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Sermons

They Can’t Curse Us – Balaq 5782

I followed President Biden’s visit to Israel this past week with keen interest, and I am sure many of you did as well. Upon arrival, he reminded the assembled folks on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport that “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist,” and that the two-state solution “remains… the best way to ensure the future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

President Biden flanked by PM Yair Lapid (right) and President Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog

It was a relief for me to hear both statements. For those of us who are committed to the State of Israel, it is so important for us to be reminded of our nation’s steadfast alliance with the Jewish state as well as our responsibility to help build a sustainable future there.

Meanwhile, his trip followed an unfortunate event that occurred in Jerusalem two weeks ago, at a bar mitzvah, no less.

There were actually three benei mitzvah ceremonies taking place at the egalitarian prayer site by the Kotel, the Western Wall, which is run by the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement, on Thursday, June 30. That morning, a group of young Haredi men, in their teens and early twenties, were sent by their rabbis to disrupt the services. They displayed signs decrying Reform Judaism (despite the fact that the site is run by the Masorti movement), called a bar mitzvah boy a “Christian” and a “Nazi,” and actually tore pages out of the Masorti siddurim / prayer books. A video shows one of the disrupters actually WIPING HIS NOSE with a page torn out of the siddur.

Haredi disrupter wiping his nose with a page torn from the Masorti / Conservative siddur

To explain this monstrous behavior requires some context:

In 2013, the Netanyahu government reached a deal whereby they agreed to create a space at the southern end of the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex, that would be set aside for egalitarian prayer. This is important because more than 80% of American Jews are most comfortable holding services in an egalitarian fashion, where men and women stand and sit together. As you may know, I cannot hold a service like this one at the established Kotel not only because there is a meḥitzah / wall dividing men and women, but also even in the open plaza behind the meḥitzah’ed-off area, if a mixed group prays there, they will be harassed and shouted down by Haredi onlookers. The same is true even for a group of women who hold a traditional service in that area, as has been demonstrated over and over by the activist group Women of the Wall

Following that so-called “Kotel agreement,” the Israeli authorities built a temporary platform at the south end of the Kotel. The original intent was to complete this area and make it permanent, raising up the egalitarian area, known as “Ezrat Yisra’el,” to the height of the rest of the Kotel plaza and extending it to the wall itself. But at some point later, the Netanyahu government, bowing to pressure from Haredi parties in its coalition, put the project on hold. So the temporary platform erected in 2014, where I celebrated the bar mitzvah of my own son in March of that year, is still there, and is showing signs of wear and tear.

A family celebrating a bar mitzvah at Ezrat Yisrael

And, to draw a fine point on this, I was at this area a week and a half earlier, celebrating with Simon Braver, the grandson of Beth Shalom members Marian and Stan Davis, as we called him to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. We were not on the platform, but by the south wall around the corner. But we were still in the same category of egalitarian prayer that the Haredi world deems unacceptable.

And that could very well have been Simon’s bar mitzvah that was disrupted. And he might have been the one to be called a Nazi.

Now, you might naturally ask, why do they care? Why can’t these folks just live and let live? Why can’t they just leave us alone and let us pray the way we are accustomed to doing?

I concede that I have not actually spoken to any particular Haredi person about this. However, my sense is that their justification in breaking up egalitarian services, and perhaps calling 13-year-olds “Nazis” and tearing up siddurim as well, is that this behavior will ultimately prevent other Jews from transgression. 

And what is that transgression? Participating in non-Orthodox services, with men and women standing together, and using non-Orthodox siddurim, which are doubly unholy because not only do they lead people astray with slight textual changes from Orthodox siddurim (e.g. not saying “shelo asani ishah” – gratitude for not being created a woman), but also because they print God’s name in vain.

Let me rephrase that: Some of our fellow Jews believe that the type of prayer in which we are engaging right now, and every morning and evening here at Beth Shalom, is an egregious sin, one from which we should be physically and legally restrained from doing.

All the more so, the way in which I serve you as your spiritual leader, is leading you astray. I am committing the unforgivable sin of החטאת הרבים / haḥta’at harabbim – causing many others to sin as well by participating in our services.

Now, of course, one of the most wonderful features of Judaism is that we have no equivalent of the Pope – no single human authority who has the final say about what is “the right way” to do anything in Jewish life. What’s more, we thrive on disagreement; rabbinic Judaism is an ongoing conversation around different opinions regarding the same texts. 

We in the Conservative movement know that what we do is authentic Jewish practice. We are committed to the traditional approach to halakhah / Jewish law, even as we acknowledge that halakhah must change as the world changes. We are dedicated to daily tefillah / prayer, conducted with traditional modes and customs. We strive to learn the words of the Jewish bookshelf and apply the lessons and values therein to improve ourselves and our world.

We are Jews who know and practice Judaism. And, like most of the Jewish world, including some quarters of Orthodoxy, we are also pluralists, who believe that even within Judaism there are multiple paths and perspectives.

And we will not be dissuaded from our contemporary approach by those who behave badly and destructively in public.

Today in Parashat Balaq, we read about how the Moabite king of that name hires Bil’am, a non-Israelite would-be prophet, to curse the Israelites. When Bil’am opens his mouth to do so, only flowery words of praise emerge. Bil’am defends his actions by explaining to Balaq that he can only do what God makes him do (Bemidbar / Numbers 23:8):

מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑-ל וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם ה’׃

How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when Adonai has not doomed?

We in the non-Orthodox world cannot be cursed by zealots because we are not cursed! Nor can they prevent us from practicing Judaism. Let them behave badly; it only reflects poorly on themselves and their spiritual leaders who have put them up to it.

Let me be clear on this point: we are as authentically Jewish as they are. Nowhere in the Torah or Talmud does it say that thou shalt wear a black hat to be truly Jewish. And we must remember that our traditions are as holy and legitimate and deeply rooted in Jewish life and text as theirs. 

While some in the Jewish world might be overwrought about how we are apparently doing it all wrong, the overarching concern here is sin’at ḥinnam: causeless hatred. 

Three weeks away from Tish’ah BeAv, the most mournful day in the Jewish calendar, which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, we should remember that the latter was destroyed due to sin’at ḥinnam (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b). That Temple will surely never be rebuilt if we continue to revile each other.

I should add here that we, the non-Orthodox community, have to step up to the plate as well. If we want our needs and desires met by the State of Israel, we have to have a greater voice. If we want our Orthodox cousins to respect our authenticity, we have to demonstrate our commitment to Jewish life and practice, and to the State of Israel. One of the criticisms of the Ezrat Yisrael is that, if not for the benei mitzvah services, there would be no services there at all. On the Mega Mission, I brought a small group to that space for a Friday night service; it should have been much larger.

And the best way to demonstrate our commitment is to go there – both to the State of Israel and Ezrat Yisrael – more often: not just for benei mitzvah, not just for Federation Mega Missions, but for vacations, for visiting friends and family, for business if we can arrange it. We need to continue to show that we are there for Israel, and that we stand for serious Jewish practice in a non-Orthodox style in the Jewish state.

Yes, it’s expensive and getting more so. Yes, it’s far away. But I have traveled to Israel more times than I can count, and I can assure you that on virtually every flight, the fraction of non-Orthodox Jews is vastly under-represented. We need to change that.

Beth Shalom will certainly be putting together another trip to Israel within the next few years. But don’t wait: go now. And then go again with us. Let’s pre-empt the curses, and shower those who despise what we do with love.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2022.)

