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Sermons

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land (Maybe?) – Behar/Behuqqotai 5780

I had a good cry last week. I guess you might say that I hit a wall: the wall of frustration, anxiety, and yearning for things to just be “normal.” It felt good to sob openly. My wife Judy, God bless her, held me tight and reassured me.

It’s been nine weeks of staying mostly at home; nine weeks of uncertainty, of loneliness, of a whole range of unusual emotions. Nine weeks of looking at the same walls. Nine weeks of despairing for the world – for people suffering from and dying from the virus, for people suffering from the side effect of economic implosion – joblessness, product shortages and in some cases higher prices, loan applications and fear of a looming economic depression.

I am sorry to report that it’s going to get worse. Now we are in a phase of “should we or shouldn’t we?” And there is already a diverse, discordant chorus of voices on all sides. There will be much disagreement, and collective agonizing about the activities of the near future. Can we open? What can we open? Can we see our friends again? Will I have to wear a mask forever? There will be much speculation and analysis of infection rates, comparing places that have reopened to those that have not. And, of course, the hand-wringing will go on about testing – where are all those tests that should be widely available?

Add to all this that around the world, we may in fact be facing a mental illness crisis. The uncertainty and isolation and poverty caused by this pandemic are causing increased rates of depression and anxiety, domestic violence and a whole range of other effects, according to Devora Kestel, the director of the World Health Organization’s mental health department.

All of this is particularly challenging for Americans, because we are, as you know, the Land of Liberty, a beacon of freedom to the world. Our conception of freedom, alien in many places in the world, has made it more difficult for us to limit our behaviors in order to stop the disease. As a nation, we clearly do not like being told what to do, particularly by our government.

A year and a half ago, I traveled with a bunch of members of Beth Shalom to Israel. We stayed in Jerusalem at a hotel across the street from “Gan HaPa’amon,” Liberty Bell Park, which contains at its center a replica of, you guessed it, the Liberty Bell. Strangely enough, when I was living in Jerusalem 20 years ago, I walked past this park and even through it many times, but never bothered to check out its namesake. One evening, our Beth Shalom group paid the bell a visit.

Liberty Bell Park, Jerusalem

And there it was, a little smaller than the original, embossed with the line from up front in Parashat Behar, which we read this morning, Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:10: Uqratem deror ba-aretz, lekhol yosheveha. Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof. (That translation is the King James Version; the Jews read it a little differently. The New JPS translation is “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” It is a reference not to personal freedom per se, but freedom from the economic bondage of indebtedness that occurred in the yovel, the jubilee year, every 50 years, in which all debts were forgiven and land that had been sold to others due to economic hardship reverted to its original owner.)

The verse was appropriated by the designers of the Liberty Bell in 1752, and some time later the quote from Vayiqra came to symbolize the spirit of this new nation, and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now, we the Jews know a few things about freedom and bondage. It is of course no coincidence that the Torah dedicates a fair amount of ink to the idea of freedom from slavery: the entirety of the Exodus story, of course, but also providing the freedom from work that is Shabbat, and setting limitations on Israelite ownership of slaves (not that we permit or endorse that today, of course), and even providing not only a Shabbat to people but to animals and agricultural land as well.

But in the Exodus tale, Moshe’s call to arms is not actually freedom in the American sense. It is, rather, freedom from serving a human, God-like character, that is, the Egyptian Pharaoh, in favor of serving the one, true God. As you may have heard me point out before, the slogan that Moshe recites in front of Pharaoh is not, “Let My people go,” but rather, “Let My people go so that they can worship Me.” The journey of the Exodus is not, therefore from slavery to freedom, from avdut to herut, as our liturgy puts it, but from avdut to avdut: from slavery to Pharaoh (think: avadim hayyinu lefar’oh bemitzrayim / we were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh, from the Pesah haggadah) to avodat Hashem, the service of God. It’s an exchange of one type of service for another, much better one.

What is freedom, really? Is it blanket permission to do whatever you want with no concern for the consequences? Clearly, no. On the contrary, freedom must have a structure. My “unalienable rights” do not permit me to infringe on yours. Freedom requires responsibility; it requires a legal framework that sets limits on behavior. Freedom from slavery for our ancestors was immediately shaped, 50 days after the departure from Egypt, with Torah. 

What is the period of the sefirat ha’omer, connecting Pesah and Shavuot, if not a reminder that freedom requires a code that protects and strikes the balance between the personal and the common good? Without Torah, without a constitution, we have chaos.

You might by now have detected where I might be headed. (I detest being predictable.)

We are living in a time when chaos threatens the structure that freedom requires. We are living in a time when people believe anything they read on the Internet, particularly if it reflects their worldview. And, given the very real hazard of infection and the fact that COVID-19 actually kills people, chaos right now can actually kill. That is not freedom.

I know that we are balancing health and economic welfare. On the one hand, preventing the spread of the new coronavirus is essential to protecting lives. We have already lost nearly 90,000 Americans to the disease; over 300,000 people worldwide. On the other hand, the economic devastation that has been wrought in trying to stop the spread of the virus is absolutely unfathomable. Over 36 million people have applied for unemployment since the middle of March. 

We are now caught in a truly mind-bending conundrum, the most challenging political question of our time: when can we open for business again?

Let’s take it as a given that we are not going to have a safe, reliable vaccine for COVID-19 for at least a year, and even that is a remarkably optimistic figure. Let’s also assume that we will not have an effective “herd immunity” for many more months. Particularly here in Pittsburgh, where (thank God) we have had a relatively low infection rate, since we have been pretty good here at preventing the spread of the virus. Thank God. But of course, that means that the vast majority of us have not been exposed, and are therefore susceptible.

