Tag Archives: halakhah

Opening Doors, Avoiding Walls – Ki Tavo 5778

Do you remember the scene in the movie, Moonstruck, from 1987, when Loretta Castorini (Cher) puts her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) on a flight to Italy to go see his dying mother, and as she’s watching the flight take off, a woman standing next to her, with white hair and covered entirely in black, says the following:

Woman: You have someone on that plane?

Loretta: Yeah, my fiancé.

Woman: [angry] I put a curse on that plane. My sister is on that plane. I put a curse on that plane that it’s gonna explode, burn on fire and fall into the sea. Fifty years ago, she stole a man from me. S’aprese il mio uomo! Today she tells me that she never loved him, that she took him to be strong on me. Now she’s going back to Sicily. Ritorna in Sicilia! I cursed her that the green Atlantic water should swallow her up!

Loretta: I don’t believe in curses.

Woman: [shrugging] Eh, neither do I.

Well, I must concede that I don’t really believe in curses, either. At least, not that kind of curse.

But actually, there is a kind of curse in which I do believe. And a kind of blessing, too.

One of the features of Parashat Ki Tavo is the litany of blessings and curses: good things that, the Torah says, we will receive if we follow the mitzvot, the traditional opportunities for holiness that the Torah prescribes, and the dire, grisly things that will happen if we fail to observe the mitzvot.

Here is the challenge that we all have as modern Jews: none of us actually believe that. Yes, there may be a few pious ones among us that truly believe that fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah (Jewish law) as it has come down to us will appease God’s anger. But I am fairly certain that if I were to push most of us on whether or not we take this passage of blessings and curses literally, it would not be too long before we concede that the world does not really work that way.

And there is nothing wrong with that! As some of you have surely heard me say before, the rabbis of the Talmudic period ask more or less the same question in Massekhet Berakhot (7a), which can be paraphrased as, why does the scoundrel sometimes thrive and prosper and the meticulously pious person sometimes die young of cancer? (A similar question is asked in Pirqei Avot 4:19 by Rabbi Yanai.)

One possible response to this conundrum is that the Torah is speaking not about individuals, but to us as a people. That is, if the majority of people are flouting the mitzvot, then bad things will happen to the Jews. This is not necessarily a theology that I embrace, in particular because it leads to thinking along the lines of, the Jews of Europe brought the Shoah, the Holocaust, upon themselves due to their sins. (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef actually said this.) Nonetheless, I think that there is something here we can latch onto that will be helpful.

So I am going to make the case for why you should step out of your theological comfort zone to consider that blessings and curses are real. It’s just that they don’t quite happen the way the Torah suggests.

What are some of the blessings that we have, not necessarily as individuals, but as a society?

(Food / health care / shelter / great neighborhood, etc.)

What are some of the curses?

(Racism / sexism / anti-Semitism / sin’at hinnam / cancer / allergies / climate change / pollution, etc.)

I am going to propose that the way we should read this part of Ki Tavo in the current moment is not “I keep Shabbes therefore my family will thrive,” or “I make sure my mezuzah is kosher so my great uncle will not have a heart attack.” Rather, the way we should read this is, “I take responsibility for my neighbor, so my community will thrive.” Or, “I commit my time and my money to making sure that more people have enough to eat, so I can sleep well at night knowing that fewer people are hungry.”

In other words, we reap what we sow. Collectively. We all need to be in this for the common good.

Some of you know that we always study a little text between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon. We actually have these nice new Pirqei Avot books that a few of you helped to purchase, with commentaries by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. A few weeks back, we read the following (Avot 4:2):

בן עזאי אומר, הוי רץ למצוה קלה, וברח מן העבירה:  שמצוה גוררת מצוה, ועבירה גוררת עבירה; ששכר מצוה מצוה, ושכר עבירה עבירה

Ben Azzai liked to say: Run to perform a trivial mitzvah / commandment as vigorously as you would to a consequential one, and flee from transgression, for one fulfilled mitzvah brings another in its wake, just as one transgression brings another in its wake. The reward for fulfilling a mitzvah is the desire to fulfill another mitzvah, whereas the reward for transgression is another transgression.