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Sermons

Don’t Be Judgy – Naso 5782

I do not read Twitter very frequently – I find that the platform often reflects what is essentially wrong with everything in American society: no depth, no sense of history, no respect, virtually no guard-rails, nothing but an eternal present of often toxic non-dialogue.

Nonetheless, I peeked at it briefly this week, and found myself face-to-face with an interesting, if disheartening thread. It featured a rabbi I follow asking effectively, “If you do not belong to a congregation, please tell me why.” 

The answers ranged from “it’s too expensive” to “I cannot find the kind of community I need/want” to “I am uncomfortable with my local congregation’s embrace of Zionism / Israel” to “I feel judged by people in the congregation for my gender identity / sexuality / skin color / age / family status / financial wherewithal / insufficient knowledge, etc.”

Now, of course, it is extraordinarily easy on Twitter to create a group of malcontents on any particular subject. This is a platform that excels in “broken-tile syndrome” – the tendency to find and highlight flaws.

Nonetheless, it is that last complex of issues surrounding judgment that I find particularly troubling, because I know people that have felt turned away by this congregation for feeling judged. Any new person that walks into a synagogue and feels judged is pretty much going to walk out and never come back. And that has happened here as well.

So we have a problem. A kind of ancient problem, which is that religious traditions are historically “judgy.” Not only do our traditional texts speak of a the God of judgment, not only do we refer to Rosh HaShanah, the day when there are the most people in synagogues, as “Yom haDin,” the Day of Judgment, but the very foundation of an originally tribal religion such as ours is that there is always the in-group, that is, the people who are following our tradition, or at least are members of the tribe, and the out-group: everybody else. That kind of judginess is hard-wired into humanity, as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition. (I cannot really speak from an informed perspective on the Eastern traditions, although I cannot believe that there is really any group that does not have at least a modicum of that dynamic.)

And actually, Parashat Naso includes one of the judgiest of judgy passages in the Torah. It’s the ordeal of the Sotah, to which the Torah commanded our ancestors to perform upon a woman suspected of cheating on her husband. Now, thankfully, this ordeal is not considered a legitimate ritual today, and even in the time of the Talmud the rabbis effectively claimed that nobody practiced it.* Nonetheless, there it is in the Torah, so of course we have to wrestle with it.

The ordeal is judgy because (א) the woman is subject to it merely if her husband suspects her; it does not matter what the reality is or if she strenuously denies her guilt; (ב) because it relies on an apparently supernatural judgment that is rendered in her taking a reaction to the potion that is prepared; and (ג) because there is no parallel ordeal for anything that a man might do outside of marriage, although of course “adultery” in the Biblical sense only applied to married women. To contemporary readers, this passage is absolutely unconscionable for many reasons.

So we have judginess in our roots. And add to that our centuries of legitimate mistrust and fear of outsiders: fear of pogroms, of genocide, of anti-Semitic actors and actions in all their various pernicious forms, fear of assimilation. Our history has taught us to be wary of those who are different, who do not fit into our expectations or follow our rules or suit our platonic ideal of who is a Jew. And even within the Jewish community, among committed Jews, we have the tendency to judge the choices of our co-religionists to the right and the left as well as the people within our own midst. 

And it is hard not to do.

But here we are in Pride Month, in case you missed all the rainbow signs on the way into the building. And here we find ourselves in the midst of culture wars over race and gender identity and political division over guns and abortion and voting rights and insurrection. And it is really hard not to judge the people with whom you vehemently disagree. We are living in fundamentally judgy times.

But we are going to have to learn not to be judgy if we are to keep this congregation going. Because today’s Jewish world is quite different from that of the past. Few of us grew up with immigrant parents who were steeped in Old World customs. We have far fewer children than in previous generations. People’s priorities in charitable giving have shifted. Virtually none of us feel like we have time to spare volunteering to help make synagogues run. And of course there are so many more choices today, including, of course, the choice not to participate at all, not to raise our children with Jewish knowledge or values or tradition.

And perhaps the greatest challenge that a large legacy institution such as this one faces is the desire that we all have to meet our individual needs exactly as we want them. Synagogues cannot please everybody, as much as we may try.

And so, with all of that stacked against us, any potential new member who walks in and feels judged for whatever reason is never coming back in. 

Let me be clear on this. It is very simple: we have to welcome everybody who walks in. It does not matter what their knowledge is, who their spouse or partner is, whether they are dressed appropriately, even if they are clearly eating a ham and cheese sandwich. (Well, we would kindly ask them to finish it outside and then warmly welcome them back in.) 

Of course, we must emphasize our engagement with and teaching of halakhah / Jewish law in the building and as a community, and continue to teach the Conservative movement’s contemporary approach. Nonetheless, we cannot judge anybody for their individual choices.

But Rabbi, aren’t there limits? OK, so if they are wearing Nazi symbols or carrying an AR-15 (God forbid!), we should refuse them entry. But otherwise, everybody here should bend over backwards to make sure that folks who walk in are greeted warmly, are treated with respect and dignity, are given honors where appropriate, and not judged for any of their personal choices.

And that means, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes going out of your comfort zone. It means expanding your circle to talk to somebody at kiddush whom you do not know. It means trying to not make somebody feel embarrassed or ashamed about what they know or don’t know about Jewish life and text and practice. It means sharing your enthusiasm for Jewish life and learning and community and Beth Shalom openly and genuinely, without in any way implying that if they do not live like you, they are somehow lacking. We should, as Pirqei Avot teaches us, greet every person with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance.

On Saturday night at the JCC, during the first real community Tiqqun Leil Shavu’ot that we have had in three years, Rabbi Danny Schiff led a wonderful talk about the oeuvre of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. One passage that Rabbi Schiff shared was striking in its power and resonance. It is drawn from his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together. Rabbi Sacks wrote the following:

Covenants and contracts are different things and address different aspects of our humanity. In a contract, what matters is that both gain. In a covenant, what matters is that both give. Contracts are agreements entered into for mutual advantage… on the basis of self-interest… By contrast, covenants are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness. In fact the key word of Judaism, emunah, usually translated as ‘faith’, is better translated as faithfulness. 

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences… Social contract is about the use of potentially coercive force. Social covenant is about moral commitments, the values we share and the ideals that inspire us to work together for the sake of the common good.

A qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness, is established within the framework of covenant: our covenant with God, and our covenant with each other. And those covenants should lead us to give, not to take.

So if a synagogue sets out to try to meet everybody’s needs, we will fail. That is a contractual relationship that will be impossible to fulfill for 600+ families.

But rather, if we emphasize the covenantal relationship which we all share – the values of gratitude and family and generosity and prayer and learning and humility and halakhah – and strive to be the place that welcomes all with open arms, turning nobody away, then we will continue to grow and thrive. And Rabbi Goodman and I cannot do that alone. That is up to you.

Further along in Parashat Naso, we read the so-called Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing that has been bestowed upon our people for literally thousands of years. These are the same words we often hear during the repetition of the Amidah, and they are also traditionally used to bless our children at Shabbat dinner on Friday night (Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26):

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃   

May Adonai bless you and protect you!
May Adonai’s face shine upon you and favor you!
May Adonai’s Divine countenance be lifted up to you and grant you peace!

The simple, almost haiku-like nature of this trifold blessing suggests that every one of us deserves God’s blessing, Divine light, favor, and peace, and that this desire is for all of us without any judgment. Nobody is excluded from this blessing. 

And perhaps we should take our cue from God and the Torah in this regard: Our social covenant requires that we offer blessing to all who seek it. Our values mandate that we extend a loving, accepting hand to all who come in. And our future peace depends upon our willingness to be a beacon for that light, as individuals and as a community.

~ Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2022.)

*Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 47b. The Mishnah states that the ritual only worked if the husband himself was free of transgression, and for whom can that be true?

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Sermons

Time to Gather Again – Shabbat HaGadol 5782

You may know that back in the Old Country, rabbis would only give sermons twice a year: on Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on Shabbat haGadol, right before Pesaḥ. (You know who likes to cite this fact frequently? Cantors, who are always hopeful that the rabbi will talk less.)

I think the reason, historically, was that those were times in which the rabbis felt the need to remind their congregations of the important halakhic details surrounding Yom Kippur and Pesaḥ, so they lectured them on the intricacies of fasting and repenting, on ḥametz and matzah and purifying our homes and our lives, and so forth.

So one reason this day is called Shabbat haGadol, which you might translate as “the Big Shabbat,” is that services historically took longer, since the rabbi would be talking extensively about kashering your pots and pans, burning and selling ḥametz, and so forth.

On this Big Shabbat, as we emerge cautiously after two years of pandemic, we have to remember to think big, that is, to think in terms of community, rather than as individuals.

My daughter, who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah here in the depths of the pandemic in August 2020 with a few more than a minyan of close relatives in the room, recently told me something that was particularly striking. She sings with the Pittsburgh chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. If you are not familiar with HaZamir, you should know that there are 25 chapters in cities across the United States, and eight chapters in Israel, and every spring they gather in New York to perform together – hundreds of American and Israeli teens on stage at Lincoln Center. It is powerful and moving; many young members of Beth Shalom have sung with HaZamir over the years.

HaZamir performing in Pittsburgh at Temple Sinai, 2019

But that concert is only the part that is visible to the public. On the day before the concert, that is, on Shabbat, the participants organize and attend their own services. Now, imagine if you will that you have a population of 400 Jewishly-knowledgeable high school students, who are all talented singers, and you ask them to create Shabbat services? The result, which I have not personally experienced, but my daughter did two weeks ago, is something wonderful. She described it as restoring her faith in the idea of Am Yisrael Ḥai: The people of Israel lives!

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=979326796024987

I was kind of struck dumb by this remark. All of the investment in her Jewish upbringing – the day school tuition, the bat mitzvah prep, the summers at Camp Ramah, USY conventions, Shabbat and Yom Tov services here at Beth Shalom week after week – and the thing that gives her hope for the Jewish future is an annual Jewish choir convention in New York. I frankly did NOT see that coming.

But it speaks to the idea of thinking big. That is, thinking about community. What made that Shabbat work was the instant-community feel of it: a whole bunch of teens brought together for a particular purpose, thinking not only of themselves, but rather of the entire gathering, of the whole group together.

And you know what? We can think big right here in Pittsburgh. We do not have to head out to Lincoln Center to find community.

On the contrary: we have it right here. And this is not an instant community; it is fashioned from a group of people who have been convening under the banner of Congregation Beth Shalom for more than a century. 

But there is an urgency right now to our being able to think big.

While it is true that the pandemic is not over, we are thankfully in a lull in terms of new infections and hospitalizations. We are now mask-optional here in the building, except for our youngest congregants (with the innovation this week of a mask-required section here in the Sanctuary). 

And looming larger in our midst is the challenge right now of returning to one of the basic principles in Jewish life, that our tefillot, our religious services, take place in person. That is, they require physical proximity, in order to constitute a minyan, a prayer quorum of 10 Jewish people. 

Before I get to how we get there, just a quick review of how we got here.

As you may know, 9 or fewer people praying together are considered individuals, and there are certain parts of the service which may not be performed unless there are at least 10 people present. Those items include reading Torah, reciting the Barekhu, the repetition of the Amidah including the Qedushah, and any form of the Qaddish, including Mourners’ Qaddish. Prior to March 15, 2020, we held fast to the halakhic principle that those people must be in the room.

As the world was shutting down 25 long months ago, we moved our services almost entirely on-line. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a teshuvah, a rabbinic response to a halakhic quandary, that in certain circumstances people who are not in the same building but within sight and hearing of the service may be counted in the minyan.

Our new electronic tools have made this possible from a much greater distance than the ancient rabbis of the Talmud could have possibly envisioned. In his teshuvah, my colleague Rabbi Joshua Heller suggested that we apply a hora’at sha’ah, a temporary measure that would apply in this she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation brought on by the social distancing requirements of the pandemic. This enabled us to constitute a minyan via Zoom, when we were not in each other’s physical presence, but rather in “virtual” presence, and therefore able to complete our daily tefillot in the usual way.

Prior to two years ago, the Conservative movement did NOT allow this, and we at Beth Shalom would not have accepted a laptop and screens sitting in the middle of the Samuel and Minnie Hyman Sanctuary. But considering the she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation, we changed one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life. And for many of us, this was an essential lifeline for the last two years. Many of us were stuck at home for much of that time, with few opportunities to connect with others. Indeed, weekday service attendance over the last two years has actually been higher at times than pre-pandemic, and we have never failed to make a minyan

But, ḥevreh, it is now time to return to where we were before the pandemic. And now is the time to think big: to think beyond ourselves as individuals. To consider the greater needs of this community.

What is the most important part of tefillah, of prayer? Is it fulfilling the mitzvah, the holy opportunity that our people have been practicing for thousands of years? Is it reciting the Shema and the Amidah, the two fundamental building blocks of Jewish services? Is it hearing the Torah read and interpreting it? Is it enabling folks to recite Mourners’ Qaddish?

While all of those things are essential to Jewish life and the keys to our ongoing existence and flourishing, the most important aspect to tefillah is the gathering. It is the banter before, the schmoozing after, the human contact that takes place as we come from our separate directions to form a minyan, interact, even if only briefly, and go our separate ways again.

We need to be around each other, in person. We need to see each other’s faces, to hear each other’s voices in their full, resonant glory, uncompressed by Internet transmission technology. We need to be present for one another, in moments of grief and celebration, pain and joy.

And that is why our Religious Services Committee has set a date: Monday, May 2, three weeks from now. On that morning, we will start serving breakfast after morning minyan once again, as we always used to do (thanks to Dee Selekman and her team of assistants), and both morning and night we will expect that the minyan will have to be 10 people, in person, in the room.

Yes, I know that means you have to leave your home and #ComeBacktoShul in order for us to make a minyan. Yes, we will continue to offer our services via Zoom, but that some of our regular Zoom participants who are in other states and even in other countries will not count toward the minyan. Yes, there are people for whom it is still not safe to come into the building, and that is surely a consideration. 

But we have to think big. We have to think not just about ourselves as individuals, but the greater good as a qehillah qedoshah, a community founded in holiness. And this principle is one which we should not relinquish. 

Congregation Beth Shalom

You may know that there are already synagogues which have entered the so-called “metaverse.” While I admire their willingness to be ahead of the curve, I must emphasize that a synagogue is a fundamentally local institution. I am fairly confident that whatever Mark Zuckerberg creates and however impressive the technology, we are going to need in-person interaction unmediated by Reb Zuckerberg and his platforms. We need to be together.

On this Shabbat haGadol, this Big Shabbat, it is time for us to acknowledge the urgency of restoring this crucial aspect of Jewish life.

And let’s face it: there may be some nights we won’t make a minyan. We have the GroupMe app to help summon others if necessary. But here is where you come in: help us out. Pick one night a week, or one night a month, to help us support one another by being in minyan, in communal relationship together. Think big! Show up.

חג שמח! Ḥag Samea! May we all have a joyous Passover festival, marked by gathering and community and good discussions around the seder table.

