Tag Archives: change

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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Positive Judaism – Noah 5777

Those of you who have been to the melaveh-malkah-in-the-sukkah that my family and I have hosted for the last couple of years know that I love folk music. Way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I saw Pete Seeger perform. Just a tall, gangly guy with a banjo. He was not young then, but he was magical. Mr. Seeger had the amazing ability to ask the audience to sing along with him, and they would do so in four-part harmony. Magic.

My physical chemistry professor, a man whom I still think of to this day as the most boring person on Earth, was seated a row in front of me to my left. He nodded off during the concert, and I felt a certain satisfaction in that my opinion of him was confirmed.

When Pete Seeger died nearly three years ago at the age of 94, his obituary in the New York Times chronicled all the political turmoil of his life: protests of his concerts by members of the John Birch Society, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and so forth. But that obit concluded with a striking statement of Mr. Seeger’s personal take on life. “The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

I have said on multiple occasions in this space that I am an optimist: on Israel, on the Jewish future, on life in general. Those of you who were here on the High Holidays may recall that I mentioned that the Judaism we need to emphasize, if we want our children and grandchildren to embrace it, is positive Judaism. By that I mean that we have to give them Jewish experiences that are affirming: being welcomed warmly into a Jewish community, having prayer experiences that make one feel transformed and invigorated, having affirmative interactions with Jewish institutions, interacting with clergy and communities that validate who we are and why we are here, that are not judgmental, that do not draw lines to exclude people.

Now, if you know a little about the history of contemporary movements in Judaism, you might know that the Conservative movement’s origins are in a group of scholars in the mid-19th century known as the “Positive-Historical School.”

The Reform movement emerged in the early 19th century in the German-speaking lands as a congregational movement led by rabbis who wanted to reform Judaism – to make it possible for Jews to live like Germans on the street and Jews in the home.

At the Reform conference in 1845, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and other early reformers were advocating for German to be the sole language of Jewish prayer. A more traditional reformer, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel and his allies argued that Hebrew was the language of the Jews, and should always be the language of prayer. In less than a decade, Rabbi Frankel & Co. launched the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, the original home of the Positive-Historical School: “positive” because they affirmed the binding nature of halakhah / Jewish law, and “historical” because they embraced the critical, scientific approach for understanding how Judaism developed over millennia, a philosophical stance which the Orthodoxy of the time opposed vigorously.

We, the Conservative movement, emerged from the Positive-Historical School. Yeah, I know, it’s not such a great title.

But, to quote Rav Kook, “הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש.” “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified. Together, they shall become torches that shall illuminate Zion.”

For more than a century, we in the theological center of Jewish life have been called “Conservative,” mostly because in changing Judaism for contemporary times, we have moved conservatively. The siddur that you hold is very similar to a traditional siddur; only a very few can readily identify how it is different.

And we have never lost our positive, historical roots. But we have to understand those words differently in the 21st century.

To be positive today, we have to be open. Open to change, open to new ideas, open to new members of the community whom we may have traditionally excluded. We have to be open to the principle that what goes on inside this prayer space reflects how we live outside; that is, that women and men are treated equally with respect to Jewish law; that we consider how the ways we live differently today affect our relationship to tradition.

We have to make sure that we do not merely force our children to memorize ancient words in a strange language, but that we teach them the underlying values of tefillah. We have to ensure that whatever we do here, it’s not just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but because it’s meaningful and brings us closer to God, closer to ourselves, and fills our lives with kedushah, holiness.

A good example of what it means to be positively Jewish is in a part of the service that very few of us hear, and yet it is such an essential statement of who we are as contemporary Jews.

Take a moment to open your siddur (Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s most recent Sabbath/Festival prayerbook) to p. 103. You’ll see on this page and the one that follows a series of 14 berakhot, blessings. We recited them at 9:01 this morning, and we recite them every single morning here at Beth Shalom. They are known as “birkhot hashahar,” the morning berakhot.

There are two patterns that might be discerned here. For the eleven of them (the first and then the fifth through the 14th) they follow the trajectory of how one begins the day: the rooster crows (are there any roosters in Squirrel Hill?) at dawn, then you open your eyes, get dressed, and go on about your morning routine. All of these eleven come from one passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) as things you should say as you start each day.

But the second, third, and fourth berakhot do not match the pattern. They say the following:

Praised are You, God, who made me in the Divine image.

… who made me free.

… who made me a Jew.

Now, anybody who has some familiarity with a traditional siddur knows that that’s not how these berakhot are worded. Rather, they are phrased in the negative, based on the language found elsewhere in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). In contemporary Orthodox siddurim you’ll find:

… who has not made me a gentile.

… who has not made me a slave.

… who has not made me a woman.

These berakhot were designed to acknowledge in ascending order the different levels of commandedness: classically speaking, free, adult male Jews were obligated to 613 mitzvot; slaves in Jewish homes were obligated to somewhat less than that, and gentiles are obligated to very few mitzvot (some say seven – as reported in today’s parashah).

Now, there is an obvious difficulty with the third berakhah; in traditional prayer books, women say “she-asani kirtzono,” “… who has made me according to His will.” And there is another difficulty: the Talmud does not say “… who has not made be a gentile,” but DOES say, “who has made me a Jew.”

farsi-birkhot-hashahar

Endings of these berakhot with Farsi translation, prepared for a Persian siddur. This order differs slightly from that found in Lev Shalem, although it is the same as that found in older Conservative siddurim.

So in 1946, with the publication of Rabbi Morris Silverman’s venerable “Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook,” which was found in the pews of virtually all Conservative synagogues until the 1980s, the language of those berakhot was changed to reflect who we are, rather than who we are not. Rabbi Silverman “positivized” all three, based on the positive formulation of she’asani Yisrael, and other positively-formulated variants of these berakhot used in various places and times throughout the last 2,000 years. We still use them today.

