Categories
Sermons

Healing Through Welcoming – Vayyera 5781

Late Tuesday afternoon, when the polls were still open and anxiety hung in the air like a mixture of stale cigar smoke and vinegar, I was invited to appear on an Israeli TV news program where they were discussing the American elections. I was actually quite impressed with the way that Israeli commentators, some embedded here, were pontificating on aspects of the electoral college system and the issues on the table at our present moment. 

And frankly, as I watched and waited for the host to call on me, I was terrified! While my modern, spoken Hebrew is decent, I cannot think and talk in the rapid-fire mode that is typical of these kinds of programs, even in English. But I had my pre-translated talking points ready.

They wanted from me not only some reminiscences on the two-year anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, but also a perspective on the election, considering our unfortunately unique position here in Pittsburgh. 

Now, as the rabbi of a congregation that includes people of a whole range of political perspectives, I do my best to try not to favor one political party over another. While you know that I surely occasionally speak about issues which some may think are political in nature, my primary goal is actually to try to discuss things that we are all thinking about from the perspective of Jewish tradition and Jewish text. 

So while the host might have wanted me to pick one presidential candidate over another, I declined to do that, but rather focused on the way that we relate to one another. And I must say that the most important thing that we should be doing right now is to try to speak to each other and think about each other in a healthier way. As a society, we need a whole lot of healing right now, because if we cannot talk to one another, we cannot face the big challenges that we need to address. The great division in our society – over politics, over culture, over race and sexuality and public health and even religion – is actually killing us.

Some of you may know that Parashat Vayyera contains one of my favorite scenes in the entire Torah, one which I have learned with many of you in parlor meetings and in other contexts, and in fact I like it so much that I mentioned it last week, while we were still reading Lekh Lekha

It is the story of the three strangers who come to Avraham, who rushes to bring them water and find them a place to rest and to feed them. He welcomes them in with an overwhelming show of desert hospitality.

And the kicker is that, at the end of Parashat Lekh Lekha, Avraham had just circumcised himself, at age 99! So he’s in pain. And a midrash reminds us not only of this, but also tells us that God had made the sun especially strong that day, had “taken the sun out of its sheath,” in the poetic language of the midrash. So Avraham is sitting by his tent, in pain, in the most vicious heat of the day, when he sees these strangers (whom we later discover are malakhim, heavenly messengers), and he leaps into action to make them feel welcome.

So what is the message that the Torah wants us to glean from this? It is that hakhnasat orhim, the welcoming of guests, is a Jewish value of utmost importance. 

You have probably heard me say that before. But here is a new thought:

Perhaps Avraham needed those angelic guests precisely BECAUSE he was in pain. Perhaps the very act of hakhnasat orhim, into which he leapt with such zeal, enabled him to heal more quickly.

And maybe the healing that we need right now, soothing the pain caused by the great political divide I mentioned earlier, is something we can achieve through haknasat orhim – by reaching out to others and welcoming them in.

“Oh, rabbi,” you’re thinking, “you’re so naive. The people on the other side do not want healing. They want division. They are being cynically manipulated by their self-serving and dangerous leaders and media outlets. They thrive on that.”

Well, perhaps. 

But let’s face it, folks: you hired me to be naive. To teach Torah as some kind of theoretical, possibly unreachable ideal. You want me to stand up here and teach you about mitzvot, about halakhah, about the stories of our tradition and the values therein. You want me to challenge you, to encourage you to reach higher, to be a better person. To some extent, it is my job to be naive, to put before you simple truths from the Jewish bookshelf that are uncluttered by the complexity of contemporary life.

And yes, our tradition is demanding. Yes, we fail to meet its expectations time and time again. That is why we all keep coming back for Yom Kippur, to beat our chests and say we’ll be better next year.

So this, too, will be hard. Healing through welcoming is difficult. I do not think we even know how to do it.

How might we heal ourselves, our society? By relating to one another with compassion, with understanding. By seeking out the stranger in our moment of pain and discomfort. By welcoming them in. And we are obligated to do that, even if those folks do not want to be welcomed.

Think of the many people in pain right now. As we were all obsessing over absentee ballots, we set an eye-popping record of 121,000 new positive coronavirus cases in America on Thursday. Now over 236,000 fellow citizens have died. And the wave of new infections will surely bring another spike of death in a few weeks. Think of all those who have lost parents to this virus, who are grieving for the people they loved most, whose loss might not have occurred had more people been willing to engage in mitigation measures.

And let’s not forget the economic devastation it has caused. Yes, the economy has come back somewhat since last spring, but there are still many, many people out of work. It may be hard to quantify this, but I’m almost certain that I am seeing more folks on the street asking for money. 

And even before the virus shut us all down, many of us were aware of the statistics indicating that younger people today will likely not exceed their parents in earnings and wealth.

And don’t think the opioid crisis has gone away, just because Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family settled with the Justice Department for billions of dollars over the aggressive marketing of OxyContin.