Very interesting, right? This ancient rabbinic take on the idea of mitzvot is that the reward for a mitzvah is not that Israel receives rain, or that you get a bunch of grandchildren, or a raise at work. Rather, the reward is that you get to perform another mitzvah.

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, in her commentary, offers this very ethereal perspective:

Commandments and transgressions are… two guides to the spiritual and moral topography of life, enabling the learner to identify the openings through which one may profitably pass, on the one hand, and the walls that will constitute dead ends, on the other. Choose an opening, any opening at all, teaches Ben Azzai, and avoid the walls as best you can… Life consists of the dynamic alteration of pursuit and flight… This motion is necessitated by the fundamental human inability to know the full consequences of every action…

What she is saying is that mitzvot open doors, which lead to new passageways, which lead to more openings. When we fail to fulfill the mitzvot, we hit walls. What is nice about her take, I think, is that the mitzvot are thus a way that we open ourselves up, and connect to one another. When we throw up walls, we separate from one another; we stymie the building of community; we inhibit connections; we thwart progress as a people, a nation, a world.

magritte lembellie

Rene Magritte, L”Embellie

So while you might think that putting on tefillin on a weekday morning, or not eating shrimp, or reciting the Shema before you go to bed might be deeply personal choices that only affect you, these actions ultimately reflect back on us in deep, interconnected ways. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: daily tefillah / prayer is meant to connect us to each other, those in the room and those beyond. When we fail to act on the holy opportunities of Jewish life, we hit a wall.

And the more walls we bump into, ladies and gentlemen, the harder it will be for us to solve the great challenges, or shall we say curses, of our time.

The more we connect, the greater our blessings. The more we separate, the greater the scourges of opioid addiction, climate change, poverty, homelessness, hunger, gun violence, sin’at hinnam / causeless hatred in all its pernicious forms.

The way we turn our curses into blessings is to work harder to recommit to our framework of qedushah, of holiness. When we perform mitzvot, and not just the tzedaqah kind, good things happen. When we don’t, well, you know what happens. We all have the potential to build a better reality. All we need to do is open another door.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/1/2018.)

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The Tent of Love – Balaq 5778

If you have read my column in the most recent Mishpachtenu, our quarterly magazine, you know that I have already announced the theme for High Holiday sermons this fall. That theme is Ahavah / Love. I think that, in the wake of recent events, we all recognize the need for more love in this world. So we’ll derash (interpret) that out from four perspectives: love of self, love of family, love of community, love of world.

ahavah - love 5779

The Jewish world in which I grew up did not speak so much about love. Rather, Judaism was about scholarship and law. To be sure, that is a significant component of what it means to be Jewish. I have even had teachers who suggested that speaking about love (as some religious groups often do) suggests a certain neediness, an almost shameful instability that we Jews have left to others. It is true that ours is a heady tradition; we are academic; we are interested in discernment and hermeneutics and argument. Judaism, in this line of thinking, is an ongoing study in havdalah – separating this from that; drawing lines; delimiting boundaries.

Perhaps you have noticed a tension in the way that I speak about these things. I have often pointed to the value of boundaries in a completely open world – keeping kashrut (dietary laws) and Shabbat keeps us not just Jewish, but human. It reminds us that true holiness is derived from maintaining the distinctiveness in our lives, in understanding that some things are permitted to us and some things are not.

But Judaism also speaks of love. Consider the second verse of the Shema, the essential statement of Jewish life: Ve-ahavta et Adonai elohekha (Deut. 6:5). You shall love the Lord your God. Or the paragraph right before the Shema recited every morning: Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu – with great love you have loved us – that equates love with Torah. Consider that some Jewish groups recite Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, on Friday evening before Shabbat. It’s love poetry, erotic even. We don’t recite that at Beth Shalom of Friday evenings, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which speaks of our yearning for God as one of love. “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” we chant. My soul is sick with love for You, O God.

