Reality Takes a Bite Out of Nostalgia – Vayiqra 5783

I had one very Zionist day this past week. 

It was not Monday, when my older son completed his service in the IDF, where he has been serving as a combat medic for 2.5 years, packed his bags and went home to his kibbutz. He is thrilled to be free, and we are all relieved.

On Sunday, my family and I were in New York City for the 30th anniversary concert of HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir. This is an annual concert at Lincoln Center which brings together HaZamir chapters from all over the United States and from Israel, about 200 teens sing together after having practiced back home for months. Our Pittsburgh chapter sent eight teens to sing along, a healthy representation. It is an event which is extraordinarily powerful and moving to me, and not just because my daughter was singing along with a sea of sopranos.

The concert is a nexus of some of the things which I hold most dear: Jewish life and culture, Hebrew choral music, an unabashed love of the State of Israel and its musical culture, and to some extent a certain nostalgia. Truth is, I wept more tears at this concert than I had in a long time. It was extraordinarily moving. To hear Naomi Shemer’s anthem Lu Yehi, based on the Beatles’ classic Let it Be, in 4-part harmony, sung by the generation of young people who will inherit all of our worldly messes, fills me with a certain yearning and pride and sadness and hope that can only be captured in the language of the Torah, which is very much a living language today:

מה קול ענות אני שומע
קול שופר וקול תופים
כל שנבקש לו יהי
לו תישמע בתוך כל אלה
גם תפילה אחת מפי
כל שנבקש לו יהי

The anguished voices I hear,
The sound of the shofar and the sound of drums,
All that we ask for, let it be,
And if within all of them should be heard,
A single prayer from my lips,
All that we ask for, let it be.

That was Sunday afternoon. Judy and Zev and I spent the morning prior to the concert walking around Manhattan and taking in some of the sights. And it just so happened that we stumbled across a very different form of Zionist engagement going on in Washington Square Park: a protest against the Israeli government attended by a few hundred people, and judging from the Hebrew spoken all around us, most of the attendees were Israelis living in NYC. The park was filled with Israeli flags; there were speakers and chants and signs. They decried the Netanyahu government and the current judicial reforms package with chants of “Bushah, bushah.” Shame, shame. 

The contrast between these two events was quite stark. One was primarily a celebration of Israeli culture and music (OK, so there were a few compositions by American Jewish composers, but a majority of the music was Israeli) and included a brief address by Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN. The other brought into focus all of the challenges and divisiveness facing Israeli society at this moment.

I hope by now that you have heard about these protests. They are taking place all over Israel, as well as in cities all over the world which have significant Israeli ex-pat communities, including London, Berlin, New York, and even Pittsburgh. In Israel, for example, on Thursday, perhaps as many as 500,000 Israelis went into the streets all over the country in what was billed by organizers as a “day of paralysis.” In Tel Aviv, water cannons were even used to disperse crowds who were blocking roads.

Israeli politics are complicated, occasionally vicious, and always in your face. Israelis are not shy about telling you how they really feel on any subject, and it is not unusual to go at it with your cab driver about politics or even with a stranger in a cafe. And given that the governing coalition which has proposed these reforms in the Knesset has a 64-56 majority, the nation is extraordinarily divided right now, to the point where many observers of all stripes are calling it a “constitutional crisis,” despite the fact that Israel has no constitution.

This is, however, the greatest existential threat that Israel has ever faced. Yes, Iran might soon have nuclear weapons. Yes, Hizbullah and Hamas are right nearby, occasionally sending rockets and flaming balloons and digging tunnels under the borders. But Israel has never faced a threat of this nature, and the threat is entirely internal. Half a million protesters on the streets of a nation of 9.5 million people would be equivalent to about 18 million Americans stopping traffic on the streets of our nation. Imagine what it would take to cause that kind of disruption. Military reservists are not showing up for duty. High-tech companies and entrepreneurs are pulling their capital out of the country. High-profile retired politicians and judges and military officers have spoken out against the reforms. The president, who usually plays a ceremonial role, has stepped into the fray to try to bring about a compromise. 

Israel’s enemies are licking their lips at the internal chaos. (See Amos Harel’s piece in Foreign Policy.)

Tel Aviv, March 25, 2023.

This Netanyahu-led government came together at the end of December, and includes not only the center-right Likud party but also Orthodox and right-wing parties, the leaders of some of which are in fact convicted criminals and also express views which many of us find odious. 

They have proposed an onslaught of legislation, including the judicial reforms, the first one of which was passed Thursday, shielding the Prime Minister from criminal prosecution while in office. This particularly benefits Netanyahu, who is currently facing corruption charges.  

But the most controversial legislation on the table would grant the ability to the Knesset to overturn decisions of the Supreme Court and to have a heavy hand in picking Supreme Court judges, thereby dramatically reducing the independence of the judiciary.

Other bills which the coalition has indicated that they will introduce would allow greater political control of the police, increase the authority of rabbinical courts (which of course are Orthodox), and, of greatest concern to Diaspora Jewry, modify the Law of Return to eliminate the current provision that any person with at least one Jewish grandparent, regardless of halakhic status, may become a citizen. 

You may know that this law, the first law established by the State, is guided by the intent to ensure that there will always be a safe haven for Jews; having one Jewish grandparent was enough for the Nazis to put you on a train to a death camp.

While there are certainly arguments on either side of these proposed changes, a healthy segment of Israelis feel that these changes would fundamentally alter the nature of Israel’s democracy, endangering minority rights, elevating religious control in the public sphere, and creating an environment that smacks of dictatorship. Israel has no formal constitution, but democracy requires that majority rule respect minority rights, and this is what many feel the Netanyahu government is threatening to destroy.

