The Challenge Before Us – Shabbat HaHodesh 5778

I hope that, by now, you have heard about the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Community Study. (Beth Shalom members Evan Indianer and Bruce and Jane Rollman served on the committee that brought it to fruition, and most likely some of you were contacted in the survey.)

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There are some very important numbers in this study. Some of them might make some of us anxious. But I am actually inclined to read this study optimistically. There is a lot here to try to absorb. First, the challenges:

  1. There is a “hole” in our community.

The percentage of Jews in the 35-49 range, to some extent what would be the most active core of synagogue membership, is smaller than other age brackets. Only 17% of all Jews in the area fall into that category, which is less than the national average for age distribution. This may have something to do with people who moved away when the economy was weak, and never returned. (By comparison, 24% are in the 18-34 bracket, 31% are 50-64, and 28% are 65+.)

  1. A smaller percentage of Jews are living in Squirrel Hill.

Only 30% of Jewish individuals in the area live in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside combined. Almost as many live within the city limits of Pittsburgh (26%) but outside of these two neighborhoods. The challenge here is that most of the Jewish institutions and services are here. The overall population has grown, and Squirrel Hill’s Jewish population has grown as well. But while a plurality of Jews surely live in or near Squirrel Hill, fewer of the newcomers are moving into the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods.

  1. Only 19% of respondents pay dues to a “brick-and-mortar” institution like this one.

In 2002, about half (53%) of respondents said they belonged to a synagogue. In 2017, 35% said they did, although only 19% said they paid dues to synagogues like Beth Shalom. The others are affiliated with Chabad or other independent congregations, or claim membership in a synagogue but do not pay dues. In 2002 they did not subdivide that 53% number, so it’s impossible to know how many were dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues 15 years ago. But regardless, the number has to be significantly lower. This is certainly a challenge to our membership model.

So here is the good news:

  1. When asked about movement affiliation, more 18-34-year-olds (27%) identify as Conservative than any other group. That’s higher than Reform (24%), higher than Orthodox (12%). Higher even (and this is important) than “Just Jewish” or “Secular.” Based on the numbers, the Conservative movement seems to be doing better than everybody else among younger Jews.

    Pop study data

  2. In terms of involvement in Jewish life (participation in Jewish life: rituals, services, cultural activities, belonging to, donating to or volunteering for Jewish organizations), those who identify as Conservative have a fairly high rate of participation and commitment. About one-third of those in the “Immersed” category (that is, they are immersed in Jewish life on a daily/weekly basis) identify as Conservative (cf. 46% Orthodox, 15%  Reform). That is, I think, a relatively healthy statement regarding what we stand for.
  3. And here’s my favorite number, because it sings with opportunity. While 80% of “Immersed” Jews are studying Jewish text on a regular basis, very few outside of that category are learning anything from the Jewish bookshelf. (OK, so you might not consider that “good news.” It is, however, an indicator that the vast majority of Jews are alienated from the benefits that come from studying Jewish text. So all we have to do is somehow get their attention. This is an opportunity.)
  4. On a related note, only 44% of Conservative Jews have attended a Shabbat meal over the last year. For those of us who know and savor the Shabbat dining experience, this number too speaks of opportunity.

Now that I have assaulted you with data, the question that emerges is, “How does this information help us move forward?”

Well, I have some very good news.

First, this study comes at precisely the right time for Beth Shalom, because we are about to begin the process of strategic planning to come up with a vision for the next 3-5 years. The last time that we pursued such a process was ten years ago, and so now that we are on a healthy trajectory and with the centennial celebration behind us, it is time to consider how we move forward from this point. The process will be guided by the United Synagogue’s Sulam for Strategic Planners program, which is a systematic approach that includes data gathering, analysis, communicating various things to the community and producing a report, followed by an implementation phase. We will receive regular guidance from a United Synagogue Transformation Specialist, Aimee Close.

These data points will be extraordinarily helpful in the initial phase of the process, and will help us with getting a sense of the situation on the ground in preparation for making strategic decisions.

The other way that these numbers help us is that it looks like (א) the Conservative movement’s star may be on the rise, particularly among younger people, and (ב) there is plenty of room for growth in the Jewish learning department. Yes, regular tefillot / prayer services will continue to be an essential part of what we do. But we have to continue to expand our range of offerings beyond tefillah, to continue to re-envision what it means to be a synagogue. Aimee Close was positively impressed with the work we have already done with Derekh. Now we need to continue that work by trying to penetrate more deeply into those who think that synagogues are ONLY for services and benei mitzvah. These numbers are in some sense a validation of the direction in which we are moving, that is, to re-frame the Jewish conversation such that we focus on meaning, on connecting what we learn with how we live today, on fostering spiritual growth.

One final observation about the data.

A recent New York Times article on nutrition cited a study that seems to reveal that weight loss is dependent not on the quantity of calories consumed, but rather on the quality of those calories. The study found that

“…people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.”

That is, what you eat matters more than how much.

While this study is in itself quite interesting, it also has, I think, an interesting parallel in Jewish life. We all know that our tradition has 613 mitzvot. It’s a big number, and hard for many of us to wrap our brains around, let alone our lives.

We all know that there is a continuum among people in our community about what we practice – some of us are hitting a lot of those mitzvot, some fewer. Nonetheless, I hope that we should all be able to understand and appreciate that it is the quality of engagement with Jewish life that matters, not the quantity. Today, personal meaning matters more than merely doing for the sake of doing.

