If you asked my grandma Rosie, aleha ha-shalom (may peace be upon her), about the old country which she left when she was eight years old, she would dismiss the question by waving her hand and saying, “Eh! Life was terrible, the Russians hated us, and we left.”
They thought of themselves as being in Russian territory, but when she and her older brother and her mother left their shtetl in Volhynia in 1921 to meet their father who was already working in Boston, they were actually leaving Poland.
Today, that region is part of Ukraine.
There was not much affection or nostalgia for the Pale of Settlement on the part of most of the Jews who left there due to persecution in the late 19th and early 20th century. They fled pogroms, forced conscription, and all manner of indignities.
But every now and then, I open Google Maps and take a look at that little town, today called Butsyn, not much more than a few roads and fields, and I wonder, What was it like for Rose’s family? What is it like today? If I were to go there, would I see anything connected to the Jews who are now gone? A cemetery, perhaps? An old synagogue repurposed as a church, or maybe a convenience store? God forbid, a mass grave wherein the Nazi Einsatzgruppen disposed of those who failed to leave in time?
When we consider that the residents of Butsyn in Volhynia might at this very moment be fleeing for their lives, I suppose the ancient fears and grievances associated with the anti-Semitism embedded in those lands and those peoples might fall away.
We might be able to remember that even the descendants of those who made our ancestors’ lives miserable in those far-away towns are still people who are trying to eke out a life, to raise families and work the land and maybe occasionally take a vacation.
We should recall that nobody deserves to have their nation, their democracy taken away from them.
And we should pray for peace, as we do at the end of every Amidah and just about every Qaddish:
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol Yisra’el, ve’al kol yoshevei tevel, ve-imru amen.
May the One who makes peace on high bring some peace upon all Israel and upon all who dwell on Earth, and let us say amen.
You might have thought that this piece of the basics of Judaism would come first. After all, the first thing we learn about being Jewish is that our heritage comes with a story. We learn stories from the Torah in Hebrew school. We remember the Exodus from slavery in Egypt at the Pesah seder table. We light Hanukkah candles to remember that a small band of Jewish rebels fought off the idolatrous invaders and restored the Temple in Jerusalem, and so too do we have an obligation to enlighten the world. We get a day off every seven days because God rested after six days of Creation. Even those of us with zero formal Jewish education know the stories about the Garden of Eden, Joseph (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber), Moses (thanks to Hollywood). The Torah and pop culture are intertwined in ways we do not even notice.
On the other hand, story serves as a beginning, and also the end; I have heard that Jewish life is something like a Moebius strip – as you follow its path, you always return to where you started. In engaging with our tradition, we always return once again to our story, our history, our culture, and we are reminded that sharing our story with others will lead to a better world: Wouldn’t it be awesome if the whole world observed Shabbat? Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if everybody were to gather around a holiday table and say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”?
And let’s face it: story is the most interesting part. For most of us, that is.
I have a slight confession to make here, although many of you probably have noticed this already. I’m not really a story-telling rabbi. Some rabbis are more inclined to pepper their sermons with good stories that lead to a moral. I am more cut-and-dried, more inclined to lay down the brief, pithy Talmud Torah than long form stories. (If you were on our Zoom service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, you may have noticed that I tried to tell a joke and totally bungled it.)
But I am very fond of the fact that, no matter how we break down theologically or sociologically or demographically, we, the Jews, are still united by our stories. Even though we approach many things differently, the Torah is the Torah; the Talmud is the Talmud, and disagreeing over the meaning of a phrase or the halakhic import of a certain read comes with the territory. As fractious as we are, we still share our stories.
And you know what? As long as we continue to tell our stories, they will protect and save us, just as they always have.
Think about this: what is it that enabled Jewish people to survive the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Inquisition, the Shoah? What enabled Jews to manage being alternately exiled and welcomed, dispersed and ghettoized, massacred and delegitimized? What empowered us to look past the anti-Semitism, century after century, land after land? What encouraged the Zionists to build a modern nation in an ancient land? What has enabled this very community to pick itself up from its grief and move forward, after 11 of our friends and neighbors were brutally murdered by a white supremacist with an assault rifle?
