Categories
Festivals Sermons

Remaining Human – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5777

One of the major themes I presented during my series of High Holiday sermons is that the point of fulfilling mitzvot, of “doing Jewish,” if you will, is to connect those holy opportunities with our lives, to bring meaning to who we are and how we live today.

Along those lines, what does building and “dwelling” in the sukkah teach us? That life is uncertain. That even after the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, after having been through the process of repairing our relationships with each other and with God, that we are still vulnerable. That although we might be inclined to look around ourselves and say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got another year in front of me. 5777 is looking pretty good,” that we should not forget that things could change. The story is not yet over.

In my mind, I always strongly associate Sukkot with the sights / sounds / smells of fall: trees aflame in color, winds to herald the winter chill, the scent of dead leaves and damp sod. Sukkot is the end of the holiday cycle, and it suggest frailty. Everything comes to an end, chants the latter half of Tishrei. And yet, it’s a joyous time – zeman simhateinu, the season of our joy, as it is called in our liturgy. This is hehag, THE festival.

I recently read an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, in which he reminds us of the need to remember to sanctify life as we sail into the future.

This is not the future of the Jetsons or Star Trek, but rather the future in which artificial intelligence eventually puts everybody out of work. Consider the fact that right here in Pittsburgh, even as we speak, there are driver-less cars prowling the hilly streets for the ride-sharing service Uber. It is only a matter of time before millions of people who drive for a living – cabbies and truckers and bus drivers and railway engineers – will be unnecessary and hence lose their jobs. It will not end there.

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Rabbi Sacks points to a trio of futurist authors, who suggest not only that we will soon enough have automated surgeons and teachers and journalists and attorneys, but that the future will belong not to those who can capture our hearts, but those who control our data. “Google, Amazon and Facebook,” he says, “already know us better than we know ourselves. People will eventually turn to them for advice not only on what to buy but on what to be. Humans will have become strings of genomes, little more than super-algorithms.”  Think, The Matrix. The system will only get out of us what it needs based on our numbers.

The antidote to this particularly dire vision is our ongoing commitment to recalling the sanctity of human life. We can never be reduced to numbers if we are reminded of our fundamental humanity.

Although the coming technological change is unprecedented in its scope, there is no question that Judaism has managed such change historically. I spoke on Yom Kippur about Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s choosing Yavneh over Jerusalem, that is, learning Torah over sacrificing animals. RYBZ chose to move forward, to choose Torah – words – over the barbaric practice of offering rams and sheep up to God on a fiery altar. In addition to progressing from the Bronze Age to the Information Age, we have managed expulsions and slaughters, dispersions and forced conversions. We have survived assimilation and secularism. We made it through the disco years and decades of questionable taste.

We know how to handle change.

But the future will require the acknowledgment that no matter how much Big Data knows about us and can convince us to behave this way or that, that we continue to learn and teach, to seek holiness in our relationships with each other, to elevate ourselves through our traditions. The futurists, says Rabbi Sacks, point to a new form of idol-worship for today, and citing a verse from Psalms, he says:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human’s hands.” When technology becomes idolatry it ceases to be life-enhancing and becomes soul-destroying. The moment humans value things, however intelligent, over people, they embark on the road to ruin.

So what does this have to do with Sukkot, Rabbi?

This is why this festival is so essential. Actually, let me expand to the entire month of Tishrei. Rabbi Sacks wrote about the essential concern of Rosh Hashanah as being the creation of humans in the image of God. It is this Godliness, with which our humanity is imbued, that leads us to seek forgiveness from each other during the first half of the month of Tishrei, and to celebrate with each other, even as we are reminded of our essential vulnerability, in the second half.

Sukkot is tactile. It’s not a heady holiday like Yom Kippur. It involves building, and marching around with greenery, and slapping willow branches against the ground with all your might in climactic ecstasy with the conclusion of this festival (join us tomorrow morning for Hoshana Rabbah if you want to find out what THAT’s all about). And then we conclude with singing and dancing with the Torah in joyous abandon. This is a physical journey much more so than an emotional one.

One of the pleasures of Sukkot is sukkah-hopping – going to friends’ sukkot to hang around, to schmooze, to eat, to spend quality time with each other. A good friend of mine, a former congregant in New York, is convinced that Sukkot is the secret weapon in the Jewish arsenal of re-engaging disaffected American Jews. He has a grand scheme to put free, easy-to-build sukkot in the hands of people who would otherwise not buy one, with the only condition that they use it during the holiday. This festival brings people together, he reasons. It is joyous and fun and builds community and connection. If more Jews participated in the mitzvah of leshev basukkah, he figures, then we have a better shot at rebuilding our connection to Judaism.

He has asked to remain anonymous, but he donated four such sukkot to this community this year, and so there were four more families celebrating in their own sukkot in Pittsburgh in 5777. Maybe next year we’ll get even a few more.

The Slonimer Rebbe taught that Yom Kippur appeals to the middah (attribute) of yir’ah, of fear of God, but the middah for Sukkot is ahavah, love. The two balance each other out, and so the month of Tishrei includes equal measures of yir’ah and ahavah. But let’s face it: in simply counting the number of people in the room, far more Jews are motivated by yir’ah to show up on Yom Kippur. Couldn’t we use a little more ahavah in Jewish life?

Our goal as Jews is to avoid living in the dystopian future of The Matrix; we cannot become subjects to our technology. We have to continue to be human, to live in the here and now, to worship only the God of Abraham and Sarah. Ritual binds us to reality, and qal vahomer, all the more so on Sukkot, when the rituals are all so physical.  These holy opportunities are all the ways that we maintain our connections to the physicality of Creation, to God, and to each other. This is how we maintain our humanity, the sacredness of life in all of its loving, fearful, vulnerable glory.

So while the future may be filled with robots and data, and may be more and more dehumanizing, the antidote might be found by peering through the sekhakh (the greenery on the roof of the sukkah) in order to see the stars, while we dine and socialize in those frail booths, and feel the ahavah, the love of this holiday. Hag sameah!
~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/21/2016.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #4: Why Do We Need Torah? – Yom Kippur 5777

As you surely know by now, this is the fourth and final sermon on the topic of “Why?” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we covered, “Why be Jewish?” On the second day, “Why do we need the mitzvot, and Shabbat in particular?” Last night, we discussed why we need Congregation Beth Shalom.

Today’s why is, “Why do we need Torah?” Why do we need to learn the words of our ancient tradition, our stories, our customs and principles and values and laws?

***

I recently heard a podcast that positively blew my mind. It was on Radiolab, which is an NPR program about ideas, often featuring scientific subjects.

The idea featured in this particular episode is about inter-connectedness, about networks, but not how we usually think of them. It was uncovered primarily by a professor of forestry from University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, whose research has demonstrated, effectively, that trees are networked with each other through something called a mycorrhizal network, and that this network helps the trees support each other.

The way it works is as follows: in the soil, there are tiny, nearly invisible tubes called mycorrhiza, which are parts of various kinds of mushrooms. Fungi. There can be miles of these tubes in a pinch of soil. The tubes affix themselves to the roots of trees, and engage in a kind of exchange with them: the tree provides sugar to the mushrooms, and the mushrooms provide minerals to the tree.

Brain Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the example of an ideal leaf The Fungi ...
Note to plant pathologists: yes, I know this is not the kind of fungus we’re talking about here. But it’s a pretty photo nonetheless, don’t you think?

OK so far? It’s even better than that.

Not only is there an exchange between the fungi and the tree, but the fungi, which are connected to many of the other trees nearby, actually share nutrients through the network between trees. And the trees support each other – when one tree needs more nutrients, the other trees will, with the help of the network, send them. When there is a shortage of one type of nutrient, the mycorrhizal network will hoard that nutrient and dole out to the neediest trees. The network also ropes in the assistance of other creatures – bacteria and insects – to help maintain the whole system.

It’s almost as though the forest is “thinking,” like some kind of huge plant brain; strategizing, sharing, supporting.

What is truly revelatory and beautiful about this is that it seems that there is no such thing as a lone tree. Each tree is linked into the whole system. Prior to discovering the network, Dr. Simard had noticed that when you pulled out one tree, sometimes another nearby tree of a different species would die, clearly a result of upsetting the balance in the network.

So why am I telling you this?

When I heard this story, my mind immediately went to us, the Jews, and how we are linked together.

When you think about it, it’s downright unbelievable that we are still here. I mentioned this briefly on Rosh Hashanah – we outlasted the great empires that ruled Israel, that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, that dispersed us all over the world. We have long since bid goodbye and good riddance to the Babylonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Russian czars, the Fascist regimes of the middle of the 20th century.

What has kept us alive? I would like to propose that our metaphorical mycorrhizal network, the invisible, powerful connection that has maintained our network and supported us is Torah. Not THE Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, but “Torah,” without any definite or indefinite article. It is a much more comprehensive term. Torah is what flows from THE Torah.

It refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf.  Torah obviously begins with the Torah, which we read through each year. But that is just the beginning – Torah in its greater sense is all of our collected learning, including the rest of the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – the entire Hebrew Bible), and it flows through the collected network of rabbinic texts which make up the Jewish bookshelf: the Talmud, commentaries and supercommentaries on the Torah, midrashim, halakhic codes (Jewish law), mussar (ethical commentaries), Hasidic stories, kabbalistic literature, the words of tefillah (prayer), Jewish music and artistic interpretation, and on and on.

“Torah” in its greater sense is the ongoing project of two thousand years of intellectual development: debating the meaning of our ancient texts across generations, continents, and centuries; it is the thread that connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to our families, to Israel, to our people.

Torah (in its greater sense) is what holds us all together. It is our unseen, yet essential network. None of us are individual trees; we are the Jewish forest, connected by a textual, mycorrhyizal network, sharing and distributing all of that wisdom, ancient and modern.