Leaving aside the problem of insulting most of humanity, I think the greater good of emending these berakhot is the statement of positivity. We should begin each day by saying, I am proud to be a free Jewish person, made in the image of God. I am exhilarated by the prospect of beginning my day by acting on the positive relationships suggested by those statements.

And not only that, but I also read another message about liturgical change here. While there are certain key elements of the siddur that have remained fixed for nearly two millennia, there are far more specifics that were in flux for many centuries, until the printing press arrived in the 15th century and caused standardization across vast swathes of the Jewish world. Prior to that, there was much more creativity in tefillah. (Another two points for history.)

The message is, “We have the power to make our Judaism positive. We can embrace the optimism. We can look into our future and see that change will yield positive benefits to how we connect Judaism with who we are, and thus ensure the future of our tradition.”  

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to be free, to have the imprint of divinity on my spirit, to be an inheritor of our two millennia of tradition. I love all those things, and I say them proudly every morning.

Having a positive approach to Judaism, not throwing up walls and dividing people, is an attitudinal shift that is good for the Jews. To paraphrase Pete Seeger, the key to the future of our people, and maybe the world as well, is finding the positive stories and letting them be known.

Shabbat shalom!

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Building the Future with an Eye to the Past – Toledot 5776

For three days this week, I am in Chicago to participate in the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is boldly titled, “Shape the Center.” Dave Horvitz (our president) is already there, and Ed Frim will be there as well. I have heard that the attendance will exceed that of the centennial convention two years ago, with over 1200 attendees from all over North America.

Logo Shape the Center: USCJ Convention 2015

This is, of course, a time of great anxiety for the Conservative movement: declining numbers, an aging population, financial and spiritual challenges.

And yet, in my mind, this is also a time of great optimism. The core of the movement is excited to act, to re-envision what we do, to create new modes of engagement and learning. Maybe we’re a wee bit late – why were we not re-thinking and re-envisioning two decades ago? Nonetheless, the great renovation project of the Conservative movement is underway, and the USCJ convention is ground zero for this groundswell of activity.

Why the optimism? Because there will always be a need for the center in contemporary Jewish life. Because although we have lost numbers, those whom we have retained are more committed. Because there will always be a demand for a Jewish environment which is at once traditional and and yet sensitive to contemporary sensibilities. Because, as my colleague, Rabbi Joshua Rabin, put it in a recent opinion piece that appeared in the Forward,

The fact that the Pew Study showed that Conservatives Jews are by far the most engaged non-Orthodox population in every measurable category, including Israel activism, ritual practice, synagogue attendance and investment in Jewish education, is proof that Conservative Judaism is not only a critical Jewish voice, but an effective one, too.

But among the greatest challenges that we face as a movement, and all the more so in our 140-character world, is that it is difficult to describe who we are. What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew? I am a lifelong Conservative Jew, and I could not really adequately articulate that until I was a student at JTS.

We have no effective soundbite. Maybe that’s not a bad thing – an ancient religious tradition, after all, cannot be reduced to a few glossy phrases.

But here is the irony: What I think really makes us the Conservative movement is history. History is on our side, and the future is shaped by the past.

We understand that Judaism and Jewish practice has always been influenced by the culture and time in which it existed. We understand that the Oral Law, the rabbinic interpretation documented in the Talmud and later literature, is more malleable than principles enshrined in the Torah, that it actually encourages argument and multiple acceptable positions. We understand the motivations of the human hand in our sacred scriptures, revealed through academic study. We understand that halakhah / Jewish law and Jewish rituals have changed continuously over the last two millennia.

History is our friend, and the future depends on our understanding of history.

Our understanding of the Torah is also intimately tied to our history. I am something of a  grammar buff, and I have always been drawn to Torah commentaries that address the eccentricities of our historical language, Hebrew.

Several years back, around this time of year, the Philologos column in the Forward took up the question of foreign words adopted into Modern Hebrew.  There are many such words, since the corpus of Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew from which Modern Hebrew draws is lacking in many terms required by modern life.  Some of these adopted words are more “Hebraized” than others:

Lesabsed,” for example, means “to subsidize.”

Ektzentri” means “eccentric.”

Pluralizm” means (I know this is hard to believe) “pluralism.”

Philologos points to, among others, the Hebrew word “historiya,” which means, of course, history.  “Historiya” is a Greek word which arrived in English via Latin as “history,” and is derived from the Greek term for learning.

Now, if I were you, I would be wondering, “Given that Rabbi Adelson just told us about the importance of history in Jewish tradition, why did Hebrew need to borrow a Greek term for history? Is there no original Hebrew word?”

I’m so glad you asked! It does seem surprising that the language of the Torah, and for that matter, all of rabbinic literature does not include such a word.

And yet, as Philologos points out, the correct form of “historiya” when used in construct with another noun (construct: like birkat ha-mazon, the blessing of food, or qeri’at ha-Torah, the reading of the Torah) is not “historiyat ha-yehudim” for example.  Rather, the first word of the construct changes entirely, replaced with “toledot.”  As in, Ve-elleh toledot yitzhaq (Gen. 25:19), which were the opening words of our parashah this morning.  The JPS translation renders this as, “This is the story of Isaac.”  To modern Israeli ears, these words sound more like, “This is the history of Isaac.”

The word “toledot” seems to be a form of the shoresh (root) “yod-lamed-daled,” child, and from which all forms of begetting and begotten are derived (e.g. yeled, laledet, velad, holid, moledet, molad).  It seems to mean history, but literally, it means, these are the generations of Isaac.  When used, however, it is not merely about who begat whom – it is also used to introduce important details of the lives of Biblical characters.  The same word, by the way, introduces the second Creation story in Genesis as well (Gen. 2:4 – Elleh toledot hashamayim veha-aretz), the one that includes the intrigue of Adam and Eve in Gan Eden – not generations, but history.