Less than a quarter (22%) of Conservative Jews feel that their “spiritual needs are met.” (That’s lower than Reform, BTW, and dramatically lower than Orthodox.) Getting more members of the community to a Friday night dinner or to a good, relevant study session may not lead more people to keep kosher or not use their smartphones on Shabbat. But it may help meet the spiritual needs of more of us by reinforcing:

  • The value of community
  • The value of a framework rooted in Jewish traditional practice and learning
  • The meaning that one can glean from that framework

If we can bring more of us to the Shabbat table, and more of us to the beit midrash, and do a better job of connecting those experiences to real Jewish learning, then I think we may have a better shot at meeting the spiritual needs of everybody. Quality over quantity.

In reading these data, I am not frustrated, but hopeful. Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/17/2018.)

* The Jewish obsession with counting ourselves dates back to the late 19th century. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations published a study of American Jews in 1880 (thanks to historian and Beth Shalom member Tammy Hepps for bringing this to my attention). A group of Russian-Jewish scholars created the Jewish Society for History and Ethnography, under the leadership of historian Simon Dubnow in 1908. This group pioneered the documentation of the Jews of Russia, their history and cultural contributions, and even sent the writer S. Ansky on an expedition throughout the Ukraine to collect information on the Jews of all the little towns therein. Since Dubnow and Ansky, and in particularly after the Shoah, we have been captivated by information about ourselves: how many of us there are, of course, but also what we are doing: our Jewish practices, our salaries, our ages, our membership in Jewish institutions, how many kids we’re having, etc.*

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We Can Change the World – Terumah 5778

A rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a Buddhist monk get into a pickup truck and drive to the football stadium to see the Big Game. The rabbi is driving. When they get there, they change from their “work” clothes into the colors of their favorite team, and join a couple of nuns already in the stands, who chide them for being late. The rabbi gestures to the others as if to blame them. Then their team scores! They all jump up and down and hoot and holler.

Some of you may know that this was actually an advertisement for a large Japanese auto manufacturer that ran during the Super Bowl two weeks ago. At the end, before flashing the company’s logo, the slogan, “We’re all one team” appears on-screen.

The ad had two major flaws: one was that, with the exception of the nuns that seem to have been thrown in at the last minute, all of the clergy were male. But even bigger than that, what rabbi drives a pickup truck?!

We’re all one team.

Except when we are not.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL, who spoke in Pittsburgh nine days ago to a room full of rabbis, priests, and ministers, invoked this ad and reminded us that, well, actually, we are not all one team.

It is fascinating to me that, in this time of great political, racial, and sometimes religious division in our nation, the Madison Avenue ad execs are trying to convince us that we are all one team. Because, at least with respect to the choices that we are making through the democratic process, we are not.

Consider another Super Bowl ad, ironically, for another automotive company that was heavily criticized for misappropriating the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. The people who made that ad were most likely trying to tap into a similar desire of the rabbi-priest-imam-monk ad, that is, our desire to find a rallying point, a connection across racial, ethnic, religious, and political divides in this very fractious moment. And that ad seems to have failed miserably.

The message that Rabbi Hirschfield left us with was, try to consider the other. Try to be a fan, and not a fanatic. We who stand for the rule of law, a shared vision for the betterment of society, and a moderate approach to religion in its integration with contemporary life are all playing the same game, even if we aren’t exactly on the same team; we all agree on the rules.

A little back-story here: I was going to take this sermon in a different direction. I had actually written the rest of this sermon on Tuesday, and it was about what Judaism offers, and why we should be playing on this team.

But then, on Wednesday, a troubled young man with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle walked into a high school in Parkland, Florida, and began shooting.

We have all witnessed quite a bit of palpable anger, frustration, and grief in these last couple of days. The crying out: how could this have happened once again, and so soon? The throwing up of hands in the air in frustration: will nothing change? The traded accusations, the pointed fingers.

On my social media feed, the ire was directed at politicians, who offered their cliched “thoughts and prayers.” And rightly so. Cynically-offered thoughts and prayers, in place of actual promises of legislative solutions, are useless, and have clearly not brought about any change.

But prayer, if we are acting on it correctly, can in fact help. Our team, the team that actually offers real prayer as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, can bring about change. Let me explain how.

For thousands of years, Jews have gathered in synagogues large and small to act on the holy opportunities of prayer: chanting the words of our liturgy, hearing the Torah read, learning together, and so forth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religious groups also gather in their houses of worship for similar services. The content, style, language, features, and of course theology of all these services vary tremendously. But what do they have in common? They bring people together for holy purposes, for the purpose of finding (to use the Hebrew term) kedushah / of seeking holiness.

And when people gather in prayer, they have the potential to change the world.

heschel king torah

The Jewish prayer experience is not meant to be passive. It’s not supposed to be about mumbling ancient words in a language we do not understand. It’s REALLY not supposed to be about waiting for the person up in front to mumble through a page of obscure Hebrew. Rather, it is about having an active mind, of being aware of yourself and your world, of opening up our hearts and minds to the reality of today. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a world that could be, a blueprint for a time without fear and hatred, violence and oppression.

Tefillah / prayer is about resonating with our ancient words. It is a subset of Talmud Torah, the holy opportunity to learn and discuss the words of our tradition. The Talmud asks (Kiddushin 40b):

וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד

?נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול

נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול

נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול

נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nitza in Lod, when this question was asked of them:

Is study greater or is action greater?

Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater.

Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater.

Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.

Tefillah, when performed with the proper intention as a form of study, leads to action. And particularly in a house of worship such as this; it turns the potential of people gathered for a holy task into action. It raises us up in kedushah / holiness so that we can go out together and make this world a better place.

And there are concrete examples of the way prayer has changed the world. Consider some of of our team’s greatest victories. Consider the American civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy. Consider the movement led by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to free India from British rule. Consider Zionism, led by both secular and religious personalities who drew on the ancient yearning of the Jewish soul to return to Israel. We are living in a time in which gathering for prayer is still effective in bringing about major change.