What holds us together is words. Centuries ago, we were dubbed by the Muslim world as Ahl al-Kittab, the People of the Book. But we took that moniker proudly as our own: we are Am haSefer.

“Ours is not a bloodline,” write Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book, Jews and Words, “but a textline.” What connects us from generation to generation is not Hanukkah candles or matzah or even Yom Kippur. It is not our being an extended cousins’ club. It is not mah-jongg, or eating Chinese food on Christmas. It is our collected body of wisdom. What connects Moshe (Rabbeinu) on Mt. Sinai to Moshe (Maimonides) in 12th century Cairo to Moshe (Mendelssohn) in 18th century Berlin is that thread of interpretation that makes the matzah come alive for us today. Without the text, it’s just a lousy, unsalted cracker.

In what is one of the best-known stories found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b-57a), Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai effectively launches rabbinic Judaism by having his students smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin.

The year is 69 CE. The Jews have been revolting against the Romans for a few years, trying to preserve their way of life, their land, and particularly their Temple, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, wherein they have been sacrificing animals and produce to God for nearly a thousand years. The Romans, led by Vespasian (who is not yet the Roman Emperor), have taken Israel by force, and have surrounded Jerusalem.

After having been smuggled out as a corpse, Rabban Yohanan arrives at Roman military headquarters, and pops out of the coffin in front of Vespasian. A lively debate ensues in which the Romans exhibit their inclination to live by the sword, and Rabban Yohanan counters with proto-rabbinic wisdom: “All neighbors who do harm to others find that they have done it to themselves,” he says. Vespasian understands that he is in the presence of a very wise man.

Then something happens that changes the course of Jewish history.

Rabban Yohanan has predicted that Vespasian will soon be the emperor, and sure enough, while they are speaking, a messenger arrives to crown him as Caesar. Vespasian says to him, “I am now returning to Rome, and will send somebody else to take my place. You may, however, make one request of me, and I will grant it.”

Rabban Yohanan says, “Give me Yavneh and all its sages.” That is, give me a little, out-of-the-way, sleepy seaside town where I can assemble a crack team of rabbis to figure out what comes next in Jewish life.

He did not say, give me back Jerusalem. He did not say, just let me keep the Temple and let the Kohanim continue making sacrifices for the Jews.

He said, give me space to start writing the first chapter in the textline. I need a forest where I can plant some fungi.

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Sometimes, we have to conquer our fears of the future and embrace change. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the rabbis of Yavneh fashioned from the rubble of the Roman destruction not a Third Temple, but rather what we know today as Judaism. Thanks to Rabban Yohanan and his scholars, Judaism was re-invented. We, the Jews underwent a paradigm shift, eliminating the barbaric rituals of animal sacrifice and replacing it with the meditations of our hearts. This was the biggest historical turn for our people since leaving slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah, 1300 years prior.

We all need to be a little bit more like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: facing down our fears, letting go of what was, and embracing the future. That’s why I spoke last night about re-envisioning this synagogue, about the vision of Beth Shalom as a center of contemporary Jewish life and learning for the whole region.

And that brings me back to our mycorrhizal network, about our need for Torah, about our need for connection to each other through our ancient wisdom. But first, a collective “Al het.”

Al het shehatanu lefanakha. For the sin we have sinned against you God, by practicing Judaism without seeking meaning within it.

If there is a bottom line to everything that I have said over the past ten days, it is that Judaism’s future depends on our willingness to let it bring meaning to our lives.

Why are we like so many individual trees, not connected to the network? Because we have failed as a community to look to our textual heritage. Because we have assumed that being Jewish meant lighting Hanukkah candles and saying kaddish and “having a bar mitzvah,” without making any serious effort to connect these things to who we are, how we live, what we feel. Because Judaism loves to tell us more about how to do something rather than why.

The key to the Jewish future is the mycorrhizal network of Torah. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai pulled off a nervy stunt to get an audience with Vespasian so he could ask, not for ritual, not for ancient sacrifices, NOT EVEN FOR JERUSALEM, but for Torah.

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As disconnected trees, we will die. As trees whose roots intertwine with the tiny underground tubes, connecting us to our Etz Hayyim, our tree of life, we will thrive.

That’s why we are still here. That’s what makes us a community, a qehillah, brought together for a holy purpose, sustained and nourished by the words of Torah, thousands of years of collected knowledge that is still fresh and fragrant today.

****

Why have I devoted these four sermons, nearly 100 minutes of talking, over 10,000 words, to answering the question of “Why?”

I told you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that these are essential questions that we must be asking if we want there to be a future to progressive Judaism.

But more importantly, I want to make you care. I want you to understand the value of what we have inherited. I want you to ask why, and then go seek out the answer. And sometimes, all it takes to appreciate what we do as Jews is a new take, a fresh perspective, a captivating insight.

And beyond that, we should never do anything merely because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” That answer is insufficient for me, and it will not further the cause of connecting Jews with Judaism.

We need to ask “Why?” more. And we need to dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to find the answers.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #3: Why Do We Need Congregation Beth Shalom? – Kol Nidrei 5777

This is the third installment in a four-part series, “The Whys of Judaism.” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we discussed “Why do we need Judaism?” On the second day, it was “Why do we need the holy opportunities known as mitzvot?” It might be a good idea to read those posts before reading this one.

***

Today’s why: Why do we need Congregation Beth Shalom?

How many of us in this room grew up as members of the Beth Shalom community? Raise your hands.

This congregation has had an impact on many, many people, and has been an anchor of Squirrel Hill for just shy of a century. 2017 promises to be a very exciting year for Beth Shalom, and we are all fortunate to be a part of it. Judy and I feel extraordinarily lucky and grateful to be here with you at this time, and looking back over the past year, over 5776, we have seen wonderful growth and excitement. We are very happy to be with Beth Shalom as we begin the next hundred years.

Actually, some of us in the room may not appreciate what it means to be a part of a thriving community; not all synagogues are thriving. Yes, I know that some of us here look back to a time when the membership of this congregation was twice what it is today. But unlike most synagogues, this one is growing. We gained over 50 new member families over the past year, which is truly outstanding. And I’m confident that we will continue to grow and I will share with you why.

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But let’s face it: times are tough for membership-based organizations of any kind, and even tougher for religious institutions. People are wary of institutions. We are less loyal today. We are less likely to pay for things that do not necessarily give us some kind of immediate gratification. And of course, secularism is on the rise; you may be aware that the fastest-growing religious group in America is “None.”

And so the synagogue, if it is going to sustain its membership model, must demonstrate its immediate value.

Just a week and a half ago, there was a story on the front page of the NY Times Business section about a new development in Japan for what we Jews might call “unaffiliated” Buddhists. It’s a service provided by Amazon to order a Buddhist priest for rituals. You point and click, and the priest comes to you. Not bad, eh?  You know, Rent-a-Rabbi / Buy-a-Buddha.

The problem is that nobody is a Buddhist for just a half-hour once a year when they need a memorial service on the anniversary of the death of a departed loved one (which, BTW, is called in Japanese, “yahrzeit”).

Similarly, you cannot really be Jewish for a few hours a year either. And that is one primary reason for the existence of synagogues. We are not part-time Jews, flipping on the Jewish switch when you are saying qaddish or standing under the wedding huppah; we are Jewish throughout our lives.

And that’s why we need synagogues. The synagogue is not just valuable, it’s vital, and not just for the reasons that immediately come to mind:

  1. We offer a sense of qehillah, community. I spoke about this extensively last year, so I’ll just briefly remind you that our society has very few gathering places today. The synagogue is one place where you can rub elbows with other members of your community in real time, where you can belong. And that’s not only rare, but also priceless.
  2. We are a full-service organization for the entire Jewish lifecycle. We are here for you from, as they say, cradle to grave. We are here not only to offer support in times of need, but we offer resources to help you be Jewish and to be a better person at every stage of your life.
  3. Something that Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA said, which I find quite striking, which is that the synagogue is the only place that teaches you how to be a family. We are all about relationships. We are multi-generational, and we offer a rare framework in which it is possible to spend time together as a family, to learn together, and to discuss together our relationships in the context of holidays, lifecycle events, learning, services, and so forth. We create a space for true inter-connectedness in a way that few other organizations can.And here are just a few ways we do that: our Early Learning Center; our children’s services; Shababababa, which attracts 100 or more people once a month for a Friday night service; the Kiddush Club creates a space on Shabbat after services where families can hang out together; the pre-Benei Mitzvah Retreat, which we will be an annual event; and on and on.

But here is the reason that we really need Beth Shalom: that this congregation is the laboratory where we will strive to create the Jewish Future with a capital F here in Squirrel Hill.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I made the case for why we need Judaism, that is, because it can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. And we need a place where we can do those things; that place is Beth Shalom.

Yes, there are other synagogues nearby, but I am absolutely certain at this point that Beth Shalom is poised to become the center of traditional, and yet fully contemporary Jewish life and learning in Western Pennsylvania.  I know this is a lofty statement. Please bear with me as I explain.

****

Some of you have heard me reference many times the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews from 2013. That data has been a goldmine. Among the valuable revelations that the study gave us were that virtually all of us (94%) are proud to be Jewish. That may not have been historically true, in days when garden-variety anti-Semitism and the stigma of being an immigrant pressured our parents and grandparents to assimilate as quickly as possible.

Another fascinating piece of data is that most of us, around 72% believe in God, however we might understand what it means to “believe in God.”

These two data points alone suggest the need for synagogues, wherein Jews can gather to exercise their pride in Judaism and their relationship with qedushah / holiness.

I was recently struck by an idea, promoted by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie on a podcast of Judaism Unbound (http://www.judaismunbound.com, Episode 29), that the synagogue can be not only a laboratory for spirituality, but should be infused with creativity somewhat like an art studio.