But love is not only something that happens between us and God. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed 15th-century kabbalist of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi parentage who is most strongly associated with the northern city of Tzefat, taught that each morning we should restate our commitment to “mitzvat ha-borei,” the essential obligation of our Creator, which is “Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha.” Love your neighbor as yourself. (That’s a quote from Vayiqra / Leviticus, 19:18.) By the way, Rabbi Luria’s morning prayer is in our siddur on the bottom of p. 102). Although we usually begin with Modeh Ani or Mah Tovu (we’ll come back to that in a moment), our tradition teaches us to re-emphasize our love for each other every single morning.

The loving, human relationship with God is understood to be a template for relationships between people. The prophet Hosea speaks of his own marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. We are not only a people of justice and law; we are also a people of love. And that brings us to Bil’am.

Bil’am, the non-Israelite prophet we met in today’s parashah, is seemingly in denial of his own love of Israel. When called upon to curse the Israelites by Balaq, the king of Moab, he can only bless them. He sort-of agrees to Balaq’s request, but Bil’am acknowledges that he can only do what God wants him to do. So it is no surprise to him that what emerges from his mouth is a blessing.

Bil’am is a kind of bumbling character. He certainly does not handle his donkey very well, beating her for misbehavior that is not her fault. He seems to lack a certain self-awareness. And embedded in that self-awareness is his actual love of Israel. Of course he cannot curse Israel; he acknowledges that it is the Israelites’ God that gives him his power. Had there been somebody around to make him an Israelite, Bil’am would have wanted in. He would have signed up.

So perhaps it is no great surprise that the words that we say when we enter a synagogue first thing in the morning are Bil’am’s words: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael. How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. (Numbers 24:5).

We follow those words a minute later with Rabbi Luria’s exhortation to state explicitly the fundamental mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself.

How are they connected?

The essential act of loving our neighbors, ladies and gentlemen, is welcoming them into our tent. This is our tent; this is our communal mishkan, dwelling place. A midrash about Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, describes his tent as having four doors, entryways in each direction, as if to welcome all who would come by. And that is our obligation as well.

Some of you may be aware of the fact that we recently conducted a survey about inclusion here at Beth Shalom. Now, inclusion means many things: it often is used to refer to incorporating those with various physical and/or cognitive disabilities into our environment. It can also refer to welcoming those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and so forth, and of course we should be working harder to include all of the above.

But a few people understood inclusion to speak not necessarily about those individuals, but about whether they had been personally welcomed into the synagogue. And as a referendum on being welcoming, ladies and gentlemen, this survey was somewhat damning. A few people characterized this congregation, characterized us, as not being sufficiently friendly or open, or as being cliquishly exclusionary. Here are some of the quotes taken from the survey results:

  • “People are not always friendly.”
  • “Some prominent members seem very insular and not welcoming or inclusive. They need to be more aware of their actions as key members of Congregation Beth Shalom.”
  • “Cliques on surface are initially friendly. People stay in their own zones. Leadership does not go around to say hi.”
  • “I attend kiddush and services. It is up to me to introduce myself.”
  • “There is a feeling of “in-group” and “out-group” which we cannot have.”

And this did not turn up in the survey, but I have even heard a couple of recent reports of people being told by members of this congregation that if they are looking for a synagogue, they should go elsewhere – to Tree of Life or Rodef Shalom, particularly if they are in interfaith relationships.

That is not just wrong, ladies and gentlemen. It’s downright offensive.

Shall we read Bil’am’s statement as an interrogative? “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov?” Are your tents good, O Jacob?”

No. Everybody is welcome here, period. 

Now, I think that we actually do a pretty good job of welcoming people here. And I put in a whole lot of effort in personally doing so. But we can still work harder to make sure that people feel welcome. We are all ambassadors for Beth Shalom; please think about that when you greet people, in or out of the building. Nobody should walk into this building to be offended, insulted, or encouraged to go elsewhere. On the contrary: when you walk into Beth Shalom, you should be embraced. Almost literally.

Because our tradition, ladies and gentlemen, is about love. OK, yes – it’s about law and justice and boundaries and mitzvot and so forth. But it’s also fundamentally about loving your neighbor as yourself, as Rabbi Luria taught us to reaffirm verbally each morning. And we are all neighbors. Particularly here in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

What will make our tents good, our dwelling places beautiful? That when you enter Congregation Beth Shalom, that you can feel the love. That every person – black, white, brown, LGBT, Jewish or not yet Jewish – can walk in and feel, “Ah! I belong here.”