If we reopen businesses and camps and schools and yes, synagogues, will we be able to rely on people’s ability to actually keep their distance from one another? Will we be able to count on people wearing masks in public? Will singing together in public, even at reasonable distances, be at all safe? Will people who work with or are otherwise in proximity to older people and others with compromising conditions manage to keep themselves separate from others who are exposed? 

And if we do reopen some things, what is the smart way to do it? Even in countries where widespread testing and contact tracing have been implemented successfully (as far as I can tell, we have not done either here on a suitable scale), there are still pockets of reinfection. Consider the episode two weeks ago in South Korea, which had managed to contain the virus early with lots of testing, and then one infected person went out to night clubs in Seoul, and authorities had to track down 7,200 exposed individuals in the following days.

To make matters even more anxious, I am concerned that, to help stem the rising tide of suffering caused by job loss, governments will willfully disguise the numbers, undercounting infections or deaths, to justify their reopening. Russia is reporting over a quarter of a million confirmed cases, second in the world after the US, but less than 3,000 deaths from the virus. Can anybody seriously believe that they are accurately reporting the death toll? We know from statistics that our own is undercounted by a significant fraction already, because people died and laid to rest before being tested.

We love our freedom, and we particularly desire it right now, after two months of enforced isolation. So you can see why I am a little worried. I am concerned that the data will be fudged. I am concerned that we will lose sight of the disenfranchised in a rush to satisfy our own wants. I am concerned that your liberty will tread on mine.

Rambam (aka Maimonides, 1135-1204 Spain-Egypt) teaches us about concentric circles of charitable responsibility. When giving tzedakah, we are responsible first for those closest to us: our family, then our neighbors, then the residents of the same city, and so forth. While we must clearly be concerned with ourselves and the people closest to us, we must also be concerned about those who might be a little further away, and yet in danger. Being negligent at this time will certainly be deadly; and I am fairly certain that Dr. Rambam would not be pleased.

We cannot merely proclaim liberty;  we cannot simply open our workplaces and schools and camps without any real planning for potential consequences; we cannot fantasize about some alternate reality in which the virus just stops itself. Just as our ancestors needed Torah, so too do we need reasonable measures that will keep the lives of all members of our society, particularly the most vulnerable, safe and holy. Let’s please make sure that we do that. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/16/2020.)

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Sermons

Wants vs. Needs: A Pandemic Primer – Aharei Mot/Qedoshim 5780

Last Tuesday, on the night of Yom HaAtzma-ut, Israel’s Independence Day, we sang a song composed by Hayim Hefer and Moshe Vilensky, two of the greatest Israeli pop music composers, called Hayu Zemanim. It is an Israeli classic from 1948, originally sung by Shoshanna Damari (the Chizbatron, a group of performers who emerged from the Palmach, sang it in 1949). The song is about young soldiers, already veterans of Israel’s War of Independence, envisioning themselves sitting around the fireplace as grandparents, reminiscing and telling war stories about 1948 to their grandchildren about their time serving in the Palmach:

יָבוֹא הַיּוֹם וְעוֹד תֵּשֵב אֶל מוּל הָאָח
וְגַם הַגַּב יִהְיֶה כָּפוּף כַּחֲטוֹטֶרֶת
וְתִזָּכֵר אָז בְּיָמֶיךָ בַּפַּלְמָ”ח
וּתְסַפֵּר עַל זֹאת אַגַּב עִשּׁוּן מִקְטֶרֶת
וּמִסָּבִיב, וּמִסָּבִיב יֵשֵׁב הַטַּף
וְאִשְׁתְּךָ גַּם הִיא מֻפְלֶגֶת בַּשָּׁנִים
תַּזִּיל דִּמְעָה וּתְקַנֵּחַ אֶת הָאַף
וְתֵאָנַח: הָיוּ זְמַנִּים, הָיוּ זְמַנִּים

הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
אָז בַּמִּשְׁלָט יָשַׁבְנוּ
הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
לָחַמְנוּ וְאָהַבְנוּ
עַכְשָׁו דָּבָר אֵין לְהַכִּיר
עַל הַמִּשְׁלָט יוֹשֶׁבֶת עִיר
אוּלַי בִּזְכוּת אוֹתָם זְמַנִּים

The day will come when you will sit by the fireplace
When your back will be bent like a camel’s hump
And you will remember your days in the Palmach
And you will tell about this while smoking a pipe
And around you will sit all the little children
And your wife will also be distinguished in years
A tear may fall and you will wipe your nose
And you will sigh, “Those were the days, those were the days.”

Those were the days
When we sat in the army fortification
We fought and we loved
Now there is nothing left to recognize
Where the fort was stands a city
Perhaps because of those days

The Chizbatron, with Hayim Hefer front center, September 1949.

Of course, it made me think of the times we are in right now. Not like war, of course (there is only one person in America who thinks we are at war), but rather, like being cooped up with people whom we love and strive with in a kind of fortification.

And I hope that one day, in the distant future, we will look back on these times, and we will ask ourselves, what did we learn? How did we manage being apart from so many friends and family and workplaces and favorite haunts? What did we learn about the value of things we had always taken for granted?  

It has now been seven weeks since the Men’s Club Shabbat here at Beth Shalom, which was the last time the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary was populated with Shabbat morning service attendees. Seven weeks of social distancing, of face masks and hand sanitizer and not hanging around with your friends on lazy Shabbat afternoons. And I must say that, while my family and I are long past stir crazy, I have settled into a kind of routine – davening via Zoom morning and evening, online meetings, frequent trips to the fridge, making pastoral phone calls, occasionally a walk outside, meals with the whole family, trying to find a quiet place in the house to write sermons, and so forth. The time is moving faster than I would have figured – strangely enough, even though I rarely leave the house, there are not enough hours in the day.