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Sermons

For All Time – Bo 5782

There is a standard rabbinic story about three rabbis, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, who, in a spirited attempt at pluralistic cooperation, decide to meet to discuss issues of halakhah / Jewish law. At their first meeting, they find that they all agree that smoking cigarettes is clearly assur / forbidden. It is damaging to your health, and since we are forbidden from causing deliberate damage to our bodies, God has therefore prohibited smoking.

The following week, they arrive at their meeting, and each of them is smoking. They regard each other with curiosity.

The Reform rabbi says, “Halakhah is a system that was intended for an ancient audience, and this particular aspect holds no meaning for me today.”

The Conservative rabbi says, “Halakhah has continued to develop and change throughout our history, and although we are bound by it, that was last week, and this is this week. Times have changed.”

The Orthodox rabbi shrugs nonchalantly, and offers, “I sold my lungs.”

***

A few years ago, when we asked members of Beth Shalom to answer a survey question about potential adult learning topics, the topic that was most frequently suggested was effectively, “What are the principles of Conservative Judaism?” That is something that I do try to include in many of my sermons and classes.

So it seemed to me like a natural opportunity to come up with a Conservative response to a recent back-and-forth on a halakhic issue that appeared in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. A few weeks back, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who is originally from Pittsburgh but now serves a congregation in Italy, wrote an opinion piece that suggested that the ancient Jewish calendar, set up during Talmudic times, is an “obstacle” to greater Jewish observance of holidays, and we should therefore set up a “Diaspora calendar” which would fix holiday dates to the Gregorian calendar. For example, Rosh Hashanah would always begin on the third Friday evening of September, and Hanukkah would always be December 21-28.

Not surprisingly, a more traditional, presumably Orthodox Squirrel Hill resident, Reuven Hoch, wrote a response for the Chronicle, in which he calls her suggestion “odd” and “upsetting,” and declares that making changes to suit contemporary patterns of observance is detrimental to Judaism and Jewish life.

The forces of current Western culture — social, political and ideological — that operate against authentic Jewish values and beliefs, can be alluring and overwhelming. These forces must be confronted and met head-on, with a confidence and determination that can only exist in concert with a commitment to a life permeated with traditional Jewish values and allegiance to the Jewish people.

I agree with Mr. Hoch about maintaining the Jewish calendar. To change up the Jewish year according to Rabbi Aiello’s suggestion seems to me such a dramatic break with Jewish tradition that it would sever us from our past in an irreparable way. We have been doing it this way for thousands of years. The Jewish calendar depends on the cycles of the moon; it would make no sense for Rosh Hashanah to be separated from the new moon, and for the Pesaḥ seder not to take place when the moon is full. 

The mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue at Beit Alfa in northern Israel, 5th-6th c. CE. The mosaic depicts the signs of the zodiac with their names in Hebrew, four seasonal quadrants of the year denoted by their Babylonian / Hebrew names, as well as the Greek sun god, Helios.

Where I disagree with Mr. Hoch, however, is in his reasoning. His argument is that trying to accommodate contemporary secular values by forcing Judaism to adapt has failed repeatedly throughout our history.

So, as you might expect from a Conservative rabbi, I am going to propose that the answers to the future of Judaism lie somewhere in between. We are, in fact, called “Conservative” because the original intent of this movement was to conserve Jewish practice, to be conservative in the slight changes that we make as we adapt. That is the intent of the unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement in the last century: “Tradition and Change.”

Because, of course, Judaism and halakhah / Jewish law have always changed and will continue to change. One does not have to dig too deeply into the subjects of kashrut / dietary laws or Shabbat observance to find a rich history of development and disagreement among our sages over centuries and continents. What it says in the Torah (e.g. “Do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” – Shemot / Exodus 23:19) is interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud, and then further in medieval codes, and to the point today where we debate whether a pareve dessert cooked in a pan used in the past for dairy may be served following a meat meal. And God forbid you should use the wrong spoon!

Jews have, by necessity, always grappled with how to treat new technologies, new ideas, and new environments. The Jewish calendar itself is an example of an innovation due to changed circumstances. Prior to the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the dispersion of Jews throughout the world, the date of Pesaḥ was determined by specially-trained witnesses who could tell, at the beginning of the month of Adar, whether the wheat would be ready to harvest in time for Pesaḥ and bake matzah, six weeks later. If it would not be ready in time, they would add in an extra month of Adar. When the Jews were no longer living in the land of Israel, there had to be another way to determine that extra Adar. Hence the system of adding seven such extra months over a fixed 19-year cycle, which we continue to this day. This system keeps the lunar year more or less aligned with the solar year, and Pesah therefore always falls in the spring.*

So the issue with change is not that it detaches us from our roots; some change is necessary. But change should come slowly and thoughtfully and even somewhat reluctantly. You are probably aware of the liturgical changes in our siddur to reflect our egalitarian outlook; thank God, no Conservative siddur opens the morning service with “Praised are You, God, who did not make me a woman.” We say instead, “Praised are You, God, who created me in Your image,” acknowledging that every person is created with a spark of the Divine. It’s a subtle change that you have to know to look for, and you would have to be here at 7:30 AM Monday through Friday, or 9:30 on Shabbat to hear it, but it’s quite meaningful nonetheless.

We in the Conservative movement have a body of rabbis, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which meets regularly to discuss issues in halakhah / Jewish law, using principles that date back to Talmudic times. We live within the halakhic system, and it is up to this body to think about change very carefully, not only to ensure that such change is permitted according to traditional sources, but also that its consequences are considered.

In Parashat Bo, from which we read today, there is a passage that resonates through this process. The Exodus narrative takes a brief break for an aside about how to celebrate Pesaḥ, including instructions on preparing and eating the Paschal lamb, along with matzah and maror, bitter herbs. And then the Torah says the following (Shemot / Exodus 12:24-27):

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה לְחׇק־לְךָ֥ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ …וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל 

You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants… And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’

Ad olam, for all time. We have carried this story, this ritual, this Torah / instruction with us for millennia, and we have retold it in many languages and contexts. And whether we are reading from a manuscript, a printed book, or sharing it over the Internet, the Torah still inspires us to be better people. It is because of these verses that we ask the questions at the Pesaḥ seder, and all the other questions we ask and answer throughout the Jewish year, as we go about teaching our children.

We cannot live in a sealed Jewish bubble; we have to be in multiple worlds. While some quarters of the Jewish world believe that they have shut out secular influences, they are kidding themselves. The Hasidic movement and the other right-wing quarters of Orthodoxy are as much a response to modernity as Reform. The Jewish world continues to reshape itself again and again.

And those of us in the middle, who clearly embrace and live in the contemporary world while upholding Torah and mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life, the challenge is upon us to prevent Judaism from becoming a secondary pursuit, squeezed in between school, work, soccer practice and bingeing TV series, but rather a constant force in our lives and our world for good.  

It might seem like a good idea to lower certain temporal barriers to Jewish life. But the fact that you have to take time off to observe Yom Tov days is a testament to your commitment to our tradition, and doing so only strengthens our tradition for future generations. Contrary to Rabbi Aiello’s assertions, there is research that shows that the higher the expectations of a religious group, the stronger the adherence of its members.  

Ad olam, for all time.

And when your children ask you, why do you cling to this ancient lunar calendar, or this or that quaint custom that my non-Jewish friends do not do, you should tell them that it is because these rituals not only saved us from slavery in Egypt, but they continue to keep us healthy and safe and strong today, even as we live as citizens of the contemporary world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/8/2022.)

* The Muslim calendar is also lunar, but does not correct for the approximately 11-day difference between 12 lunar months (354 days) and the solar cycle of 365 days. So Ramadan, for example, the month during which Muslims fast every day, precesses, each year falling 11 days earlier according to the Gregorian calendar. It’s much less burdensome when it falls in the winter, when fasting ends at about 5 in the afternoon, than when it falls in the summer.

Categories
Sermons

The Magic of Camp Ramah – Ki Tavo 5781

My kids went to camp this summer, for the first time in two years. Not just any Jewish summer camp, but Camp Ramah in the Poconos, one of the 15 camps in the Ramah system, which, like Congregation Beth Shalom, is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. As some of you may know, I am a Ramah alumnus, having been a camper, a counselor, and specialist at Camp Ramah in New England over the space of a couple decades. So I must concede that I am a little biased toward the Ramah camps.

You may also know that Pittsburgh is in the catchment area for Camp Ramah in Canada, but of course due to the whole pandemic business, the Canadian border was closed to Americans at the start of the summer, so two of the American Ramah camps, Wisconsin and Poconos, took in the “Canadian refugees.” So my children, along with our bar mitzvah, Niv, were among the handful of Pittsburghers who spent the summer in the Poconos.

Given camp loyalties, I recall Niv’s mother Shiri (a proud Ramah-Canada alumna) saying early in the summer, that she wanted the Pittsburghers to have fun at Ramah in the Poconos, but not TOO MUCH fun, so that they would want to go back to Canada next summer. 

So that was definitely the case for our daughter – she is ready to head north again next June. Our son might have had too much fun in the Poconos.

But actually, it was something else that Zev said upon returning that made me think that this summer was totally worth the thousands of dollars of investment. He returned from camp with a new sense of excitement about Jewish life, saying, “I really enjoyed tefillah at camp. Doing Jewish stuff is fun when everybody else is excited to be doing it together. You can feel the joy.” He came back with a renewed sense of purpose for the coming year, as he prepares now for becoming bar mitzvah next August.

Cha-ching!

You may not be aware that Jewish summer camps are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish life. The first, Camp Cejwin, was established in upstate New York in 1919, to help instill Jewish culture and values in urban Jewish youngsters, as well as to get them out of the overcrowded city for some fresh air. To this day, many scholars who study Jewish education agree that Jewish summer camps have been among the best tools that we have in teaching our children Jewish traditions. It is truly the only environment in which children can be immersed in Jewish living and Jewish values all day long, and an incomparable vehicle for creating a sense of connectedness to Jewish life.

One of the things that Zev also mentioned about camp was how much fun it was to chant Birkat HaMazon, the berakhot of gratitude recited after meals, with lots of loud, raucous singing and fellowship and joy in Jewish practice.

Now, you may know that, while I love raucous singing, I also do favor a certain amount of decorum in Jewish life. My wife thinks that I’m generally too serious. 

For a couple of the summers that I spent on staff Ramah-New England, when I was in cantorial school, I held the title of Rosh Tefillah, which roughly translates as, “Director of Prayer Education.” Now, it should be noted that the Rosh Tefillah is among the most despised characters in camp. Whenever you see the Rosh Tefillah coming, you should try to get away as quickly as possible, lest he assign you a Torah reading, or make you schlep siddurim from one end of camp to the other, or some other prayer-related task.

So, here’s me, the too-serious cantorial student in charge of prayer education at camp. And there’s the raucous, table-banging, clapping and gesturing and shouting Birkat HaMazon. You can understand how, on the one hand I was pleased that kids were singing; I was just hoping that they would learn to do so somewhat more respectfully.

One day, Rabbi Gordon Tucker was visiting camp. Rabbi Tucker, now retired, is one of the leading lights of the Conservative rabbinate; at the time he was a pulpit rabbi in White Plains, NY, but who had also already been a dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS. And lunch is over, and Birkat HaMazon is at its full-on raucous maximum. I’m scowling. Rabbi Tucker is shouting along with all the kids, throwing his hands in the air, adding inappropriate English insertions, and then he turns to me and says, “God loves this!”

That is the magic of Camp Ramah.

Ladies and gentlemen, what is the point of Jewish education? My kids may end up being performing artists or attorneys fighting for environmental justice. Why do they need to know about Judaism? Why do they need to know how to lead services, or read Torah, or what the textual basis for giving tzedaqah is, or how we seek teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur? Why does anybody need to know Birkat HaMazon, much less to sing it with gusto?

Why do our children need to know how to “do Jewish?” Because this familiarity with Jewish practice and wisdom is the reason that we are still here.

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a statement that is familiar to most of us from the Pesaḥ seder (Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:5-9):

אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גׇר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃ וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה׃ וַנִּצְעַ֕ק ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה֙’ אֶת־קֹלֵ֔נוּ וַיַּ֧רְא אֶת־עׇנְיֵ֛נוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵ֖נוּ וְאֶֽת־לַחֲצֵֽנוּ׃ וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהֹוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים׃ וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַיִּתֶּן־לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ׃ 

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us… The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The context for this statement, however, is not Passover. It is this: in ancient Israel, when you brought the first fruits of your harvest to your local Kohen (priest) on חג הבכורים / Ḥag haBiqqurim, the festival of First Fruits (which we call today Shavuot), you would make this statement, a brief encapsulation of the history of our people, at least up until that point. If you can picture yourself in this situation – you are a farmer, whose life and whose family’s ability to eat depends on the success of this harvest, and you are required not only to bring some to the Kohen as a sacrifice of gratitude, food which could have actually been eaten by your family. So you are making a big sacrifice, but not only that, but also to recite this formula recalling our history, demonstrating the high importance we place on our connection to that story.

From the most ancient beginnings of the people of Israel, we have made knowing and learning and explicitly connecting our tradition to our very livelihoods an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. It is a fundamental plank in our sense of peoplehood: we repeat and share and teach our history, our tradition, our pipeline to the past. When you do anything Jewish today – singing Birkat HaMazon at the top of your lungs, “throwing away your sins” at Tashlikh, learning text, schmoozing with friends in the sukkah – your story, our history, is right there with you.

A little later in Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim / Deuteronomy 27:1-4), Moshe tells the Israelites furthermore that when they enter the Land of Israel, they have to inscribe אֶֽת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את “et kol divrei haTorah hazot” – all the words of this Torah – on large stones coated with plaster and set them up on Mt. Ebal, to remind them all of their tradition and obligations, and to do that even BEFORE they build an altar to God. The story, the words of Torah, are not just an integral part of the ritual, they actually PRECEDE it. 

And of course you all know the phrase embedded in the first paragraph of the Shema, which we read from the Torah a few weeks back in Parashat Va-etḥannan: veshinantam levanekha – you shall teach these words to your children. It is up to us to make sure that our children know our history, to know our tradition. It is up to us to pass it on. It is up to us to get their attention, to make sure they are listening, to make sure they hear these words and that they understand them and recite them and teach them to their own children some day.

We send our kids to day schools like CDS and supplementary Hebrew schools like JJEP so that the words of our tradition will be integrated into their daily lives. We bring them to synagogue so that they will know their tradition, that they will not be strangers in their own people’s house.

And we send them to camp to feel the joy, to feel the magic of an environment that is fun and low-stress and raucous, when they can make lots of noise and be together and feel connected to our peoplehood, our traditions.

And there is no place like camp for that. Camp brings together practice and learning, along with some Hebrew and some love of Israel, with sports and art and dance and singing and swimming and all the joy of summer in the woods. 

God loves it; God loves the magic of Jewish camp.