And how can we do this? Just please make sure, my fellow ambassadors, that you greet warmly all those who enter the building. If there is somebody here you do not know, say “Shabbat shalom,” and engage them in conversation. Please don’t just say hello and chat with those whom you already know. Reach out. Extend your hand. Share some love.

Think love, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll talk more about love over the High Holidays. But in the meantime, let’s each of us think a little about how we can increase the love.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/30/18.)

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Being Jewish in a World Without Boundaries – Qorah 5778

I must say that I have never been particularly interested in the British royal family. While my wife devoured two seasons of “The Crown,” it would always put me pretty much right to sleep.

However, I was captivated by the recent royal wedding. Not the pageantry and fancy hats, mind you, but the powerful statement of change that it presented. In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne due to the public outcry over his intent to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Meghan Markle is an American, a divorcee, and bi-racial. Was there any opposition to Prince Harry’s marrying her? If there was, I did not hear it. (Maybe someday it will appear in Season 38 of “The Crown.”)

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Just think about that for a moment. How many institutions in the world are as committed to tradition as the British monarchy? Even a few decades ago, this marriage would have been impossible.

But all sorts of barriers are breaking down in Western society. And this has tremendous implications for the Jews.

And I am going to propose something here: this struggle, the challenge of Jewish identity in a world without social borders, is the greatest challenge we face today. And it is, in the language of the Talmud, a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven. Here is a brief reminder of what we find in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers,” the 2nd-century collection of rabbinic wisdom):

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקיים
ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקיים
איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי
ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו

Every argument that is for the sake of heaven, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven, it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Qorah and all of his group.

Qorah’s struggle against Moshe and Aharon is effectively one of self-aggrandizement: he and his band of complainants feel that they have been cheated of leadership opportunity, and seek to better themselves by challenging the authority of Aharon and Moshe. Their struggle is selfish; it is not leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, but rather only for the sake of their own egos.

But let me paint a picture, for a moment, of the current state of Jewish America. What we have seen for some time is a hardening on the right, that is, greater zeal for fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah / Jewish law and a robust range of occasionally-obscure minhagim / customs, coupled with greater isolation from modernity in the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox,” although this is something of a misnomer) world, along with increased rightward movement in the rest of Orthodoxy for some time. That accounts for only about 10% of American Jewry, although of course they are growing dramatically due to the fact that these families have many children.

For the remaining 90% of American Jews, who are not Haredi or Orthodox, we have seen a gradual move away from traditional practice – particularly from tefillah / prayer, but also from kashrut, Shabbat observances, and even some lifecycle rituals.

There are many factors that have brought us to where we are, but the most essential driving force in our assimilation is that American society has welcomed us as equals. We are fully integrated into American life. The quotas of decades past, the exclusive clubs, the Gentleman’s Agreement of the 20th century, these things are all mostly gone. I’ll be performing a wedding between two Jews at the Fox Chapel Golf Club in a few weeks (I’m told it used to exclude Jews). All doors are open, including, most notably, the exit from Jewish life entirely without the historically-requisite conversion to Christianity.

And we, the faithful who are also committed to living fully integrated lives, we have largely failed. We have failed to make an adequate case for why we should continue to highlight Jewish education, say, over soccer; we have failed to give our adult adherents the appropriate language to express why they are Jewishly committed; we have failed to make the positive case for Shabbat, kashrut, holidays, lifecycle observances, and so forth. One staggering statistic in the Federation’s recent study of Pittsburgh Jewry is that only about half of Jewish children in Pittsburgh are receiving ANY kind of organized Jewish education. What does that tell you about the future, ladies and gentlemen?

And yet, I am happy to crow about the fact that in my three short years here, I have brought about thirty new Jews into the covenant of Abraham and Sarah through conversion, including several already-married women and their children. Our tradition still has the power to draw people in. At our Shababababa / Shabbat Haverim services, once a month on a Friday night, we attract a mixed crowd of 120-150 people: Jewish families with two Jewish parents, interfaith couples, even families that are entirely not Jewish. And everybody is singing along, schmoozing, and enjoying Shabbat dinner together.