Much of what we do as Jews is based on a kind of national nostalgia. We have a theoretical ideal of behavior, identified in the Torah, and a blueprint in the Talmud and later literature to help us attempt to live out that ideal in changing times and circumstances. We read in Parashat Vayiqra about the qorbanot, the sacrifices carried out by our Israelite ancestors in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary used while wandering in the desert for 40 years, and then later, in already changed circumstances, in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

The very idea of animal sacrifice is anathema to us today. When the Romans destroyed the Beit haMiqdash in the year 70 CE, we ended that practice. Thank God! We have a better method of worship today, with a lot less blood, which is more portable and more sustainable. And yet we still read about the theoretical ideal, which we long ago replaced. And there are plenty of other examples from Jewish life. The reality of Jewish practice today includes, if you will, the nostalgia for what we used to do, even though we no longer do it.

The State of Israel is about to turn 75 years old. And as much as we should maintain our nostalgia for the theoretical ideal of what the Jewish state is, contemporary reality has taken a bite out of nostalgia.

Why am I telling you about all of this? Because all the more so at this moment, we as American Jews who care about Israel need to pay attention. We need to ensure, as much as we can from a distance, that the crisis in Israel does not tear the Jewish state and the Jewish people apart. Several major American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America, have issued statements urging compromise to preserve democracy and minority rights in Israel.

It is not necessarily up to us in the galut / Jewish diaspora to help identify the compromise position which, I hope, the Knesset will hammer out. But we must raise our voices in support of democracy in Israel.

We cannot only play in the nostalgia for the past; we must also be a part of the current moment. We too are part of the picture. We have a stake in the future of Israel – of its safety and security, of its stability, of its presence in our lives as the merkaz ruḥani, the spiritual center of the Jewish people, and, God forbid, as a haven if needed.

Every Shabbat morning here at Beth Shalom, we recite the Prayer for the State of Israel, which we sang just a few moments ago. And we prayed to God that the leaders and advisors of the Jewish state be guided by God’s light and truth, and that the inhabitants of the State and the entire region be blessed with a lasting peace and joy.

Ladies and gentlemen, please pray harder. And also consider the following:

  1. Local Israelis are hosting a weekly protest here in Pittsburgh on Sundays at 4 PM at the corner of Forbes and Murray. All are invited to join.
  2. Beth Shalom will be hosting a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on Yom HaAtzma’ut, in celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday, and in acknowledgment of our desire for Israel to maintain its foundational values.
Pittsburghers protesting judicial reforms in Israel, March 2023. The Hebrew sign says, “Without an independent judiciary, there is no democracy.” Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle / photo credit: David Rullo.

כל שנבקש, לו יהי

May everything that we seek be granted; may peace reign once again in Israel and among all the people who call themselves Yisrael.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/25/2023.)


From Remembrance to Building – Vayyeshev 5779

Some of you were with me last Monday evening at the Federation’s communal ceremony marking the end of sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period. It was an appropriate conclusion to the most emotional month of my life. A remarkable moment was a video address from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth of Nations (i.e. the former British Empire). He pointed out that sheloshim marks the end of the most intense grieving, the period of looking back at the lives of those lost, and a transition to looking forward, to the future. He gave as an example the three incidences in the book of Bereshit / Genesis where the word, “Vayizkor,” he remembered, appears. They are as follows:

Vayizkor Elohim et Noah (Bereshit / Genesis 8:1)

God remembered Noah and brought him out of the ark onto dry land to begin again.

Vayizkor Elohim et Avraham (Bereshit / Genesis 19:29)

God remembered Avraham and rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom

Vayizkor Elohim et Rahel (Bereshit / Genesis 30:22)

God remembered Rahel and gave her a child.

In each case, Rabbi Sacks observed, the remembrance is about looking toward the future. God remembered each of those characters, and the remembering leads to forward movement, to building. “In Judaism,” he said, “all remembering is about the future, and about life. We cannot change the past, but by remembering it, we can change the future.”

It’s worth noting that, with respect to Jewish tradition, the ceremony on Monday evening was too early. Sheloshim is actually measured not from the date of death, but, as with shiv’ah, from the date of burial. And so, for the families of the 11 souls taken by a Jew-hater with an assault rifle, sheloshim following the final burial actually ends tomorrow.

As some of you may know, we have been reading the names of the 11 murder victims at every service, morning and evening, and reciting kaddish together. And I think it is fitting that we continue to recite those names until the full twelve months of mourning is complete.

But now that sheloshim is ending, it is time for us to also look forward, to the future, as Rabbi Sacks suggests. This is going to be a year of rebuilding: rebuilding ourselves and our community.

And in particular, this is also a year of rebuilding Beth Shalom. This is a dream that we have been pursuing in the three and a half years that I have been here, and perhaps it is time to look forward with even more intensity.

Speaking of dreams, you may recall that the master of dreams in the Torah is none other than our hero Yosef, whose dreams are featured heavily in Parashat Vayyeshev, which we read today. Yosef has dreams that come true, or explains dreams for others, which also come true.

Part of the Sulam for Strategic Planners process, in which we are engaged right now, is setting before ourselves a dream, a vision for the future which we will make come true. At a visioning session with the Board of Trustees three weeks ago, we spent time notating and discussing our dreams for this community. Dreams of this sort do not simply happen; they need to be planned, discussed, and acted upon.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Two weeks ago, after Shabbat, nes gadol hayah poh – a great miracle happened here. We had two events in this building: a concert featuring the a capella singing group Pizmon, attended by somewhere near 500 people, and a silent auction fundraiser attended by more than 250 people. Held back-to-back, these events took a huge amount of effort to pull off. While a few of the organizers were paid staff members of Beth Shalom, the vast majority of the hours spent putting these things together were volunteer time – members of the congregation who sacrificed from their busy days and evenings to help build something wonderful. (I cannot name them all, for fear that I might miss somebody, but thank-yous are posted in the building today.) And we are grateful.

The good news is that we raised a small amount of money, in the vicinity of $24,000, including sponsorships. That’s wonderful. But even more valuable than the funds raised is the sense of community created by volunteers working together to build something. Nearly 70 people, young and not-so, members and non-members, long-time Pittsburghers and recent transplants gave their time to make it happen. And coordinating all those people for that one evening was no small feat. But at the end of the evening, they all went home with a sense of satisfaction, feeling as though they had accomplished something special. Because they did.