Beth Shalom has the potential to become that creative studio for Judaism in this neighborhood.

I have a vision to entirely re-think what it means to be a synagogue. To make that vision a reality will require change, and a bit of risk, and a vote of confidence from you, the congregation.

I have said before in this space: the Beth Shalom of the future cannot be the Beth Shalom of the past. We have to change our model.

Here’s why: What motivated our parents and grandparents to build huge edifices like this was intimately tied to a specific point in time, in the middle of the 20th century, when Jews were finally “making it” in America, gradually being welcomed into the wider society. The Jews were movin’ on up.

And in the wake of the Shoah, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel, there was a certain pride that American Jews took in boldly identifying with Jewish national struggles and aspirations. So they paid their dues to institutions, many institutions, built big buildings, and assimilated into American culture. For the most part, they relegated their Judaism to Friday night or Saturday morning, expected the rabbi and cantor to live Jewishly on their behalf, and from Saturday afternoon until the next Friday dispensed with many of the old-world trappings that Jewish practice demands.

Our children have none of these motivations. They have nothing to prove about their Jewishness. They live in a world where identity is fluid, which is at the same time as liberating as it is lonely and bewildering. They feel that they have little need for or interest in institutions. They did not grow up trying to “fit in” as Americans, because there is no question on that front. They have never known a world without Israel, and I am saddened that many of them have learned to squelch their Jewishness on college campuses, lest they be tagged as pro-Zionist, a dirty word in some quarters.

Whereas in the past, synagogues could depend on hooks like High Holiday tickets and the bar/bat mitzvah process to prop up our membership rolls, that  model is mostly gone. So we have to do something to make a positive change. We have to give our children a legacy that they will rise to meet. To recall the challenge of today that I identified on Rosh Hashanah, we have to find a way to make them care.

The vision of Beth Shalom’s future will be to cultivate within all who enter a sense of what it means to be positively Jewish. Not reflexively Jewish, as most of us have historically been.   In other words, when you can be anything you want, we have to convince you of the value of wanting to do Jewish and to do it here.

To demonstrate that our tradition enriches your life, and that the synagogue is the place where you can share it with others, where you can learn to act, collectively and as individuals on  Jewish values. That is what we need to do.

How do we do this? By creating positive Jewish experiences. Jewish involvement that is meaningful. Jewish experiences that are contemporary. That are thoughtful and multi-layered. That include women and men and gay and straight and transgender as equals. That acknowledge that not all Jews are white, or know some Yiddish. That face the reality that many of us are now married to people who are not yet Jewish, and that we must reach out to all people in our midst. That open new doors, new portals to all.

The future of this congregation will be built on the framework of the past, but with a commitment to reach people that the current model is not reaching.

How do we reach all of those people? We have to create a set of programming that is awesome, that is so well-done, presented by a top-shelf lineup of speakers and artists and presenters of all sorts, people who will show us the richness of what Judaism has to offer.

So we are embarking at this very moment on a great challenge indeed, one that will, in fact, re-envision the synagogue for this century. A team of members of this congregation, plus our Executive Director Rob Menes and I have crafted a road map for the future of Beth Shalom. It’s called Derekh, literally, the way. (Derakheha darkhei noam, vekhol netivoteha shalom. The Torah’s ways are of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.)

Derekh will feature five portals of entry, five ways in which people can become involved in Jewish life:

  1. Jewish learning.
  2. Hesed / Acts of lovingkindness
  3. Israel
  4. Culture
  5. Mindfulness

The cornerstone of the operation, the first portal of Jewish learning will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, which will be a new twist on an ancient Jewish place. As you may recall from when I described this last year at this time, the synagogue was classically a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, and also a beit midrash, a house of study.

Today, the beit midrash is a place for the handful of Jews who are  highly Jewishly knowledgeable: rabbis, rabbinical students, Talmud scholars and the like. But I want to create, here at Beth Shalom, a new kind of beit midrash: one that is open and flexible and accessible to all. It will also be designed to reach not just members of Beth Shalom, but to bring in people from across the Pittsburgh community. This Open Community Beit Midrash will feature programming for a range of skill levels and interests from the curious- but-intimidated to the insatiable scholar.  And it will feature guest speakers and visiting scholars that are on the avant-garde of Jewish learning from across the spectrum.

Believe it or not, text-based Jewish learning is now fashionable in Israel, and not just for men in black hats. Former Member of Knesset Dr. Ruth Calderon founded one such house of study in Tel Aviv called Alma, and it has brought many Israelis, people who may otherwise have no connection to what we think of as Jewish life, to study Talmud and other Jewish texts.

And there is something of a renaissance in this area going on in America too. Mechon Hadar, founded by one of my rabbinical school classmates, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, is a center of contemporary Jewish learning in New York that has produced a wonderful range of classes and workshops and podcasts, with people coming from all over to study there, and others (like me) taking advantage of their materials online. Sefaria is a web-based platform that enables people to share Jewish resources – texts, translations, study materials – so that anybody with a computer has easy access to our tradition.

And we can be the contemporary center for Jewish life and learning right here.

But while the center of Derekh will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, there will be so much more:

The Hesed portal, through which we will step up our commitment to deeds of lovingkindness, featuring a range of social action activities, including awareness-raising, partnering with the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and Repair the World, for example.

The Israel portal, including regular trips, greater involvement with the Carmiel-Misgav partnership, Skype sessions between our teens and theirs.

The Culture portal: artists, films, musicians, maybe a studio space in this building for an artist-in-residence.  Just as nations are strengthened by arts and culture, so too will this portal strengthen us.

And the Mindfulness portal: Yoga, meditation, new approaches to the Jewish spiritual experience.

The goal is for Beth Shalom to be the primary resource for spiritual growth in the community, the lynchpin in generating a renaissance in Jewish life in our little shtetl. We need an infusion of exciting, meaningful programming here, and Derekh will provide that and more.

That’s our vision. That’s what will guarantee our future as a congregation.

We will need new staff to do what I’d like us to do. We’ll need to reconfigure spaces. And of course we will need to raise funds. This project, which will be significant and transformative not only for Beth Shalom, but also for the whole community, will depend on raising our endowment significantly.

So along those lines, please know that we will be in touch with you – by mail, but hopefully also in person – about contributing to Beth Shalom’s future.

We hope – we urge you to take hold of this opportunity to participate in this campaign, to consider a meaningful gift that will ensure that the Beth Shalom of the next 100 years will be more meaningful, more connective, more essential than the last 100. Beth Shalom has been here for you for nearly a century; now Beth Shalom needs you.

Why do we need this congregation? Because it will guarantee a strong, traditional, yet egalitarian and progressive Jewish anchor in this community for the next century. Because it will continue to support and nourish our subsequent generations. Because it will continue to enrich your life through community, lifelong Jewish learning, and spiritual growth. Because our lives need more qedushah, more holiness.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Kol Nidrei, October 11, 2016.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #2: Why Do We Need Mitzvot? – Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

I spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in broad terms about why we need Judaism.

Today, the question is, “Why do we need the opportunities for holiness known as mitzvot?” What impact does observance of mitzvot potentially have on our lives? This is the 2nd of 4 topics on the “Whys” of Judaism.

As some of you know, I have spoken a few times over the past year on this subject, and one of the last times I spoke about mitzvot, I suggested that we translate that word not as “obligations” or “commandments,” as it has been traditionally understood, but rather, as “holy opportunities.”

There are, of course, 613 traditional mitzvot. I remember learning this in Hebrew school a LONG time ago: there is a midrash out there that suggests that 613 is the number of seeds in a pomegranate, which was the fruit in the Garden of Eden, the one on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Havvah ate from. (The Torah does not specify a fruit; Christians have long believed it to be an apple.)

pomegranate health benefits in many tales pomegranate fruit called a

613 is a big number. But the reality is that we fulfill many of these holy opportunities with ease. That you are sitting here listening to me indicates that you are in fact performing several mitzvot right now: engaging in Talmud Torah, the study of the traditional texts of Jewish life; daily prayer (including reciting the Shema and Amidah); many of us are wearing tallitot; most of us will be celebrating the holiday with a festive meal in a little while (if the rabbi ever stops talking…).

And, merely by NOT doing a bunch of stuff right now (killing, stealing, eating the wrong animals, spending money on a Yom Tov), you are fulfilling mitzvot without even lifting a finger.

So kol hakavod!

But I think it’s time that we raise the bar in our community with respect to mitzvot. And let me tell you why:

We need more qedushah / holiness in our lives.

Forms of that Hebrew word, that qof-dalet-shin root (qadosh / qiddush / qaddish), are found on virtually every page of the mahzor that you are holding; would that they appeared on every page of our lives!

I think of qedushah / holiness as the collection of special moments that we all have. Remember that Jews sanctify time, not space or people or things. Holiness comes from setting apart a moment in time, a realization that a particular vignette in your life is incredibly special or unique, so special or unique that it you might think of it as a could have been a Heavenly gift.

So what is a holy moment? Please name one. Shout it out:

  • Birth of a child / wedding / bar mitzvah, etc.
  • Falling in love (OK, so for many of us “falling in love” is/was a very LOONG moment…)
  • Seeing a rainbow
  • Learning something so wonderful that your synapses fire at once and your brain nearly explodes
  • Achieving an objective (work, family, relationship)
  • Making a connection with yourself or another
  • Making a connection with your heritage or tradition (including the land of Israel)
  • Hearing really awesome, wonderful news, etc.

(For any such moment that fills you with awe and gratitude, it is always appropriate to recite “Shehehiyyanu” – the blessing we recite to be grateful for allowing us to reach this moment.)

Now there are many among us, and certainly many more in the larger Jewish world, for whom performance of mitzvot is something that comes naturally. I think that the challenge for most of us today, then, is not really the performance of mitzvot, per se. Rather, it is to connect mitzvot to qedushah. Not just the action, but its intrinsic meaning and value as well.