What is our goal, ladies and gentlemen? Is it to produce Jewish children and grandchildren, who are active and willing members of that ancient covenant? Or is it to bring our wisdom and values to the world, to re-emphasize our commitment to ancient Jewish text and the wisdom therein, and continue to apply and teach and learn regardless of the halakhic implications (that is, with respect to Jewish law) of the contemporary Jewish family?

This is the essence of the mahloqet leshem shamayim: are we focused primarily on covenant and halakhic boundaries at any cost? Or do we instead highlight the moral content of Judaism without regard to the ritual and the laws, allowing the Jewish people to move forward as a civilization (to use Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s term), assimilated and intermingled with the non-Jewish population?

Perhaps you are aware of the discussions going on in the wider Jewish world, mostly as a response to the intermarriage rate of 70% (or so), regarding how we move forward. While the Reform movement sidestepped the halakhic challenge by embracing patrilineal descent (that is, recognizing that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is Jewish, provided that the child is raised Jewish) in the 1980s, the Conservative world continues to argue with itself. On the one hand, we want to keep our Jewish children and grandchildren, regardless of who they marry. On the other, we have our halakhic standards, standards which seem to become increasingly more difficult to maintain.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, scion of a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbinic family, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary a few years back. He now runs a synagogue in New York called Lab/Shul, and last year issued a statement that justified his performing intermarriages based on the rabbinic concept of the “ger toshav,” the resident alien who lives among Jews, who has forsworn idolatry and committed to certain aspects of Jewish tradition, albeit without formal conversion. Without digging too deeply into the halakhic principles in play, Rabbi Lau-Lavie found halakhic cover for marrying Jews and non-Jews together. As you can imagine, not everybody has jumped on Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s bandwagon.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar, also in New York, recently put together a stellar analysis of the halakhic sources surrounding intermarriage, with an eye to the practical. (You can listen to it and read his collected info here.) His conclusion is that we have no choice but to stand for the covenantal aspects of Judaism, to reinforce the traditional boundaries.

Covenantalism is where my training and our heritage wants us to be. But the reality is that the vast majority of us have already accepted the civilization model. And I do not think that we can deny that.

What I would like to propose is a kind of mixed model. Yes, we have to continue to acknowledge the traditional halakhic understanding of who is a Jew, and retain our commitment to the boundaries in Jewish law that we have inherited. (e.g. not performing intermarriages, counting only halakhic Jews in a minyan / quorum of 10 adults for services, etc.)

At the same time, we need to highlight some of the civilizational aspects of who we are as Jews, and promote them as a way into Jewish life. The Torah was given not only to the Jews, folks, but to the world, and it is up to us to teach it to whoever wants to learn. And implicit within that is to welcome all who want to come in, regardless of their religious background, or to whom they are married.

As a final note, it is worth pointing out that this is a healthy struggle. What has kept us together as a people for nearly two millennia, following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE is not rabbinic control, or commitment to halakhah, or living in ghettos. Rather, it is the willingness to keep studying, to keep asking questions, to continue to revisit who we are, what we believe, and how we tackle each challenge that our journey has brought us. That is why this is a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven, and that is why it, and we, will endure.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/16/2018.)

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Connection is the Goal; Openness is the Path – Naso / Pride Shabbat 5776

The bloodbath in Orlando has made this Shabbat particularly relevant.

I said something briefly about it on both days of Shavuot. After services on Monday morning, the second day, one person who had been in attendance, a man who has a long family association with this congregation, came forward to speak with me. He told me that as an American, a Jew, and a gay man, he was tremendously grateful for my having said a brief word during services, acknowledging the pain of loss, the grieving that we should all feel after such horrific news, about the pain it has caused to the LGBT community, and particularly the Latino component thereof.

In a different conversation that I had a few months back, a member of this congregation told me that her son, now a young adult, is gay, and that he never comes to Beth Shalom anymore when he is home. Why? Because, when he was a teenager, he heard other members of this congregation make disparaging remarks about gay people, and he no longer felt welcome here.