And what comes from this is a sense of community, of togetherness, a feeling that we all really needed two weeks ago, and we still need right now.

And that is truly what a synagogue is for. Yes, the services; yes, the learning; yes, the occasional bar mitzvah. But what makes this place a qehillah qedoshah, a community forged in holiness, is the willingness that we all have to show up and make it holy with our presence, our time, our good spirits, and our desire to build.

Vayizkor Elohim et Noah, et Avraham, et Rahel. God remembers us, and we build the future. As we turn now to the dream of rebuilding, we need you. We need to engage more of you to make that future even more luminous.

Here is what we need:

  • We need you to come to a couple of community conversations that are coming up: First, on Dec. 20th with the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, to discuss how our relationship with other faith communities can be heightened through social action
  • Another community conversation in the winter, as part of building a new vision for the strategic plan process
  • We need you to help us plan and carry out our Purim festivities
  • We need you to help us welcome new members at the New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony in January
  • We need you to help us build a greeting team, so that everybody is properly acknowledged as they enter our building
  • We need you to help us build a social action team, as a part of Derekh, to help repair this world and build bridges with our non-Jewish neighbors
  • We need you to help us re-invigorate the Membership Committee. This is an essential committee that connects us all to each other, and right now is in need of new leadership and new ideas. And right now, when we are all looking for community, this body’s role is crucial to building a thriving congregation: connecting members to Shabbat meals, creating affinity groups for various activities, planning a Sunday morning “walking minyan” in the park or a coffee klatch or a spring picnic or a potluck Friday night dinner.

As a part of the Sulam for Strategic Planners process, one of the task forces that will be launched at the end of January will produce a report with recommendations on how to engage more members; another task force will be focused on developing leadership in our community. Right now, there is a lot of inertia in what we do – we are only doing it because that’s the way we’ve always done it. (And I think you know how I feel about that.) We need you to help us find new ways to involve more people in our dreams and our reality.

We have to up our game.

There are two levels of engaged members: those who come to events and programs and services, and those who step forward to make those things happen. What makes us function as a synagogue, ladies and gentlemen, is not that the staff is sitting in the office cooking up plans and going over detailed lists of logistical concerns. Rather, it is your willingness to volunteer for Congregation Beth Shalom to help create magic, like what we saw two weeks ago.

That is my dream: not the one in which the rabbi runs everything. My dream is that we function as a group of people who want so badly to learn about our tradition and practice it and give it to our children that we will gladly give of our precious time to Beth Shalom to make this the most wonderful, supportive, intellectually-rigorous and yet accessible, loving institution it can be.

We need you to build that future, even as we remember the past.

Rabbi Sacks, who gave such an inspiring message for the end of sheloshim, made a subtle editorial choice. There are actually four occurrences of the word “vayizkor,” he remembered, in Bereshit / Genesis. The fourth is (Bereshit 42:9)  “Vayizkor Yosef et hahalomot asher halam lahem.” Yosef remembered the dreams he had about his brothers, dreams which occurred in Parashat Vayyeshev, and they were fulfilled. So too will our dreams be fulfilled, but, as with Yosef, it will take time and plot-twists and some hard work. But we will build the Beth Shalom of our dreams.

As we mark the end of sheloshim, as we connect remembering to building, and as we kindle lights in the coming week to remind ourselves of the need to spread more light in this world, let us turn our energies back into our community. Every hour that you put into making Beth Shalom happen will be repaid to you in triple, in satisfaction and joy and love.


Shabbat shalom, and hag urim sameah, a happy Festival of Lights to you.


The Persistence of Memory, or, Our Future Must Be Rooted in Our Past – Eighth Day Pesah, 5776

Back in February, I spent two days in Florida, visiting members of Beth Shalom on both the east and west coasts. I was on the ground for less than 48 hours, but managed to visit a whole bunch of our “snowbird” members and bring them a little bit of Pittsburgh and Beth Shalom warmth.

My parents are also snowbirds, and in-between I managed to squeeze in a brief visit with them in the St. Petersburg area, including a stop at the Salvador Dalí museum in St. Pete. Dalí, one of the most familiar artists of the 20th century, may be best known his work, “The Persistence of Memory,” which you all know as the desert landscape featuring what appear to be melting clocks. It is an iconic painting, among the most familiar images of 20th-century art. But I have often wondered how Dalí squared the title with the painting’s content.

The Persistence Of Memory Salvador Dali - Wallpaper, High Definition ...

I bring this to your attention because today is one of the handful of days of memory of the Jewish calendar, a Yizkor day. Today is a day when we focus on the persistence of memory, when we recall those who have passed from this world and actively remember what they gave us. But memory is not merely something we exercise when we recite the Yizkor liturgy – it is an essential part of who we are as Jews. Memory keeps us connected not only to our deceased loved ones, but also to our past, to our stories, to our bookshelf, to our families. And it will also be the cornerstone of our future.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the Jewish future, and in particular how to ensure that my children and grandchildren, should they choose to embrace their heritage, will have the option of participating in Jewish rituals that count men and women as equals, of being part of communities that celebrate the diversity of the Jewish world in the context of our wider society, of studying Torah and rabbinic literature in an environment that is not only open to all who want to participate but also incorporates contemporary ideas and theological approaches as well as academic scholarship. We have the ability to guarantee that kind of Jewish world, but we have to act now.

As a part of this thought process, I also consider the tremendous challenge we are facing today in the progressive Jewish world: the vast indifference of many Jews to what goes on within the synagogue walls, the tremendous gap in understanding between what you and I know to be the value of Judaism in today’s world vs. what most not-yet-engaged Jews understand or appreciate.