Gandhi

Prayer / tefillah reminds us of the words of Deuteronomy (30:12),

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

It is not in the heavens. We write our prayers, we fill them with our emotions and ideas, and we are God’s hands. We are in charge of our destinies here on Earth.

We can change our world. We are not powerless.

Here is where we really ARE on the same team: we, the fans, not the fanatics, we do not want our children to walk into schools in fear. We cannot allow music lovers, or church goers, or people dancing in gay nightclubs to feel that they are not safe. We cannot justify the complacency of politicians in gerrymandered districts who have to answer to nobody but the powerful lobbies who give them money for their next campaign.

And here’s what our team can do: We can change the world. That’s what churches and synagogues and mosques and mandirs and all other houses of faith are for: to bring people together for a holy purpose. And what purpose could be more holy than saving lives?

One of the essential messages of the Purim story, if you look beyond the costumes and the graggers and the drinking and partying, is that Esther saved the Jews of Persia because she spoke up. She was not silent in the face of impending murder.

Now is not the time to be silent. Now IS the time for prayer. And to turn the potential from the prayers of everybody who is on our team, the prayerful team, into action.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/17/2018.)

 

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Truth-Telling from the USCJ: Love and the Jewish Future – Bo 5778

You may have noticed that I like to talk about the Jewish future, about how our community is changing, about how the institutions of the past (including this one) have to change to account for where the Jews are.

Well, the recent convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), which was in Atlanta at the beginning of December, was extraordinarily gratifying for me, because USCJ is now embracing the future full-throttle. Our delegation from Beth Shalom totaled seven.

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Yoel Sykes of Nava Tehila at the USCJ 2017 convention in Atlanta

First, a brief word of Torah.

The opening words of Parashat Bo are grammatically curious (Exodus 10:1):

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה

Vayomer Adonai el Moshe, bo el Par’oh…

Then God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh…

Ordinarily, when one gives an imperative to somebody to go see a third person, we use the verb “to go.” As in, “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead,” or, “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land / Tell ol’ Pharaoh to let My people go.”

But that’s not what the Torah says. Despite what you’ll find in every single translation, the Hebrew says, “Then God said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh…” And that doesn’t quite make sense. The text should read, “Lekh el Par’oh.” Go to Pharaoh.

Joseph Bekhor Shor, the 12th-century French commentator, explains the grammatical oddity this way:

בא אל פרעה. לא היה אומר לך כי אם בא ביי”ן בלע’ שמשמע שאני אלך עמך

The text did not say “lekh” (“go”), but rather “bo” (“come,” like the Old French “viens”) because the meaning suggested is that I [God] will go with you…

Bekhor Shor is suggesting that God is reassuring Moshe: “Come with Me,” says God, even though you and I both know that I will harden Pharaoh’s heart even after this next plague, and he will not let the Israelites go.

It’s Moshe’s come-to-Pharaoh moment. The challenges are great; we might fail. But you and me, Moshe, we’re going together.

Hold onto that for a moment; we’ll come back to it in a bit.

The theme of this convention was, “Dare Together.” And I must say that it was, in fact, a daring convention, in that the ideas that are being bandied about today in the movement are very different from what they were historically. I learned a lot of good stuff to bring back to Pittsburgh; it was so good, in fact, that you should really consider coming with us to the next one in Boston in two years.

In addition to all of the practical learning, however, I also gained some new insights from a couple of great teachers of Torah: Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles (where Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Beth Shalom’s Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, was ordained nearly two years ago). They spoke on different days and to different audiences, but their messages dovetailed in a way that, in retrospect, works out very nicely. Kurtzer spoke about today’s challenges and Artson gave us a perspective on how to address them.

Dr. Kurtzer spoke at a session that was limited to rabbis, entitled, “Jewish Identity, Belonging, and Community.” That’s a pretty vague title, but the subject matter was anything but. He began by asking the following questions:

What does it mean to live in a world in which we are fully integrated into wider American society? Who represents Judaism in such a climate?

In asking these questions, he reminded us of the existential crisis that contemporary American Jews face: that in the absence of the ethnic trappings of our parents’ and grandparents’ days, when it was abundantly clear to everybody who was Jewish and who wasn’t, that today’s boundaries are muddy. The question of who is a Jew today is much more complicated. He noted that, in a recent study in the New York area, about 5% of people claiming to be Jewish had no Jewish parents and had not converted. That didn’t happen in the 1950s.

Dr. Kurtzer identified four specific sub-challenges related to the question of who is Jewish and who represents us.

Challenge 1: What happens when self-evident truths disappear in a generation or two?

Jews light candles to welcome Shabbat. They don’t eat pork. They circumcise their baby boys. These used to be fundamental, self-evident truths, accepted without question by our grandparents and most of our parents. Today almost anything can be questioned. This type of change is unprecedented.

Challenge 2: We have a global perspective today that is unlike any time in history.

We are in a particularly ironic moment for Jewish collective living. Prior to the 20th century, Jews had no real sense of connectedness; you were Jewish, and the Jews you knew were all just like you – from the same region. Nothing connected the shtetlakh in Poland to Jews in Baghdad or Provence or Tunis.

Today, most of us live in the US and Israel, and we are more internationally networked than we have ever been. But while the American Jewish community is busy creating all sorts of new paths in Judaism (did you see the JTA’s recent article about a Jewish event in San Francisco called “Trefa Banquet 2.0”?), the State of Israel requires clear boundaries as to who is a Jew. In this climate, how do we continue to define Jewishness around the world?

Challenge 3: The data is moving faster than ever.

We love demographic data. But big demographic studies are almost obsolete the moment that they are published. The pace of change in today’s world is a challenge in that it may not be useful to determining what is next in Jewish life.