Most of us have probably never even considered that while you went to synagogue or sat in the sukkah or ate matzah at the seder or donned a tallit or got called up for an aliyah or gave tzedaqah that these things were somehow related to holiness – you might have just thought of them as, these are things that my family does, and I do too. No deeper meaning than that.

I never thought about these things too deeply in my youth.

And for those of us who did not grow up in the context of fulfilling mitzvot, you might wonder how any of this stuff might impact your life.

But how might these actions, ritual or otherwise, raise your qedushah quotient? How might they infuse your life with holiness? Why do we need them?

Fundamentally, every mitzvah comes down to this: relationships. Relationships with others, with our spouses, with ourselves, with our parents and siblings and children, with our community, with our world, and of course with God.

Let me give you a few examples. I spoke yesterday about kashrut, and how it sensitizes us to all creatures and the world around us by drawing lines. So let’s consider a curious set of holy opportunities from the Torah with which most of us are unfamiliar. They are a set of four or five laws relating to agriculture.

OK, so who here is a farmer? Not a gardener, but a farmer.

I suspected as much. Well, depending on how far back we go in Jewish history, most of our ancestors were subsistence farmers. Their fortunes were ruled by the seasons, the rains, the climate, the quality of their soil, and so forth. Why does the Torah describe Israel in several places as “Eretz zavat halav udvash” / “a land flowing with milk and honey”? Because milk and honey were symbols of agricultural bounty, and this was really, REALLY important to people who lived in the desert 3,000 years ago. In fact, virtually all of the references to Israel in the Torah contain some statement regarding the fertility of the land and the fruits and vegetables and livestock that thrive there.

So given that context, it’s easy to understand why the following laws were explicitly mentioned by the rabbis of the Talmud (Yevamot CHAPTER 4) as being the essential laws that one must teach to a ger, a convert to Judaism (Vayyiqra…)

  1. Leqet – if you drop some produce while harvesting, you can’t pick it up
  2. Pe’ah – leave the corners of your fields unpicked
  3. Shikhehah – if you forget a sheaf of grain, you must leave it

Produce left behind is available for needy people to glean. These non-ritual mitzvot / holy opportunities do not mean so much to us today, since we are not farmers. We can’t really fulfill them.

Or can we?

Judaism has always been subject to changing times. That is, mitzvot that we cannot fulfill in the way that was originally intended are adapted. E.g., the daily Amidah replaces the daily sacrifices in the Temple.

So one way of translating these principles is into our own money; our salary is our produce, and thus we should leave a certain amount for the poor. Maybe some of you donate each time there’s a food drive, or to the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. Those are surely appropriate ways for us to make these ancient, agricultural, holy opportunities our own.

But let’s think even deeper than that. This is not just about money or food – it’s about responsibility for people in need, and it’s about keeping the needy in mind as you go about your work. When a subsistence farmer is harvesting, it must be very, very hard indeed to overlook good produce. Think about it: as you are working your way through the grapevine, say, you are expected to actually leave (according to the Mishnah, tractate Pe’ah) a portion of the field unharvested. And if a grape cluster slips out of your hand, you can’t pick it up. And certain perfectly good clusters are simply un-harvestable. That could be lots and lots of profit, and perhaps even the margin between survival and starvation for your family. But you have to focus your energy on leaving those clusters for others, on denying yourself. That takes real work.

And, all the while, you have to maintain a sense of gratitude, even while you give up on valuable produce that you might otherwise consider rightfully yours. Not so easy, right?

The message is clear: as we move through our lives, we have to be constantly, consistently responsible for others: aware of our neighbors, vigilant regarding the greater societal good. And just as there are multiple mitzvot embedded within the larger framework of feeding the hungry, so too do we have the obligation to support the multiple organization that help those in need get access to food, clothing, shelter, health care.

(I am happy to note that a number of North American synagogues have “adopted” refugees from Syria; we could do that here as well. To do so would fulfill number of mitzvot.)

Taken even a step further, the Talmud elsewhere suggests the following about charitable giving: “The salt of wealth is charity (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 66b).” That is, we maintain our own wealth by diminishing it through acts of kindness. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (my rabbinic and cantorial alma mater, reads this as follows:

“The Torah warns the farmer in his state of self-satisfaction that God cares as much for the gleaners as for the reapers. The well-off are but divine instruments for alleviating human suffering.”

In other words, we all have the potential to be agents of God.

So just as kashrut sensitizes us to Creation and thereby encourages respect for our world and for all the creatures in it, giving from our produce and bank accounts makes us holy vessels.

And that brings me to what is, I think, the most essential set of mitzvot, and the ones that we most need today: those surrounding the most essential gift that Judaism has given the world, and that is Shabbat.

Yes, it’s true: we invented the 7-day week. And you might say that Shabbat is as much about action as it is about inaction.

The fourth commandment of the “Top Ten” is the longest of them all: “Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho.”  Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. And then it goes on for a while.  And you know why?  Because it is the most important social innovation in the Torah.  The ancient Israelites pioneered a concept that no society before it had developed: a day off.  Yes, yes, it’s also important not to murder and to honor your parents, but other societies already knew that.  The Shabbat, at the time that it was given to us, was apparently unique.

In his critique of contemporary Judaism and Jewish institutions called Nothing Sacred, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff points to the Shabbat as the natural response of an enslaved people who had been set free.  Think of it this way: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  They gain their freedom.  They know that they still have to work, but on more reasonable terms. So they negotiate themselves one day off out of every seven.  Not bad, right?

It is the most revolutionary concept of the ancient world, and holds sway over much of the Earth’s population today: the idea of sanctifying time by setting it apart from the rest of the week.  God gives the Israelites a weekly vacation.  The Apostle Paul, who fashions Christianity, and Muhammad, who creates Islam, dispose of many parts of the Jewish template that they draw on, but they keep the Shabbat.  It is progressive, puts humanity first, and difficult to argue against.

And so, as the pace of our world has quickened, as our days have become so packed that we are living 24/7, the human need has grown to take back a day. We need Shabbat. We need to run 24/6.

There are great personal benefits to shutting down for one day every week, to keeping the craziness of the world at bay, to limiting your exposure to technology, stepping off the hamster wheel of shopping and schlepping and generally worrying about all the things that occupy the other six days.

Every now and then a news story crosses my desk about the various ways in which Americans are over-stressed, over-burdened, under-slept, and on information overload. The one that caught my eye just a few weeks back was about college “blackout” culture.

In a New York Times op-ed piece by Ashton Katherine Carrick, a senior student at UNC Chapel Hill, a current trend seems to be deliberately drinking oneself into a stupor to help alleviate stress. College students, it seems, are under such pressure to perform, to go-g0-g0 all week long that drinking to blackout seems perfectly acceptable.

Of course, we can imagine that the results of such heavy drinking can be disastrous on many fronts. But what has brought our young people to this place? Remember that these are the gentle, sweet teens whom we launched from our homes only a few years earlier. Did we set them up for this behavior under our own roofs? Did we create the expectation that every cranny of their lives must be programmed? Did we facilitate the imperative, abetted by university admissions offices, that high school students have a ridiculous number of extra-curricular activities, that they must simultaneously be first cello and captain of the soccer team and editor of the school newspaper and on the starting lineup of the debate team all at the same time?

Where has the downtime gone?

Could it be the constant invasion of our privacy, courtesy of the digital devices that we now all think of as rechargeable extensions of our bodies? Could it be that downtime has been pushed out of our lives by screentime that regularly amounts to 11 hours a day?

I don’t know. But I do know that we are desperately in need of menuhah, of rest.

Quarter Rest

Shabbat, not blacking out, is that much-needed break. We need more than what an hour or two per week of embarrassing, drunken behavior might provide – we need a full day of separation. This very progressive concept – the idea of a quarter-moon festival that mandates a day off from regular toil – is just as necessary today as it was to our ancestors, who had just come forth from slavery to freedom.

But even more than that, Shabbat is there to open our eyes – to make us more aware of the people around us by sitting with them and dining and drinking (not too much!) and discussing and learning and praying and playing. This is a day that sensitizes us to Creation, to each other, to society. Shabbat helps us see beyond ourselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as a “palace in time.” Not a physical place wherein we can enter, but an opportunity every seventh day to wipe the slate clean, to elevate ourselves through holiness, to restore our souls. You don’t need to wait for Yom Kippur to be restored; you have that opportunity every seventh day!

And let’s face it: if we the Jews can benefit from shutting down and tuning in every seventh day, so can the rest of our society. The world needs Shabbat. And so do you.

And if you are not yet accustomed to the rhythm of Shabbat, of that 25-hour pause (that refreshes), I have one simple place to start: Friday night dinner. Bring your family, your friends together for Friday night dinner. Make that sacred time. You won’t regret it!

I also just want to make note of two things:

  1. The National Day of Unplugging. March 3-4, 2017 – an opportunity to observe Shabbat in solidarity with people all over the world. Sponsored by the Sabbath Manifesto.
  2. Our own, in-house, Walk-to-Shul Shabbat, coming to Beth Shalom this spring as a cornerstone to our new wellness initiative. We’ll be coordinating walking groups to Beth Shalom on that day. Watch for more info.

****

Shabbat is just the jewel in the crown; it is one gift of many.

Why do we need the actions, the holy opportunities that Judaism provides? Because they will help us be better people, better parents, better children, better friends, better members of society; they will restore our souls and make us less anxious and more present. Take advantage of them!

On Yom Kippur we will talk about two more whys: why we need this synagogue, and why we need to recommit ourselves to learning all the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/4/2016.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #1: Why be Jewish? – Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777

Take a moment to think about why you are here today.