Ladies and gentlemen, hevreh (as they say in Israel), we are riding a wave of great change in our society not only with respect to gender issues, but also with many types of “otherness.” Millennials, that mystical category of young people, do not see lines that separate people the way that their parents and grandparents do. They think in universal terms.

Here is something that might be easy to say, but not quite as easy to make happen:

All are welcome here. Not only that, but all who want to be a part of our congregation must be not merely welcomed, but also included into the fabric of who we are, encouraged to connect with the Beth Shalom community. Not to do so, especially in the wake of last weekend’s shooting, is simply wrong.

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That’s not so easy. Traditionally speaking, Judaism, and particularly synagogues, are accustomed to drawing lines. Boundaries that divide us. Who’s in, who’s out, who is pious, who’s a sinner, who’s a big donor, who has a dues arrangement, who’s a member, who’s not, who is Jewish, who isn’t, etc. And it’s not just internal – one of the classic stories about synagogues is that even a Jew stranded alone on a desert island needs two: one he davens in, and the other one he wouldn’t go into if you paid him.

Synagogues like to think of themselves as places where halakhic distinctions are rigorously maintained. That is, the lines within our tradition, how we divide people, apply in ritual matters. Even in egalitarian congregations like this one, there are still lines.

And let’s be honest here: there are times when we need some lines. What allows Judaism to be effective in our lives is the boundaries it creates: boundaries between what is holy and what is not, between making the right interpersonal choice and the wrong one, between taking or not taking an opportunity for holiness. These are essential to allowing our ancient tradition to infuse our lives and provide guidance and personal benefit.

But we should work to eliminate lines between us as people. Anybody who wants to come pray with us, celebrate with us, grieve with us, learn with us, they are welcome! I don’t ask any questions about what you do when you leave the building, on Shabbat or any other day. All who come are included.

The key to the Jewish future is being open.

And not merely open; we have to almost drag people in off of the street. Nothing brings people in like personal invitation. And nothing shoos them away more quickly than being told that they are somehow deficient. And we all have the potential to be ambassadors for Judaism, and for Beth Shalom.

The Talmud (Yoma 35b) tells us a revealing story about Hillel the Elder. He would come to the beit midrash / house of study every day, spending half of his daily earnings on the entrance fee. One Friday in winter, he could not find work, and had no money in his pocket, so the guard at the entrance to beit midrash would not let him in. He still wanted to learn, so Hillel climbed up to the roof and sat on the skylight to listen to what was being taught.

As Shabbat fell, it began to snow. On Shabbat morning at dawn, those gathered in the beit midrash wondered what was blocking the light from above. They go up to the roof and find Hillel buried in the snow. They bring him inside, bathe him, anoint him, and warm him up by the fire (all things that would be traditionally forbidden on Shabbat). One teacher makes the observation, “This man deserves to have the Shabbat laws violated on his behalf.”

The message is not necessarily about money, but rather all the obstacles that might prevent somebody from accessing our tradition. We, those on the inside, have to work hard to make Judaism and the synagogue experience available to all who want to learn, pray, celebrate, and grieve. Sometimes, we have to move beyond our comfort zone, and even have to violate some of our core principles to do so.

Many of you know that I, as a Conservative rabbi, may not officiate at weddings if either the bride or groom is not Jewish. That is a policy that will not likely change soon.

But here’s the funny part: I will do everything in my (limited) range to welcome that couple into our congregation. I will be happy to meet with them before the wedding, and I will of course welcome them as members if they choose to join.

A couple of decades ago, when mixed marriages were becoming much more common, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly laid down the law, or so they thought. They forbid acknowledging such a wedding, of course. They forbid an aufruf or congratulating the Jewish family or accepting donations for a non-Jewish child born to such a family. They forbid allowing an intermarried Jewish person to be called to the Torah.

Did these measures lower the rate of intermarriage? No. Do you think that any Jewish person considered, before getting into a relationship with a non-Jew, that his/her rabbi would not officiate at or attend their wedding, if they were to get married? Probably not.

All they did was to annoy the parties involved, and send them to Reform congregations, where they of course were welcomed, or out of the Jewish world entirely.