Challenge 4: The challenge of halakhah / Jewish law.

In Orthodoxy and in the Conservative movement we still understand halakhah (Jewish law) as being binding on us. But the challenge is that halakhah evolves slowly; that the rate of change in our technologies and the way we live is much faster than the rate at which halakhah is evolving.

Cognizant that he was speaking to a room of Conservative rabbis, Dr. Kurtzer said, “It’s not up to me to tell you how to do your jobs.” But his implicit message is that we have to acknowledge the halakhic challenge and do something about that.

He concluded by saying that although the boundaries are not clear, that although times are rapidly changing, we should not focus our energies on the questions of who belongs and who doesn’t, or is this behavior acceptable or not. Rather we should work harder as a community to draw everybody in closer to the center.

And how might we do this? This brings me to the inspiring words of Rabbi Artson, who spoke to the entire convention at the closing plenary. The guiding principle we must teach, he said, is ahavat hinnam, which he translated as “unearned love.”

Rabbi Artson opened with some truth-telling: “God is King,” he said, does not speak to us today. And most Jews do not really buy the idea of halakhah / Jewish law as law. But everybody understands and can relate to love – the feeling showered upon you by those that brought you into this world, who sacrificed time and money and personal space to make you what you are. “Ahavat hinnam, unmerited love,” he said, “is our first and most profound experience, and our mandate in life.”  Many of us will immediately recognize this metaphor as a way to understand our relationship with God.

Rather than teach religious ritual, law and custom as oppression, a burden to the pious, we have to instead translate Torah into “dignity, glory, and dance.” The Torah has been, at times in Jewish history, wielded as source of guilt.

But nobody wants to feel guilt. So let’s translate Torah as love. “Mitzvot are about radical love,” said Rabbi Artson. “Being in God’s image takes practice. Saying, ‘I love you, but I don’t want to change anything I do,’ is a sure recipe for loneliness. We are the people in the world’s most abiding romance.”

ahavah

“Romance,” he said, “is not just about maintaining the past – it is about change.”

So, when God says to Moshe, “Bo,” “Come with Me,” we might read that as a symbol of the eternal love between us and God, the intoxicating power of that ancient romance. “Come with Me, My love, and we will change the world. We will set you free.”

That’s the message we have to teach. That has to be the message of the Jewish future: Come with Me; be My partner. Yes, there are guidelines. Yes, you may have to change. But I promise you ahavat hinnam, unearned love. it’s worth it. Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/20/2018.)

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Israel Snapshot, Part Two: Hope for the Earthly Israel – Va-era 5778

(If you’re looking for Part One, you’ll find it here.)

The good news about going to Israel, which you all know I do regularly, is that it is always exciting, always a special treat, always an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be Jewish in a world with a majority-Jewish state.

The challenge of speaking about Israel, and particularly anything to do with Israeli politics from the pulpit is that no matter what I say, I’m going to upset somebody. There are those among us for whom any criticism of Israel’s government is forbidden, and there are those for whom any mention of Israel without simultaneously mentioning the Palestinian population living in the territories is an egregious, inhuman oversight.

The way I have always approached Israel is to consider the people who live there: their lives, their desires, their fears, their hopes. I have always sought to remind American Jews of the fact that Israeli life is not necessarily about Israeli politics, or the peace process, or the location of the future Palestinian state, and so forth. It is about going to school, making a living, being able to afford your apartment as cost-of-living increases, and so forth. It’s about completing the bagrut, the series of high-school matriculation exams, before going off to the army. It’s about finding your way through the regular chaos of life, knowing all the while that there are people who live very close by who want to kill you, and yet managing to eke out a living, raise a family, and every now and then go to the beach, or maybe get a vacation to Europe or the US or India.

Oryah and I Yafo

My first trip was 30.5 years ago, for an 8-week academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. (It’s an excellent program, and there are scholarships for interested high-school students from Pittsburgh, by the way.)

I lived in Israel for about 15 months in 1999-2000, and I have flown round-trip to Israel in excess of 30 times. I have been to most of the popular tourist sites over and over, and I have also been to many places where tourists rarely go. I hiked from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean over four days; I have climbed many mountains in Israel, from the northernmost to the southernmost; I have been to most of the beaches and soaked myself in virtually every body of water that exists; I was even once turned away by Palestinian police while trying to enter Shechem (which the Palestinians call Nablus, an Arabicization of the Latin “Neapolis,” meaning “new city”), because they insisted on seeing my Israeli ID card, and wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t Israeli and didn’t have one. I had my wallet stolen in Israel twice; I’ve overpaid handsomely in various markets; I’ve had the opportunity to interact with bureaucrats in government offices, auto mechanics, artists, beggars, politicians, kibbutzniks, sushi chefs, police officers, bank tellers, etc., etc.

What draws me back to Israel is as much the seductive theory of the fulfillment of the visions of both Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, as I discussed two weeks ago, as the vibrant reality on the ground – the day-to-day struggle that is normal and familiar to every human being, the palette of human existence. And this reality is the result of the human movement known as Zionism, the collective effort to forge a sovereign, contemporary nation for the Jews. I am still proud to call myself a Zionist, committed to that ongoing dream.

jerusalem

The Talmud speaks of two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, and Yerushalayin shel matah – the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one (Babylonian Talmud, Massekhet Ta’anit 5a; translation from Sefaria):

וא”ל רב נחמן לר’ יצחק מאי דכתיב (הושע יא, ט) בקרבך קדוש ולא אבוא בעיר משום דבקרבך קדוש לא אבוא בעיר א”ל הכי א”ר יוחנן אמר הקב”ה לא אבוא בירושלים של מעלה עד שאבוא לירושלים של מטה. ומי איכא ירושלים למעלה אין דכתיב (תהלים קכב, ג) ירושלם הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו

And Rav Naḥman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It is sacred in your midst, and I will not enter the city” (Hosea 11:9)? This verse is puzzling: Because it is sacred in your midst, will God not enter the city? Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said the verse should be understood as follows: The Holy One, Blessed be God, said: I shall not enter Jerusalem above, in heaven, until I enter Jerusalem on earth down below at the time of the redemption, when it will be sacred in your midst. The Gemara asks: And is there such a place as Jerusalem above? The Gemara answers: Yes, as it is written: “Jerusalem built up, a city unified together”(Psalms 122:3). The term unified indicates that there are two cities of Jerusalem, a heavenly one and an earthly one, which are bound together.

