Tag Archives: authenticity

Can Creativity and Authenticity Co-Exist in Judaism? – Eqev 5777

A couple of weeks back, I spoke about what it means to be authentic in today’s Jewish world, and how authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. There is a range of authentic approaches to Judaism, and what we do here at Beth Shalom represents a fairly traditional segment of those approaches.

Is there a limit to what we tolerate as authentic Judaism? How do we know when we have crossed this line?

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Back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on teaching Jewish theology, I recall Rabbi Neil Gillman reflecting on the range of understandings of Judaism in today’s world. He remarked that the only thing that everybody can agree on is that the Messianic Jews, the Jews for Jesus, are not welcome at the Jewish communal table.

But within the spectrum of what has become normative Judaism in the last two centuries, there is considerable disagreement on theological issues. (A congregant reported to me last week that at a recent Shabbat dinner, a member of our wider community, but not this congregation, referred to me as a “so-called rabbi.”)

And while ideological, denominational lines are somewhat less clear than they used to be, there are still some among us who cling to the principles of ideological purity. That is, in fact, one expected outcome of modern Judaism.

However, since (a) rabbinic tradition has always thrived on disagreement, and (b) we have no pope, no one centralized authority to decide what is right or wrong, the range of Jewish practice is effectively up for negotiation. No matter what some in our world may believe, there is rarely a single acceptable Jewish position on anything. There is often a minority opinion. And that reality has played out extensively in how we understand what it means to be Jewish today.

The Reform movement decided in the 19th century to reject halakhah /Jewish law in favor of moral instruction. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 stated the following:

“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

In reaction to this move, the Conservative movement emerged from the right flank of Reform, maintaining traditional halakhic practice, while acknowledging that times have changed considerably since, say, the Mishnah was compiled in the second century CE, and that we should account, conservatively of course, for these changes. The movement’s halakhic decisors rely on traditional halakhic literature in doing so. So we see, for example,  egalitarianism as an acceptable halakhic innovation based not only on traditional sources but also contemporary sensibilities.

It’s unfair to paint Orthodoxy with one brush, since there are so many variants within it. But in general, Orthodoxy strives to maintain a strict halakhic practice with few of the leniencies and innovations upon which the Conservative movement has relied.

While the ideologically-committed members of each of these major movements feel very strongly that their way is the right one, I think it is fair to acknowledge that there are, within the wide range of Jewish ideology and practice, a number of legitimate paths through our tradition.

Nonetheless, I think there are limits to what we can say fits under the Jewish umbrella. And those limits exist at both ends of the Jewish ideological spectrum.

We read today at the beginning of Parashat Eqev:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. (Deut. 7:12)

The question is, of course, what does it mean to “listen to” and “keep” and “do” the mitzvot? Does it mean that we must literally stone to death a disobedient son (Deut. 21:21)? Does it mean that we must literally avoid boiling a calf in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21)? In the case of the bad kid, the rabbis interpreted this law minimally to make it effectively inapplicable. In the kashrut case, the rabbis expanded it maximally.

And of course we have the whole range in-between: laws which continue to be observed more or less as they appear in the Torah (e.g. not kindling a fire on Shabbat, telling the story of the Exodus on the night following the 14th of Nisan), and laws which are not observed at all (e.g. everything to do with sacrifices).

And then there are laws which are not explicitly stated at all in the Torah, but become enshrined as mitzvot through rabbinic interpretation (relevant to today’s parashah, saying both birkat hamazon and hamotzi, blessings before and after meals).

Point is, Judaism today is not what’s described in the Torah; it’s what resulted from nearly two millennia of human development and interpretation. And that’s a messy and complicated process. We’re in a very different place today from where we were as a people in 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.

So that’s why two particular items that appeared recently in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle caught my eye, two things which, I think, test the limits of what it means to be a Jew in today’s world.

The first comes from the more traditional quarters of our neighborhood. A group in town has purchased (at least from a halakhic perspective) a pregnant donkey, who has not yet given birth as far as I know, in hopes that her first offspring will be a male. (I don’t think that ultrasound technology has yet been designed for farm animals.) If the baby donkey is a male, it will be redeemed from a resident kohen with a lamb. (I don’t have time to explain the halakhic intricacies of all of this, but it is mentioned three times in the Torah, e.g. Ex. 13:13.)

The donkey was “purchased” for $1 from its owners on a farm in Ohio, where she still lives; after the completion of the ritual, the dollar will be returned. Members of the community have bought “shares” in the donkey for $36 each, so they can get “credit” for the mitzvah.

Pidyon Peter Chamor In Los Angeles – The Yeshiva World

Now, the obvious question here is, “Why?” This is an ancient agricultural mitzvah that is not practiced today, frankly, because very few traditional Jews own donkeys. Furthermore, despite the contemporary practice of pidyon haben, the redemption of a first-born human boy from a kohen, my suspicion is that this ritual has not really been fulfilled by actual, agrarian Jews for two millennia.