(The CJLS has come a long way; it has been nearly a decade since they voted to ordain openly-gay rabbis and allow rabbis to perform same-sex weddings; and in April of this year, they passed a teshuvahnullifying any provisions in Jewish civil law that are discriminatory against non-Jews.” So that is something.)

But if we really believe in what we do, in a Judaism that is traditional and still progressive, shouldn’t we want all of those families to be welcome here?

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You should be pleased to know that among those who are completing my conversion course this summer, three of them are already married to Jews, and already have children. We’re going to get 7 new Jews out of just those three families.

The greater point here is that if we are open and inclusive, we will gain new members, new families. We will even make more Jews! We will be stronger as a community. We will teach and learn more, engage and raise our holiness quotient to new heights. We will thrive in our interconnectedness.

In the wake of a senseless tragedy that took the lives of so many in the name of hatred and intolerance, Beth Shalom and other faith communities should be standing up for compassion, for love, for tearing down walls, for eliminating not just the mehitzah of the traditional synagogue that separates women from men, but all the lines. We have to include those who are peering in from the skylight. We have to acknowledge the divinity in each of us.

The early 20th-century English novelist E. M. Forster, in his novel Howard’s End, pointed to the power of connection in a well-worn passage:

“Only connect!” he said. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

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The goal is connection; the path is openness. We have to be committed to both.

May the families of those who lost loved ones be comforted; we grieve with those who suffer from loss. May our openness and interconnectedness prevent such tragedy from striking ever again. Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/18/2016.)

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Halakhah and The Big Picture – Re’eh 5775

I am particularly fortunate to have started this week in Pittsburgh for Parashat Re’eh. It’s one of my favorites. OK, so it’s true that I have a lot of favorite parashiyyot, but this is an especially good one. I do enjoy the passages of the Torah that include numerous mitzvot / commandments, not only because they give us insight into how our ancestors lived and the values they held, but also because they continue to shape our lives today.

But let’s face it: there is quite a bit of obscure and/or curious stuff in the Torah – commandments that don’t apply to anybody today, like those related to sacrifices, or obligations for agricultural behaviors or activities that are irrelevant to contemporary non-farmers, or things that are just downright strange.

For example, in today’s parashah we encounter the obligation not only to not worship like the Canaanites do, but indeed to destroy their altars. (Has anybody met any Canaanites lately?) Also, there are commandments to tithe from our produce, to eat only certain kinds of animals, and to be particular about not eating their blood with the meat. There is the commandment to take care of the needy people around you, and the strange law about piercing the ear of the slave who opts to stay with his master rather than go free. And then there is a whole range of holiday practices.

For us today, we immediately understand the relevance of kashrut and holiday observances – most of us have been doing some of these things for our entire lives. But to an outsider looking in, this parashah might look like a jumble of eccentric behaviors that make no particular sense.

And I might argue that, if we were to look at these things objectively, devoid of context, we might also think that it is odd, for example, to avoid eating leavened things for a week, or to build and live in a temporary hut outside your home for a different week.

But I think that sometimes it is a good idea to pull back the camera to try to see the greater picture.

I recently heard a TED talk about ants, featuring the ecologist Deborah Gordon, who studies ant colonies for a living. What is striking about ants, she says, is that ants function as a collective unit without speaking, without memory, and without a visible leader. And for sure they don’t have the Internet or smartphones. And yet, they have a highly complex society that functions quite well even though not a single one of them can actually see the larger picture. No ant understands how it fits into the colony, and nobody is telling it what to do, but somehow it all works together like some magnificent symphony.

Aluminum cast of a fire ant colony.

Aluminum cast of an ant colony

One principle that makes an ant colony function is that it has rules. Some ants forage, other ants are soldiers, the queen lays eggs, and so forth. Those rules are governed by what is encoded in the ants’ DNA.

From the human perspective, we don’t see how the ants function as individuals. We only see the final product: that the ants build extensive homes underground, and forage for food, sometimes in your pantry, and somehow manage to survive the winter to build a new colony next year. And all of this depends on the series of rules for how the ants work.

But humans are not like ants. We think; we communicate; we argue; we create; we destroy; we doubt; we cooperate; we sabotage; and so forth. Each of us as individuals has the potential to help or wound, to be selfish or to participate with others.