As Jews, we constantly, actively relive our history.  From week to week, as we observe the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays that tell the story of one ancient happening after another, we are invoking our history.

Medeba map of Jerusalem

The Medeba Map of Jerusalem

We are here today because God rested on Shabbat, and our ancestors have always done so.  We built our Sukkot seven weeks ago because our ancestors wandered through the desert.  In a few weeks, we will kindle the Hanukkah lights to commemorate the Hasmonean military victory over the Hellenized Syrians in middle of the 2nd century, BCE.  And so on.

So while you can make the case (as some scholars do) that “historiya” is a modern idea, you cannot deny that the Jews have always been committed to retelling the past – celebrating the victories, and recalling the low points to avoid them in the future.

History is central to who we are.  And all the more so as Conservative Jews.  The Conservative movement was originally called “the positive-historical school,” referring to a group of Central European Jewish scholars of the mid-19th century who were positive toward Jewish tradition and law, but also historically-inclined.  That is, they saw Judaism as a developing tradition and studied it in the historical and cultural context of the wider cultures in which it has existed, and were likewise committed to halakhah, Jewish law, in its own historical arc.

We like to think historically. Whenever I teach rabbinic literature, and many of you know this already, I have a timeline nearby to put everything in context.

It is only through the historical lens that we can truly understand who we are and where we are going – from the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and a whole range of dates and places and kings and rabbis and interpreters and wars and exiles and migrations.  And so forth.

And here we are today, still trying to find our paths through Judaism.  Here is where our long view becomes even more important.  We are living in a time in which historical memory is painfully short.  Who has to remember anything anymore, when everything you could ever possibly need to know is a few swift keystrokes away?

We as Jews know and understand history, and as the wider world drifts into an ahistorical stew of digital present, we must continue to take the long view, to continue to seek our future in the context of the past.

I spoke last week about the mandate to teach our teens the history of the State of Israel. But really, the task is much greater than that. Isaac’s story, toledot yitzhaq, is our history, and so is everything that follows, right up to the events of last week. We have to keep referring back to that timeline, and all of the characters and places and events on it, to maintain a vital Jewish center here in North America. We have to continue to teach the value of Shabbat, to live the value of hesed, acts of lovingkindness, to resonate with the traditional words of the siddur, even as we find ways to balance these practices with contemporary society and where our people are today. And we can do this without compromising our essential ideals.

And that’s why I am in Chicago for a few days. David and Ed and I will bring back material to share with everybody, so that we can continue to re-fashion the Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement that will ignite the passions of our grandchildren.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/14/2015.)

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Heart and Mind Balance: Changing Our Understanding of the Synagogue – Yom Kippur Day, 5776

There is a wonderful story about the rabbi who is greeting congregants after services on Yom Kippur. He sees Mr. Goldstein, and realizes that he has not seen him for a full year.

Hayyim,” says the rabbi, “Are you in the army of God?”

“Of course, Rabbi,” says Mr. Goldstein.

“Then how come I only see you once a year?”

Mr. Goldstein leans in close and whispers, “Rabbi, I’m in the secret service!”

****

There is a verse from the Torah that we customarily say every time we enter a synagogue, and many of us are familiar with it (Numbers 24:5):

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!

The words come from the mouth of the non-Israelite prophet Bil’am, sent by the Moabite king Balaq to curse the Israelites. What comes from his mouth, however, are not curses, but rather blessings. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) interpret this line to speak of the two poles of Jewish life. Bil’am’s blessing says that the Jews will always have batei kenesset (synagogues: places where Jews have traditionally prayed) and batei midrash (traditional study halls, where Jews have learned the ancient words of our tradition). They read ohalekha = your tents = synagogues and mishkenotekha = your dwelling places = batei midrash.

That’s why Mah Tovu is the first thing in the siddur. That’s why we say it when we enter a synagogue, to recall that even as we lost the Temple in Jerusalem and were exiled and faced so many challenges in Diaspora, we could always count on this blessing.

Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, saw this verse as the key to Jewish survival throughout the centuries. We are drawn near to our tradition by Bil’am’s blessing: The synagogue speaks to the heart and the beit midrash speaks to the mind. These two places are the essential points of qesher / connection in Jewish life. They have kept us Jewish for two thousand years after we should have disappeared, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. That is why we need both. We need to engage both the heart and mind.

Before we go any further, however, I just have to make sure we all know what I mean by beit midrash. Both the beit kenesset and the beit midrash emerged in antiquity, but they developed separately and are identified in the Talmud as separate places. We all know the synagogue. But most contemporary Jews, and probably the vast majority of Jews throughout history, have not been in a beit midrash.

Picture a bunch of Jews seated around tables, heavy books open in front of them, reading, discussing, or indeed arguing, mostly in pairs, around the room. The walls are lined with books – sets of the Talmud, rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, collections of midrash, texts and translations, dictionaries, the tools of textual study. Some are deep in thought. Some sway in concentration. Some schmooze with each other and laugh. That’s a traditional beit midrash.

You may recall that I have spoken over these holidays now for three times about the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, and qedushah, also known as connection, community, and holiness. But today I’d like to add something to it: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov. Heart and mind.

A synagogue is a place where we make connections with each other and with God, where we build and engage with our community, and where we seek qedushah, holiness and holy moments. However, it is not meant to be only a beit kenesset, a place of gathering for prayer, but it should also serve as a beit midrash, a place of learning. The needs of the contemporary Jewish world require the synagogue to be both.