My second question is, if you really want to perform a rare agricultural mitzvah, why not buy a few acres of corn and let poor people glean? That’s mentioned more times in the Torah than the donkey.

I think this is a fraught expression of Judaism. Yes, it’s in the Torah. But remember, we don’t practice the ancient Israelite religion of the Torah. We are rabbinic Jews. I’m not sure it passes my own personal test, which is, can we derive meaning from this that will benefit us individually and communally?

At the other end of the spectrum,  a different article was about a sometimes-local woman who completed her training through the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. The Hebrew Priestesses are women who bring together Jewish and “earth-based” customs to create new rituals. From their own website:

“Kohenet celebrates the sacred in the body, the earth, and the cosmos, holding the world to be an embodiment of Shekhinah— divine presence. Kohenet reclaims the traditions of women, from the priestesses and prophetesses of biblical antiquity to healers, dreamers, and seekers throughout Jewish tradition.”

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Although one of the Kohenet co-founders, Rabbi Jill Hammer, was trained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the current dean of the Rabbinical School, Rabbi Danny Nevins, has described Kohenet’s embracing of new, earth-centered ritual as “pagan.”

Now, we might be inclined to say that one of these articles discusses an actual mitzvah from the Torah, while the other is an interpolation that draws on some aspects of Jewish tradition but then diverges greatly.

However, I don’t think that either of these things will have wide appeal. Nonetheless, as with the contemporary movements, and arguably the entirety of rabbinic Judaism, only time will tell where the boundaries of authenticity lie.

To quote Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” We are living in a time of great creativity in Jewish life, and the limits of Jewish authenticity will be stretched by these endeavors as we move forward.

To that end, I’d like to propose a kind of litmus test for innovation.

  1. Can we derive meaning from ritual that will benefit us individually and communally?
  2. Is there halakhic and/or historical precedent?
  3. If the answer to #2 is no, is this a new creative approach that can be justified within the broad outlines of our tradition?

Given that we have no pope, and that we acknowledge that change must be conservative, we as a community must decide what we can accept. And I am sure that we will.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/12/2017.)

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Authenticity and the “Blacklist” – Devarim 5777

A week and a half ago I was in the Newark airport, dropping off my son for his El Al flight back to Israel, and there was a local Chabad rabbi set up with a kiosk just before security, asking Jewish travelers (men only, of course) to put on tefillin. I observed him put tefillin on one guy, and I noticed that, in contrast to the standard Ashkenazi practice of saying two berakhot, one for the arm and then an additional one for the head, he asked the guy to say only the berakhah for the arm.

tefillin-hands-jjep

Now, I know that Sefaradim only say one berakhah, but that Chabadniks are clearly from the Ashkenazi world. So I asked him why he only said one berakhah. And he said, “Because that’s the way it’s done!” I reminded him that widespread Ashkenazi practice was to say two berakhot, for the two separate mitzvot / commandments identified in the Shema,* and I quoted it for him. But he would not accept that. “It’s one berakhah,” he said. “Now you’ve learned something today.”

What I learned, of course, is that the Jewish world is filled with different opinions, and that some of us are more open to them than others. (I don’t think that’s what he thought I learned.)

The book of Devarim ostensibly takes place nearly 40 years after the rest of the Torah. It’s the end of Moshe’s life. And what does he do? He gives a speech. And not a short one, either; it’s long. A whole book. (Sooo Jewish, right!)

It’s an authentic, personal lecture, summarizing not only some of the major laws of the Torah, but also including historical tales as well, retelling the episode at Sinai, for example, and even documenting his own exclusion from entering the land of Israel. It is almost as if he is speaking thus:

“I have been denied entering Israel, because of my anger. I am being punished. But I remain true to the task I have been given, and that task was to lead you out of Egypt and to Sinai to receive the Torah. My work is done; now it will be up to you to carry our tradition forward.”

So here we are now, thousands of years after this story was written down. We have not had a Moshe Rabbeinu for 3 millennia. And yet we’re still here. And much of that has to do with the fact that we continue to interpret and reinterpret the Torah.

There is a well-known and beloved story from the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who lived around the turn of the second century CE, a good 1300 years after Moshe. The story is as follows (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot 29b):

Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah from God, and he sees that God is affixing crowns to the letters. Moshe asks, “Why the fancy illustrations?”

God says, “More than a millennium from now, there will be a great sage named Rabbi Akiva, who will interpret every jot and tittle in the Torah.”

Moshe says, “Can I see this person?”

God says, “Turn around.” And Moshe is instantly transported to the 2nd century, CE, to the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. And there’s Rabbi Akiva, expounding on the Torah, explaining every jot and tittle in the text. Moshe is very confused, because none of this information is in the Torah that God gave him. A student raises his hand. “But where did you learn this?”