Not history. If it were up to mere history, the Jews would have disappeared thousands of years ago. Our history is littered with destruction, dispersion, forced conscription, pogroms, and disillusionment.
No, what gave us the strength to survive was that these stories fill our lives with meaning. We mustered the courage to press on by the promises given to Avraham and Sarah, Rivkah and Yitzhaq, Rahel and Ya’aqov and Leah and Yosef. We have continued to teach our stories to our children, so that, generation after generation, their eyes were lit with the richness of our wisdom, the power of our tales, the inspiring personalities of our bookshelf.
One of the more curious things that we do as Jews, on the festival of Sukkot, is to parade around the room holding aloft the four plant species identified in the Torah as the symbols of the season: willow, myrtle, palm, and citron, also known as the lulav and etrog. And what do we do whilst parading?
We say, “Save us.” “Hosha’na.” And we say that over and over and over, and in between chanting “hosha’na,” we add tiny story fragments, a couple of words each. They always go by so quickly, because the piyyutim are long, and late in the service so everybody’s hungry and wants to get to lunch. But they include reference after reference to the Torah and to midrashim. Just a few brief examples:
We chant this on the second day of Sukkot:
הוֹשַׁע נָא אֶֽבֶן שְׁתִיָּֽה, הוֹשַׁע נָא
Hosha’na even shetiyyah, hosha’na.
Save us, Foundation Stone, save us!
The Even Shetiyyah / Foundation Stone was the mythical piece of rock, located at the top of Mt. Moriyah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from which, according to midrash, the world was created. It holds a special power that we continue to invoke to this day.
Kehosha’ta tevu’im betzel gezarim, yeqarekha ‘imam ma’avirim, ken hosha’na.
As you rescued this people from drowning by splitting the deep sea, Your glory crossing with them, so save us!
This is a clear reference to the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, accompanied by God, an example of how God has saved us in the past.
There are literally hundreds of these types of references, some more deeply coded than others, in endless liturgical poems used over the holidays, not just for Sukkot, but around every holiday.
The message is clear: our stories save us. When we are in trouble, when we need something to hold onto, we lean into the rich assortment of tales that have inspired us and given us a meaningful framework for thousands of years.
Now, I know I have a few armchair skeptics out there in Zoom-Land right now (and you may actually be seated in armchairs!) who are thinking, or perhaps even remarking out loud, “Come on, Rabbi. The stories of the Torah are not true. They conflict with the scientific record. There’s no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, or that the Israelites were actually enslaved. Do you really think that Moshe took dictation from God on Mt. Sinai?!”
To you I say, “I’m happy you’re listening!” and then, “So what? That is not the point.” History and story are not the same thing. Scientific truth and the foundational stories of an ethnic or religious group are not in the same category; they answer different questions. Science tells us that the universe is 14 billion years old, following a Big Bang in which all matter was violently expelled from a single, infinitely dense point, and ultimately cooled to the point where atoms and molecules and (at least in the case of one particular planet) life formed through a series of fascinating phenomena.
But science does not tell us that we need a day off every seven days, because God rested on the seventh day of Creation. And science does not provide us with the wisdom to raise our children to be human beings, or to seek the common good, or to behave with integrity, or to remember the needy, or to pursue justice. Science teaches us facts; our stories teach us not only how and why to be Jewish, but also how and why to aspire to be the best humans we can be.
Our story, the Jewish story, may not meet the standard of scientific fact, but they are ours. My teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman, taught me the value of what he referred to us as “myth.” Not myth in the sense of falsehood, but the series of stories that help us explain our world, the lens that helps us make sense of the information we take in. Every nation, every ethnicity has its own myths.