The synagogue is meant to be a place where we express emotion, of openness, of expressing our vulnerability. I have literally held the hands of fellow Jews as they cried in synagogue, as they grieved for lost loved ones, as they took an inventory of their lives and came up wanting. That’s what this place is for. It’s about love and yearning, as I spoke about last night. It’s about the ritual framework that supports us in our times of need, and helps us achieve exultant highs in our times of joy.

heartWe don’t have too many spaces like this in our society any more. Those of you who heard me speak in August about the future of the Conservative movement might recall that I mentioned the sociologist Robert Putnam, who documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam points to the disappearance of social societies (the Elks, the Shriners, Hadassah) and bridge clubs and bowling leagues and even couples dining out together to show that we have less and less social capital, that is, connections with each other, than we did in the middle of the 20th century. This is not healthy for a whole bunch of reasons.

But Putnam does point out that houses of worship still offer social capital in spades. You meet people at services, you kibbitz at kiddush, you celebrate together and grieve together and talk and learn and sing in synagogue.

This building makes our world a better place, and it functions by helping us connect to our emotions. The synagogue resides in the heart.

But the beit midrash is all about the mind. It’s about logic and deduction, about puzzling through ancient language and situations that are as resonant today as they were two millennia ago, because we continue to apply them to how we live here and now. It is a place where we connect to each other through the shared joy of the quintessentially Jewish pursuit of textual learning, and we unlock the qedushah found within the words of our ancient scholars. As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”

mindLearning the words of our tradition is, according to the Mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1), the highest mitzvah in Jewish life. Higher than keeping Shabbat and kashrut. Much more important than fasting on Yom Kippur. That is why the beit midrash is so essential to Jewish life. Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah, says the Mishnah, weighs more than all of the other mitzvot combined.

And so our tents and our dwelling places, the beit kenesset and the beit midrash, are the places that connect us to each other and to God. These are the places where connection, community, and qedushah are quite literally fashioned.

And today, for us, they have to be the same building. This synagogue must be for the heart and the mind. It must be a beit kenesset and a beit midrash, because the Jewish world needs both.

But it took me a while to figure that out.

***

More than eight years ago, when I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary as a newly-minted rabbi, I was under the impression that the most important thing for a rabbi to exercise was the mind. In the seven years that I spent there, I put a sizeable spike on my knowledge curve in the area of Torah, halakhah, Jewish history, ritual, critical approaches to the Tanakh, etc. All very heady stuff, gleaned from old, dusty books.

It took me several years thereafter to understand that while it is impressive to appeal to the mind, the appeal to the heart is much more valuable, much more welcome, and much more likely to inspire people (i.e. you). I can give the most sophisticated, deep, self-impressed reading of Torah verses, and it might be greeted with a shrug at kiddush. But I have found that when I demonstrate that the Torah can be interpreted to help us live better lives as Jews and as people, I find that the message is far more likely to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

So, for example, it seems that when thinking about Yom Kippur, we usually consider its mechanical aspects: fasting for no less than 25 hours, not bathing, repenting by reciting the standard language in the mahzor with the traditional melodies, confessing our sins, striking our hearts, blowing the shofar at 7:58 PM, and so forth.

But we should also consider that this is a time to acknowledge that we are broken, and that we are yearning for wholeness. Nobody here among us is perfect; we all come to Yom Kippur with something in our hearts that needs to be cleansed. As I said last night, we yearn for closeness with God, for mending our relationships, for spiritual purity. These are ideas which flow from the heart.

Consider this for a moment: the public confessional prayers, the Viddui, are recited 12 times over the course of this day. Six times in the silent Amidah, wherein we confess our sins to ourselves, and six times out loud, in public, led by the sheliah tzibbur / the congregational emissary who leads us in prayer. And every single time it is in first person plural: we have transgressed, we have cheated, we have stolen; for the sins we have sinned against You by qalut rosh / superficiality, or by qashyut oref / being stiff-necked, and so forth.

Think about that: we are standing in public, confessing to a whole litany of deplorable behaviors. Doesn’t matter if we have done them or not. We are all stating, to ourselves AND out loud, that we are broken. How powerful is it that Jewish tradition asks us to do so! How therapeutic!

(There is a nice custom to go with this, by the way: we all know that we strike our chests. But something else you can do during the confessional is lean over a bit; hang your head in shame. We should not be proud of having transgressed. We should not be standing upright. We should be a little hunched over.)

That picture of Yom Kippur, going beyond the mechanics of the day to connect our tradition with how we live now, is an appeal to the heart. And that is far more attractive to all of us then the most well-executed midrashic analysis that is delivered entirely divorced from the realities of our lives. The Torah is meant to teach us lessons about how to live better, not to be analyzed dispassionately in slices arrayed on sterile glass slides.

And yet, it seems to me that what works best in the Jewish world is when the heart and mind are in balance. In parallel, just like in the verse: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

To uncover the love in Judaism, you have to dig deep into Jewish text. You have to go back to the mind.

When we study Torah, we acknowledge that there are shiv’im panim latorah, seventy faces to the Torah, that is, seventy ways (at least) of understanding every passage, every word, every story, every mitzvah, and so forth. (OK, so maybe not seventy, but that’s just rabbinic-speak for “a whole bunch.”)

There are many ways of understanding our foundational text, and the way we approach this text, referred to rabbinically as “Talmud Torah,” we must take as axiomatic the idea that no single approach is the lone correct understanding. Talmud Torah includes the seventy faces. And among those faces are those of the heart and those of the mind.

When we study Torah, we should not merely ask, “What does this mean?” but we should also ask, “What does this mean to us?” And this takes a whole lot more work. The standard commentators on the Torah that some of us know (Rashi, Ramban, ibn Ezra, etc.) usually try to resolve issues within the text by working through the challenging language. Midrash, stories written to fill in the gaps of the Torah, seeks to humanize the text by completing it. And Hasidic tales tend to go even further by seeking the personal angle – how might we learn from this to emulate the acts of piety and selflessness of which Hasidic lore often speaks.

There are many ways to find answers to the question of “What does this mean to us?” Talmud Torah for the modern audience has to hit us where we live: to answer questions like this:

  • What do I want my children to learn about life?
  • How do I make a difference in this world?
  • How do I balance my commitment to my family with my work obligations?
  • How do I improve myself?
  • Why is this world so much more complex than it used to be, and how do I navigate the complexity?