And did you know that this hurricane season has featured a record-setting 28 named storms?

And did you also know that the US officially left the Paris Climate Accord this past Wednesday, the only nation of the original 200 signatories to have done so?

And we cannot forget the ongoing challenges of providing a decent education for the young people of America, and good-quality, affordable health care for all of us, as any nation should do.

We have so many sources of pain, and the only means to alleviate this pain is to reach out to the people with whom we vehemently disagree. If there is any single lesson to be learned from last week’s election, it is that we are not only heavily divided as a nation, but also that regardless of on which side you stand, there are a whole lot of people on the other side. Nobody will be able to accomplish anything without bringing a few folks from across the aisle with them.

And yes, some of those folks have opted out of living in the world of facts. I think that has something to do with the unfortunate reality that the truths of this world are just so painful. As I have indicated many times in this space, we are going to have to address the misinformation / disinformation problem that we have as a nation. We the Jews know how important the truth is; it is the falsehoods that have been told about us by others that have caused us so much pain and suffering for our people, including, of course, the deaths of the 11 holy souls whose yahrzeit we observed on Thursday.

A few days ago, a colorful graphic of unknown origin floated across my screen. It said, “After the election, if you win, don’t gloat. If you lose, don’t despair.”

Indeed. The way for us to move forward as a society is not for the winners to mock the losers or for the losers to give up and opt out. It is not to scream at each other or, God forbid, drum up violence in our streets.

Rather, the way for us to undo the damage wrought by the unhealthy division in our society is to take a deep breath, to roll up our sleeves, and 

(א) to acknowledge that the vast majority of American citizens are good people who just want to make a living and be treated justly, 

(ב) to condemn the outright anti-Semites and the racists and the other haters in our society, including those whose brains have been invaded by ridiculous and offensive conspiracy theories, and 

(ג) to reach out across the aisle and try to move forward together.

We are in pain. But we can bring healing by waiting by the metaphorical door to our tent, and when strangers come by, rushing to greet them and to welcome them in. Hakhnasat orhim will heal us.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/7/2020.)

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
Kavvanot

A Post-Election Thought

You may have noticed that I have until now studiously avoided speaking about the presidential election explicitly, even though of course we have all been thinking about it (and perhaps agonizing about it) for months. There are several reasons that I have avoided this subject, and I identified those reasons in the Chronicle article on the subject a few weeks back.

The American people have spoken, and regardless of your own political views, there is no question that this election has upended the establishment. This vote came, I think, from a place of anxiety, of deep frustration and a measure of hopelessness from across large swathes of America. We are a nation gripped by many, seemingly intractable problems: the epidemic of addiction, the decline of manufacturing jobs, the divide between rich and poor and the related squeezing of the middle class, the ongoing challenge of racial justice, the continuing rise in health care costs, the rising temperature of the Earth, and so forth.

I hope that these issues will be addressed by our leaders in the coming months and years. I hope that we will have the fortitude to take on these challenges as an undivided nation.

One thing of great concern to me, however, is that the fissures in American society inflamed by the discourse of the past year will hinder that progress. I am worried about all of the “isms” that have been let out of the bottle: the anti-Semitism, racism, anti-immigrant-ism, anti-Muslim-ism, the mocking of people with disabilities, fat-shaming, and perhaps most troubling, the sexism: flagrantly disrespectful language and behavior meant to denigrate and objectify women.

I want our leaders to reflect the holiness in human relationships; I want those who serve the public to be role models for my children, particularly since such role models seem to become more and more scarce.

I pray that the man who will soon be president will take a different tack, that he will, when he occupies the Oval Office, discover a humility that will compel him to lead in a way that embraces our differences, that acknowledges that America is greatest when it is both diverse and inclusive.

I have been thinking this week a lot about George Washington. President George Washington, who worked more than 300 slaves on his Mount Vernon property even as he led this country; the same President George Washington, who said, in his letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

There is, no doubt, some irony in these words, delivered just three years after the Constitutional Convention declared an African-American man to be counted as only three-fifths of a man for election purposes. And we should also remember that the 19th Amendment, giving women full suffrage, was only ratified in 1920. It is abundantly clear that, 226 years after Washington’s letter, we are still working on the project of making these states a more perfect Union. This journey is not complete.

The Talmud notes that the reason the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE at the hands of the Romans was due to sin’at hinam, baseless hatred; this malignancy on the human spirit is still found within us. We all have the capacity to hate. But we also have the capacity for ahavat hinam, unbounded love.

As we enter the next in a long line of peaceful transfers of political power, I hope not only that we can rise to the challenges of the 21st century, but that we can also continue the work of eliminating the toxic -isms which continue to plague our society. We must stand up to hatred and fear, name-calling and conspiracy-mongering, bigotry and persecution of all kinds, so that we may continue to move forward together. Let’s make the future one of ahavat hinam, a love that will envelop and empower all within our midst for the betterment of our society.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson