Tag Archives: Conservative Judaism

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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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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Life and Death of the Egalitarian Kotel – Huqqat 5777

A little more than three years ago, I went with my family to celebrate my older son’s bar mitzvah in Israel. We had, as is customary in some places, a ceremony on Thursday morning, when he put on tefillin for the first time, and then a service and lunch on Shabbat. Thursday morning was just immediate family, and we were at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

But not quite at the Kotel. We were actually in an area known generally as “Robinson’s Arch,” because of the ancient piece of an arch that sticks out from the the southern end of the Western Wall, visible from the Ophel Archaeological Park complex below. At the time, there was a new, temporary platform that had been built over the ancient ruins of that park.

The women’s section of a synagogue is referred to in Hebrew as “Ezrat Nashim,” a reference to the area designated for women in the Beit HaMiqdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that was on the other side of the Kotel. There was also a separate area of the Temple known as the Ezrat Yisrael, which was reserved for men.

That temporary platform where egalitarian services have been held for the last 3+ years is called Ezrat Yisrael, a kind of Hebrew wordplay that suggests an area reserved for all Jews. And yet it has been something of a lightning rod.

Israel Tour Connection & Masorti Kotel clip - YouTube

For one thing, it has remained controversial since its inception; some of the people who had been advocating for egal prayer groups at the traditional Kotel plaza rejected this plan as something akin to a “separate but unequal” solution to the challenge posed by the fact that the Kotel has become a de facto Orthodox synagogue.

And, without going into all the battles that have occurred at the Kotel plaza, it is worth pointing out that in February of this year, a large group of Orthodox Jews descended upon a mixed group having a service in the Ezrat Yisrael, set up a mehitzah, and prevented the egal service from taking place. In the scuffles that ensued, the female Masorti (that’s Conservative in Israel and in the rest of the world) rabbah (female rabbi) that coordinates services there was physically attacked.

And this platform has remained unchanged now for more than 3 years, although it was not intended to be permanent. About a year and a half ago the Netanyahu government agreed to a plan, coordinated by Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (and former MK and famous refusenik) Natan Sharansky, to widen the area and make it accessible, with appropriate security, around the clock, just as the rest of the Kotel plaza is. But the Israeli government began dragging its feet over the plan almost as soon as it had been agreed upon, and just this past week, PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to freeze the plan (which had never quite been put into motion in the first place). As it happens, lay leaders representing Diaspora communities were in Jerusalem at the time for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting, including Beth Shalom member (and PGH Federation head) Jeff Finkelstein, and so the cabinet’s decision was immediately met with an outcry from the Diaspora Jewish leadership.

Now, I must concede that officially freezing the agreement to make a permanent, accessible egalitarian prayer area is an affront to world Jewry, a cowardly move by the Prime Minister to maintain his coalition and sacrifice the good will of Diaspora Jewry, who already feel that the Judaism they practice is at best unfamiliar in Israel. However, I must also state for the record that the situation now is somewhat better than it was when I lived in Israel in 1999-2000, when there was really no egal prayer space and groups with people davening together at the Kotel risked their personal safety. Indeed, at the time there had been several violent incidents when chairs and other things were thrown at egalitarian worshippers on the plaza.

However, along with this particular, symbolic act, I hear more about incidents that deny non-Orthodox groups access to prayer spaces, sifrei Torah, and other ritual items. This happened to me at the hotel run by Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz on the coast just a stone’s throw north of Tel Aviv, when the teen group I was leading in 2011 was denied the use of the hotel synagogue because we were openly egalitarian.

And, add to that the cabinet’s advancing of a bill this week designed to turn over all affairs related to conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, and we have a growing pattern of disenfranchisement of Diaspora Jews.

***

There is a moment in Parashat Huqqat when we are reminded that there are both delicate and blunt ways to get what you want.

You may recall the story in which the Israelites are complaining of thirst (Numbers 20:2-13), and God instructs Moshe to command a particular rock to give water. But then Moshe is emotionally thrown off-balance by the boisterous Israelites, who have been complaining with abandon about everything that is wrong with this whole journey. And so Moshe strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, and as a result is not permitted to enter the land of Israel.

But you may argue that the end justified the means! The Israelites received their water. What difference does it make how he did it?

I’m not worried about egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. That will continue to be available, even if it is shunted to the side and has the sting of second-class about it. Even the current platform is beautiful, if not “permanent,” and on the whole, most egalitarian services that go on there are, I believe, unmolested.

What I am more worried about is the use of the blunt instrument of the Knesset by Haredi parties to force not just Jewish tourists but also Israelis to conform to their extreme vision of what Judaism is. One might say that it is ironic that the only democracy in the Middle East does not give religious freedom to Jews!

One of the great things about America is the lack of an established state religion. That has enabled a multitude of religious traditions from across the spectrum of human spirituality to flourish and thrive. There is a wide range of Christian and Jewish practice, as well as many, many other types of faiths that are practiced here. While our system is not perfect, I think that it’s fair to say that the ongoing struggles over where to draw the lines are still healthy and benefit the overall spiritual bottom line for Americans.

But Israel has no such separation, and the state religion is becoming more and more Haredi.

The free practice of religion enables different groups to compete in the marketplace of ideas for people’s attention and support. That kind of “competition” encourages me, for example, to try to be the most inspiring rabbi I can be, and devote my time to building this community so that it will attract new adherents. It encourages us to be the best congregation we can be, and not be limited by government strictures.

The Israeli Rabbinate, has become state-sponsored coercion, with those in power exhibiting extreme hubris while simultaneously ignoring that Judaism’s very survival for the last 2,000 years has relied on our tradition of disagreement. The Talmud famously states that while Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed about matters of Jewish law, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14a). Today, religious forces within the government seek to deny some Jews access to Judaism, and to deny the very Jewishness of many others.

If the Haredim are so certain that their way is right, I would hope that they would be subject to the same market forces that the Masorti and the Reform and the Modern Orthodox streams, rather than wielding the clumsy gavel of parliamentary politics. They should speak to the rock to try to get their way, rather than hitting it.

I am sorry to say that nothing will change in this regard until the Israeli government gathers the legal fortitude to cut loose the rabbinate, and create a free environment for religion in Israel like we have here.

The Israeli Rabbinate will not be going away in the near term; this may be a decades-long fight. But in the meantime, what can we do to ensure that our voices continue to be heard, at the Kotel and everywhere else in Israel? First, by continuing to go there. Nothing gives you a voice in Israel more than being there and supporting the Israeli economy with your tourist dollars. We are currently in the early planning stages for a Beth Shalom trip to Israel in 2018; watch for that info.

(I should point out that this first item is actually second to making aliyah; that’s a bigger step than visiting, but if you’re interested in aliyah, please talk to me.)

Second, drop an email to the Israeli Prime Minister’s office: http://www.pmo.gov.il/English/PrimeMinister/Pages/ContactUs.aspx

Tell them how much you care about Israel, and how Israel must continue to be a haven for all Jews, and that religious freedom is an essential plank of democracy.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/1/2017.)

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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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