And so forth.

These are all essential questions that we might often overlook if they are not staring us in the face. And that’s why the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah. You can light all the Hanukkah candles you want; you can daven with passion while fasting on Yom Kippur; you can gorge yourself on matzah and sit in the Sukkah and make sure your boys are circumcized and your doorposts have mezuzot and on and on, but until you commit to learning the precious words of the Jewish bookshelf, you cannot fully appreciate the richness and value of our tradition. When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.

In an ideal synagogue, the one that we are building here at 5915 Beacon St., we will strike the proper balance between heart and mind. We will not only pray, ask for forgiveness, seek teshuvah / repentance, rejoice and mourn, but we will also learn the words of our tradition and what they mean to us. We will be both a beit kenesset and a beit midrash.

I have taken that journey from the mind to the heart and back again. And you can too. But it requires entering the Jewish study hall, that part of the synagogue devoted to lifelong Jewish learning. We will all have to dig deeper. You need both the heart and the mind to sustain that qesher, that connection with our tradition.

So – I know you’re waiting for this now – what’s the action item, Rabbi?

I would like you to seriously consider one simple question, a question that I hope will help you re-envision your entire understanding of Judaism and of the role of the synagogue. This is a kind of a self-test:

“How has your relationship with Judaism changed in the last ten years?” Judaism – the set of rituals and texts and customs that make up our tradition. Not the cultural trappings: the foods, the institutions, the cool Jewish sites you saw on vacation in Spain.

If you search very deeply and your answer is, “It hasn’t,” then we have some work to do, to engage your heart and mind. Give me a call, shoot me an email, message me on Facebook; I would love to meet up and talk about it.

If you can come up with a whole litany of things you have learned and practices you have adopted and books you have read and holy moments you have experienced, and ways you have applied values from our tradition to your life, then we still have some work to do, because Judaism is a lifetime of learning.

Talmud Torah keneged kulam. Keep learning, and asking “What does this mean to us?” It is high on my agenda here at Beth Shalom to move this congregation forward, and that will require a little more beit kenesset and beit midrash. Unlike Hayyim, who is in the “secret service,” I hope you will join me as we focus on both the heart and the mind, and we continue our collective journey in search of connection, community, and qedushah, holiness.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur, 9/23/15.)

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A Night of Yearning – Kol Nidrei 5776

Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish woman from New York, goes to her travel agent. “I vont to go to India.”

“Mrs. Cohen, why India? It’s much hotter than New York, and crowded, and not for the faint of heart.”

“I vont to go to India.”

“But it’s a long journey, how will you manage? What will you eat? The food is too hot and spicy for you. You can’t drink the water or eat fresh fruit and vegetables. You’ll get sick.  And can you imagine the hospital, no Jewish doctors?”

“I vont to go to India.”

The necessary arrangements are made, and off she goes. She arrives in India and, undeterred by the noise and crowds, makes her way to an ashram. There she joins the long line of people waiting for an audience with the guru. She is told that it will take at least three days of standing in line to see the guru.

“Dats OK,” Goldie says.

Eventually she reaches the guru’s entryway. There she is told firmly that she can only say three words.

“Fine,” she says.

She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the guru is seated.  As she approaches him, she is reminded: “Remember, just three words.”

Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate at his feet. She stands directly in front of him, folds her arms on her chest, fixes her gaze on his, and says: “Shmuel, come home.”

***

There is a great tradition of Jews who have sought spiritual fulfillment in other traditions, particularly those of the East. We are a people who yearn for connection, and our rich, ancient tradition is often perceived to be insufficient, or perhaps merely impenetrable to satisfy some of us. Author Rodger Kamenetz wrote about these people, whom some call “JuBus,” Jewish Buddhists, in his book about the Jewish delegation that went to see the Dalai Lama in 1990, The Jew in the Lotus. (I think the Shmuel of the story actually appears in the book, perhaps under a different name.)

And yet, we have in our tradition, which is vast and deep and thoughtful and complex, all of the spiritual tools to provide that nourishment, that sense of qedushah*.

The irony, it seems, is that many of us do not appreciate the range of offerings our tradition has. Many of us have confined Judaism to a box that contains Hanukkah candles, bagels, Yiddish-accented humor, and a whole lot of mumbling in a language that nobody can understand (and takes hours).  Hence the need to seek elsewhere for spiritual satisfaction.

A synagogue is not just a place to daven / pray. It is not merely a place where you can interact with God. You can talk to God, or listen for God’s voice anywhere.

Rather, a synagogue is a beit kenesset, a place of gathering. It’s our communal home. It’s a place that is designed for Jews to come together, whether for ritual, social, educational, spiritual, or organizational reasons. The English word “synagogue” is a direct translation of the Hebrew beit kenesset: “syn” = together, “gog” = place. Each of us should think of this place as an annex of our home, a third place (home, work, synagogue) whose doors are always open. We’re here for you. Not just me and the staff, but your community. We’re here. Gather with us.

This is a place of the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, qedushah*. Connection, community, and holiness.

The real reason that you are here tonight is because of the three qofs. You need to be counted as part of the qehillah, to be with your people, to connect with others who are here, to reach out and grab just a wee bit of qedushah, holiness. It’s not about Kol Nidrei, per se. This is a night of yearning. Yearning for these three things, which most of us are not even aware that we need.

Judaism does not really have intrinsically holy places or objects. Qedushah is a little more elusive than that. I know that runs counter to what many of us have been taught. The beit kenesset / synagogue?  We make it holy with our presence. The Sefer Torah? “Holy” books? We endow them with holiness when we use them. The Kotel? Har HaBayit / the Temple Mount? While there is a tremendous sentimental value to those ancient rocks, the prevailing opinion is that when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed. Like a beit kenesset, we make those items and locations holy when pray, celebrate, weep, and yearn with them or at them.