I am best equipped to speak to the minds and hearts of adults more so than children. But I know, and you do as well, that our children need to feel the magic and the joy if they are to continue to cling to our tradition. And if you are committed to a Jewish future, to our children understanding the value our tradition brings to our lives, send them to camp. If you are committed to the values in particular of the Conservative movement – of commitment to an egalitarian environment focused on a zealously contemporary yet traditional approach to Jewish living, send them to Ramah, and let the magic do its work.

(And thank you so much to Ramah Poconos for taking in my refugee children!)

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/28/2021.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Halakhah / Reach Higher – Rosh Hashanah 5781, Day 1

OK, so let’s face it: we are missing right now the most valuable thing that synagogues offer: the opportunity to meet in person, to sing together with your community, to rub elbows at kiddush as you crowd around the last remaining slices of lox. We are missing the glue that holds us all together, the social capital that the synagogue experience is all about.

So what remains? That is the subject of this High Holiday sermon series for the new year of 5781: the essentials. The social shell of shul (say that ten times fast) has been stripped away, and what is left is, well, Judaism. It’s back to basics, folks.

Instead of dwelling on what we do NOT have at this time, I have been trying to lean into what we do have: Jewish tradition, that is, law, custom, values and story. While a synagogue thrives as a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the synagogue also plays a role as the symbolic center of what we do in our homes as well. 

My central function as a rabbi is not to run services. It is not to give eulogies at funerals or give a charge to a bat mitzvah, although these are clearly things that I do. Rather, I see my role as a rabbi is to inspire you while using the words and history and customs of Jewish life and tradition, and to be as creative as possible, so that you will actually perk up your ears and listen. While the shofar’s job is to wake you up, my job is to get your attention now that you’re awake, so that you might go out into the world and act.

And these six months of pandemic isolation have been difficult for all of us. In the wake of so much sickness and death, unemployment and economic devastation, our collective emotional health is not good. Statistics are telling us that more of us are experiencing anxiety and depression than before, that one in four young people are experiencing suicidal ideation. And then there is everything else going on in the world: the public clashes over racism, the anxiety surrounding the coming national election, hurricane season, devastating, record-setting wildfires out west, and so forth.

We need something to hold onto, emotionally and spiritually. We need basic, foundational principles that will firm up the earth beneath our feet. And that is why this series of sermons features the essential pieces of what it means to be Jewish today. 

The framework I will be following for the four sermons of High Holidays 5781 is: Halakhah / Jewish law, Minhag / Jewish custom, Jewish values, and the Jewish story. Here are the basics.

***

Part 1 – Halakhah

Over the summer, I read for the first time a wonderful novel: Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, a staple of contemporary African literature that captures the disintegration of traditional Igbo society in Nigeria under British colonialism in the 19th century. The title of the book, as you may know, comes from a poem by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats, and indeed Achebe, were convinced that human beings cannot successfully maintain traditional ways in the face of a new construct. In Achebe’s novel, the Igbo’s way of life is upended when the British colonizers demean their customs and beliefs and kill or jail those who speak out against them. The rich sphere of Igbo tradition and hierarchy was no match for the invaders’ firepower and courts and prisons.

We the Jews are trying to maintain our own traditions while balancing lives that bear little resemblance to those of our ancestors. We have been doing this for 2,000 years, but in particular since the French Revolution in 1789, when Napoleon granted citizenship to the Jews of France, the struggle between tradition and modernity began in earnest. When Jews were allowed to live among their non-Jewish neighbors and attend their schools and universities and mingle in non-Jewish society, they were faced with the question of, “How do I maintain my Jewishness while also joining the wider society?”  

And we continue to face this question today. Let’s face it: many of us have given up the struggle. We all have relatives and Jewish friends who no longer belong to synagogues, who no longer participate in Jewish life. And the pandemic has, I know, only exacerbated this situation.

But you’re still here. The very fact that you are participating in this service right now is a strong indicator that you have not yet given up. And that has everything to do with the resilience of the Conservative movement, the ideological center of American Jewish life. Perhaps defying Yeats and Achebe, the center can hold! Let me explain.

 Judaism has many, many features. Law, customs, stories, values, practices, wisdom, rabbinic argument, and so forth. But the essential feature of Judaism is doing. Yes, belief is important, but it actually takes a back seat to behavior. And there is real wisdom in that: simply being Jewish will not pass Judaism on to the next generation. So too thinking Jewish thoughts. Only doing Jewish will keep the flame of Judaism alive.

And since our subject is “Back to Basics,” what are those essential Jewish actions?

It all comes down to halakhah. That is a word that is often translated as “Jewish law,” although that is an inadequate translation. Halakhah is, as many of you know, derived from the Hebrew verb, “Lalekhet,” to go. It is the way we go through life as we pursue being holy, an analog of the Chinese philosophy of Tao, the Way. A better definition of halakhah is “the way to walk through life while acting on the imperative to be holy people.” 

And we still need halakhah. Trust me on this: our world is more fragmented than ever. The information age has not made us smarter, nor more interconnected in a meaningful way. On the contrary: social media has enabled us to divide more easily, to always see ourselves in opposition. Ever tried to follow an argument in a Facebook thread?

Halakhah is how we connect to other people and to God. We have a need to be connected to each other right now through low-tech, traditional means. We need traditional structures for communal support. We need guideposts to assist us in making good choices. And the best way to do that is to engage with Judaism’s traditions, to walk through life in the way that our ancestors have handed down to us. And we can still do that without compromising our contemporary existence.

Yes, halakhah has many intricacies, and applies to all facets of our lives, from how we eat to how we speak to how we interact with others. But the most essential aspects of halakhah are those that enable us to frame our lives in qedushah, holiness. And the most enduring, regular features of halakhah, the three that are most beneficial, are Shabbat, kashrut / mindful eating, and tefillah / prayer.

  1. Tefillah: I spend at least an hour in prayer every day. It not only connects me to my community, it also connects me to myself. I wrap myself in tallit and tefillin every morning, and I am energized by being literally swaddled in our tradition, and asking myself the hard questions as I start my day: Who am I? What is my life? What are the acts of hesed / lovingkindness I perform every day? My life is enriched by these self-reflective moments. 

    And, yes, there are days when my mouth utters the words but my mind wanders, allowing mental space and time for reflection, which are also healthy and stimulate my creativity. 

    Whether you do it every day or just a few times a year, tefillah is an essential Jewish act.
  1. Kashrut: Mindful eating. You are what you eat. Paying attention to what we eat, to the lines drawn in Creation, to the limits set on our behavior, ensures that our sensitivity to what we have been given by God and how we should respect it rises dramatically. 

    We have so much choice, and it is killing us. Not every option is a good one. Furthermore, making good choices about what I put into my mouth also reminds me that what I say, i.e. what I do with my mouth when I am not eating, must be just as holy. Kashrut.
  1. Shabbat: Respect yourself; respect your neighbor; respect the world. You need a day off, a separation from all of the craziness of the week. Shabbat helps me tune out the anxiety, reconnect with family, reconnect with myself. Those magical 25 hours are a gift that restore the soul. Take that break every week; you need it.

Three things – a simple halakhic formula for improving your life and our world.

Those are the fundamentals. But what about the ideological center of Jewish life? How does our being affiliated with Conservative Judaism help us act on these imperatives?

In 1950, the Conservative movement made the halakhic decision that if you lived too far to walk to the synagogue on Shabbat, that it was better that you should drive than (a) stay at home or (b) be so ashamed of driving on Shabbat that you have to park three blocks away. The whole raison d’etre of the Conservative movement was to enable traditional Jews, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants, to adhere to halakhah while living as proud, integrated Americans. The intent was and still is to conserve halakhah by occupying the central area between tradition and change. That is a principle that has held now for more than a century. 