But I’ll confess something that I did not expect: I do not miss my weekly shvitz.

On my day off, up until 7 weeks ago, I would go to the gym to work out, after which I “rewarded” myself with a good shvitz, that is, sitting in the steam room, followed by a few minutes in the jacuzzi. Made me feel all loose and relaxed and calm. For years now, I have been looking forward to this routine; my shvitz time has been essentially sacred. 

Now I must say that up until perhaps this week, for some reason, I had not actually noticed that I had not thought about the shvitz in seven weeks. It simply got pushed down on my list of priorities. While we were trying to cope with the new reality, suddenly other things became more important. 

Now some of you may recall that Qedoshim is probably my favorite parashah (OK, so Aharei Mot comes along for the ride most years – they were together when I became bar mitzvah 37 years ago this week – but Aharei Mot simply doesn’t have the cachet that Qedoshim has.) So why is Qedoshim my favorite? Because it opens with what is essentially the most important piece of guidance from the Torah that we have:

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

And then what flows from that statement is a whole bunch of laws, which scholars refer to as the “Holiness Code,” that guide us in proper behavior. Examples: honoring your parents, leaving some of your produce for the poor to glean, being honest, not bearing a grudge, not mistreating a stranger, having honest business practices, and so forth. What we learn from Parashat Qedoshim, writ large, is that being holy mandates treating others with respect. We must respect their livelihoods, their feelings, their families, their citizenship status, their essential needs. That is what it means to be holy.

In this parashah, Jewish values are on display in abundance. How do we live our values? By acting on them; by walking through life with respect for others; by understanding that every human has fundamental needs, and that we should not stand in the way of the needs of others.

So the challenge we always have, and the challenge that is perhaps most easily answered in the current moment, comes down to two questions: “What do I need?” vs. “What do I want?”

Ours is a society that is saturated with want. Virtually every sponsored message of any kind out there is trying to tell us what we want. Think of the most “sticky” ad jingles that your brain is filled with – here are some that will be forever stuck in mine: “You deserve a break today.” “Have a Coke and a smile.” “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t,” “Have it your way,” etc. Selling a product is all about telling you not what you need, but what you want.

המבין יבין

One of the things that is truly remarkable, and truly foreboding about this time is how much of the American economy depends on want, rather than need. At least 30 million Americans are now jobless; 1 in 4 workers in Pennsylvania. And that is due to the fact that we have closed non-essential businesses – one might presume that most of those closed businesses serve wants, rather than needs. And let us not forget that all of those newly-jobless people have actual needs, and now no means to pay for them; we should not discount the grave situation which we are now in as a society.

So what do we need? Obviously, food and shelter and clothing and healthcare. (And, as we all know now, you don’t really need that much clothing to attend Zoom meetings. And, BTW, do we really need the Internet? It’s hard to believe, of course, but it was not so long ago that we all managed without it. Not too much before that, at least in historical terms, humanity even survived without electricity.)

But all the more so, we need the intangibles, the things you cannot buy, which are just as essential. “I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel alright,” sang Paul McCartney a long time ago. “But I don’t care too much for money / for money can’t buy me love.”

We need love. We need companionship. We need friendship. We need family. We need spiritual structure. We need intellectual stimulation. We need meaning. 

Dr. Viktor Frankl, noted psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz and three other camps, documented in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the ways in which the Nazi operation dehumanized people, taking away their spirit and ultimately their will to live. Frankl observed that the feature shared by those who survived was that they made the active choice to seek some future goal, to put their current context into perspective and not allow the despair and pain and deprivation of bodily needs sap their desire to look to the future. He describes how he arrived at Auschwitz carrying the manuscript of his unpublished book, which at the time he felt was the most important thing in his life, the thing that he needed the most, hidden in his coat. It was promptly taken away from him and destroyed. His coat and manuscript are replaced by:

… the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chambers immediately after his arrival… Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly-acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?

Frankl sees the Shema as a kind of divine message: keep these words upon your lips at all times, says the Shema. Speak them, teach them to your children. Live them. It is a sign that daily prayer, that seeking meaning through a spiritual framework, maintains the will to live, the intangible sense that our lives have value, that we are here for a purpose. It is a sign that the constancy of that spiritual framework, uniting past, present, and future, gives us life. He would not survive Auschwitz by lamenting the loss of his book, upon which he had worked so hard; rather, he would survive by knowing that he would write an even better book after the camps, after the Shoah.

Yes, the life-sustaining things are important: the food, the shelter, maybe even the internet. But what ultimately will enable us, as Jews, as a community, and as a nation, to survive is our drive to find meaning in our current predicament, to use it as an opportunity to hone our sense of ourselves and our values, to strive to be better people when we get to the other side.

Right now, we must mourn those whom we have lost, stay home and stay healthy, and look to the future, when we will treasure that much more our sense of respect for one another, our obligation to fashion a society that cares about the neediest among us, our drive for personal enlightenment as individuals and as a qehillah, a community.

I do not miss the shvitz, but I do miss all of you. And someday, far in the future, we will sit around and tell our grandchildren about 2020, about how we survived by learning about our values, about what we really need. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via Zoom to Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh PA, Shabbat morning, 5/2/2020.)

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Sermons

A Plague of Misinformation – Tazria-Metzora 5780

One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives.  Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.

That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.

And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.

Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words: 

  1. Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
  2. Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
  3. We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
    1. Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
    2. Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
    3. Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
  4. We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood. 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃ נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.

If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.

According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.