It’s not the tangible things in Judaism that are holy. It’s time. We sanctify time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as “a palace in time.” We mark holy moments. We resonate together at Kol Nidrei, at Ne’ilah, at joyous and mournful lifecycle events. The high points within Judaism are moments in time, moments marked by qedushah / holiness. It’s not the stained-glass windows; it’s the moment.

That is why the Jewish calendar is so much more complicated than the Gregorian calendar** – because we care very deeply about the sanctification of time. Time is much more valuable than any physical thing.

And the older I get, the more I appreciate the value of time, and the more I understand that I have to try to fill as much of my time with as much qedushah / holiness as possible.

We all want a little holiness in our lives. But we do not always know how to find it.

I have good news for you. The real action is right here, right now. Tonight is the night to get a little taste of holiness, when the gates of heaven are truly open. It’s the most powerful night of the Jewish year, this night of yearning.

All it takes to make it happen is for you to open up, to allow that yearning to surface.

الموضوع: أشواقنــا ؟

But that’s not so easy.

I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about how the shofar opens us up, breaks through our tough exterior to reveal our internal radiance. But Yom Kippur works a little differently.

It is a unique day for many reasons:

  • It is described in the Torah as Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths – the only day in the Jewish calendar more holy than Shabbat
  • This is the only evening of the year when we wear a tallit
  • We never actually conclude any service until the very end; it’s as if we are in prayer all day, the full 25 hours
  • We are supposed to “afflict our souls” on this day. Not necessarily the body, but the soul. (Don’t confuse the two!)
  • We wear white (as I suggested on Rosh Hashanah) to suggest the purity for which we yearn
  • This day is both weighty and joyous: historically, a happy day on which young women went out into the fields looking for husbands (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:4)

The very singularity of this day, its uniqueness, point to one thing: that we are all united today. That Benei Yisrael, all of the descendants of Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah, stand together on Yom Kippur.

One commentator to address the nature of Yom Kippur was Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the late 19th-century head of the Ger Hasidic court, often known by the name of his major work, the Sefat Emet (or Sefas Emes, depending on your perspective). The Sefat Emet took note of the rabbinic explanation that Yom Kippur is the day when Moshe brought down the second set of tablets from Mt. Sinai. This is, of course, after the first set was broken because the Israelites had built an idol, a calf made from melting down their jewelry.

The molten calf (although we often refer to it as the “golden calf,” “molten” is the translation of the Hebrew, “egel masekhah,” the term the Torah uses to describe it in Exodus 32) is the closest thing that Judaism has to the Christian concept of “original sin.” (We do not see people as fundamentally sinful – everybody is born with a clean slate, and every Yom Kippur we have the ability to wipe that slate clean again.)

Ancient interpreters understood the molten calf as having inspired a cascading effect that compelled the Israelites to perform a wide range of bad things, from sexual indiscretion to murder to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred.

And so, when Moshe returns on Yom Kippur with the second set of tablets, the Israelites had many transgressions for which to atone. Yes, avodah zarah / idol worship was high on the list. But also the relationships between the people had been broken through these sins. They were in need of interpersonal repair; they needed to stand together, to achieve wholeness once again as a qehillah, a community.

And so too today. The Sefat Emet tells us that on Yom Kippur, we seek to recover wholeness as a community – mercy for one another, acts of hesed, the sense of ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha / love your neighbor as yourself. When we seek those things, we recapture the qedushah / holiness of the moment when Moshe comes down with the second set of tablets. Then we can re-activate the Torah within us; we regain that clean slate; we start fresh on a new path for the new year.

That is why we are here tonight: to restore a sense of who we are as a community – what connects us to each other, what values unite us, how we live the words of our tradition from day to day.

And for the entire day, from Kol Nidrei until the final teqi’ah gedolah, we yearn for that unity, that wholeness. We yearn to be restored as a qehillah.

****

I have been overwhelmed with many emotions since meeting you all for the first time back in February. This is a congregation with tremendous history. We are very nearly 100 years old. A whole century. There are not too many congregations in America that can claim that sort of lifespan.

And over the arc of the last century, the fortunes of this congregation have risen and fallen. But you know what? The reason that Judy let me apply here (in our house, the rebbetzin wears the pants!) is that we saw readily that this congregation has wonderful potential; it has all the features that we were looking for in a qehillah:

  • Many, many volunteers. The level of personal involvement here is very impressive. There are a lot of you who care very strongly about Beth Shalom, and are willing to put in personal time and energy to help make it better
  • Very knowledgeable active core of members
  • Not just a number of young families, but a bunch of actively-involved young families. This core will inevitably attract more.
  • Day school nearby that is integral to the community.
  • Unique and vibrant JJEP religious school
  • Tight-knit, urban setting
  • Healthy daily minyan
  • Enthusiasm. Judy and I have been overwhelmed with how excited people are about Pittsburgh, about Beth Shalom, about our joining this community.
  • It is part of a wider community that is a shining beacon of Jewish pluralism and togetherness (very different from the New York area, BTW) Jewish Pittsburgh is indeed a unique community.

All of the ingredients are here for a shining future. We – you and me – are going to make it happen. We are going to make this congregation not what it was, but what it can be.

There is so much here to be proud of; so much to celebrate, so much to be inspired by and to be hopeful for.

And, given that the Sefat Emet tells us that this is a night of unity, Yom Kippur 5776 should be a powerful reminder of the task before us. We must see ourselves as united to move forward, and willing to do the following:

  • Be more open: open to outsiders; open to people from across the religious and social spectrum; open to new ideas and new methods of engagement; open to all the variations on the contemporary Jewish family
  • To have a sense of togetherness, that we are all on the same side
  • To have a sense of purpose – that we have a shared mission upheld by Jewish values writ large and Conservative Jewish values in particular.