Are you here because you could not imagine being anywhere else on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

Are you here because you are energized by the themes of the High Holidays? About sin and repentance and the Book of Life? About God’s sovereignty in this world? About remembering our texts and tradition?

Are you here because of guilt?

Are you here for the first time, because you want to check it out?

Are you here because the moving melodies of the High Holiday liturgy always transport you to a unique spiritual zone?

Are you not sure why you’re here?

Why Values Based Communication?

This year, 5777, the theme of my sermons for of these days, these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awesomeness, is “Why?” The Four Whys, actually. And I’m going to attempt something that is in fact a wee bit bold. You might even call it (to use the lofty French term), “khutzpadik.”

I am going to try to answer a question that you may not have thought too deeply about, but which, I think, is an essential question of our time:

Why be Jewish? Why do we need Judaism?

And, to be even more specific, the question is more accurately not about “being Jewish,” which many of us can do quite easily by default, but rather, “Why DO Jewish?” Why be a part of a Jewish community? Why engage with Jewish life and learning? Why commit yourself to an ancient tradition that might seem sometimes charmingly irrelevant, and at other times downright oppressive?

This is the first why, and perhaps the biggest of the four.

The questions of “Why be Jewish”  has not always been a feature of Jewish life. Most of our ancestors did not have the luxury of asking. But today, we need to address this head-on.

Not too long ago, I saw a TED talk featuring a television producer named Andrew Stanton. Mr. Stanton said something that I found particularly relevant about the way we engage with anything today.

We are constantly bombarded with various sponsored messages: buy this, eat here, do that, make yourself thinner, happier, healthier, etc. This barrage causes some of us to want to retreat to within a protective shell, to tune out the noise.

As one who makes his living trying to get people to pay attention to his work, what Mr. Stanton said really struck me: “Make me care.” We are all equipped today with a dispassionate outer shell; not much breaks through. In order to be heard you have to find the hook that connects to the soul beneath.

I want to make you care about being Jewish, and about living a Jewish life. I want you to tune into that voice that comes from within, calling you to something greater.

We here in congregations like Beth Shalom are firmly engaged with the rest of the world. And let’s face it: some of the things we know and feel contradict some ideas found in traditional Judaism. We know, for example, that the universe came into being 14.5 billion years ago, not 5777 years ago today. Traditional Judaism does not count women and men as equals. The theology espoused in the Torah is woefully simplistic.

Even the Jewish values that we learn from our tradition: expressing gratitude, respect for others, responsibility for the Earth, honoring your elders, visiting the sick, redeeming captives, seeking justice for all people, and so on. Aren’t these simply human values? Why do we need Jewish text to teach us these things?

For sure, a handful of us are convinced of the value of Jewish tradition. But the vast majority of us are not.

Beginning right now, and stretching over the four sermons between now and Yom Kippur, I will be making the case for Judaism in four general areas, going from the macro “why” to the micro “why”:

RH day 1: Why we need Judaism (in general)  

RH day 2: Why we need mitzvot / Shabbat

Kol Nidrei: Why we need Beth Shalom?

Yom Kippur morning: Why we need Torah

These are the Four Whys.

So without further ado: Why do we need Judaism?

I recently heard Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in LA retell a good story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest luminaries of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel meets a Jewish fellow who tells him that he does not need to go to synagogue or otherwise participate in Jewish rituals. “I’m basically a good guy. I treat my family well, my friends well, I take care of people,” he says. “I don’t need Judaism.”

Rabbi Heschel responds by saying, “Gee, I envy you. I often say things that I regret. I don’t feel like I am generous enough with my time and my money. I wish I were a better parent and colleague and friend. I wish I were more like you.”

Who do you think has a better understanding for why we need Judaism?

I am going to make the case for how personally meaningful our tradition is, and how it can improve your life by making you feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious, more satisfied, and improve your relationships, your family life, and your inner peace.

In short, the answer to “Why be Jewish?” that may be recited while standing on one foot is, “Because drawing on Jewish knowledge and Jewish living will yield tangible benefits to your life.”

I’m going to warn you up front, however. To get these benefits, you have to put some effort in. Jewish living takes work. It takes time. But let me assure you: the time you put in will pay you back, and then some.

Before we go further, however, some things that I am not going to tell you:

  • I am not going to say that eating kosher food is healthier for you.
  • I am not going to say that keeping the Shabbat for 25 hours every week will give you a boost in your paycheck.
  • I am not going to tell you that making sure that your doorposts have properly-mounted, kosher mezuzot will keep your family safe from harm.

There are certainly people in the Jewish world who say those things. I’m not one of them.  Let’s dispense with superstition entirely and talk about meaning.

I think it is helpful to frame our discussion in terms of three major paths through Jewish life: ritual, action, and learning.

  1. Ritual

 

This is probably the most familiar area of Judaism, because it is what American synagogues have bet on. It includes tefillah / prayer, of course, but also holiday activities, including the observance of Shabbat, lifecycle events like berit millah / circumcision, weddings, and funerals. While ritual is an essential and often meaningful part of Jewish life, it is only a part of what Judaism offers.

Here are a few examples from the most popularly-observed Jewish rituals, and some perspective that makes them more relevant:

  • Lighting Hanukkah candles, for example, illuminates not only our windowsills but also our world; they remind us of the need for us to continue to spread light throughout the spiritually dark places all around us. And we know that our world needs more enlightenment.
  • Gathering family and friends to dine and tell the story of Pesah is not just about the food, nor is it merely about an ancient tale of taskmasters and slaves and a stubborn king. It is about the value of freedom and our obligation to seek out and eliminate oppression in all its forms.
  • Fasting on Yom Kippur is not an endurance test; it is an opportunity to cleanse your body, your mind, and your heart. It is a personal challenge that helps us to understand the mind-body connection, and to greater appreciate the creature comforts to which we are all accustomed. As your grandmother may have told you, there’s nothing wrong with suffering a little now and then.

Ritual requires context. The synagogue service, circumcision, eating particular foods, mourning rituals, etc. must be connected to the larger picture of Judaism. Ritual cannot stand alone; when we connect it to ourselves and our world, it can enrich our lives, enshrine moments in holiness, and provide a framework for expression that helps us celebrate, grieve, discover ourselves, and express a whole range of emotions.

All ritual is accompanied by liturgy: words that make the ritual complete. Without it, the ritual would fall flat; it would be left unmoored from its past and future. And just as important are the traditional melodies that accompany the words, that remind us of our own pasts, of our paths of learning and connection with our parents and teachers. Think of how powerful some of the words and  melodies that we have chanted today are; they are like wormholes in the time-space continuum that connect us to our ancestors.

Ritual replays for us the Jewish story, reminding us why we are here and what our responsibilities are to everybody around us.

  1. Action

This is the whole sphere of Jewish behaviors that are not explicitly tied to ritual. Examples include the dietary laws (kashrut), guidelines for how we speak to each other / Leshon HaRa, the obligation to repair this very broken world / Tikkun Olam, business ethics, and the moral code that ensures a just society (not murdering, honoring your parents, etc.). This area is much more far-ranging, and potentially rewarding, than most of us are aware of.

We all know, on some level, that action is a mandatory feature of Judaism. You may have heard that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity generally is that being a Christian requires faith, while being Jewish requires action.

The underlying value of Jewish actions is that they improve ourselves and our world. We may not always understand the value of a particular non-ritual action, but after doing something over and over, its internal wisdom is revealed.

Let’s take, for example, kashrut, the Jewish dietary principles. You may ask, “Why, Rabbi, if God created the shrimp, am I not permitted to eat it?” Or, “Pork has fewer calories than beef. Shouldn’t I eat more pork?” How can avoiding cheeseburgers possibly improve this world?

One possible answer is this:

In their excellent introduction to our tradition, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point to the following interpretation of kashrut (from Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Shemini, #7):

The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?

You might think that kashrut is about food, but I would counter that kashrut is about maintaining the sanctity of life through boundaries. And this is becoming ever so much more important in the Information Age, when all the boundaries are melting away before our eyes. Eating is such an essential part of our lives that our understanding the limits in consumption easily transfers to other aspects of our relationship with all creatures.

We’ll speak about action a little bit more tomorrow.

  1. Learning

This is probably the area that has been the least-emphasized in contemporary Jewish life, but in my opinion the most important. Why? Because Judaism is a tradition of the heart and mind, and understanding this is essential to deriving meaning from our traditions. Without the basis of knowledge, mature, sophisticated understanding of how to connect Jewish action to ourselves, the former are empty, meaningless.

Once upon a time, there was the Temple in Jerusalem; it was the center of Jewish life.  The Kohanim / priests ruled.  If you were fortunate, you went maybe a few times a year to the Temple to offer your animals and produce as sacrifices. That was the extent of Jewish ritual.

The Romans destroyed it for the 2nd and final time in 70 CE, leaving the Jews with a dilemma: How would we connect with God?  How would we maintain our national identity?

Out of the ashes of the Temple came rabbinic Judaism, and with it the tradition of Jewish learning which has enabled Judaism to survive to this day. The Romans did us two great favors: (א) they ended the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice, and (ב) they made Judaism decentralized. The center of Jewish tradition could never be taken away from us again, because it would now be carried in our heads (and ultimately written down in books).

No more would we be a hierarchical religion, led by priests. The Romans democratized us. Anybody who wanted access to the tradition could learn our textual sources and thus argue with leaders and teachers and scholars.

We began to offer the words of our lips, in prayer and study, instead of animals on the altar. And thus words became the glue that bound us together as a people. And it is this focus on teaching and learning from generation to generation that has enabled us to survive, long after the Babylonians and the Ptolemies and the Romans and the Byzantines and the Ottomans are all gone.