The same is true of the State of Israel as a whole. When one visits as a tourist, particularly for the first time, I think you are most likely to fall in love with the heavenly Israel, Yisra’el shel ma’alah. When one lives there for an extended period of time, you are likely to run up against Yisra’el shel matah, the very real, very human, very earthly State of Israel. Except for people it is the opposite: we enter the earthly Israel via the heavenly Israel; Rabbi Yohanan’s position is that God will only arrive at the heavenly Jerusalem through the earthly Jerusalem. We might read from this our obligation to build properly Yisrael shel matah in order to reach its heavenly counterpart.

Shel matah is where the cost of living rivals the most expensive nations in the world, where terrified soldiers are called on to make life-or-death decisions on a daily basis, where some men prevent women from singing out loud, where the use of a sefer Torah in public is a political statement.

You might have thought that, since I arrived in Israel just after the American President acknowledged Jerusalem as its capital, that this particular news item would have dominated headlines. But actually, what made a bigger splash when I was there was the swirling allegations and fallout from government corruption.

These corruption cases threaten to topple the Netanyahu government as Bibi himself and one of his key aides, former majority whip David Bitan, face a range of charges. Every Saturday night, anti-corruption protests in Tel Aviv draw tens of thousands of participants.

ISRAEL-POLITICS

Israeli police are planning to recommend that the prime minister be indicted in two corruption cases – one about gifts of cigars and champagne from billionaire supporters, and the other a deal to get favorable coverage from the venerable daily Yediot Acharonot newspaper in exchange for inhibiting the free upstart Yisrael Hayom, owned by my namesake (and possible cousin) Sheldon Adelson.

Meanwhile, Bitan’s replacement, David Amsalem, is known for stating his desire that egalitarian services be banned at the Kotel, and insulting the non-Orthodox Jews (like us) who support them.

I had an opportunity, one of the days that my son was in school and I was footloose and fancy-free, to go visit Rabbi Amy Levin at Kibbutz Hannaton, where she has lived for the last two years. In addition to meeting her grandson Bar, who at 1.5 is absolutely adorable, we discussed the situation on the ground in Israel in light of recent events. Her sense of the Israeli reaction to the United States’ statement about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, like mine, was, “OK, so what? We already knew that.” The decision changes neither facts on the ground or the status of the peace process.

For the most part, Israelis are unmoved by the statement about Jerusalem as the capital, and skeptical that the embassy will actually move. But that’s because they are hardened by years of struggle. OK, they think, let the Palestinians riot. Let the Arab world seethe in anger. That’s their leaders’ problem, not ours. If they want a state, they are ultimately going to have to stop aiming rockets at our civilian population, and come to the negotiating table, not that we’re holding our breath.

Yes, that may seem insensitive to some. But Israelis have to protect themselves and their nation. And while I personally feel that the official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital might mean the loss of a potential bargaining chip for final-status negotiations, there is also the potential here for re-igniting those negotiations. As any family therapist will tell you (and we all know that the Middle East is one humongous, dysfunctional family), sometimes making a significant change in the family system’s stasis might cause changes elsewhere in the system that will help resolve the problem.

family therapy diagram

So meanwhile, the shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, remains unchanged. What remains for us is the future of the shel matah, the reality on the ground. Let’s keep our fingers tied up in the shape of a magen David (the six-pointed Jewish star) and hope for the best:

  • Hope that a sustainable solution for all the populations in that small strip of land will be reached;
  • Hope that corruption in Israel will be sidelined and that her democracy remains strong;
  • Hope that the Kinneret and the Dead Sea will still be there for our grandchildren to enjoy;
  • Hope that the increasingly right-wing Orthodox hegemony over religious issues will be broken;
  • Hope that Israel will continue to face all these challenges with grace, so that she will continue to inspire and lead Diaspora Jewry; and
  • Hope that we can build that Yisra’el shel matah that the people living there, and all of us around the world, truly need.

We are currently working on a Beth Shalom trip to Israel, primarily for empty-nesters, next November. Please let me know if you are interested.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/13/2018.)

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Rabbi Heschel on Religion and Race

My ancestors were not from Norway, but they were slaves in Egypt.

It is this simple, foundational story in Jewish tradition that reminds us on a daily basis to remember the stranger, to lift up the oppressed, to do good works for the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 Poland – 1972 US), one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, was perhaps best known for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965. At the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, Rabbi Heschel said the following (as reprinted in his 1967 collection of essays, The Insecurity of Freedomp. 89):

It is not within the power of God to forgive the sins committed toward men. We must first ask for forgiveness of those whom our society has wronged before asking for the forgiveness of God.

Daily we patronize institutions which are visible manifestations of arrogance toward those whose skin differs from ours. Daily we cooperate with people who are guilty of active discrimination.

How long will I continue to be tolerant of, even a participant in, acts of embarrassing and humiliating human beings, in restaurants, hotels, buses, or parks, employment agencies, public schools and universities? One ought rather be shamed than put others to shame.