That is why the contemporary tools of biblical criticism, which cast doubt on some of our stories, do not trouble me. No matter what scholars may say about our foundational myths, they continue to frame my life and yours in holiness.
Some of you may be aware that there is a new translation out of the memoirs of Glikl, a Jewish woman who lived in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been captivated by her story for many reasons, among them the fact that stories of and by women are too few and far between on the Jewish bookshelf. Glikl was born in the 17th century to a wealthy family, and she is not only literate in the sense that she can write her own memoirs in Old Yiddish, but also she is Jewishly literate, peppering her language with quotes from the Torah and rabbinic text. She writes about her family’s ups and downs, about intrigue and marriage and of course anti-Semitism, which is very much a part of her world.
One of the captivating aspects of her work is the way in which the Jewish story nourishes Glikl.
Throughout the seven books of her memoirs, which cover 28 years from 1691 until 1719, she weaves Yiddish folktales, Talmudic stories, and personal anecdotes into the details of her family life. She unspools lengthy yarns to teach us a moral, like the value of patience, and then she tells the tale of how she and her mother both gave birth around the same time, and one night their babies were confused and the entire household was in an uproar. She expands the story from the Talmud about Alexander the Great’s search for the Garden of Eden, to teach us that we should be satisfied with what we have. And she urges us to settle our personal accounts during our lifetime, a notion particularly salient for these days of teshuvah, repentance.
Glikl’s memoir is not only a fascinating slice of history, a particular moment captured in remarkable prose, but also a testament to the power of story. As we listen to her unspool her tales, we also see how the Jewish story supports and nourishes her and her family, how Jewish rituals and holidays, drawn of course from our story, are very much a part of her everyday existence.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that right now, things might seem much worse than they have ever been. I know that these Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today (at 7:47 PM) have been nerve-wracking for reasons I do not need to enumerate. But underlying the threat of chaos and anxiety about the future, I know that over the past week, in the back of my head, I have been praying for life. Zokhreinu lehayyim. Remember us for life, God. And even though the story of the Book of Life should also fill us with awe, I must say that it has been comforting to me to be able to share these melodies and stories, these High Holiday sounds and ideas, with all of you, even virtually, over these days.
Our story, the Jewish story, offers us comfort and meaning and protection. It holds us together in a way that halakhah cannot. It continues to brighten the eyes of our children and inspire all those who listen of all ages. And our rituals and customs and values bring us back again and again to our story.
What do we do when we recall a loved one? We recall their story.
It has often been observed that the hyphen on a memorial stone or plaque stands for a whole lot. A short, straight line. But none of our stories are straight; they contain twists and turns and loops and dead-ends. And it is up to us, the living, to recall all of those twists and turns in the lives of those whom we remember.
In the context of this pandemic, we have lost 1,000,000 people worldwide, including over 200,000 here in the United States, including members of this community and even a past president of Beth Shalom. And millions of people have lost their jobs; many more are living with less. The spiritual and economic pain from which we are all suffering is immeasurable; the deep frustration at our elected officials, and our fellow citizens, for their various failures is palpable.
When all is said and done, many, many people around the world will have died alone; many will be buried in overwhelmed cemeteries without any kind of funeral or eulogy. Many will have left this world in a way that their story remains unfinished, or untold.
Back in August, the city of Detroit memorialized its coronavirus victims by putting up huge photos of them in a city park, so that people could drive through and see their faces. There were 900 portraits in the exhibition, accounting for more than half of the 1,500 city residents who had by then died of the virus.
A face is not a story, but in its lines and contours you can perceive quite a bit about a person. It was a moving tribute; the very idea brings tears to my eyes.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will likely have many months to go of isolation, of sickness and death. But we also have the gift of memory – remembering those we have lost; remembering our lives before the pandemic, remembering that humans are awfully clever, and will ultimately turn this time of sadness into one of rejoicing.
Although Yom Kippur is a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, and a day of gravitas as we seek repentance, rabbinic tradition tells us it is also a day of rejoicing; rejoicing at the fact that we know that if we work hard at the former, we will achieve the latter.