The center of Jewish life is not the Temple in Jerusalem, nor is it the ruin that remains there, the Kotel, the Western Wall, or any other physical place. It is the Jewish bookshelf, which exists not only on physical bookshelves or online, but in the Jewish heart and mind. It is not just the Torah, but the Talmud, the midrash, the commentaries, the halakhic interpretation, the stories of the last 2,000 years.

And it is from this center of ancient wisdom from which we draw meaning about our lives, our interactions, our families, our businesses. The Jewish bookshelf has sustained us for two millennia; our future depends on it.

I will discuss this in greater depth on Yom Kippur.

***

It is the combination of these three things – ritual, action, and learning – that gives our lives shape, that bring us meaning.

That’s a tricky concept: meaning. You can’t find it on the Internet. You can’t buy it with any form of currency. You won’t find any photos of it on Instagram.

Why? Because meaning is the ultimate intangible. It is elusive. But it is something we all need. A life without meaning is a life that is not worth living.

The reason we need Judaism is that when we embrace it, it elevates our lives by giving them meaning. And by engaging with Jewish life and learning, by being a member of the Jewish community, we have the opportunity to experience that elevation and that meaning in a joyful, sociable context.

So, now that you’ve made me care, Rabbi, what’s the entry point? Where do I start?

The tale is told of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who is famous for two particular moments in his life: the first was that, after having decided to convert to Christianity to advance his career prospects, he stopped into a synagogue at Kol  Nidrei to give Judaism one last shot. After experiencing that service, he changed his mind, realizing that he could not possibly leave such a rich and inspiring tradition. He opted to remain Jewish.

But the second moment came years later, after he was famous for having embraced Judaism and written a contemporary philosophical work on the subject, The Star of Redemption. He was asked publicly, “Herr Rosenzweig, are you putting on tefillin every day?”

Rosenzweig’s answer: “Not yet.”

We are all somewhere on that continuum of “Not yet.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be a perfectly-observant, ritually-correct, Talmudically-fluent Jew to elevate yourself through Jewish tradition.

You can enter it from any point: come see me about where to start: it could be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or taking time to visit someone in the hospital, or we could jump right into learning Talmud. But if you want the benefits that Judaism offers, you have to start somewhere.

All of it – ritual, action, and learning – can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. I am sorry if they did not teach you that in Hebrew school, but that’s how it looks from my vantage point. Embracing Judaism has dramatically improved my life; the same could be true for you.

למה ללמה קוראים למה? צילום: sxe
למה?

So, why are you here today? Why Judaism? Because we need it.

Tomorrow we’ll talk more about action.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/3/2016.)

Categories
Sermons

Renewing Our Relationship With Judaism -Ki Tetse 5776

I am always captivated by passages in the Torah that list laws, because they give us some insight into what our ancestors valued. Today’s parashah was especially rich with such laws, and among them some of my favorites:

  • returning your neighbor’s donkey
  • not abusing an employee
  • leaving some of your harvest for the needy
  • not taking chicks from the nest while the mother is there
  • stoning to death a disobedient son
  • stoning to death a newlywed woman in whom “the tokens of her virginity” were not found

Wait a minute – back up.  I’m sorry about those last two.

And, in some sense, so is Rabbinic Judaism.  Yes, those are in the Torah, but we have never actually stoned anybody to death (thank God!). In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show that the applicability of these laws is so limited that they could never actually be carried out.

Fortunately, we do not practice the religion of the ancient Israelites. Judaism is not the literal application of the laws as written in the Torah.  Rather, Jewish law has been codified by our sages who interpreted the Torah in subsequent centuries.  In other words we practice rabbinic Judaism, which is much more reasonable.

Given the issues surrounding some of the laws described in the Torah, there is a debate in rabbinic literature that continues to this day: Do the mitzvot have some internal value, or moral worth, or are they simply commandments that we must follow without searching for any higher message?

Maimonides (1135 – 1204 Spain -> Egypt) sees reason behind each commandment. For example, he believes that the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, shooing away the mother bird in order to take the chicks teaches us compassion for all of God’s creatures.

הכן מצות שילוח הקן מעוררת אותנו לתמיהה ...

In his seminal work of philosophy, Moreh Nevukhim, “Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides connects the suffering of animals with the suffering of people:

“Since therefore the desire of procuring good food necessitates the killing of animals, the Law enjoins that this should be done as painlessly as possible…  [the suffering of animals] does not differ from that of man, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings…  If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow people!”

The mother hen and her chicks, says Rambam, are representative; the mitzvah applies equally to humans, if not literally, then figuratively.

But not everybody agrees with Rambam.

Ramban – Nachmanides (1194 -1270 Spain -> Israel) states clearly and unapologetically  that “The ruling on the mother bird is not based on the Almighty’s pity for the animal.”  To Ramban, this is merely one more decree, albeit one that does teach us to avoid cruelty.  No further conclusions may be drawn.

Elsewhere, Rashi (1040-1105 France) states in a commentary on a different passage that the reason one should not steal (e.g.) is not because it is “wrong” to steal; rather, because God commanded us not to steal.

There are modern commentators that come down on either side of this equation. But I must say that this rabbi is with Rambam. Our inner motivations in following Jewish law should be in line with our behavior. We do not merely fulfill mitzvot like so many sheep, but rather use them as a tool to bring greater holiness into our lives. Our goal in taking these holy opportunities is to extrapolate these commandments for the greater good.

It is therefore not enough merely to shoo the mother bird away before taking the chicks, but also a lesson about minimizing suffering for all of God’s creatures, no matter their size or significance, and even as we use some of them wisely to produce our food. And that message is as much reinforced by the mitzvot surrounding kashrut, holy eating, as it is by the obligation to return not only your neighbor’s donkey, but your enemy’s donkey as well.

***

You may be aware that Rosh Hashanah is a little more than two weeks away…

This is a time to reset the dials of our lives, or, to use more contemporary language, it’s time for a full system restore.

We tend to think of the High Holidays as being associated with the Book of Life (Besefer hayyim… nizakher venikatev… lehayyim tovim ulshalom), the extended metaphor of God’s weighing our souls. But I would like to offer a different perspective.

Perhaps we can dedicate this time not just to wiping the slate clean regarding our actions, but also our relationship with Judaism. Not merely a behavioral renewal, but rather a theological and ideological renewal

I’ll tell you what I mean:

In some ways, it is easier just to perform the rituals of Jewish life without thinking about them.

I remember so clearly the day back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on practical theology, and hearing education professor Dr. Steve Brown telling a roomful of future rabbis, cantors, and  educators-to-be that the language of hiyyuv, of obligation, does not speak to people today, so there is no point in trying to use it.  I recall feeling let down – like, what kind of Jewish world is this where nobody sees themselves as being obligated to anything?

I have since learned to take a more nuanced view. For many of us, our relationship with Judaism is based more on sociological motivations – history, cultural connections, the need for moral guidance in complicated times, the desire to “resonate” with our ancestors, and so forth, than it is with the traditional perspective of fulfilling obligations.

The challenge, however, will be to maintain our connection in the future, when that particular set of sociological conditions goes away. And that’s why we need to re-examine our relationship with our textual tradition now.

We relate easily to the narrative portions of the Torah, the stories of our ancestors (and their dysfunctional family) as our national myths, our history; we can learn from them; we can sometimes strive to interact with them (What would Moshe do? What’s troubling Rashi? etc.).

And it is particularly difficult to relate to the vast swathes of the Torah that are about irrelevant things, like the sacrificial cult in the Temple, which has not been active for nearly two millennia, and will likely never be re-established.

Somewhere in the middle, though, between narrative and sacrifices, are the lists of laws.  Here in the depths of Devarim, we find lots of them.  Some we like.  Some make us uncomfortable.  Thank God for the lens of rabbinic literature for helping us to understand that we do not ACTUALLY have to put anybody to death.  (Aside from the difficult moral quandaries that this would place us in, it would also not be so good for synagogue membership.)

And the essence of our relationship with the Torah and Judaism is building those personal connections with the text; wrestling with it; agreeing and disagreeing with it, and so forth.

As the High Holidays approach, now is the time to consider how we might renew our covenant, and particularly here at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Judaism is as much about thinking and learning as it is about doing (i.e. prayer, saying qaddish, mitzvot, etc.). Ours is an intellectual tradition. In this season of return, perhaps we can consider returning to the foundational principles of the synagogue: that it should be not only a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, but also a beit midrash, a house of study. Let’s rededicate ourselves to learning about and redefining our relationships to Judaism through learning, discussing, and passing our textual heritage from generation to generation.

Along those lines, there are two things I want you to know about:

  1. I am starting up a learners’ service that will meet on one Shabbat morning per month, the second Shabbat morning of each month. I think that the entire community has the potential to benefit from learning more about tefillah / prayer. Due to various logistical considerations, it will not start until December. It will be primarily for beginners, but even veteran daveners will be able to learn as well.
  2. The other thing is that, in collaboration with a number of key members of the congregation, I have put together a concept for this community that will help transform Beth Shalom into that beit midrash in addition to being a beit tefillah. The concept is the Open Community Beit Midrash program at Beth Shalom. We will be approaching major donors with this concept as a part of the greater fundraising plan connected with our centennial year celebration. But the goal is to offer a whole new range of programming, the likes of which have not been seen in Squirrel Hill. The centerpiece will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, wherein all will be welcome to come and learn, regardless of their background, knowledge, experience, membership status, sexuality, whatever. This new arm of Beth Shalom has the potential to renew and reinvigorate not just this synagogue, but the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I’ll speak more about this concept on Yom Kippur itself, but I wanted to give you all a taste while we were on the subject of renewal.

Meanwhile, use these holidays to reconsider your commitment to our intellectual heritage.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/17/2016.)

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Comedy and the Jews – Shofetim 5776

The Jewish world has lost (at least) two luminaries summer: Elie Wiesel, who passed away in July, and Jerome Silberman, aka Gene Wilder, who died nearly two weeks ago.