Our rabbis taught: “Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled without answering, act through love and rejoice in suffering, of them Scripture says: ‘They who love the Lord are as the sun when rising in full splendor’ (Judges 5:31).”

Let us cease to be apologetic, cautious, timid. Racial tension and strife is both sin and punishment. The Negro’s plight, the blighted areas in the large cities, are they not the fruit of our sins?

By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge, to chastise.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

(Although Rabbi Heschel used the terms “men” and “Negroes,” we should feel free to mentally substitute more inclusive/appropriate language and not be distracted by outmoded terms.)

As Heschel moves smoothly from the Talmud to Thomas Jefferson, I too tremble for our country when I recall that one of our primary imperatives as Jews is to fulfill the Torah’s words: “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – “Justice: you shall pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The vision shared by Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel is still alive, but far from completion; let us keep tzedeq / justice in front of us as we continue to not be silent, to not be complacent, to not let the strife of the moment prevent us from working toward a better society, a better United States of America, and a better world.

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Israel Snapshot, Part One: the Spiritual and the Physical – Vayhi 5778

I returned last week from a two-week trip to Israel. I was there for Hanukkah. I actually have not been in America for Hanukkah since 2007; it’s a great time to visit my son. He’s on vacation, the weather is cool and comfortable, and its usually before the hordes of December tourists arrive. I also find that my trips to Israel also recharge me and my sense of connection with Judaism, with our ancient texts, and of course with the modern complexities of the Jewish state.

When I sat down, by the shore of the Kinneret, to write this sermon, I found that I had been so energized by my trip that I had at least two weeks’ worth of material, so this is going to be a two-part sermon. This week, I am going to frame a different way of looking at the State of Israel; in two weeks, we’ll talk about recent political developments.

A good way to frame our understanding of Israel requires dividing the world into two traditional spheres, often reflected in Hasidic thought: ruhaniyyut, matters of the spirit, and gashmiyyut, mundane, material matters.

What got me thinking about this was the podcast Fault Lines, produced by the Forward newspaper, featuring an ongoing conversation between Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Israel’s Shalem Center, and New York-based journalist Peter Beinart. If you have not yet heard this podcast, you really should: you can find it here. What makes the podcast so appealing is that they come from different political perspectives on Israel, and yet they manage to have civil, thoughtful discussions.

HERZL WAS AN ANTI-SEMITE IN DISGUISE | SHOAH

Theodor Herzl

In an episode from last summer, they were speaking about the anti-occupation activist group If Not Now. At one point, they took a detour to talk about the competing visions of Theodor Herzl and Ahad HaAm.  Herzl was committed to the political process of statecraft – the nuts and bolts of actually creating a Jewish state.

אחד העם שלא רציתם להכיר - עיון - הארץ

Ahad HaAm

Ahad HaAm was not as interested in statehood as he was in Israel as the merkaz ruhani, the “spiritual center” of the Jews. Herzl wanted facts on the ground: borders, government, infrastructure. Ahad HaAm, noting the pitiful state of the settlements in Palestine at the end of the 19th century, wanted to focus on the way that the Diaspora and the land of Israel as its spiritual center could strengthen one another; that Israel should be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews” – a cultural center that would foster an international Jewish renaissance. Herzl was occupied with gashmiyyut; Ahad HaAm with ruhaniyyut. They were asking different questions: Herzl was concerned with the what and the how; Ahad HaAm with the why.

Beinart and Gordis concluded that both were necessary; that Israel today was created from the visions of both Ahad HaAm and Herzl, and that both ideals still nourish and sustain the Israeli population and the State.

And so too do we need both, here in the Diaspora. We’ll come back to this.

On this trip, my son and I performed what has become an annual ritual: we got a parking ticket.

Nonetheless, on every visit to Israel, I am reminded of why I love the country and the people. Here are a few things I took note of on this trip:

Nahalat Binyamin, the Tel Aviv street fair near the shuq (open-air market) on Fridays is always packed with people. Artists and craftspeople of all kinds set up to sell their wares. There are buskers and various types of street entertainers, including a particularly talented string trio: Russian emigres, two violins and a cello. Their instruments look beat-up and barely varnished. But as I listened to them play Vivaldi, I was transported momentarily away from the busy, dusty city to a place of  beauty and tranquility. I put 10 sheqel in their hat.

The cafes are alive, bursting with people. The cafe culture in Israel is vibrant. While I have often been in cafes in America where every single person (including me) is working on their own laptop, not talking to each other, that is never how it is in Israel. Friends are having conversations; people have work meetings; some are simply checking out the scene; and so forth.

Meanwhile, Israeli city streets are always filled with people, not just cars. Israeli cities are generally built around a small, pedestrian-friendly merkaz, so the sense of seeing people and being seen is a part of the Israeli day-to-day experience.

And then there is the youthful energy of Israel. On my flight over, I was literally surrounded by Israeli babies on four sides. I didn’t sleep so well, but the comfort of knowing that Israelis and Israeli society are family-centric is worth so much more.

As bustling and exciting as Israeli is, I confess that what I love most when I visit is the opportunity to reflect: the quiet of a hike, wherein I can chew on history and current reality, about what it means to be a Jew, an American Jew, an Israeli Jew, an American Zionist, an American Jew who considered making aliyah but then returned to America, and so forth.

Arbel caves

View of the north-facing cliff of Mt. Arbel, which contains the caves

Last Sunday, my son was in school following Hanukkah break, so I drove up to Mt. Arbel, just north of Tiberias, to take a hike. Arbel is best known for the ancient natural caves, hewn into the steep cliff on its north face, that were not only used as homes by our ancestors, but also played a role in the rebellion against Rome in the first century CE. (Noted by Josephus because Herod’s commander lowered soldiers from the cliff above the caves to enter and massacre the rebels in the caves.)

Josephus

Unfortunately, the caves were inaccessible because it was a windy and rainy day. So instead I strolled around the top of the mountain, and also checked out the ruins of the 4th-century synagogue near the summit.

The synagogue, like many ancient synagogues in Israel, is demarcated by Israeli authorities to protect the past. Among the signs placed haphazardly around the site are descriptions of the worship area, and then a note that there were also rooms to one side where limmud / “learning” took place.

Israel needs that ancient synagogue. It lies there, a collection of worn, sculpted rocks, as a symbol of our ancient connection with the land; it represents the past as much as the present. It reminds us of the politics and the spirit. It speaks to us of ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut, the material and the spiritual.

Now, you might be thinking that ruhaniyyut here is tefillah / prayer, since it involves what at least ostensibly suggests expressing our gratitude and requests to God; that the role of the synagogue as a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, is the spiritual side.

And I would posit that it is exactly the opposite: tefillah has a certain rigidity to it: it has laws, customs, and the expectation, at least historically, has been that it’s done a certain, particular way. The words do not change; the melodies do not change that much. As much as many of us synagogue regulars crave a certain amount of variety in our services, the reality is that most of us expect that prayer will be done a certain way, and that not doing it that way would be foreign.

(Aside: we are currently hosting a discussion about re-imagining what we do here for tefillah, something that you will become more aware of in coming months. We’re setting some goals, and will try to make our services align with those goals. And we are certainly focused on making tefillot a more creative and meaningful endeavor.)

But limmud, learning is exactly the opposite. The rules are simple: study and argue. It is a creative endeavor. And although you have to use what’s come before, the field is wide open in terms of interpretation, what ancient words mean to us today.

Tefillah / prayer is like Herzl’s political Zionism; it desires structure. It is about demarcating liturgical frameworks so that words of praise are recited in an organized way, so that people can gather in groups to create a ritual framework together. But learning is about openness, about freedom, about exploring yourself through ancient text. It is about enriching yourself and your community through seeking meaning. The Jewish bookshelf is the virtual merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center of our people.

The synagogue, ancient and modern, symbolizes the modern state of Israel – learning and praying together, structure and creativity, ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut.

החיים היפים בתל אביב הקטנה / חלק א` | מסע בתוך החמישים

And the lesson that we can draw from this is that the Israel that we know and love, the Israel that gives us inspiration, is not just about political boundaries and democracy and the peace process; it is also about how we go about finding meaning here in the Diaspora. It is about being not only or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, but or la’am, a light unto OUR nation, the Jewish people, as well. It is about the people who live there, and the wealth of culture that Israel gives to the Jewish world: the religious culture, yes, but also the secular: the pop music, the plays, the fashion design, the high-tech innovations.

As Diaspora Jews, we are as much enriched by Herzl’s vision of Altneuland, the old land become new, as we are by Ahad HaAm’s notion of the merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward.

Take me to Part Two!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/30/17.)

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To Prevent Harassment, Change the Power Dynamic – Vayyishlah 5778

Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Leon Wieseltier, playwright Israel Horovitz, John Hockenberry, etc., etc.

My daughter, who is in 5th grade, asked me a few days ago what “harassment” is. I fumbled through an answer appropriate for a precocious 10-year-old who can’t help but hear what’s going on in the world.

I must say that in the wake of all of the allegations that continue to splash across our collective consciousness, I have had three thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  1. I wish that fewer of the accused were Jewish.
  2. This is not going to stop anytime soon, until people change their behavior such that they do not abuse others based on a power dynamic.
  3. While the inherent sexism in Judaism’s ancient texts might tend to reinforce that power dynamic, we have to ensure that we work to reinterpret our tradition so that it does not.

So I have what may be construed to be some good news on that front: that we at Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement, by standing up for egalitarianism wherever possible, by re-affirming our commitment to the equality of women in all aspects of Jewish life, we are in fact actively working to change the equation. Let me explain.

Let us consider, for example, the Dinah narrative, which is featured today in Parashat Vayyishlah (this week’s Torah reading).

As you may recall from last week in Vayyetze, when Dinah is introduced, unlike all 12 of her brothers, her name is not given an etymology in the Torah. Leah merely gives birth to Dinah (Gen. 30:21), and the event is reported tersely in seven words; no mention of why she is named Dinah; no mention of how Leah rejoiced at giving birth to a girl. Nothing.

What we read today in Vayyishlah then takes it from bad to worse. The passage is downright judgmental; in Gen. 34:1-2, the Torah effectively slurs Dinah as a yatz’anit, which you might translate into English as a “streetwalker”:

א וַתֵּצֵא דִינָה בַּת-לֵאָה, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב, לִרְאוֹת, בִּבְנוֹת הָאָרֶץ.  ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי–נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Ya’aqov, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shekhem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

This is undeniably a classic case of “blaming the victim.” And we should read it as exactly that, through 2017 lenses. The Torah sees this case of rape as Dinah’s fault, for going out and visiting with the women of the land. Rashi even worsens the matter, by pointing out that because Dinah is identified here as “bat Leah” (daughter of Leah) but not “bat Ya’aqov,” (daughter of Jacob) it is an indicator that her mother was also a yatz’anit.

From beginning to end, Dinah is not treated equally to her brothers.

But we have an obligation today to learn from this story that while we cannot change the Torah, we can indeed change the dynamic. It is our responsibility, as contemporary Jews, to make sure that we acknowledge the equal measure of qedushah / holiness allotted to every single human being, and that we reinforce at every turn that men and women be treated equally in a Jewish context and in the wider world.

Why? Because if we internalize the notion that men and women are equal, then we have a better shot at maintaining the qedushah in all our relationships; we have a chance of re-affirming respect for all people, despite their intrinsic differences; and we might be able to eliminate the power dynamic that enables harassment of all kinds.