I have been listening to a new podcast about the future of Judaism, called “Judaism Unbound,” which is a product of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, of which I had never heard until last week. This podcast features discussions by Jews who are willing to think outside the box about Judaism. I wanted to share with you something that these discussions have taken as a sort of postulate: that Jewish life as we know it, particularly the form of Jewish involvement fostered by established Jewish institutions (like this one), is barely alive.

On what basis do they make this assessment? Surely, you say, there are plenty of Jews for whom Jewish life as we have known it throughout our lives is thriving! Look at how many people there are here today! Look at how many families have joined Congregation Beth Shalom in the past year! Look at how many outwardly-traditional Jews you see walking down Murray Avenue!

Yes, it is true that there are many people who are still committed to our classic model of Judaism. But recent demographic data clearly paints a different picture: The overall trend that we see, even as there is new growth and development and activity among traditionally-inclined Jews, is a gradual decrease in involvement in Jewish life by most of American Jewry. We all know this anecdotally, but every demographic study of American Jews of the last several decades (see, e.g. the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study) has confirmed that, even as virtually all Jews profess to be proud of being Jewish, fewer and fewer are practicing traditional forms of Judaism.

Rabbi Benay Lappe, a fellow Conservative rabbi and alumna of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a guest on one of their podcasts. She discusses her theory of the Judaism of the future (largely drawn from her ELI Talk), framing the challenge of today’s Jewish world in the context of Jewish history: in terms of response to a cataclysm in Jewish life (a “crash”), there are only three options: (1) Cling to the past; (2) Reject the past; or (3) Create a new paradigm. She cites the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in the year 70 CE as one significant crash in Jewish history. Some Jews (particularly the Kohanim / priests) wanted to retain the old order (i.e. Option 1). Some (sources say 90%) moved on without the Temple, but with nothing with which to replace it (Option 2).  A very small, fringe group, to whom we today refer as “the Rabbis,” created a new order: study and prayer, and wrote down their ideas in a new set of books that came to be known as the Talmud. That’s Option 3.  And guess what? That’s what we call Judaism today.

There have been other such crashes in the last two millennia, among them the Expulsion from Spain, the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment of the late 18th and 19th centuries), the Shoah. And we have responded. And here we are again – though there has been no one particular event to which we can point, Rabbi Lappe points out that when statistics say that far more people have rejected the current offerings of Judaism (that is, they are going with Option 2) than continue to embrace it (Option 1 – that’s us), we have reached the point of crash. And one can read the statistics that way. 73% of American Jews say that “Remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. Only 19% say that about “Observing Jewish law.”

I present this to you neither to cause you to grieve or lament what is past, nor to make you feel guilty for what you may or may not be doing, but rather to create the positive from the negative. If something is not working, ladies and gentlemen, we have to find the collective will to change it. We have to craft that new paradigm, even as we continue functioning and doing what we traditionally do. And I hope that we can do that in partnership.

And the challenge to institutions like this, and to us as individuals, is that we are still working under the old paradigm. And that makes sense, because our individual and our collective memories are powerful and connective. That is, of course, the persistence of memory.

To return for a moment to Salvador Dalí’s painting, the landscape is Dalí’s native Catalonia. It is familiar, ancestral, brimming with history and culture and heritage. But the other features of the painting are altered and dream-like.

To me, the persistence of memory suggests the moment of paradigm shift. The clocks, representing the regimented time of the past, are no longer functioning in a linear way. One of them is in the process of decay, swarmed with ants who are busy consuming it. The figure in the middle is often thought to be a self-portrait – Dalí himself, warped and oozing, saddled with time that is weighing on him and perhaps holding him down, even as it melts.

But, call me crazy, but I see this as an optimistic portrait. This is at dawn! Look at the light – the sun is rising. The clocks are all between 6 and 7, a time when we wake up and move into a new day. Dalí himself is sleeping, ready to rise and face the world, the old clocks disfigured and perhaps ready to be discarded as life continues. Some see stagnation here; I see hope.

I see in this painting where we are today: on the cusp of a new day.

Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was here two weekends ago not only to install me as your rabbi, but also to bring the message of change in the Conservative movement here to Pittsburgh. He reminded us that while many Conservative synagogues have continued to do what they have always done, the Jews have voted with their feet to go elsewhere, or nowhere at all. But he also pointed out that there will always be a need for synagogues to play the traditional role of helping people through their lives, in sanctifying holy moments and creating a space for people to rejoice and grieve and share stories and learning together. So we have to build on the latter while perhaps re-considering some of the things we have been doing forever.

We are going to work to envision that Option 3. We are going to adapt. But we must remain rooted in the past. Our history, our culture, our literature and liturgy and rituals must be a part of the Jewish future.

My own vision of the Jewish future is in small-group experiences: learning the words of our tradition in intimate settings to glean from them wisdom for how to live in today’s world. Gatherings like our monthly lunch & learns, or like the Melton class on Jewish parenting that was team-taught by our member Danielle Kranjec and myself, which is now continuing as a self-run program by the parents involved.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, on every single Shabbat and Yom Tov, there were eighteen families hosting Shabbat meals for other members of the community? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a monthly passage of Talmud or some other rabbinic text, curated by yours truly, and there were thirty-six study groups of 5-10 people each meeting over the course of the month to study the same passage? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if there were a series of regular social action activities coordinated by members of the congregation in various places all over Pittsburgh? These experiences could be much more powerful, engaging, and popular than what we are currently doing. But we’ll have to think even further outside the box than that.

There will always be, as I said, a need for synagogues, but in order to adapt we will have to think of ways to foster these small groups by providing space and materials and organization, even as we continue to offer traditional services.

Some of us will surely mourn for the kind of Jewish life that we grew up with, the memories of the day when Yizkor days saw the sanctuary packed to the rafters. Some of us will take refuge in other spheres of Judaism. But we will move forward as a people. And we do not really have a choice – the time is now.

So, as we take a moment now to recall those who have left this world, we should also remember how they lived their lives as Jews, and how they would also want their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to continue to live as Jews, and what we can do to make that happen not just tomorrow, but today as well.

