’s one of my favorites. OK, so it’s true that I have a lot of favorite parashiyyot, but this is an especially good one. I do enjoy the passages of the Torah that include numerous mitzvot / commandments, not only because they give us insight into how our ancestors lived and the values they held, but also because they continue to shape our lives today.

But let’s face it: there is quite a bit of obscure and/or curious stuff in the Torah – commandments that don’t apply to anybody today, like those related to sacrifices, or obligations for agricultural behaviors or activities that are irrelevant to contemporary non-farmers, or things that are just downright strange.

For example, in today’s parashah we encounter the obligation not only to not worship like the Canaanites do, but indeed to destroy their altars. (Has anybody met any Canaanites lately?) Also, there are commandments to tithe from our produce, to eat only certain kinds of animals, and to be particular about not eating their blood with the meat. There is the commandment to take care of the needy people around you, and the strange law about piercing the ear of the slave who opts to stay with his master rather than go free. And then there is a whole range of holiday practices.

For us today, we immediately understand the relevance of kashrut and holiday observances – most of us have been doing some of these things for our entire lives. But to an outsider looking in, this parashah might look like a jumble of eccentric behaviors that make no particular sense.

And I might argue that, if we were to look at these things objectively, devoid of context, we might also think that it is odd, for example, to avoid eating leavened things for a week, or to build and live in a temporary hut outside your home for a different week.

But I think that sometimes it is a good idea to pull back the camera to try to see the greater picture.

I recently heard a TED talk about ants, featuring the ecologist Deborah Gordon, who studies ant colonies for a living. What is striking about ants, she says, is that ants function as a collective unit without speaking, without memory, and without a visible leader. And for sure they don’t have the Internet or smartphones. And yet, they have a highly complex society that functions quite well even though not a single one of them can actually see the larger picture. No ant understands how it fits into the colony, and nobody is telling it what to do, but somehow it all works together like some magnificent symphony.

Aluminum cast of a fire ant colony.
Aluminum cast of an ant colony

One principle that makes an ant colony function is that it has rules. Some ants forage, other ants are soldiers, the queen lays eggs, and so forth. Those rules are governed by what is encoded in the ants’ DNA.

From the human perspective, we don’t see how the ants function as individuals. We only see the final product: that the ants build extensive homes underground, and forage for food, sometimes in your pantry, and somehow manage to survive the winter to build a new colony next year. And all of this depends on the series of rules for how the ants work.

But humans are not like ants. We think; we communicate; we argue; we create; we destroy; we doubt; we cooperate; we sabotage; and so forth. Each of us as individuals has the potential to help or wound, to be selfish or to participate with others.

And that is why we need a framework. That is why human societies have always had guidelines. Laws. Courts.

And the Torah is our framework, including its obscure laws and its odd commandments. The mitzvot are our rules, and as a people, we have spent the better part of the last two millennia trying to figure out exactly how to carry out these rules. We call that system of rules, “halakhah,” which the Hebrew scholars among you will know is from the verb lalekhet, to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life.

And, just like the ants, it is difficult, and some might even say impossible, for us to see the true bigger picture. Yes, our intellect allows for us to understand more than the ants. But the larger spiritual picture is blurred; all we know is that we have a fundamental drive to reach higher, to seek holiness, to seek purity, to seek the Divine.

Our greatest sages have spent two millennia analyzing and interpreting the meaning, the reasons for, and how to carry out the mitzvot, and we continue to do so ledor vador, in each generation in its context.

You see, when it comes down to it, we don’t really know why the Torah asks us not to mark our bodies permanently, or burn animals on an altar. Even the obvious things, those mitzvot which we are naturally inclined to keep: we don’t even really know why the Torah instructs us not to murder others, or honor your parents, or abstain from sexual indiscretion. We will never really be clear on the big picture. But that is what makes Judaism interesting, and has allowed for an ongoing discourse across the ages over the meaning of what we read in the Torah. An absolute, definite answer would be boring; our tradition allows for continual renewal.

All we can really say for certain is that this template for holy living is what makes our world function. It affects the greater good. It works down here and on high. It is tried and true for 5775 years.

Now I can hear the skeptics among us who might be thinking, “OK, Rabbi, that sounds just peachy. But come on – does it really matter if I pray, or put on tefillin, or avoid shellfish?”

And the answer is yes. 100%. Why? Because you know as well as I that the America of today is one of limitless choice. We are so bombarded with “freedom” that simply choosing a toothpaste or a salad dressing from the hundreds on offer takes up far too much of our time, taking bandwidth away from things that are far more important. And the message that we continually reinforce to our children is, “What do you want?”

We need boundaries. We need framework. Some choices are acceptable, and some are not. All of us who are parents know that, but it applies to adults and children equally. What does infinite choice yield? Indecision. Paralysis. Disunity. Dissatisfaction. The feeling that even though you chose this product, or this school, or this spouse, there might be a better one behind door number 2.

Jewish life gives us a frame through which our lives are endowed with stability and purpose. And we need that more than ever.

Now, that does not mean that the boundaries do not change. Of course they have, and they will continue to change. It is a good thing for the Jews, and Maimonides says so outright in the Mishneh Torah, that prayer replaced sacrifice. It is a good thing that the slavery described in the Torah is no longer permitted. It is wonderful that we at Beth Shalom treat men and women as absolute equals under Jewish law. It is a good thing that we view halakhah through the lens of modernity; Jewish law changes with us, slowly but always for the better.

So, while the Torah includes a number of imperatives that are no longer applicable, we continue to read it and respond to it with change. The history behind the evolution of halakhah is an essential piece of this holy framework.

It’s up to us to find ways to interpret the Torah for today. That is the principle upon which I have built my rabbinate. We have to read the Torah in today’s context; not in the context from which it emerged; not in the context of 12th-century Egypt (Maimonides) or 16th-century Tzefat (Rabbi Yosef Karo, who authored the Shulhan Arukh). We welcome all of those guys to the table, but we have to seek our own meaning. We have to set the boundaries as a community, and the way we do that is the same way that our ancestors have done so for two thousand years: we open the book, and we dig into the text. (The berakhah for Torah study is “La’asoq bedivrei Torah” – to get busy with the words of Torah.)

As I move forward from this starting point here in Pittsburgh, I hope to continue doing exactly that. You will hear me say this over and over: the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or daily tefillah / prayer or even honoring your parents. The highest mitzvah (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1) is talmud Torah, interactive study of our ancient texts.

And that is how the whole system functions. We may not see the big picture, but within that microcosm, the arba amot shel halakhah, the four cubit radius of our own personal spheres of Jewish existence, we have a holy framework for living that is guided by our personal and communal understanding of Torah. And by following that framework, we each contribute individually to the overall picture.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2015.)