Those are all attitudinal points. In terms of what we offer, I think we should have:

  • More engaging services.
  • More music, both vocal and instrumental.
  • More provocative speakers.
  • More social action activities.

And all of these have to be reinforced by what I think is the most valuable thing that Jewish communities should be doing today: More small-group experiences.

While the Judaism of our parents and grandparents was buoyed by the dramatic feeling of classically beautiful services in huge, ornate rooms and featuring fiery rabbinic oratory, most Jews are not looking for these experiences today. What most of us are looking for in this isolated, impersonal world is more intimate, more personally meaningful interactions with other people like us. We are looking to sanctify those holy moments in ways that are familiar and amiable.

I am going to pause from all this envisioning for a moment to suggest that on this eve of Yom Kippur, on this holiest of holy moments, we ask ourselves a crucial question. It seems that there is something for which we must, as a united community, request forgiveness, something for which we must seek teshuvah / repentance.

I am told that there are many people who left this congregation or are still angry because members of this community spoke to them in a way that was inappropriate (or mean, or nasty). So it is extremely important that we ask ourselves if we are indeed repentant. Have we changed the way we speak to each other?

Have we spoken ill of any of our fellow congregants, whether in private or in public? Have we gossiped?  Have we exchanged harsh words or spoken with a lack of respect within or without these walls?  We cannot truly heal ourselves as a qehillah qedoshah / holy community, we cannot move forward if we do not resolve to treat and speak to each other with only the highest respect.

And so, looping back to Shmuel, or anybody else who has not yet found their entree into a fulfilling Jewish life, I hope that together we will find ways to present our very rich heritage of learning, values and culture by reaching out through affinity groups, by capitalizing on our own internal social networks. We will thereby draw more of us into the center from the periphery.

In the mean time, let our yearning this evening translate to action. Let our desire for the future of Beth Shalom, un-clouded by the uncertainties of the past, drive us to fashion a new type of congregation, where more of us are involved on a more regular basis through a new set of entry points.

Here is the action item: Find some way to participate. Volunteer to help out. Come to our adult ed offerings. Learn something new so you can participate in parts of services. Brainstorm new programs or ways to engage others. Donate your time or your funds (or both). Come to the parlor meetings that we will be hosting through the coming year to discuss all of these things.

We are going to build. And for that we need you. We need you to seek connection, community, and qedushah here, among your people.

Tonight we yearn for that rosy future; on this night next year, we will be well on the way to building it. Let’s stand together to bring Shmuel, and all the other Shmuels, back home.

* Apologies if the “q” seems strange. One way of representing the Hebrew letter ק (qof) in English transliteration is q, because (as you can readily see if you look at them right next to each other) the Latin q is actually related to the Hebrew ק. (The Latin “k” comes from the Hebrew כ (kaf).) By transliterating this way, it helps English speakers learn or remember the Hebrew spelling of the transliterated word.

** How much more complicated? I can’t even begin to explain. Just trust me on this.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Leil Yom HaKippurim, 9/22/15.)

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Looking Forward: Tradition, Change and the Future – Shofetim 5775

A few years back, my previous congregation, Temple Israel of Great Neck, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Rabbi Mordecai Waxman’s seminal work, Tradition and Change. Rabbi Waxman had been the rabbi at TIGN for an astonishing 55 years, from 1947 until he retired in 2002. The book’s title (apparently coined by his wife Ruth) became the de facto slogan of the Conservative movement.

Since the book was published in 1958, the world has changed dramatically. Consider just one thing: technology. The ubiquity of small computers for personal use has changed our lives in ways that are so profound that many of us cannot even imagine a world without them.

And of course, the Jewish landscape has changed as well. Jews have many more options today for their Jewish involvement, including, of course, the option of opting out entirely.

When Tradition and Change was published, the Conservative movement accounted for half of American Jewry. Today, demographic studies suggest that about one-third of affiliated American Jews are members of Conservative synagogues. And the number of Conservative synagogues is going down as smaller congregations merge or close.

In Rabbi Waxman’s original introduction, he indicated the following as essential features of our movement:

  1. A commitment to Kelal Yisrael. Rabbi Waxman uses Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s term, “Catholic Israel,” the idea that all Jews are one people, united by common texts, rituals, and values, a common language and shared history.
  1. Positive-Historical Judaism: This is a concept that originated in the 19th-century German-Jewish sphere, that our approach to Judaism is at once aware of the historical changes within Jewish law, halakhah, and custom, minhag, and that we emphasize our connection with history as we look to the future.
  1. Acceptance of modern thought: Our approach to Torah demands that we open our minds to the changing currents of science, philosophy, archaeology, Biblical criticism, and so forth, and not ignore them or obfuscate when they challenge accepted tradition.
  1. Authority and interpretation: We are bound by Jewish legal tradition, and our reading of halakhah depends on the classical methods of interpretation that Jewish scholars have used for millennia in different lands. And yet we are able to make serious changes in halakhic practice based on our engagement with modern thought and values.

I believe firmly in this formula. Growing up attending a Conservative synagogue,  I knew that although driving a car to synagogue on Shabbat would violate several traditional Shabbat prohibitions, nonetheless the Conservative movement had decided that it was more in the spirit of Shabbat to drive there than not to go to synagogue at all.

No matter the numbers of the Conservative movement, we are still here. And we still stand for the principles of Tradition and Change – of the approach to halakhah / Jewish law, as halakhic decisors have guided it for centuries.

The Conservative movement has changed in the last half-century. In particular, in the 1950s, the extent of egalitarianism in American Judaism was mixed seating. I think we have also witnessed a change in Conservative clergy. The Rabbi Waxman model was rabbi-as-academic-scholar. Today’s Conservative rabbis and cantors are scholarly, yes, but are also expected to make personal connections and work harder at community-building initiatives, to focus on pastoral care and engaging contemporary Jews in new ways.