And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.

Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)

And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?

I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).

That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.

Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.

You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):

  • Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
  • Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
  • Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
  • Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.

And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.

Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”

Straight-up anti-Semitism aside, the danger here is simple: any kind of information that misleads people, whether intentional or unintentional, has the potential to cause more people to die. There has been dangerous misinformation about the malaria treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which in preliminary studies has not shown any effectiveness in curing people of the virus. The FDA on Friday (April 24th) issued a warning that this drug may cause heart arrhythmia in people with COVID-19.

And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)

Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps. 

And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill. 

And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well. 

Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.

We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/25/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer

My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:

… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment… 

The connection between the dying and the joy…  is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…

… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.

And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.

Tippett:

But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.

Gay:

Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.

***

These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.

Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.

The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?

And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.

Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.

As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)

But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.

Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.

My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.” 

But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.

We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.

Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever. 

Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.

And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.

But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these. 

Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life. 

We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.

And qal vahomer,  all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world. 

On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.

We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.

May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Redemption from (Love-)Sickness – Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah 5780

It’s been at least a month now, maybe even six weeks, since I have shaken anybody’s hand, and that is probably true for just about all of us. (My wife and kids have kept me adequately supplied with hugs, but we don’t generally shake hands with each other around the house.)

I am going to tell you something about myself, something which some of you may have trouble believing, and that is this: I am NOT a people person. I am a classic introvert, one who draws energy from being alone, rather than from socializing with others. I am no fun at parties – I tend to be checking out the bookshelves and the artwork while others are chattering. Yes, I cover that well – an essential part of my work as a rabbi is to be social. To paraphrase Pirqei Avot (3:17), Im ein schmooze, ein Torah. Without schmoozing, there’s no Torah. We, the Jews, are a sociable people, and rabbis are not monks.

But, if you can believe this, it’s hard for me. There are times, particularly at the end of the day, when I just want to crawl into a hole and listen to NPR, or silence.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston. A great place to appreciate silence.

However, I have found the time at home in the last month harder than I anticipated. Something I have learned about myself in recent weeks is that I need to see people, to chat with them, to relate in person. And I am sure that many of us are feeling that need as well right about now.

A little earlier we read some of Shir HaShirim, one of the most curious and intriguing books of the Tanakh. Some of the questions that might arise about Shir HaShirim are:

  1. This is clearly ancient erotic poetry. What’s it doing in the Tanakh?
  2. Where is God?
  3. Why on Earth do we read this on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah?

Addressing the more obvious challenge, which unites the first two questions, Shir HaShirim is understood in the rabbinic mind as being about the relationship between God and Israel as lovers. There is, indeed, romantic and sexual tension found in the contortions of this relationship; from the Sinai moment until today, God is continually being spurned and then sought again by Israel. (The prophet Hosea, who, if you survey all the haftarot of the year, is the most-read of the minor prophets, allegorizes exactly this relationship in his description of his own faithless marriage.) 

The lovers in Shir HaShirim face a kind of disconnect; while they speak of touching one another, they are often distant, missing each other’s overtures, seeking each other. I must say that this describes to some extent my own personal God experience, and maybe yours as well. 

For example:

2:14

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶתּ־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

“O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, Hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet And your face is comely.”

3:1-2

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love— I sought, but found him not.

אָק֨וּמָה נָּ֜א וַאֲסוֹבְבָ֣ה בָעִ֗יר בַּשְּׁוָקִים֙ וּבָ֣רְחֹב֔וֹת אֲבַקְשָׁ֕ה אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I spend a great deal of time in tefillah / prayer, lavishing praise upon God (which is what the majority of our statutory prayers consist of). Just as the lover in Shir HaShirim describes the object of her desire in rich, hyperbolic prose, so too do we whenever we open the siddur / prayerbook.

And yet, when we seek, we often do not find God. We yearn, we plead, our mouths overflow with litanies of praise. Some Mizrahi (Eastern) traditions chant Shir HaShirim before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings; that is not our custom, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which draws heavily on imagery from Shir HaShirim: “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” wrote the poet Rabbi Elazar Azikri in the 16th century. My soul is sick from your love, riffing on 2:5.

It is this unquenched desiring for God’s presence, to find our Eternal Lover, that keeps us connected to our tradition, that reminds us of the ongoing potential for redemption. Rambam describes this imperative in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:3: 

And what is the proper love? One shall love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that one’s soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding oneself in a constant tremor, as if suffering of lovesickness, … This is what Solomon allegorically said: Ki holat ahavah ani / “For I am love-sick” (Songs 2.5). And, the whole book, Shir HaShirim, is an allegory on this subject.

And it is through this love that we are redeemed. The Exodus story is the foundational moment of the loving relationship between Israel and God. The relationship that is defined in the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, a climactic moment that effectively consummates the relationship. Integral to this loving relationship is the idea that God will complete the redemption of Israel: having been brought forth from slavery and brought into the covenantal relationship with Torah, the final stage of redemption is bringing the Israelites into the land promised to them, the land of Israel. 

What happened at Sinai was a wee bit more than a handshake. And that love continues to this day. The Exodus story looms large in Jewish thought and ritual because it is the template for future redemption; love and redemption are intimately intertwined.

Some of you have probably heard me speak about my own personal theology, which dwells heavily on finding God in the interstices of our lives, in the cosmic glue which holds us all together, both from the perspective of physics and of human relationships. 

However, in this particular time, I must say that I want to lean into the traditional understanding of God as the one who, having redeemed us in the past, exemplified by the loving redemption story that Pesah commemorates, will redeem us once again. And I am not hoping for a big Redemption (with a capital R) right now, but rather, just the opportunity to spend time with friends and family again, for my kids to be able to go to the playground again, for me to be able to meet with congregants again and shake hands, as I always do. 