The fact that you are participating in this service right now, in this virtual space, is the best example of why you, and the Jewish world, need the Conservative movement. At the beginning of the pandemic, way back in March, synagogues all over the world shut down for in-person services. Most Orthodox congregations could not meet for services at all. Most Reform congregations do not have daily services. So the overwhelming majority of synagogues that continued meeting for daily tefillah / prayer were Conservative-affiliated. And Conservative rabbis paved the way for a halakhically-acceptable way of conducting these services online, to both protect the health of our participants and still make it possible for people to grasp the daily framework of Jewish tradition that is tefillah, Jewish prayer, to enable folks to get that daily jolt of energy and mindfulness that tefillah gives.

One of the hallmarks of my own approach to halakhah, and the one that I think is most important for our community, is that I acknowledge that we have a range of practices within our own congregation: some folks who are very traditional, and some who are not at all. And I do not believe in shaming anybody for what they do or do not do in a Jewish framework, but I do want you to reach higher. 

Your commitment to halakhah, to engaging in the traditional way of living Jewishly, will be paid back to you in the form of more sanctified relationships, a better sense of self, and a healthier world. We at Beth Shalom strive to give you the space and the tools you need to reach higher. That is why we still do many things the traditional way; that is why we adhere to halakhic principles surrounding Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillah.

We in Conservative Judaism have held the center of American Jewish life for more than a century. Despite Yeats’ assertion that the center cannot hold, we are still here, providing a space for tefillah, a means of pursuing the benefits of a life lived in a halakhic context while accounting for how substantially the world has changed since the creation of the halakhic system.

And you know what? We need this, now more than ever. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to be part of a congregation that does not offer live services for their people on this day. You are here because you need this, because we need this; this virtual gathering space, a testament to the strength of the idea of “Tradition and Change,” is a sign of the vitality of the Conservative movement, and the ongoing value of halakhah, the way that we go.

The center must hold. We are it. The world needs tradition, and the Jewish world needs the flexibility of Conservative Judaism.

Tomorrow, we will talk about the rich palette of minhag, customs which illuminate and flavor Jewish life.

Shanah Tovah! A healthier 5781 to all.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5781, 9/19/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Why You Should Vote for Mercaz – Terumah 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this in the Jewish state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this seem wrong to you? It should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons

We Need More Nuance – Shabbat HaHodesh 5779

I recently read an article in Harper’s Magazine about the slow death of the long-form book review. It was a lengthy lament on the decline not merely of book reviews, but also an appreciation of nuance overall in our current media environment. The author, Christian Lorentzen, a former book reviewer for New York magazine, opined that even respectable media outlets have focused on covering books in a way that suits today’s climate: shorter bits, recommended lists, author Q&As, thumbs-up-thumbs-down-type coverage. In one passage, acknowledging that the reality is that even the New York Times Book Review is ultimately in search of more clicks, the author drew a fine point on it

… For certain types of journalism the quest for traffic is incompatible with, if not antithetical to, the task at hand. Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it…, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”

Lorentzen takes us all to task. Book coverage, like virtually everything else, has been reduced to black and white. It’s either awesome or horrible, enthusiastically recommended or panned. We either “like” it (with a thumb icon) or we don’t. Not much room in that thumb for nuance, for accepting some good points with some weaknesses. The subtlety that should mark any great work of literature is lost, because such subtlety is virtually invisible in an online environment in which EVERYBODY IS SHOUTING in capital letters.

And so too throughout society. On every issue, we are all polarized. You either agree or disagree. End of story. The middle won’t hold, because it doesn’t attract enough online traffic.

Who has time for nuance? I can’t help but view the world through my professional Jewish lens. And I see a parallel between long form book reviews and (get this!) Conservative Judaism.  Our greatest challenge, being in the middle of Jewish life, is that we cannot be described in a soundbite. An unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement, in the middle of the 20th century, came from Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Great Neck on Long Island for 55 years, from 1947 until 2002. His slogan, “Tradition and Change,” used to resonate throughout the movement. We stand for halakhah, Jewish law, (i.e. tradition) and yet we exercise our right as modern Jews to interpret halakhah (that is, to make some change) to adapt to the framework of contemporary life.

A classic example is that, in 1950, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, in an effort to encourage Shabbat observance when more and more American Jews were moving to the suburbs, passed a teshuvah, a rabbinic opinion, that said that if you do not live within walking distance of a synagogue, it is better that you should drive to be with your qehillah, your community on Shabbat than not to go at all, even though driving a car with an internal combustion engine is clearly prohibited according to halakhah.

The challenge to the Conservative movement is putting forward a nuanced vision of Judaism while living in a dramatically non-nuanced world. The idea of “Tradition and Change” works well on the Jewish bookshelf, but it hardly gets people very excited about our heritage.

We the Jews are masters of nuance. Rabbinic literature is filled with examples of the subtle parsing of words and concepts. One such example that came across my desk this week, courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, the director of Derekh, relates in particular to the language of the haggadah.

One passage which you really should discuss around your seder table, is a direct quote from the Mishnah of Pesahim, the book of the Mishnah dedicated to all aspects of Passover (10:5). You might miss it if you’re only focused on singing the Four Questions and Dayyenu, and for sure if you’re skipping right to dinner

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג), וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם

… In every generation a person must see him/herself as though s/he [personally] had gone out of Egypt, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

This is the call to arms of the seder. It is the line that is most important because it connects our history to who we are and how we live today

What does it say? Each of us must see ourselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. How might that guide our actions? If we are truly internalizing that notion, then it should mean that we should let that vision of ourselves guide us in eliminating oppression from our world.

But hold on a minute. Rabbi Markiz pointed me to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides / Rambam, his 12th century halakhic work that gives a thorough snapshot of living Jewishly. And while Rambam sometimes quotes the Talmud directly, here he changes the words somewhat (MT, Hilkhot Hametz uMatzah 7:6)

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ יָצָא עַתָּה מִשִּׁעְבּוּד מִצְרַיִם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ו כג) “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם” וְגוֹ’. וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה צִוָּה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בַּתּוֹרָה “וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ” כְּלוֹמַר כְּאִלּוּ אַתָּה בְּעַצְמְךָ הָיִיתָ עֶבֶד וְיָצָאתָ לְחֵרוּת וְנִפְדֵּיתָ

In every generation a person must show her/himself that s/he personally had come forth from Egyptian subjugation, as it is stated, “God freed us from there…” (Deut. 6:23). And regarding this, the Holy Blessed One commanded in the Torah, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 5:15, 15:15, 24:22), that is to say, as if you yourself had been a slave, and you came forth into freedom, and you were redeemed.

So here is the nuance:

  1. Rambam changes the imperative from “see oneself” (lir’ot) to “show oneself” (lehar’ot). The second form is causative (hif’il). Don’t just picture yourself as a former slave, says Rambam. Rather, show yourself. Do something that will bring this understanding home, will make it personal. Go from passive to active.

  2. Rambam also changes the proof-text. Instead of the verse quoted in the Mishnah, about what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt, he cites an explicit statement of what God did, i.e. freed us from Egypt’s clutches, and then backs it up with an oft-repeated line in the Torah about remembering that we were slaves. The impression with which we are left is stronger. Don’t think of freedom merely as a gift from God for which we should be grateful. Rather, remember that you were a slave, and now you’re free, and you have to act on that.

You can feel free to use Rambam’s words in your seder if you’d like. In fact, I encourage you to print them out and compare them back-to-back one night. But you can’t stop there – the point of the seder is not merely intellectual discussion. It is, rather, a call to action.