We will surely invoke Mr. Wiesel’s memory over the course of the High Holidays, but I think that the proper way to celebrate Mr. Wilder’s life is to recall his humor. And, while we’re at it, to remind ourselves that the Jews practically invented comedy.

A few years back, Robin Williams (alav hashalom) said the following:

I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think that you killed all the funny people?’

We do not tend to think of our ancient Jewish texts – the Torah, the Talmud, and so forth – as being funny. Today’s parashah, Shofetim, for example? Not a funny word in it. Most of it is about our obligations to uphold various commandments, and particularly with respect to law and order. Taking responsibility for an unclaimed, murdered corpse (Deut. 21:1ff)? Not funny. Not destroying fruit trees during a siege (20:19-20)? Not funny. The whole eye-for-an-eye thing (Deut. 19:21)? Definitely not funny.

And yet Jewish life and culture has produced many, many funny people. Allen Konigsberg, known to the world as Woody Allen, once quipped that the Jewish response to centuries of persecution was that we learned to talk our way out of a tight spot. A brief look at Comedy Central’s list of the top 100 stand-up comedians yields four Jews in the top ten. One surprising outcome of the Pew Research study about American Jews from October 2013 is the following: In responding to the statement, “[blank] is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me,” 42% said, “Having a good sense of humor.” (It was the sixth item on the list.)

So where did this wonderful sense of humor come from, if not from our ancient texts? Perhaps, along the lines of Woody Allen’s statement, persecution and oppression indeed produced the Jewish smart-aleck. With all the misery in Jewish history, how could we not respond with humor? Comedy is, after all, human failure; Mel Brooks once defined comedy as follows: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Let’s face it: Jewish history is riddled with human failure. We understand comedy.

And of course, we are masters of the word, the People of the Book, and our greatest scholars have dedicated their lives to parsing our ancient texts. This has refined the way that we Jews use words. Words in our tradition are valuable; they are to be adored, examined, deconstructed and reconstructed again. The inevitable result is the ability to spin every tale, happy, tragic, or otherwise, in multiple directions. It therefore became a Jewish tradition to use words not only for teaching and learning, but also, as a natural outgrowth, for amusement.

I would also like to point out that although our Jewish sources might seem somewhat unfunny, there is the occasional humorous moment. For example, there is the moment in Parashat Balaq when Bil’am’s donkey opens his mouth to berate his rider (Numbers 22:28-30; it is surely not a coincidence that the 2001 movie Shrek features a talking donkey, among other Jewish hints). Or when the prophet Elisha is taunted by a pack of little boys, saying “Go away, baldy!” And so he curses them, whereupon two bears come out of the woods and mangle forty-two of them (II Kings 2:23-24).

But the Talmud is a richer source.

For example:

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 23b

מתני׳. ניפול הנמצא בתוך חמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של בעל השובך, חוץ מחמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של מוצאו

גמ’. בעי ר׳ ירמיה: רגלו אחת בתוך נ׳ אמה ורגלו אחת חוץ מחמשים אמה, מהו? ועל דא אפקוהו לרבי ירמיה מבי מדרשא.

Mishnah: If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a cage for raising pigeons), it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it…

Gemara: Rabbi Jeremiah asked: if one foot of the bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the Beit Midrash.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a

אמר ליה קיסר לרבי תנחום: תא ליהוו כולן לעמא חד. ־ אמר: לחיי, אנן דמהלינן לא מצינן מיהוי כוותייכו, אתון מהליתו, והוו כוותןִ ־ אמר ליה: מימר ־ שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי למלכא ־ לשדיוה לביבר, שדיוה לביבר ולא אכלוה. אמר ליה ההוא מינא: האי דלא אכלוה ־ משום דלא כפין הוא, שדיוה ליה לדידיה ־ ואכלוה.

Caesar said to Rabbi Tanhum, “Come, let us become one people.”

Rabbi Tanhum replied, “By my life, we who are circumcised cannot become like you. You, then, should become circumcised and be like us.”

“A very good answer, Caesar replied. “Unfortunately, anybody who defeats the emperor in an argument must be thrown to the lions.” So they threw Rabbi Tanhum to the lions. But the lions did not eat him.

An unbeliever who was standing nearby said, “The reason the lions do not eat him is that they are not hungry.”

To test this theory, they threw the unbeliever to the lions, and they ate him.

Comedy: human failure.

A piece of Gene Wilder’s work that crossed my e-desk this week was a clip from The Frisco Kid, in which Wilder plays a rabbi from Poland traveling across the US in 1850 to serve a Jewish community in San Francisco, and to bring them a sefer Torah. There is a scene where the rabbi and his traveling companion, a bank robber played by Harrison Ford, are captured by unfriendly natives, and Wilder’s character expresses his willingness to trade everything, including his life, for the sake of the Torah.

It’s not a funny scene, and it certainly contains potentially damaging stereotypes about Native Americans.

But put in the context of Wilder’s body of work, I think there is a larger message we as contemporary Jews can draw from this: Even as we cling to our ancient textual tradition, we should do so along with a sense of humor.gene-wilder-picture-9

Wilder was not a traditionally-practicing Jew. But he was deeply connected, as most of us are, to his heritage. He was an actor. But the fact that this scene sits alongside, say, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (one of my favorite movies, BTW), suggests something about the nature of how we live today. The Torah is not relegated to a library. It is part of us, and we should approach it in the context of all of the enjoyable, playful parts of our lives along with the serious moments, along with the grief, along with the all of the challenges we face.

Our tradition is malleable; the ancient words of Jewish wisdom sparkle as much today as they did 2,000 years ago. But they are not meant to sit on a shelf and collect dust. They are supposed to bring joy into our lives.

Some of you may know that Gene Wilder left this world in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. I find it particularly upsetting to picture Mr. Wilder gripped with that affliction; this man who brought us so many laughs, who at the end of his life would not even be able to recall the punch line, much less the rest of the joke. It seems to me a particularly ironic way for a Jewish comedic actor to go out.

But it is also a reminder of a gem of wisdom from our tradition:

Yalqut Shim’oni, Eqev, 850 (on Deut. 7:25):

אין אדם בעולם בלא יסורין

There is no human being in the world without afflictions.

There is, as they say, one more star in the sky, but the rest of us down here are left in a slightly less-humorous world. Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. And I hope that we can keep laughing, even as we cling to the values of Torah.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2016.)

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Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

****

What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)

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Why I Love Camp Ramah – Mattot/Mas’ei 5776

I love summer camp. And in particular, I love Camp Ramah, with which I have a relationship extending now back 36 years, to my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (In case you do not know, Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement; there are 13 North American camps plus affiliated programs in Israel, Ukraine, and Argentina.)

We arrived at Camp Ramah in Canada pretty late at night – it was 11:00 by the time we found our way to the guest cottage, which was far nicer than any such accommodations that I have seen at any of the other Ramah camps (I’ve now been to five of them, including the day camp in Jerusalem, where I worked in the summer of 2000 as a music specialist). The night air was cool – it was 63 degrees – and the stars were bright and vivid.

This camp really feels like the end of the world. Having never been so far north in Ontario before, I could not help feeling as we drove there that we kept taking turns onto smaller and smaller roads, finally ending up on a dirt pathway as we entered the camp property. The camp’s official address is on “Fish Hatchery Road,” which sounds far more organized than the rural environment reveals. (Curiously, my alma mater, Camp Ramah in New England, is also down the road from a fish hatchery. Coincidence?)

Nonetheless, the camp was alive and pulsing with energy when we pulled in – the staff was having a late-night barbecue, and we were promptly offered hot dogs, which we politely declined.

And, it wouldn’t be camp without some mayhem, so as we were getting into bed, all the smoke detectors in the guest cottages went off, dragging everybody out of bed and frightening my 7-year-old son greatly. But it was an opportunity to meet our neighbors and chat for a bit, so it wasn’t too bad. And that’s sometimes how camp works: you plan as thoroughly as you can, and then something sends your fabulous program gloriously off-course. But you adjust and go with the flow, and everything mostly works out fine in the end.

So we spent three and a half days there, playing soccer and frisbee, dunking in the agam (lake) and davening, dining in the hadar okhel (dining hall), lying around in the sun, welcoming and saying goodbye to Shabbat with all of the nearly 600 campers and staff together in raucous song.

What I love about camp are the following things:

  1. Being away from the craziness of everyday life, and replacing that with a totally different kind of more-rustic craziness.
  2. Kids enjoying themselves away from digital devices, which, if not the scourge of humanity, are at least a plague on those parenting teenagers.
  3. Timelessness. Camp does not change that much, and there is something beautiful in that.
  4. The sounds of camp: the breeze at night; the powerful sound of singing and pounding on the tables in the hadar okhel, the dining hall; the sound of Jewish kids playing basketball and dancing Israeli folk dances and preparing a musical in Hebrew and just hanging around on the migrash (field).
  5. The Jewish framework. OK, so camp teaches a few things about Judaism fairly well, and a few things not so well. But the most essential thing that camp teaches very well is the rhythm of the Jewish week, the implicit foundation on which all other camp structures are built: six days of work, and the seventh day of rest. Tefillah / prayer three times a day. Expressing gratitude before and particularly after eating. Jewish text here and there, as a part of the environment.

But the thing that I love about camp the most is that it is the most successful Jewish educational endeavor that we have ever crafted, mostly because it teaches Jewish kids about Judaism in an informal way, that does not let on that it’s education. The Hebrew language is integrated into all facets of camp, from announcements at meals to learning to play volleyball. Yes, there is formal Judaic learning in daily shi’urim (lessons), but Jewish life saturates every aspect of camp. Love of Israel is reinforced in many ways, from the presence of a delegation of Israeli staff to Israeli pop music played over the PA system in the hadar okhel. Torah and Jewish text are infused into many activities.