Shabbat shalom, and hag sameah.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning and the eighth day of Pesah, 4/30/2016.)


Why We Don’t Edit the Torah – A thought for Parashat Tazria

Don’t you wish you could edit out the things in your life that you don’t like? Wouldn’t it be nice to go back and somehow erase that fantastically embarrassing incident that happened in eighth grade, or to flick a switch that would make your spouse put his/her dishes in the dishwasher instead of in the sink, or to resolve that intractable family dispute? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have exactly the existence that you want, surrounded by exactly the right people in exactly the right circumstances?

This desire is, of course, heightened by our digital tools today: we read only the news we want to read, listen to only the songs we want to hear, friend only the acquaintances we want to friend. But that is not real. Life is not sterile, and it is far more all-encompassing. We take the good with the not-so-good, the satisfying with the bothersome, the pleasurable with the painful.

While there are many things in the Torah with which I struggle, I must confess that Parashat Tazria is among the most challenging. Most of it (Leviticus chap. 13) is about an unidentifiable skin disease (although some older translations, most notably the venerable Hertz humash, translated the Hebrew term “tzara’at” as “leprosy,” it is quite clear that the affliction described is not what is today known as Hansen’s disease). The brief part of the parashah that does not concern tzara’at (Lev. 12) is hardly better; it specifies that a woman who gives birth to a girl has a period of ritual impurity that is twice as long as the one who gives birth to a boy. Ouch.

We can respond by throwing up our hands in disgust, or by perhaps indulging in apologetics. Or maybe we can look past the inherent sexism of the Torah (an unfortunate given, although clearly related to the time in which the text of the Torah unfolded) to see if we can uncover something meaningful to us.

Every such challenge is an opportunity. We are, after all, Yisrael – the people who struggle with God; it is the name given to Jacob following his encounter with the angel in Genesis 32. And we struggle not only with God, but with our holy texts. It is this struggle, the ongoing interpretation and re-interpretation and argument and dissent and quest for meaning in every generation that are integral to Talmud Torah, Jewish learning, that has maintained us as Jews since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Jacob’s Struggle With the Angel - The New Yorker

Perhaps what we might learn from Parashat Tazria is completely outside the text itself. Perhaps the message is that is our duty to keep reading it, and to keep thinking, “Ouch.” Thank God that we do not live in a world in which we think that a baby girl brings twice as much tum’ah, impurity; thank God that we live in a society in which being a woman does not disqualify one from being President of the United States or called to the Torah and counted equally under Jewish law.

Pulling back the lens, we might acknowledge that to appreciate the good things in our lives, we must have the unpleasant experiences with which to compare them. That horrible, painful rejection by the object of your affection in high school makes you love your spouse that much more today. The crushing loss of a departed relative, given some time and distance, enriches your life by urging you to recall the wisdom, love, and support she/he gave you, and that you in turn share with your children and grandchildren.

And so we continue to re-read, struggle with and re-interpret not only the challenging parts of our ancient texts, but also the texts of our lives. That is what makes us feel complete, reminding us of what is truly valuable.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(A version of this post appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, 4/7/2016.)


Listening to Silence – Shemini 5776

When I arrived in Pittsburgh last summer, my family and I took one of the duck-boat tours of downtown. At one point, the tour guide was interrupted by an excessively noisy truck that was passing by, so he diverted momentarily from his canned speech to remark, “We have very loud trucks here in Pittsburgh.” The engineer in me began to wonder if the trucks here were louder than they were anywhere else, and if so, why would that be? Is it because of the air? The confluence of two rivers somehow metaphysically amplifying the sound waves? Echoes from nearby coal mines?

We live in a world that is blessed with much noise, and I am pretty certain that it’s getting noisier, perhaps mostly because of our digital devices. The various notifications, the constant ringtones, people talking at full volume in public places, and so on. Add to this all the noisy things that are vying for our attention: advertisers, celebrities, politicians are all trying to steal our focus. I suspect that the noise is as cacophonous in our heads as it is in our work and play spaces; considering the way that life has been accelerated by the Information Age, the constant interruption makes for difficulty in concentration.

When might we enjoy a wee bit of quiet? I find that it’s increasingly difficult to find respite.

John Cage, excerpt from 4’33” (1952)
Excerpt from 4’33”, by composer John Cage

Silence makes a rather dramatic appearance in Parashat Shemini. Following the mysterious, sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), the Torah states, in a terse, removed voice (Leviticus 10:3, Etz Hayim p. 634):

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן

Vayiddom Aharon.

Aharon was silent.

He has just witnessed the brutal death of his two sons, and he is struck dumb. The Torah doesn’t usually make note of silence; Avraham and Yitzhaq walk together for three days, barely speaking, on the way to the mountain where the father has been instructed to offer up his son, but the Torah never says “Vayiddom Avraham.”

So why here is Aharon silent? What could be going through his head? What does he hear in that painful, absolute quiet?

There are, of course, many possibilities. Rashi says that he receives a reward for his silence: a private word from God; a communication for his ears only.

I like that idea – it is in silence that we might hear God’s voice, the qol demamah daqqah described in the haftarah we read for Parashat Pinehas (I Kings 19:12), the still, small voice (so King James) that the prophet Eliyahu hears only after the mighty wind, the shattering rocks, the earthquake and the fire have all passed by. It is only when we can tune out all of the tremendous noise all around us, not only that which our ears can detect, but all of the other noises of life, the messiness of all the relational challenges we face, the barrage of promotional messages with which we are constantly assaulted, that we can hear that qol demamah daqqah.


Last year, there was a wonderful article in Harper’s Magazine about silence. Well, actually, the article was about the search for neutrinos, which are a type of subatomic particle that is particularly hard to pin down. (I have actually been waiting for a whole year for Parashat Shemini to show up again to use this!) Neutrinos pass through all types of matter without apparently affecting it. The Sun produces many, many neutrinos and sends them our way – we are all constantly being bathed in them – 65 billion per square centimeter per second. That’s an awful lot of extraordinarily tiny particles flowing right through us at all times.