Show yourself what it means to be free. Contribute your time to help others – by working in a homeless shelter, or joining a group that is working to prevent gun violence, or reaching out to the local Muslim community, or the local African-American community, to work toward better inter-faith and inter-racial relations, or many other such activities, or speaking up when your own government separates migrant families at our southern border. Don’t just picture yourself as a slave; show yourself what it means to be free. Prove to yourself that your freedom moves you to act on the behalf of those deprived of it.

It is a subtle textual emendation by Maimonides. But it could make a huge difference in this world. We cannot afford NOT to parse the nuance. We cannot reduce ourselves to the Like/Dislike sickness that has afflicted our society. We the Jews have a proud tradition of textual interpretation based on subtlety; let’s put it to work as we show ourselves and others that we understand the value of nuance.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/6/2019.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

May (S/He) Remember – 8th Day Pesah 5778 / Yizkor

In last week’s New York Times, there was a column by Nicholas Kristof about clergy in America (“The Rise of God’s Spokeswomen,” Sunday Review, April 1, 2018), and how clergy of most denominations are increasingly female.

We in the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and as their numbers have grown, the idea of a female rabbi has become more widespread and more acceptable. I have female colleagues who are in large congregations, who are the senior spiritual leaders of their flocks, and who are as respected and as effective in their positions as men. And that is a good thing.

Kristof says something that I found particularly moving: that our changing attitudes to spiritual leadership, that our increasing openness to women in the role of rabbi or minister or priest will ultimately transform our theology. He cites Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary (just across the street, by the way, from my rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), who suggests that women will ultimately dominate religious leadership in America, and that this will reshape our understanding of the role of God in our lives, moving from “stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

The student body at Union is now nearly 60% female; at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 63% of rabbis ordained since 1998 have been women. About one-fifth of all Conservative rabbis are women, and that percentage grows a bit each year; this spring’s ordination class is 16 women and 12 men, or 57% female. The membership of the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization that consists primarily of cantors serving in Conservative synagogues, is 35% female.

Women Rabbis Lean In
Conservative rabbis

With so many more women joining the ranks of clergy, our relationships with the various faith traditions, at least in the progressive movements, will naturally change. And so too will our theology.

Still, the sense of “maleness” in Jewish tradition is ever-present, and hard to miss. Consider the special service that we will perform in a few minutes, the proper name for which is “hazkarat neshamot,” the “remembering of souls.” But almost everybody in the Ashkenazi world refers to it as Yizkor (accent on the “yiz,” since both Yiddish and English tend to accent the penultimate syllable in most words; the original Hebrew, properly pronounced, accents the “kor”). “Yizkor” is the first word in the memorial prayers that we recite during that part of the service; these prayers are recited only four times per year: on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesah, and the second day of Shavuot.

What does “yizkor” mean? Literally, “May He remember,” and since it is followed by the word Elohim (one of the common terms for God), it should be understood as, “May God remember,” as in, May God remember my mother, my father, my sister, etc. Now, in English, the translation is non-gender specific. But in Hebrew, the word yizkor is totally, unapologetically masculine. There is actually nothing we can do about it – there is no gender-neutral third person conjugation in Hebrew. It’s either yizkor or tizkor, may She remember, and with that latter term there is the same challenge. So, while we might avoid the issue by referring to the service by its proper name, Hazkarat Neshamot, we can’t really do much about the memorial prayer itself.

There is a midrash that I truly love about the creation of humans as described in Bereshit / Genesis on the sixth day of Creation. It’s about the verse, Genesis 1:27:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

The midrash interprets the verse to indicate two stages of the fashioning of human beings. The first adam, the first human creature, has two sides, a male side and a female side. Because the Hebrew in the first half of the verse has a singular direct object (“vayivra et ha-adam… bara oto,” “God created man… He created him”), it is clear that God created only one creature at first. Furthermore, one may also extrapolate that, since the text tells us twice that this being is fashioned in the image of God, that God also has two sides, a female and a male.

adam and eve
Adam and Eve, by Tsugouharu Fujita

The second part of the verse, “zakhar uneqevah bara otam,” “male and female He created them,” has a plural direct object, so the midrash’s perspective is that God took this two-sided figure and split it into two distinct beings, a female human and a male human. Both are therefore equally in the image of God. Both are God-like, and God is neither male nor female but actually both.

I must concede that when I think and speak about God, I am trying not to envision a specific image. On the contrary, my personal understanding is much more along the lines of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s view of God as kind of force within the natural world, a process that works through and around us, and such a force has no gender, no body, no clear “actions” as described in the Torah and midrash. But I know that if you scratch two Jews, you’ll get at least three different theologies. And, of course our text and liturgy is saturated with images of God as a distinct character, and in particular, a distinctly male character: Avinu malkeinu, Avinu shebashamayim, God sitting on a heavenly throne, God creating the world, God dictating to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and so forth. And all that language is unquestionably masculine.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share a personal anecdote, one that might help illustrate a different model for understanding God.

A few of you know that I lost my first cousin, Anne Lerner, last week. She was 50 years old, and taught in a middle school for “inner-city” kids in Hartford. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and we were all shocked and raw, particularly in the context of Passover, to be burying her at such a young age. Anne was never married; she did not have children of her own. But she was so loved by all her students, current and former, that there were about 300 people at her funeral. The school where she taught actually closed on Monday so that teachers and students could attend, and the school actually brought the students in buses to the synagogue in Manchester, CT where the funeral was held.

I am telling you this not to share with you my grief over the loss of my cousin, but rather because in discussing the arc of my cousin’s life with my family members in preparation for delivering a eulogy, I came to understand that she saw her students as her children. She was to them like a nurturing mother, leading and guiding and nudging where possible, making sure they were taken care of, making sure that their needs were met, that if they were not receiving love and support at home, then at least they would get it at school.

Anne loved those students. She loved them dearly. And they loved her right back.

Teaching is holy work, and although my cousin would not have thought of herself as holy, she was in some sense modeling for all of us a way that we might understand God: our teacher, our guide, our provider, our nurturer, the one who makes it possible for us to love. God need not be “Our Father, Our King,” but rather, “The One who loves us and gives us the ability to love.”

That is a theology that appeals to me, and arguably an understanding that is made even more reasonable as the clergy becomes more female.

Any of you who have ever discussed theology with me, in a class or my learners’ service or one-on-one, knows that I am all for re-thinking how we understand God, because the traditional images do not work well for me. And some of you may also know that I draw heavily from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (zekher tzaddiq livrakhah / may his righteous memory be for a blessing) in this matter, whose bottom line was that we have to seek the understanding of God that works for us as individuals. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about this, come to my session at the Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Saturday night, May 19th at the JCC. I will be discussing Rabbi Gillman’s legacy and why connecting to theology is so essential.)

What works for me is to see the entire palette of humanity as reflecting the image of God: God is male and female, black and white and everything in-between. And God is also none of these things.

As we embrace more women in the clergy, we will surely welcome a broader understanding of the Divine, a more balanced sense of God that incorporates both paternal and maternal aspects.

While I am almost certain that we will always continue to refer to hazkarat neshamot as “Yizkor,” may He remember, I think it would be a good thing to, when we recall our loved ones who are no longer with us, to remember that they were as much subject to God’s nurturing love as to God’s justice.

May that God, the one that reflects the balance of humanity, remember all of those whom we recall today. May our God-given ability to love inspire us, in their memories, to spread more love in this world.

anne lerner
My cousin, Anne Lerner z”l

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning / 8th day Pesah, 4/7/2018.)

Categories
Sermons

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.