It is the informality that makes camp work. Jewish life simply happens in the context of summer activities. Camp is not like Hebrew school, wherein kids get 5 or 6 hours a week of Jewish instruction. It’s actually even more powerful than day school, because it’s a kind of immersion. There is no quick dip into Judaism before returning to regular, not explicitly Jewish activities. Camp is 24/7 Judaism. It never stops.

And the secret to continuity in Jewish life is that ongoing connection. Today’s world is very fragmented: all of our activities are siloed. Work is separated from family time which is separate from school which is separate from entertainment and on and on. It can be very isolating to live in that environment. Judaism, for the vast majority of Jews, is what you do on a Saturday morning, or on Yom Kippur, or when there’s a family bar mitzvah. But our ancestors did not live that way. The rabbis of the Talmud see Torah as a part of all facets of our lives, from business to romantic relationships to recreation to family. And camp endeavors to create that environment in a way that our lives at home may not.

Does it always succeed? No. But the impact of camp can be quite strong, nevertheless.

One of the items appearing in Parashat Mas’ei is the list of places which the Israelites passed through on the way from slavery to freedom. It is a catalog of place names with no detail given as to what each place was like or if anything happened there during their visit. However, a midrash (from Tanhuma) understood this passage as being an important historical record for our ancestors to recall what happened at each stage of the journey through the desert: here is where we slept; here we caught a cold; here you told me that your head hurt. (You know the Israelites… always complaining!)

And, as you know, we have continued to journey as a people. We continue to grow and change as human civilization moves forward. My Jewish world is quite different from that of my great-grandparents. Even so, camp is a model that continues to work, and only at the Ramah camps do our children learn about the open, egalitarian, and yet traditional form of Judaism to which we are committed.

Here is where a young woman donned a tallit for the first time. Here is where we made connections with young Israelis who represent the Jewish state while teaching Hebrew and volleyball. Here is where a boy learned how to chant the Torah from his madrikh (counselor). Here is where a girl played a lead role in a production of the famous Broadway musical, Kannar al haGag (Fiddler on the Roof).

We had seven kids there from Pittsburgh last weekend, including two of my own. But we can do better than that. If we want to help our children along that traditional, egalitarian journey, Ramah is where they should be.

Shabbat ended as it had come in: cacophonously, with music and prayer, and the entire camp gathered together for ritual. And I recalled the camp days of my youth, and the havdalah ceremonies that seemed so powerful, so evocative, so connective. You grow older, you leave camp – camp is for the young, and your journey continues and takes you elsewhere. You leave camp. But camp never leaves you.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2016.)

 

Categories
Sermons

Letter from the Tel Aviv Beach – Huqqat 5776

A funny thing happened on my way to Israel.

Apparently, an anonymous threat had indicated that there was an explosive device located in one of the plane’s kitchens. Nothing was found, even after searching the aircraft upon landing. For a brief time in Swiss airspace, we were accompanied by Swiss fighter jets, although I am not sure what they would have done if there had in fact been a bomb on the plane (God forbid!). Perhaps they would have evacuated us in mid-air, James Bond style?

I emerged from baggage claim into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, and there was a sea of journalists with TV cameras and microphones and all sorts of recording devices. Since I had not checked any bags, I was among the first to emerge, and was accosted by a posse of them, who were asking questions like, “Do you know anything about the alerts? Did you hear anything? What happened on the flight?” My answers were not very interesting, because they had not told us a single thing (or if they did, I was asleep at the time). From my perspective, the flight had been utterly, completely normal. In retrospect, they probably did not let us know that there had been a bomb threat, because it might have led to chaos on the plane.

The rest of my week in Israel was far less exciting. Nonetheless, no matter how many times I go back, Israel is always magical to me. I often wish, as I am traveling around the Jewish state, that I could collect all of the little moments of amazement that strike me – the sunset over the Mediterranean, the beauty of the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee as seen from the mountains all around, the ironies of the Byzantine rules of Israeli bureaucracy, the striking entrepreneurship of the Israeli people, the scene of Orthodox families rubbing shoulders with vacationing Arab families on the Tiberias boardwalk, and on and on.

I must say, however, that there is no place that makes me feel more proud to be Jewish than the Tel Aviv beach. Yes, the sand and the scene are awesome, and the water is warm and inviting, and the people are friendly and the mood is groovy. But even more than that, it reminds me of the central thing that I love about the modern State of Israel: that it is completely normal for there to be a beach, where completely normal beach things happen, in the Jewish state.

tel-aviv-beaches

What I see on the beach is not merely the sand and the waves and the volleyball and the surfers, but rather the ordinariness of it all, that people of all walks of life and backgrounds and religions and ethnicities can gather in this place to simply enjoy the few moments of freedom they have before returning to the rest of their normalcy. The beach is a great equalizer: everybody parks themselves on the same sand; everybody dips into the same water.

And yet, the lifeguards are calling through their megaphones in Hebrew. And the meat served in the beach restaurant is kosher (even if the restaurant itself is not hekhshered). And you are only a few steps away from the Trumpeldor cemetery, where some of the greatest figures in Zionism and Israel’s fine and performing arts are interred. And as you look both directions, north and south along the Mediterranean shore, you see more and more buildings as the city with the world’s largest Jewish population continues to grow and reshape itself. And the tourists and residents and guest workers and diplomats and journalists on the beach who are chatting in French, Italian, German, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic, American English, Australian English, English English, Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, and a bunch of others that I can’t even recognize all know that they are in a Jewish land.

My son and I spent many hours on the beach last Shabbat, most of the time body-surfing the voluptuous waves (is it OK for a rabbi to use the word “voluptuous”?). And while he was merely enjoying the beach like everybody else, I was in a state of Zionist reverie, reflecting on how special this ordinariness was.

The only thing that interrupted this dreamy afternoon was how filled the water was with non-biodegradable refuse: fragments of plastic bags, Q-tips, bottle caps, swathes of netting, lost undergarments, and a variety of less-mentionables. Indeed, at first I collected a few larger items and brought them to shore to dispose of properly. But there were just too many to deal with – a sign both of Israel’s tremendous success as a destination and the downside to overloading the system.

The other item of unpleasantness was a small altercation between a down-on-his-luck panhandler with a nasty skin disease and an American busker. The American had apparently set up his guitar-based operation too close to the panhandler, and so my son and I happened to be walking by when the panhandler threw a plastic bottle filled with water at the busker in the middle of a song as he stormed off in anger to find a better location.

I suppose that one thing we learn from the beach is complexity, that Israel is not simply some picture-perfect Disneyland where the streets are paved with Jerusalem stone and everybody frolics in Judaic glee. On the contrary – Israel is a complicated place where the politics reflect the diversity of all of its residents. And all the more so – the sea of languages heard at the beach is a small representation of all of the voices who are weighing in on the fate of this tiny country and its range of prickly-on-the-outside-but-sweet-on-the-inside people.

The early Zionist writer Asher Tzvi Ginsberg, known generally by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am, envisioned Israel as the merkaz ruhani – the Jewish “spiritual center,” guided not by halakhah / Jewish law necessarily, but by the values that Judaism teaches us. While there were several competing varieties of Zionism extant in the early 20th century, you could make the case that Ahad Ha’am’s was the one that probably came closest to being fulfilled. And it is certainly my merkaz ruhani: I go there to recharge.

One poem that often resurfaces when I am visiting Israel is Yehuda Amichai’s Tayyarim / Tourists:

תיירים / יהודה עמיחי

בקורי אבלים הם עורכים אצלנו

יושבים ביד ושם, מרצינים ליד הכותל המערבי

וצוחקים מאחורי וילונות כבדים בחדרי מלון,

מצטלמים עם מתים חשובים בקבר רחל

ובקבר הרצל ובגבעת התחמושת

בוכים על יפי גבורת נערינו

וחושקים בקשיחות נערותינו

ותולים את תחתוניהם

ליבוש מהיר

באמבטיה כחולה וצוננת

פעם ישבתי על מדרגות ליד שער במצודת דוד, את שני הסלים

הכבדים שמתי לידי. עמדה שם קבוצת תיירים סביב המדריך

ושימשתי להם נקודת ציון. “אתם רואים את האיש הזה עם

הסלים? קצת ימינה מראשו נמצאת קשת מן התקופה הרומית.

קצת ימינה מראשו”. “אבל הוא זז, הוא זז!” אמרתי בלבי

הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת

מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה

ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

 

 

Tourists – תיירים

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.

They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,

They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall

And they laugh behind heavy curtains

In their hotels.

They have their pictures taken

Together with our famous dead

At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb

And on Ammunition Hill.

They weep over our sweet boys

And lust after our tough girls

And hang up their underwear

To dry quickly

In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists

was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see

that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch

from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,

left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

***

The day-to-day normalcy of human existence to which Amichai points, coupled with Ahad Ha’am’s vision of the spiritual center were demonstrated in abundance all over Israel as I collected my moments of amazement. Israel is neither a merely a museum of ancient ruins nor a bookshelf full of stories stretching back thousands of years. It is a society that exhibits all of the positives and negatives of human existence. It is upon us all to take that into consideration as we ponder and weigh in on Israel’s future, the future of not just the holy sites, not just the ancient connections, but of all the very real people who live there. And we should measure Israel not by Yad Vashem and the Kotel and the high places of Christianity and Islam, but by Israeli willingness to continue living those Jewish values, by being a light not only to the nations  but even unto Diaspora Jews.

Ahad Ha’am is buried in the Trumpeldor Cemetery, a stone’s throw from the Tel Aviv beach. And I am certain that he is grinning and stroking his beard as he contemplates what the Zionist dream has become. Imperfect, yes. But also beautiful.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2016.)