And that is why we need a framework. That is why human societies have always had guidelines. Laws. Courts.

And the Torah is our framework, including its obscure laws and its odd commandments. The mitzvot are our rules, and as a people, we have spent the better part of the last two millennia trying to figure out exactly how to carry out these rules. We call that system of rules, “halakhah,” which the Hebrew scholars among you will know is from the verb lalekhet, to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life.

And, just like the ants, it is difficult, and some might even say impossible, for us to see the true bigger picture. Yes, our intellect allows for us to understand more than the ants. But the larger spiritual picture is blurred; all we know is that we have a fundamental drive to reach higher, to seek holiness, to seek purity, to seek the Divine.

Our greatest sages have spent two millennia analyzing and interpreting the meaning, the reasons for, and how to carry out the mitzvot, and we continue to do so ledor vador, in each generation in its context.

You see, when it comes down to it, we don’t really know why the Torah asks us not to mark our bodies permanently, or burn animals on an altar. Even the obvious things, those mitzvot which we are naturally inclined to keep: we don’t even really know why the Torah instructs us not to murder others, or honor your parents, or abstain from sexual indiscretion. We will never really be clear on the big picture. But that is what makes Judaism interesting, and has allowed for an ongoing discourse across the ages over the meaning of what we read in the Torah. An absolute, definite answer would be boring; our tradition allows for continual renewal.

All we can really say for certain is that this template for holy living is what makes our world function. It affects the greater good. It works down here and on high. It is tried and true for 5775 years.

Now I can hear the skeptics among us who might be thinking, “OK, Rabbi, that sounds just peachy. But come on – does it really matter if I pray, or put on tefillin, or avoid shellfish?”

And the answer is yes. 100%. Why? Because you know as well as I that the America of today is one of limitless choice. We are so bombarded with “freedom” that simply choosing a toothpaste or a salad dressing from the hundreds on offer takes up far too much of our time, taking bandwidth away from things that are far more important. And the message that we continually reinforce to our children is, “What do you want?”

We need boundaries. We need framework. Some choices are acceptable, and some are not. All of us who are parents know that, but it applies to adults and children equally. What does infinite choice yield? Indecision. Paralysis. Disunity. Dissatisfaction. The feeling that even though you chose this product, or this school, or this spouse, there might be a better one behind door number 2.

Jewish life gives us a frame through which our lives are endowed with stability and purpose. And we need that more than ever.

Now, that does not mean that the boundaries do not change. Of course they have, and they will continue to change. It is a good thing for the Jews, and Maimonides says so outright in the Mishneh Torah, that prayer replaced sacrifice. It is a good thing that the slavery described in the Torah is no longer permitted. It is wonderful that we at Beth Shalom treat men and women as absolute equals under Jewish law. It is a good thing that we view halakhah through the lens of modernity; Jewish law changes with us, slowly but always for the better.

So, while the Torah includes a number of imperatives that are no longer applicable, we continue to read it and respond to it with change. The history behind the evolution of halakhah is an essential piece of this holy framework.

It’s up to us to find ways to interpret the Torah for today. That is the principle upon which I have built my rabbinate. We have to read the Torah in today’s context; not in the context from which it emerged; not in the context of 12th-century Egypt (Maimonides) or 16th-century Tzefat (Rabbi Yosef Karo, who authored the Shulhan Arukh). We welcome all of those guys to the table, but we have to seek our own meaning. We have to set the boundaries as a community, and the way we do that is the same way that our ancestors have done so for two thousand years: we open the book, and we dig into the text. (The berakhah for Torah study is “La’asoq bedivrei Torah” – to get busy with the words of Torah.)

As I move forward from this starting point here in Pittsburgh, I hope to continue doing exactly that. You will hear me say this over and over: the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or daily tefillah / prayer or even honoring your parents. The highest mitzvah (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1) is talmud Torah, interactive study of our ancient texts.

And that is how the whole system functions. We may not see the big picture, but within that microcosm, the arba amot shel halakhah, the four cubit radius of our own personal spheres of Jewish existence, we have a holy framework for living that is guided by our personal and communal understanding of Torah. And by following that framework, we each contribute individually to the overall picture.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2015.)

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