Those of us who are committed to egalitarianism are still fighting that battle. And, given the demographic trends of the Jewish community, in which Orthodoxy is growing and non-Orthodoxy is shrinking (see, e.g. the Pew Study of Jews and Judaism of 2013), we have to keep fighting it.

You may have heard some people in the Jewish world, who perpetuate the halakhic inequity of men and women say that women are not obligated to the positive, time-bound mitzvot (holy opportunities of Jewish life) because they are “on a higher spiritual plane.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call “apologetics.” (Now, I’m not saying that women are NOT more spiritual; I’m just saying that has nothing to do with their being exempt from most of the mitzvot of Jewish life.)

But I have some even more good news: Orthodoxy is moving, ever so slowly, toward an acknowledgment that times have changed, and that women deserve greater roles in Jewish life. Within the past few months, a new demographic study of Modern Orthodox Jews, produced by Orthodox researchers, revealed the following tidbits:

  • 74% of respondents approved of women serving as synagogue presidents
  • 80% support co-ed classes in an Orthodox context
  • 69% support women reciting Qaddish (the memorial prayer) without men
  • 85% support women giving sermons from the bimah
  • 53% believe that women should have the opportunity for such expanded roles as clergy
  • 38% said they strongly or somewhat support women in clergy holding a title of rabbinic authority.

All of this despite the fact that the Orthodox Union, which the largest Orthodox synagogue movement, earlier this year published a report written by seven prominent rabbis, which concluded that women should be prohibited by serving from rabbinic roles. (There are four such women right now serving in Orthodox congregations; about 50 Modern Orthodox rabbis wrote a letter in response asking them not to “expel” these synagogue.)

As a captivating aside, the report also found that:

One third of respondents said their attitudes towards sexuality have changed, most citing an increased acceptance of gay Jews; 58 percent of respondents support synagogues accepting gay members, and 72 percent report being “OK with it.” While support is highest among the liberal factions, significant support exists on the right as well (24 percent of the right-most cohort support gay Jews joining their synagogues).

Two more interesting anecdotes:

I was unable to attend the Yonina concert, produced by Derekh, which, for those of you who have missed it, is Beth Shalom’s new programming rubric, because I was attending a friend’s wedding in Cleveland. About 350 people did attend, and it was a great and joyous success. But a quick glance at the crowd revealed that there were many Orthodox men in attendance, who were openly flouting their communities’ norm of men not being permitted to listen to women’s voices (from the Talmud, Berakhot 24a, where Shemu’el says, “Qol be-ishah ervah,” a woman’s [singing] voice is a sexual prohibition; there have been a range of understandings of this prohibition, and it is entirely discounted in the non-Orthodox world).

Women, Tefillin, and the Orthodox Schism - Paperblog

In another quarter of the Jewish world, I was party to a discussion a week and a half ago at CDS, where a group of 8th-grade girls are not only putting on tefillin (phylacteries*) regularly, but also advocating that the school change its tefillin policy to be more egalitarian. Right now, the school requires that boys in 7th grade wear tefillin during morning tefillot, and teaches the application of tefillin to all, but does not require girls to do so. I am very happy indeed that these discussions are going on, and that our young women are committed not only to the mitzvah of tefillin, but also to the principles of egalitarianism.

We are continuing to right the historical wrongs of Jewish life and living; we are continuing as a people to lead by example, by changing the dynamic.

To those friends and colleagues who maintain a non-egalitarian position, I love and respect you, but I can only say, “Open up the doors! You have nothing to lose except the inequality.” If you are, in fact, committed to modernity, then be modern! Acknowledge that the world has changed; that the judgment of Dinah in the Torah and rabbinic literature is no longer acceptable. Your wives and mothers and daughters are doctors and lawyers and judges and engineers and programmers and professors; why should they be relegated to second-class status in their synagogues?

We’re past this. We have made that change. And you know what, it works. We in the progressive Jewish world are leading by example, challenging the existing power dynamic. And, by the way, there’s room for you in our tent.

As a final note here, we are approaching Hanukkah, arguably the most-misunderstood holiday of the Jewish year**. I am always in Israel during Hanukkah, and the overarching message I hear about the holiday (other than the omnipresence of various kinds of fancy-schmancy sufganiyot (donuts), is that it is a triumph of Jewish culture over Greek culture. That is certainly one historical message of the holiday, which celebrates the rededication of the Beit HaMiqdash (Temple in Jerusalem) following its desecration of the hands of the Hellenized Syrians in the mid-2nd century BCE.

All about Hanukkah - the 8 night Jewish festival of lights ...

But how should we understand Hanukkah today? About light – about spreading light in this oh-so-dark world:

  • Cast some light on the recently-invigorated forces of anti-Semitism, ethnic nationalism, white supremacy, racism, anti-immigrantism, and so forth
  • Cast some light on the political forces that want to build walls, keep us fighting against each other rather than continuing dialogue
  • And cast some light on the cultural forces that want to keep women from being seen as full, respected equals in all corners of society.

Those are the messages of Hanukkah. So as you light those candles, don’t just think about the latkes  potato pancakes) or the sufganiyot, but think about the ways that we can keep moving forward in light and in enlightenment.

Shabbat shalom.

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/1/2017.)

 

* Nobody actually knows what “phylacteries” are. Tefillin are boxes containing hand-written portions of the Torah that are bound by leather straps to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers by traditional Jews.

** It’s actually something of a stretch to call Hanukkah a holiday – it’s a minor, post-biblical commemoration that is minimal in customs and traditions in comparison to holidays like Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, etc. It has become elevated today primarily due to its proximity to Christmas.

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