We read Shir HaShirim on Pesah as a sign not only of that great Redemption, but also of the little redemptions that we experience every day. Shir HaShirim reminds us that love is that cosmic glue, and that the minor redemptions on which we depend are never too far away, even if we cannot see them, even as we seek God and do not find.

You are loved, not only by God, of course, but also by the others around you. And although we may not feel their touch right now, although we may not be able to physically reach out, we should take some comfort in knowing that, when we are redeemed, that this brief period of separation, of seeking, of yearning, will heighten the experience of being with each other, in each other’s physical presence once again. 

I eagerly await that day, that redemption. Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, 4/11/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

One Vulnerable Goat (and Two Zuzim) – Pesah Day 1 5780

When I look at the Pesah seder with my rabbi-glasses on, of course I see all the great opportunities to discuss, all of the ways in which the story is relevant to who we are and how we live today.

But when I look at it from the perspective of one who has been Jewish my whole life, and for 34 of those 50 years NOT as a rabbi or a cantor, I see a totally different thing. I see family dinner, with great food and good company, with people noodging each other around the table as they have always done, silly dad jokes and older siblings who have not seen each other in months falling into their regular patterns. I hear the family stories – the time that I dissed my grandmother’s home-made gefilte fish in favor of Mrs. Adler, the time so-and-so actually drank four cups of wine and was clearly drunk. I hear the music of families singing old seder standards together: Mah Nishtana, Dayyenu

The family sedarim of my youth were not about discussion. We generally read the Maxwell House, and maybe later the KTAV haggadah, in English, one paragraph at a time, and I don’t think we really understood it that well. We did not know, for example, that the five rabbis – Eliezer, Yehoshua, El’azar ben Azariah, Aqiva and Tarfon – were plotting rebellion against the Romans in what would be the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and that the line, “Rabboteinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaharit” / “Our teachers! The time has come to recite the morning Shema,” may have been the code phrase for, “Quick! Hide! Roman soldiers are coming!”

We did not know that the seder is an imitation of the Greek symposium, in which Greek men of leisure would dine and philosophize and dip their food whilst reclining to the left, and then go out partying from house to house in what was known in Greek as “epikomion,” a word that entered Mishnaic Hebrew as “afiqoman.”

We did not understand the fuss made over small textual issues, like interpreting “Kol yemei hayyekha,” (Deut. 16:3; literally, “all the days of your life”) or how ten plagues became 250. We did not know that the standard Four Questions are not the same Four Questions asked in the Mishnah, and we failed to notice that they were really only one question with four elaborations on that question.

We were, however, singers, and so we have always enjoyed singing along together at the end of the service. And we have always enjoyed getting a little crazy with songs toward the end. Fine, so I didn’t know what “Shishah sidrei mishnah” (six are the orders of the Mishnah) exactly meant. I didn’t really know what the Mishnah is until my 30s. But who cares?

One of the songs that we have always sung is Had Gadya. It’s a fun song, and fits neatly into the other seder songs in that it is repetitive, and designed to last a while to extend the evening’s festivities. Anybody who has been to the congregational sedarim that I have led in recent years is familiar with the Moishe Oysher melody:  

וְאָתָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְשָׁחַט לְמַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת, דְּשָׁחַט לְשׁוֹחֵט, דְּשָׁחַט לְתוֹרָא, דְשָׁתָה לְמַיָּא, דְּכָבָה לְנוּרָא, דְשָׂרַף לְחוּטְרָא, דְהִכָּה לְכַלְבָּא, דְנָשַׁךְ לְשׁוּנְרָא, דְאָכְלָה לְגַדְיָא, דְזַבִּין אַבָּא בִּתְרֵי זוּזֵי. חַד גַּדְיָא, חַד גַּדְיָא

Then came the Holy One, blessed be He and slaughtered the angel of death, who slaughtered the shohet (kosher slaughterer) who slaughtered the bull, that drank the water, that extinguished the fire, that burnt the stick, that hit the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, one kid, one kid.

Not a song that you might ordinarily think about too deeply – it’s not too different in spirit and structure from, “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” 

But what is Had Gadya about? On the old Moishe Oysher LP, The Moishe Oysher Seder, the narrator says, “If you listen closely to the words, this song tells the entire story of the Jewish people.” Although I must say that that does not quite make sense. If we consider ourselves, the Jews, to be the goat, then we were long ago consumed before the Qadosh Barukh Hu came along to redeem us. 

I would rather approach it from a perspective that Dr. Erica Brown brings in her commentary to her book, Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada. She says the following:

We get the last laugh. We still survive to sing about our vulnerability…

Had Gadya is essentially about leaning into our vulnerability. We are the goat, the meek kid purchased for a mere two zuzim – just a few meager coins. We are the most vulnerable character in the whole scheme. Jewish history is filled with stories in which we barely survived: we escaped slavery in Egypt; we returned after the Babylonian Exile; we escaped death at the hands of the Persian Empire; we lost Jerusalem and the Temple to the Romans, and then the Bar Kokhba Revolt was crushed a half-century later; etc., etc. And all of that was two-to-three millennia ago. A whole lot more happened since. (And, by the way, what better way to remind us of our fundamental vulnerability than a world-wide pandemic?)

 Dr. Brown goes on:

What starts the entire song moving is the two zuzim used to purchase the goat, referring to the two tablets given to us at Sinai. Because we were claimed and “purchased” for this covenant, God ultimately intervenes to make sure that we are protected and redeemed… The song asks us not to fear the repetition of our hardest hours in history because God breaks the cycle of violence and we endure.