And scientists have an interest in learning more about neutrinos, particularly because they are believed to be a component of so-called dark matter. But it’s kind of hard to learn anything about them when they pass through everything virtually unaffected. How do you measure something that you can’t isolate, and doesn’t interact with anything? One must concede that this is an essential question, not only about neutrinos, but also about how we understand God.

Now here’s the interesting part. In order to understand neutrinos, physicists have created listening stations, with the goal being to create an environment that is as “quiet” as possible. Not just the kind of silence you find in a recording studio, say, or deep in the stacks of a large library, but silence from all of the forms of energy that surround us at all times: radio waves and light waves and all forms of electromagnetic radiation and particles and rays and so forth. Utter, complete silence.

To do this, the neutrino detectors have to be located deep in the Earth, far away from all that noise. The article in Harper’s told of one such listening station, called the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), in Lead, South Dakota.

Almost one mile underground, SURF is a good place to detect neutrinos because it is shielded from all the other noise of the universe. The author of the article in Harper’s, Kent Meyers, describes what this search evoked for him:

I began to think of neutrinos and dark matter as whispers: the most intimate messages of the universe’s voice, carrying its closest secrets to ears that are all but deaf — or, perhaps more accurately, immune, because so other-natured.

Meyers speaks of the voice of dark matter in almost Divine terms.

With Earth itself as part of the instrument, underground labs simply receive. Designed into them is the knowledge that everything floats on a sea. And then there is the tank of water, and deep within it, the core of transparent xenon. The method of an underground lab is less-from-too-much. One feels that lovely lessening in spite of all the money invested — science as introversion and withdrawal, setting up the conditions of silence and waiting for the smallest voice of the universe, the voice of its conception. It’s this poetry I appreciate, the womb of the universe in its dark bigness, its amniotic sea of particles touching that smaller womb we have recognized our tiny Earth to be.

He stops short of using explicit God language. Nonetheless, Meyers casts the Earth as cosmic shield, a protective envelope to which we might retreat in order to find answers to the seminal questions of what we are, the fundamental nature of the universe and ultimately life. To understand Creation, we must return, in some sense, to the first day, in the dark, a quiet that the universe has not known since the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy, Blessed One, said, “Yehi or.” Let there be light (Gen. 1:3).

The Large Underground Xenon dark matter experiment at SURF

What I find so compelling about Meyers’ piece is the idea of blocking everything out so that one might only “hear” that qol demamah daqqah, a still, small voice. The voice of the neutrino must be something similar to that of God – passing through us at all times, and yet nearly impossible to hear.

And as if that were not enough, the article takes it one step further into the theological realm:

What if we have arrived at knowledge that we cannot mine or turn into something — arsenic, dynamite, trucks — that helps us mine something else and in so doing produces, always, another thing we cannot get our minds around? What if dark matter and neutrinos are so out of reach that all we can do is think about them, not manipulate or change them or mix them into new combinations? Of the many revolutions science has offered us — and challenged us with — that could be the quietest and the largest and the most interesting of all.

When I read this article a year ago, my mind immediately went to our yearning to conceive God. Perhaps this is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s sense of wonder, that is, how we react to God in awe, struck by the grandeur of the Divine nature and ascending higher in holiness as we contemplate the Infinite. Or perhaps Martin Buber’s Unconditional Thou. We may have intimate knowledge of a Presence that affects us deeply and personally, and yet we cannot manipulate it or even acknowledge it in human terms, because it is constantly, immediately there.

The search for dark matter evokes our natural desire to listen for and express the ineffable, to uncover the quiet layer of Shekhinah, the lowest emanation of the Kabbalistic Godhead, but we can only do so when it is set against the completely black backdrop of nothingness.

To some today, perhaps the inclination is to give up listening. Why spend the time and money and energy looking for something that may never be heard. To others among us, though, we still hope that a neutrino-like-voice will continue to offer us guidance and hope, love and reassurance.

Perhaps we’ll eventually hear that private message from God, the one that will only come when we have successfully blocked out all the other noise. Meanwhile, keep listening.

Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/2/2016.)


The Mishkan and the Tablet – Terumah 5776

Why do we read the entire Torah? Why don’t we just read the parts that apply to us? There are, after all, vast swaths of the Torah that seem as though they do not.

OK, well, for one thing, the ancient rabbis understood that we are commanded to do so. And, BTW, not just once through each year, but actually three times, according to a passage in the Talmud, Massekhet Berakhot 8a – Shenayim miqra ve-ehad targum. Read it in Hebrew twice, and then once in translation. (Even Numbers 32:3, which is just a listing of place names.)

Description Hebrew Sefer Torah scroll.JPG

Here’s the irony – when Rav Huna made that statement in the name of his teacher Rabbi Ammi, he was living in the third century CE, at least 200 years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and aproximately 1400 years after the period of the mishkan, the Tabernacle used while the Israelites were wandering in the desert. That portable, sacrificial worship center was described in excruciating, monotonous detail in today’s parashah. And yet, if the traditional chronology is to be believed, it was in use for perhaps 300 years, until King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Even in the Middle Ages, when commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, an additional millennium removed from its existence, are still trying to muddle their way through the varieties of fancy cloth, wood, skins of animals that they surely could not have found in the desert, precious metals and stones that were featured in the mishkan’s construction.

And here we are today, in a 140-character world. Aren’t the chapters on the mishkan (mostly repeated again in a few weeks when the Israelites will actually build it) a frightful waste of time? The average teenager could easily send and receive over 150 text messages in the time it takes to read all of the details related to Moses by God. Surely by now the total length of time just spent READING this mass of detail by various Jewish congregations over the last two millennia far exceeds the actual period of usefulness of the mishkan itself.

So why on earth do we read it? And what can we possibly glean from it?

I’m going to come to the answer in a sort of roundabout way, so hold onto those questions for a moment.