And, of course, the Conservative laity has changed dramatically. While the bulk of Jews in the Conservative pews in 1958 were immigrants and children of immigrants, today’s membership is in a different place. We are largely not naturalized Americans. We are simply Americans. The State of Israel is a given, and its influence both in the Jewish world and out is far greater than its size. Attendance at synagogue services is way down. Sermonic pyrotechnics and cantorial recitatives that moved congregations of the last century are rarely heard, let alone appreciated, by Jews under the age of 60.

And American society has changed dramatically as well. Formality is out; digital interconnectedness is in, even while our actual, physical interconnectedness (that which sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”) is down. Personal choice is our highest ideal. Membership in organizations of all kinds, including religious institutions, is declining. Intermarriage of all kinds is commonplace; homosexuality has moved into the mainstream.

And for all these reasons, the need for synagogues like Congregation Beth Shalom is as prominent as ever. Ladies and gentlemen, Judaism needs the American middle. Let me tell you why:

While most Jews will never commit to the halakhic expectations of Orthodoxy,  most still want some kind of Jewish experience, and many of those, when they come for their Judaism fix, they want it to be traditional, and yet open to contemporary thought and sensibility.

Consider the recent Conservative publication, The Observant Life. Meant as a successor to the classic halakhic work by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (1979), The Observant Life contains all you need to know not only to practice the ritual aspects of Judaism (kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, daily tefillah / prayer, mourning practices and so forth), but also includes chapters on such non-ritual topics as business ethics, civic morality, sexuality, intellectual property, caring for the needy, and so forth.

American Judaism needs the middle. And that means that we in the middle are going to have to work harder to maintain ourselves. We need to take a longer, harder look at the “Change” part of Rabbi Waxman’s slogan, and consider ways to make the middle more viable. To that end, I am going to suggest three important areas that we need to address here at Beth Shalom, in the spirit of Tradition and Change:

  1. To ask ourselves serious questions about why we do what we do. You will hear me frequently quote Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University. Dr. Wolfson has observed that although most synagogues have “Da lifnei mi atah omed” / “Know before whom you stand” written over the bimah, most of us think that what it says is, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” In re-examining ourselves – our services, our programs, our schools – the question, “Why are we doing this” can never be answered with, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” This is not an acceptable answer.On the contrary: rabbinic tradition requires us to ask questions, and the Jewish way is to come up with good answers. Sometimes, “Because it says so in the Torah,” is sufficient. But that is never really the answer. Why do we say the Shema twice a day, evening and morning? Because it says so in the Shema itself. But the real reason is because it keeps us focused on the big picture: loving God, teaching our children, and keeping the words of Torah around us at all times.
  2. To be as open as possible. It is worth pointing out (although I know that there are safety reasons for this) that there are many entrances into this building, almost all of which are always locked. The metaphor for entry into Beth Shalom is unfortunate: it’s not so easy for outsiders to get in.Every single one of us should be leaping over each other to pull others into our circle. That means the following:
    1. We are all ambassadors for Congregation Beth Shalom, and that means that we should all be promoting this congregation, what we do, why we do it, and the benefits of belonging. We should all be reaching out in particular to those who have left to welcome them back, but also to unaffiliated members of the community to make the case for belonging.
    2. For people to join, this has to be a place that they would want to join. And that means that at every opportunity we need to welcome people in. We need a group of greeters – people who are skilled at making others feel welcome, and to do so not just at services, but at all events in the building.On a related note, I am aware that on some seats in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary, there are names. However, there are no names here or in the Helfant Chapel or in the Homestead Hebrew Chapel. What that means is that no seat belongs to anybody. So if a guest is sitting in what you think is “your” seat, please greet that person kindly, and sit somewhere else. There is nothing more awkward and humiliating than coming into an unfamiliar synagogue and immediately being told to move.
    3. We have to be open to all the types of people who come in here. Gay, straight, transgender, Jewish, not yet Jewish, in-married, inter-married, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, single parents, and so on, and so on. The changing face of America is not just in New York and California, it’s here too. We are not in a position to make any judgments. We must welcome all who come here with open arms.
  3. To think relationally. This again courtesy of Dr. Wolfson’s most recent book, Relational Judaism. We live in a very impersonal world – anybody who has ever had to call a customer service number knows that. But the synagogue must be a place that builds relationships; the Greek etymology of the word “synagogue” is “place of coming together,” and is a direct translation of the Hebrew, beit kenesset.What makes a group of Jews a beit kenesset? Personal relationships. This is a place where relationships are forged. We have to work harder to build stronger relationships among ourselves, and to create them with others. And that means thinking relationally. The true measure of the success of a program, says Ron Wolfson, is not how many people there were or whether or not they liked it, but rather how did it build relationships between people?

All of this will require that we work for change, that we stretch ourselves a bit, perhaps beyond what is comfortable for us. But from my vantage point of having just arrived, I can see no other way forward.

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Today in Parashat Shofetim, we read about the commandment to the (at this point theoretical) Israelite king that he must keep a copy of the Torah next to his throne. Nobody is above the words of the Torah, the words of God. But a flesh-and-blood king deals with real problems; he must be engaged with society in real time. The Torah is not to keep him in the past, but rather to help him confront the present.

When Rambam was asked why he rejected astrology, when the rabbis of the Talmud clearly believed in it, he answered by saying that our eyes are in front of us, so that we look to the future, and not to the past.

We will continue in the spirit of Tradition and Change, and change we must if we are continue to provide a home for the much-needed Jewish middle ground.

One final note: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is holding its biennial convention in Chicago, Nov. 15-17, where members and professionals from synagogues from all over will gather to learn tools for communal change. Our president Dave Horvitz and I will be there, and Rabbi Waxman will be there in spirit. Please let me know if you will be coming.

Join us as we look to the future, and consider how to move forward. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/22/2015.)

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