The Qadosh Barukh Hu wins. God wins. And hence we win. But we do not win by aspiring to be the butcher or the ox, but by being the vulnerable goat, the one that came from the two zuzim / tablets. Our value is that of Torah, that of covenant. Our strength is not the might of the fire or the water, but in the quiet confidence that comes from sticking to our tradition and knowing that, whatever happens, God is on our side.

Yes, yes. I know that this does not quite fit into the theological framework of Kaplan’s God as the power that makes for salvation, or Buber’s Unconditional, the kinds of contemporary theological constructs that I prefer. On the contrary, this is more of a traditional, activist God, the one that we appeal to in our tefillah, the one who is Magen Avraham (the shield of Abraham) and Poked Sarah (who remembers Sarah), who is somekh nofelim (lifting up the fallen) and rofeh holim (healing the sick). Now is an especially good time to focus on that last one – the world needs a good doctor right now.

But hey – now is the time that I need an activist God, one that will protect us and help us all come through this. And we will come through this.

Dr. Brown adds the following:

We see ourselves as fragile in this world… We ask to stay small and humble and for our humility to be the hallmark of our identity, along with the two zuzim, the laws, that keep us holy.

One of the things that distinguishes the Jewish origin story from that of many others is that we see our nationhood, Am Yisrael, as having been forged in slavery. It is the passage from slavery to freedom that enabled us to receive the Torah (there are those two zuzim again!) on Mt. Sinai, and to be a party to that berit, that covenant with God. Our strength, our protection essentially comes from that vulnerable place, that “meitzar” / narrow place that we sing about in Hallel that we associate with Egypt, Mitzrayim. We remember that we are the kid, the baby goat, and that stirs us to be resolute about the future. Redemption is coming.

And not only that, as a part of that covenant, it is up to us to bring on that redemption. So here is a discussion you can have tonight, and you do not have to wait until you sing Had Gadya at the end, ‘cause it might be too late by then and folks might already have checked out. 

Here’s the question: 

How does knowing that we came from slavery, from the place of ultimate vulnerability, lead us to be better people? How does it make us better citizens, better parents and partners and siblings and neighbors and co-workers? Discuss. 

Have that discussion right after the so-called “Four Questions.” Extra points if you can point to lines in the haggadah that support your argument, but of course the entirety of the Jewish bookshelf is also available to you if you need help. Good luck!

Hag Sameah!

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Thursday morning, April 9, 2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

What Makes Pesah Work? – Shabbat HaGadol, 5780

A few years back, in the week before Pesah, I was somewhat surprised to see an ad on my Facebook scroll for a Passover seder at a nearby Italian restaurant. This was not a kosher restaurant, and clearly all the more so during Pesah. So OK, there are Jews in this world for whom kashrut, for Pesah or otherwise, is not so high on the list of priorities. But the thing that got me was the line, “A Very Reformed Seder Service (20 min.).”

Now, leaving aside the term “reformed,” which many Reform Jews read as a slur – reform is an ongoing process, not something that was done in the past – the enticement that the ad seemed to be presenting was that this seder experience would be long on food and short on ritual, discussion, or singing. 

Now, it’s curious that Facebook thought I would be interested in this seder (perhaps the algorithm has since improved). But all the more so, it’s curious that some people would be so inclined as to minimize the best part of Pesah, that is, the story, and (I presume) toss out many of the essential, traditional food items in favor of a pasta dinner? Particularly because, being the second-most-observed ritual of the Jewish year, the seder formula clearly works.

Prior to this year, statistics have shown that about three-quarters of American Jews come to a seder. What will happen this year is probably a dramatic decline in the number of seder attendees, because my assumption is that the majority of us go to somebody else’s seder, and in our current circumstances, we cannot do that. (That is the primary reason, BTW, that I am live-streaming the second-night seder from my home.)

But what makes the seder so popular? Is it the food? Is it the story? The songs? The gathering of family? The short answer is, yes to all.

This will not be the first time that I have mentioned Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

  1. May be redefined in modern terms
  2. Do not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society; yes, I know that sounds curious in the present moment!)
  3. Offers a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas; this was something that was brought to my attention by one of our teens at a USY “Lunch & Learn” I facilitated last week, so it’s still valid)
  4. Centers on the child
  5. Is infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Sklare pointed to the Pesah seder and the lighting of Hanukkah candles as being the best examples of such rituals in his book, America’s Jews, published in 1971. And really, little has changed in the last four decades: Pesah may still resonate because it pushes all those buttons. And Dr. Sklare’s thinking seems to still be on the money, half a century later. In this time of decreasing Jewish engagement, particularly outside of Orthodoxy, Pesah is a model that still works.

Away from the cold, academic glare, however, something else is true: Pesah works because we make it work. Perhaps in accord with Sklare’s first observation, that a ritual is likely to be observed if it may be redefined to suit contemporary issues, the message of Pesah continues to resonate with us. Slavery is still an unfortunate reality of today’s world (go to slaveryfootprint.org for more information on that); poverty and oppression may be found just about wherever we look. Those members of our people who fought for civil rights in the 1960s read the haggadah in that context, and there are those who read it today with the various ongoing struggles for equality – for women, for gays and lesbians, for non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel – in mind.

But I think there is more to the story.

In the central portion of the seder, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt (the item identified as Maggid, “telling”), there is a classical midrashic exposition of a passage from the Torah. The passage is the one that begins, “Arami oved avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5-8). You are probably familiar with it. The Torah presents these verses as the proto-liturgical  monologue that the Israelites would recite when bringing their first fruits to the kohen, the priest, on Shavuot, and it encapsulates the story of Jacob and his family going down into Egypt, where they became a great nation, and then were enslaved, and God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, etc., etc.  