*    *    *    *

Time. Accounting for time features so heavily in all the choices we make. And I take issue with the Rolling Stones on this: time is NOT on my side. Instead I’ll go with the Steve Miller Band: Time keeps on slippin’ into the future. And we all seem to have less and less of it.

Let’s face it – Judaism takes time. (Takes money too, but time is, I think, more valuable for most of us.)

And, more to the point, learning to be Jewish takes time. A lot of time. It takes more than 4-6 hours per week, which is generally what we provide our children with. And it takes even more time after the bar/t mitzvah.

My primary goal as a rabbi is to teach Jews about Judaism, and to help shape our congregation around the ongoing learning of our Jewish bookshelf. This task is made far more difficult by some of the parameters of today’s world. Yes, we are all short on time. But even more than that, we are all impatiently waiting for the next text message, the next email, the next 4G-LTE intrusion.

I am beginning to be concerned that the Information Age is, in fact, leading us into a new, tech-savvy Dark Age.

We are living in a great age of misinformation. We have so much more data at our fingertips than we did just 20 years ago. And yet we know, or perhaps are willing to learn, far less. Everything is moving so fast today that depth and intellectual rigor is falling by the wayside.

A few years ago at Temple Israel of Great Neck, we received a visit from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue (the umbrella organization for all the wings of the Conservative movement). He spoke about developing a new model for the institutions of Conservative Judaism, but during the course of his remarks, he pointed out that this is the age of the handheld digital device, and one challenging feature of of these devices is that they allow us to hear and see only the things that we want to hear and see.

The iPod (remember that?), and all the devices that followed it, changed fundamentally the way we relate to information. Unlike the good ‘ol LP, the black vinyl that some of us are still nostalgic for, where you had to get a whole bunch of unremarkable songs along with your favorites, the iPod gave its owner complete control to edit those out, or not even purchase them to begin with.

These devices – tablets, smartphones, and so forth – are tools that keep us in touch, yes, and put all sorts of information at our fingertips. But they also elevate one’s personal choice and taste over all other considerations. Hence the “i” in “iPod” and “iPhone.” And we’ll be seeing a great many more i’s as we move forward. The larger phenomenon at work here is that we are moving into an age in which nobody feels that they have to listen to anything that they do not want to hear.

Here is an example:

Also a few years ago, at UC Irvine, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, noted historian Michael Oren, was invited to give a lecture. A large group, perhaps 50, anti-Israel activists interrupted him, with one student at a time standing up and shouting anti-Israel slogans. As each of these students stood up, they were escorted out by the campus police as their friends cheered.

The president of the university, after the first of these outbursts, reminded the protesters that they were violating school policy, and emphasized that there would be an open Q&A session at the end of Ambassador Oren’s remarks, and that this would be the appropriate forum for challenging him. They continued, not allowing Mr. Oren to speak, until the large group left en masse. 11 people were arrested.

The way that dialogue happens, the way that we solve big problems, is by listening to the one with whom you do not agree. Silencing the discussion, in my mind, produces exactly the opposite effect.

I am certain that we could all think of countless examples of ways in which we do not listen to each other today; one need not look too far past our fractured political system to see that compromise is a lost art.

We are all listening exactly to what we want to hear, and not to each other, or the other side. And that does not bode well, for democracy, public discourse, the State of Israel, or Judaism in general.

And to return to where we started, if we do not have time to listen to all of the words of the Torah, we have as Jews a slim chance of surviving the forces of modernity. And I fear just as much for the rest of America.

So back to why on earth do we read the whole Torah – I’m going to give you the words of Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th-century Iberian commentator and noble:

Do not think that the commandments about the mishkan, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have no value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.

Reading the entire Torah seems, at best, quaint, or perhaps outmoded. But that is, in fact, why we do it. One of the messages of the Torah is that, in the words of the curiously-named Ben Bag-Bag from Pirqei Avot, we turn it over and turn it over, because everything may be found in it. We have to keep looking, not merely hitting the repeat button on those passages that we want to hear. And so we read the details of the mishkan, and the sacrifices, and the barbaric ritual for testing a woman accused of being unfaithful, alongside the commandments to treat one another with respect, and to be just in your business dealings, and to keep the Shabbat. And we need to dedicate enough time to this task to earn our reward in this lifetime and the next.

We have to read the whole Torah. We have to listen to and parse all of its words, even the ones that we do not like, or do not want to hear.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/13/2016.)


Paradigm Shifts, Ancient and Modern – Yitro 5776

I watched a captivating TED talk this week, featuring the futurist author and scholar Juan Enriquez. It was about evolution, and more particularly about how humans are still evolving today. But not only that, but we are in the middle of a particularly rapid period of human evolution. Mr. Enriquez identifies some of the fantastic technological advances of our time, and presents some curious data about the development of the human brain (for example, a doubling in the rate of occurrence of autism in the last decade). He also points out that many of us today take in more information in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. Nobody is sure where we are headed, but Mr. Enriquez proposes that our children will effectively be a different species than we are: he suggests the term “Homo evolutis,” since we are effectively taking control of our own evolution.

We all know that in the course of our lifetimes, the world has changed dramatically. Remember when you were sitting around and having a conversation, and somebody was trying to remember the name of that band that had a single hit in 1972 and then disappeared, and gee, that was such an awesome song, but what were they called? And if nobody knew, you had nowhere to turn. Maybe you could go to the library and ask a reference librarian, but that would only be on Monday morning, and by then you would have forgotten.

Or maybe you remember a time when you had to have explicit directions written out in advance to get to a new friend’s house, and if you got lost along the way, you had to find a payphone. Or that the only way to get a flight ticket was through a travel agent. And if you heard a rumor about a celebrity, there was no way to check to see whether or not it was true. And so forth.

But today, everything has changed. Our children and grandchildren may never understand why rotary telephones did not play video, that television shows were broadcast at a certain time, and if you missed it, you missed it. They will never live in a world in which their every movement, purchase, activity, meal, and preference is not recorded somewhere and stored for later use. Juan Enriquez foresees a time in which our memories may be downloaded, and perhaps shared with others, raising a whole host of new ethical questions.