Rabbi Akiva replies, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai.” And Moshe felt much better.

**

Rabbi Akiva somehow understood more Torah than Moshe knew; he had gleaned it from the written Torah and its subsequent interpretation. And we today, living 1900 years or so after Rabbi Akiva, know and understand even more, because that interpretation has continued.

With time and commentary and disagreement has come a wealth of diversity of opinion on Jewish law and custom. And with that diversity comes a similar range of customs and interpretation. And you know what? While each of us claim that our way is the “right” way, in many cases, there is no right way. There are different customs, performing one custom instead of another is not wrong; it’s just different.

And, more importantly, no tradition is more “authentic” than any other.

We love the idea of authenticity. And really, how could you not? We live in an age in which we know our politicians lie, the corporations who supply us with food and medicine and transportation and information can be deceptive to benefit their bottom lines, settled scientific fact is openly disputed by authority figures on television, and so forth. Perhaps some of these examples are merely the bad apples that are spoiling the bunch, but the negative continually gets the spotlight, and it is easy to become cynical and distrustful.

We crave authenticity. We yearn for something that we can hold onto that is not layered with marketing or spin. We need to know that in this world where identity is fungible and the truth cannot be found in a Google search, that there are some things which remain untouched by the taint of modernity.

A fascinating article crossed my desk this week, from the Atlantic magazine. It was about how some people are now willing to pay to watch Jews performing “authentic” religious rituals:

Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.

The article goes on to discuss ways in which contemporary Jews and non-Jews are making traditional rituals their own, and how that indicates our current search for authenticity.

What irked me about the article, though, is the assumption, made by many, that if it’s not performed by people in black hats, then it’s not authentic. The very title, “The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism,” suggests that it’s only Orthodox Jews whose authenticity is being sought.

But we know better. We in the Conservative movement, and, well, all of the non-Orthodox world, know that our customs are just as authentic. OK, so the addition of the Imahot, the names of the Jewish matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, were not recited in any Amidah (the standing, silent prayer that is central to every Jewish service) prior to, I think, the 1970s. Does that mean that including them is not “authentic”? Hasidism adopted the black garb because that was how Polish nobles dressed in the 18th century. Is that “authentic”? The Reform movement jettisoned the laws of kashrut / Jewish dietary laws, a move perhaps made most famous at the “Trefa Banquet” of 1883 in Cincinnati. Does that make them “inauthentic”?

“Authenticity” is just more spin. Customs come and go. Rituals change. Even halakhah / Jewish law changes. What we do here is just as authentic as what happens at Poale Zedeck, or Shaare Torah, or Rodef Shalom. Moshe did not wear a black hat, and neither did Rabbi Akiva. We are firmly based in Jewish tradition, and the process of interpretation that Rabbi Akiva taught.

And that brings me back to Israel, and recent political events there. To summarize briefly:

  1. PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to suspend the completion of a respectful, fully-accessible egalitarian area at the Kotel, where non-Orthodox Jews can worship unmolested by those who just can’t stand seeing men and women davening together.
  2. The cabinet also advanced a bill in the Knesset that would ensure that the Israeli Rabbinate (the “Rabbanut”) would have sole control over conversions in Israel. This bill would mean that any conversions to Judaism conducted in Israel by non-Orthodox or even individual Orthodox rabbis not under the Rabbanut’s auspices would not be recognized by the State of Israel.
  3. The Rabbanut published a list of 160 rabbis from around the world whose letters affirming the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel were rejected in 2016. Rabbi Steindel and I were on that list, even though I have never written such a letter. (The Post-Gazette actually ran a story on this last week.)

I spoke about this a few weeks back when I addressed the Kotel issue, but the problem comes back to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel. The government of Israel turned over the keys to religious decisions to a certain group of Orthodox rabbis 69 years ago, and Judaism has suffered for it. I am not insulted by being “blacklisted.” I suppose it’s a badge of honor. But I am certainly no less a spiritual leader, and no less inclined to continue to teach the diversity of opinion and custom and tradition that we have.

On the contrary, I am more inclined to speak up:

To speak up for the range of what it means to be Jewish.

To speak up for the 85% of the Jewish world that does not identify as Orthodox.

To speak up for those who think that development in Jewish life did not end in the 19th century.

To speak up for those who understand that all Jewish people, women and men, and even those who identify as neither, be recognized as equal recipients of the Jewish heritage and equal participants in Jewish life and learning.

To speak up for my fellow rabbis who are being disenfranchised by the Jewish state.

To speak up for the ongoing engagement with modernity as we continue to unravel the project of what it means to be Jewish today.

Authenticity infuses all of these people and principles. And I’ll speak up for that. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/29/17.)

* וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and wear them as frontlets between your eyes (Deut. 6:8). This has been understood as two separate commandments, and hence two berakhot.

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