Within the midrash is the following comment on four words from Deut. 26:5:

וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְצֻיָּנִין שָׁם

Vayhi sham legoi gadol. Melamed shehayu Yisrael metzuyanim sham.

They became a great nation. It teaches that the Israelites were distinguished there [in Egypt].

The Rabbinical Assembly’s “Feast of Freedom” haggadah (which I use in my home) elaborates on this as follows:

[The Israelites] became unique… through their observance of mitzvot. They were never suspected of unchastity or slander; they did not change their names and they did not change their language.

What makes us a great nation, ladies and gentlemen, is just as true today: we have our own heritage, our own traditions, our own laws. We also have our own language, the Hebrew language, which underwent a tremendously successful revival in the last century as a modern tongue. We also continue to keep our own Hebrew names, which we continue to use, for example, when we call our daughters to the Torah for bat mitzvah, and when our sons stand under the huppah, and at various other points in the Jewish life cycle.

This is our Jewish framework. But in addition to this, wherever we have lived, we have also taken on some of the aspects of the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) society, although for the most part we were never entirely assimilated to the point where we lost our tradition. Indeed, you might make the case that it is in fact Judaism’s flexibility that has enabled us to maintain our distinctiveness while living among non-Jews, to be both Jewish and something else. 

Rashi, living in 11th-century France, spoke French and followed some French customs (he was a wine merchant, and historians suggest that he also wore a beret, smoked Gauloises, and exuded ennui). 

Rashi

Maimonides, in 12th-century Egypt, was a court physician to the sultan in Cairo, who treated Jews and non-Jews. 

Moses Mendelssohn, widely considered the first modern Jew, joined the elite salons of 18th-century Berlin while continuing to practice his faith. 

Theodore Herzl, in the late 19th century, was a secular Hungarian Jewish journalist, and yet he arguably launched the most successful modern ideological product of Judaism, that is, Zionism. 

Throughout our history, although we kept Hebrew and our names and the Torah, we have navigated the wider culture and adapted to new environments and new host societies. And we have incorporated some things from the non-Jews around us as well: foods, including ritual foods, vary tremendously within our communities. And music and spoken languages and a whole range of minhagim, of customs, differ greatly depending on where your ancestors landed.

Yet there are certain commonalities of Jewish life that have continued for two thousand years or more – just one example: leather tefillin were found at Qumran, the site where the Essene sect lived at the northern end of the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago. But in every generation, each of us has seen ourselves come forth from slavery to freedom in our own context. We have never lived in a vacuum; we have continually scoured our tradition for contemporary relevance, searching for how the great works of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us. Etz hayyim hi lemahazikim ba. The Torah is our Tree of Life, and in holding on to it we have upheld our nationhood even as we have clothed it in new styles and fabrics.

Had we been rigidly committed to one particular mode of living, Judaism could have died many times over: when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. Or when the Romans laid waste to the Second Temple in 70 CE. Or after the great yeshivot around Baghdad closed up shop in the 11th century CE. Or after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. Or after the Shoah / Holocaust.

So here is a suggestion. When you sit down to your seder on Wednesday evening, do what Jews have always done: make it yours! Make it relevant! Don’t just do what you’ve always done. That is NOT how Jews do it!

Here are some examples:

When the Four Questions come up, don’t just limit yourself to those traditional four. Ask more questions!

When telling the story of Pesah, don’t simply read what’s in the good ol’ Maxwell House haggadah. Have somebody summarize it in their own words. Get up from the table and act it out! Assign parts!  Have everybody improvise parts of the story! If you have time, prepare some costume items: a staff for Moses, a crown for Pharaoh, a megaphone for God (maybe there is an app for that?), etc.

Plague masks

Have discussion questions prepared: What are you a slave to? What are the things that you are grateful for? What are the things that make your life bitter? In what ways do you feel free?  Why is spring the best time of year? What hametz-laden item do you miss the most during these eight days and why?

These ideas work for families, for children, for sullen teens, for adults, everybody!

Ladies and gentlemen, what makes Pesah work is you! Your creativity, your enthusiasm, your joy. It’s not just about the kids, as Sklare suggested. It’s about you, living here in 21st-century America. 

So go ahead, set the text of the haggadah to the music of Lil Nas X, or to the music of Hamilton, or whatever. Make it yours. Make it relevant. That is how we will maintain our Jewishness and the eternal appeal of our rituals. Hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/4/2020.)

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Sermons

Meeting Virtually and Saving Lives – Vayyiqra 5780

While I am working from home, making Zoom calls or phone calls, I try to sit by a window, so I won’t lose sight of Creation. (You may know that a synagogue must have windows, so that one does not forget the world outside.)

Eldridge Street Synagogue, NYC

I have seen so many people walking and bicycling and running by – couples, families, single people out for a quiet, contemplative stroll. All are keeping their distance from one another. It is definitely far less car traffic than I’ve seen, and far more non-car traffic, and that is somewhat reassuring. We have not receded into our caves. We have not forgotten that life goes on.

I want to take a moment to reflect on where we are right now. We are physically distant from one another, but we remain close spiritually. Some of us are probably starting to feel a bit anxious, wondering:

  • How long will this go on? 
  • How long will we be cooped up like chickens? 
  • How long will it be before we can safely see our friends and relatives again in person? 
  • How long will it take for the wave of infections to crest?

I am beginning to hear the frustration, the anger, the tears of members of this community who feel isolated, who have lost their jobs, who cannot get to the store. I am beginning to hear the sound of loneliness, of depression, of anger at our elected officials, whose job it is to keep us safe and properly informed, to craft a responsible, science-based plan and to make good decisions in the context of international crisis.