Humans have been on this Earth for a relatively short while; out of 4.5 billion years, Homo sapiens sapiens, anatomically modern humans, came into existence a mere 100,000 years ago. It is a well-known exercise to put the history of the planet on a year-long timeline; we appear on Dec. 31st, less than twelve minutes to midnight. The Torah came down to us at about 11:59 and 40 seconds. It is clear that we and our tradition are recent arrivals.

2001: A Space Odyssey

And yet, human existence has taken quantum leaps forward at various points. One of those jumps was identified today in Parashat Yitro. This parashah is the lynchpin in the paradigm shift of the Israelite nation. The central metaphor of the Torah, and hence Judaism, reaches its climax with the episode at Sinai. Redemption from Egypt leads to revelation, i.e. the giving of the Torah. And this is, you might say, the fundamental paradigm shift of the Five Books of Moses.

Our ancestors go from slavery to freedom, celebrate their departure from Egypt, and then receive the basis for law and custom, the foundational document of ancient Israelite religion and thousands of years of Jewish history and culture. That’s the entire basis for Judaism right there. Peoplehood. The land of Israel. Our Jewish bookshelf. Customs. Traditions. Halakhah / Jewish law, Jewish values – all delivered in a scant 40 days and 40 nights on an assuming mountain in the desert.

12 Mt. Sinai & Second Coming Compared - Deity and Humanity
Gebel Musa in the Sinai desert

And of course it did not end there – the law-giving continues for the rest of the Torah, another 40 years, a longer period but no more than a rounding error on the scale of geologic time.

And somehow, three millennia or so later, here we are, still debating the meaning of those ancient words, still trying to relate to our tradition in our time, still recalling the Exodus and Mt. Sinai, still observing the seventh day as holy.

And yet, many of us are wondering, will my children take hold of any of this? Or will Homo evolutis reject Judaism and Jewish tradition entirely? Will our history and culture be left only to those who have isolated themselves from the creeping invasion of modernity?

The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a few weeks back about millennials and politics. He cited a range of statistics which show a large gap between millennials (those born after 1980) and all Americans of previous generations, and not only regarding how they vote.

Brooks describes this demographic as “the self-reliant generation.” They are more inclined to understand society as “loosely networked individualism,” and hence far less likely to join institutions, less trusting of people, government, and organizations, and of course, far less likely to belong to religious groups. Brooks summarizes the millennial character in this way:

The general impression one gets is of a generation that is stressed, energetic, creative, skeptical and in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation. Its members have been thrust into a harsher world where it is necessary to be guarded, and sensitive to risk. They want systemic change but there is no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.

The coming generations will be much less likely to think of themselves as part of a people, a nation, a group of any kind, and in particular will be less inspired by our national story.

So that leads me back to the Decalogue, to the Mt. Sinai moment of contact between humans and God, and indeed to the moment earlier today when we re-created that contact by standing together to hear the words of the Aseret HaDibberot. Many of us grew up in a time when collective involvement in many things, including Judaism, was a powerful motivator. One well-known midrash suggests that all Jews, past, present and future, were at Sinai, that the experience of revelation was therefore not a one-time historical event, but that we all accepted the covenant as a nation.

For thousands of years, that has been a comforting thought. That ancient paradigm shift was inspiring and powerful. Our foundational story of slavery -> freedom -> Torah -> Israel was an essential piece of who we are. The Jewish nation, the Jewish collective, kelal yisrael, was nourished by that idea of resonating together in the echoes of Mt. Sinai.

But our children are far more skeptical (and I know this from personal experience) than I ever was as a child. We may in fact be entering a new paradigm, a new phase of the relationship with our tradition.

And, like Juan Enriquez, who wonders aloud whether our subsequent generations will be the same species, I am left with the question, “If our ancient stories do not speak to us as they used to, how are we going to convince our young people of the value of this?”

Now, I’m not into fear. I am not fond of those who promote fear and outsize concern for the future, and I will not engage in that sort of thinking. I do not want to raise the flag of anxiety by screaming, “Oh no! What if my children reject Judaism? What if Judaism disappears?”

Rather, I want us to think of this as a challenge, a healthy opportunity to work harder to engage our descendants, and to think about how we have to change what we do in order to stay relevant. Of course, I have no definite solutions, no concrete answers to the question of, “How do we maintain our tradition?” But I have a few suggestions to help managing this new paradigm from where we stand today:

  1. We must be able to define for ourselves why the Sinai moment, and indeed the whole enterprise of Judaism is valuable to us. And the potential answers cannot include, “I’m Jewish because my parents were,” or “I’m Jewish because I’m not Christian,” or “I’m Jewish to spite Hitler.” Those things may all be true, but they will not speak to millennials.

    Rather, we have to say things like, “I’m Jewish because the teachings of Jewish tradition fill my life with meaning and my head with guidance,” or “I’m Jewish because Judaism keeps me grounded and offers me comfort,” or “I’m Jewish because Jewish texts inspire me to work for the benefit of others.” And so forth.

  2. We have to use the tools of technology to create more access points for those who want to be involved. In my Judaism 101 class, for example, I have a few students who participate by Skype every Thursday evening because they live too far away. There are many more online resources for learning and participating – we have to promote them more. And so forth.
  3. We have to be willing to make hard choices about what we offer as a synagogue. If any of our activities are not reaching a critical mass of people, we have to reconsider what we do. Even as we sally forth into the digital age, people will always need synagogues as gathering places; we just have to find the hooks that will bring more in, and we have to make sure that those programs are connective, resonant, and worthwhile. Business as usual in most synagogues means the business of the last century. We have to constantly re-envision what we do, and that’s hard, but it must be done.

Those are just a few thoughts. The new paradigm will surely contain Judaism; it will be up to us what that Judaism looks like. Let’s have those conversations now, and prepare for the future.

Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, Jan. 30, 2016.)