And I am beginning to hear those things within myself, as well. And the insistent questions: How do we continue to connect as a community? How do I serve my congregation when I cannot be in the same room with them? How do I continue to teach Judaism, to relay the message that our tradition helps us improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, when I am limited to electronic communications? How do I learn of and bring comfort to congregants in distress?

As is obvious, because I am the only person in this sanctuary right now, I have clearly given a green light to the use of Zoom calls on Shabbat. And I know that this is a halakhic challenge. But let me be clear about this: we are in what the rabbis called, “she’at hadehaq,” the hour of urgency. It is not physically safe for us to gather for minyanim, for services. To do so would violate the principle of piqquah nefesh, the saving of a life. I will come back to that in a moment.

First, two brief thoughts from Parashat Vayyiqra:

1. The first verse of the parashah, which is also the first verse of the book of Vayiqra / Leviticus, is a wee bit curious:

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה֙’ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting [part of the mishkan / sanctuary complex], saying…

God called, and then spoke. The medieval commentators are all over that. Rashi says something simply lovely: that this is leshon hibbah, language of affection. God does not merely instruct Moshe by enumerating laws; God first calls to him in a tender moment, an endearing opening to indicate God’s closeness. And while the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the straightforward and occasionally grisly details of sacrifices in the ancient Temple, this verse reminds us of the imperative to connect, to express our affection to those with whom we are in relationship.

2. In written sifrei Torah, and in some editions of the humash (like Etz Hayyim and the venerable Hertz), the letter alef at the end of the first word, vayyiqra, is small. My favorite explanation for this is as follows: Comparing the small alef with the large bet at the very beginning of the Torah, in the word “bereshit,” (in the beginning), and, knowing that alef has the numerical value of one and bet is two, we learn that Torah must be studied in partnership. When we learn Torah with a partner, we make ourselves greater; when we study alone, we miss something, and we become smaller. Two is always greater than one, not just numerically, but also spiritually.

It is a fundamental statement about the nature of our tradition. The smallest element of doing Jewish, of living Judaism, is two people, learning together, in relationship.

Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves in a very real, very dangerous situation, and our primary goal as a society right now is not to overwhelm our healthcare system. About 10-20% of people who are infected with COVID-19 require hospitalization; some of those will require ventilators; and a small number of those will die.  What percentage is still unknown, but it is definitely much higher than the number who succumb to the flu. If the virus continues to spread unchecked, then the need for hospital beds and ventilators will quickly outstrip the availability of those items, and doctors and hospitals will be forced to decide who lives and who dies. 

As you may know, the principle of piqquah nefesh overrides every single mitzvah in our tradition save three prohibitions: worshipping idols, committing murder, or any of the prohibited sexual liaisons. 

Meanwhile, we have the imperative in Pirqei Avot (2:5): Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from your community. We are a communal people, and we are obligated to be together, to be in relationship with one another, to be a qehillah, a congregation. We learn this not only from the first word in Vayyiqra, but throughout our tradition. Relationship is fundamental to Judaism.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, while not expressly permitting it, gave us a basis on which we can rely for counting a minyan virtually. I am reading from their Letter of Rabbinic Guidance on the subject:

The classic sources (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:13, and others cited by Rabbi Reisner) require that a minyan be located in one physical space. However, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:14 does open the possibility that there may be an exception by joining in to constitute a minyan if one can see the faces of the other participants: “One who is standing behind the synagogue, with a window between that person and the congregation, even if it is several stories up and less than four cubits wide, and who shows his face to them, may combine with them to form a minyan of ten.

The possibility of a minyan being constituted by people who are not physically near each other is further expanded by Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein in Hashukei Hemed on Berakhot 21b (p. 135), where he permits constituting a minyan for kaddish yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish) where people are scattered in a field but can see each other. Recently Rabbi Haim Ovadia called attention to this source, arguing in favor of constituting a minyan by means of real-time video and audio connection between ten Jews. Therefore, in this crisis situation, a number of us are of the opinion that a ruling relying on these precedents should be issued.

So yes, the CJLS concedes that this is not ideal; the ideal remains to gather as a community in physical proximity. But this is what we have right now. If this is the only space in which we can gather, then we should gather in it.

In this hour of urgency, and coupled with the principle of saving lives, and relying on a lenient reading of ancient texts, we ARE gathering. We are responding to one another; we are still a qehillah, a congregation. And not just for services – also for all types of learning.

So thank God. Because we need this. We need this right now more than ever. I am grateful that our attendance at weekly minyanim has been higher than it has ever been in the nearly five years I have been in Pittsburgh. We are now averaging 30 people in the morning and 40 in the evening. And I cannot see how many people are on this call right now, but I know it’s a bunch. We are gathering. We are not separating ourselves. And we are saving lives.

Once again, thank God. Thank God for the resiliency of our tradition, and thank God that the Conservative movement is willing to engage with our tradition in a living way, in a way that reflects the needs of the moment. 

We need each other right now. We need to call out to each other with affection; we need to learn Torah together; we need to gather on Pesah, even if we have to do it via electronic means, which are clearly not ideal. Welcome to she’at hadehaq, the hour of urgency.

Remember that, as I said last week, our tradition offers us the framework, the guidance, the values that will get us through this. Take advantage of the tools we have; they will help keep us spiritually nourished and strong in order to stay safe and healthy. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via livestream from Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/28/2020.)

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Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Sermons

Why You Should Vote for Mercaz – Terumah 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this in the Jewish state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this seem wrong to you? It should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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