It is memory which may bring us salvation. It is memory which will bring us joy.
Two weeks ago, our congregation sent a delegation to Boston, to the convention of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Markiz and I presented on all the wonderful, connective programming we are doing through Derekh, and we all learned a whole bunch of useful stuff for continuing to build our congregation and make it more sustainable.
Boston is the Old Country for me; it’s kind of like Vilna (the Yiddish name for the capital of Lithuania). While I did not grow up there, my parents did, and so did three of my grandparents. For them, Boston was the New World. For me, it feels like history.
On Tuesday morning, I took a taxi to Logan Airport, driven by a friendly man from Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. I could feel the lump of history in my throat. My maternal grandfather, Edward Bass, alav hashalom (may peace be upon him), drove a taxi in Boston in the middle of the 20th century, at one point owning his own taxi medallion. He used to hustle for fares, hanging around the airport to get well-heeled visitors into his cab. He was proud that he had driven celebrities – the singer Lena Horne was one that I recall.
And, as we traveled through the Ted Williams Tunnel, I reflected back on my family’s story as one tiny piece in the American Jewish experience, that of immigration and assimilation and trying to fit in, and the next chapter in the ongoing odyssey of the Jewish people.
My grandfather was poor. He was a foster child from age 3, grew up on a farm outside of Boston owned by a Jewish farmer, Mr. Slotnick, and never completed high school. Nonetheless, he provided for his family: my grandmother, an immigrant from what is today Ukraine, and three kids, the youngest of whom was my mother. My mother completed nursing school and married a tall, very smart young man whose father worked as a bottle-washer at the Hood dairy plant in Boston. That young man, my father, went on to get a doctorate in mathematics.
They all grew up in a Boston that was quite segregated, not only along racial lines, but along ethnic lines as well. People from different groups did not mix so much. Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitic attitudes and threats of violence, and thus kept to themselves. And in the mid-1960s, my father’s family ultimately left the neighborhood of Dorchester, where all their neighbors had been Jewish. They were pushed by the documented practice of redlining, through which banks and real estate agents encouraged white people to move out to the suburbs and penalized African-Americans by refusing them loans. They were concerned about how their neighborhood was changing, about the black folks who were moving in as the Jews left.
All the more so in those days, people were suspicious and fearful of those unlike themselves. And today we are all still feeling the reverberations of that unfortunate legacy. The question that we face now is, how might we overcome old mistrust? How might we as a society overcome that deep-seated fear of the other?
The attack in Jersey City last week, occurring at a cemetery and a kosher market, left four people dead, many families bereft, and a community in agony, the kind of agony that we know in Pittsburgh all too well. You may know that there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitic activity in the last few years, and we are feeling the pain. Coupled with two other incidents in LA, the last few weeks have been truly nerve-wracking.
Anti-Semitism, of course, is not new; it is truly ancient, and sits alongside the entire spectrum of fear and hatred. People distrust those whom we do not know – who have different rituals, who eat different foods, who speak a foreign language, who dress funny, who do not mix with everybody else.
And all the more so, this inclination to be wary of the other, when coupled with harmful stereotypes, occasionally leads to violence. What drove the Pittsburgh shooter to attack the three congregations at the corner of Shady and Wilkins, murdering 11 holy Jewish souls? He was convinced by white supremacists that Jews are actively working to replace white Americans with dark-skinned immigrants. Why did the attackers in Jersey City seek Jewish targets? It seems that they were motivated by the hatred of Jews espoused by some Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “black supremacist” group.
(I must point out at this point that this group, which is, to my knowledge, in no way “Jewish,” is entirely unrelated to other black Jewish groups and individuals who are not supremacists. I myself have been warmly welcomed by their congregations: I once attended a very interesting Shabbat morning service at the Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Harlem, and my congregation on Long Island had a relationship with the black synagogue in St. Albans, Queens.)
Fear, and indeed hatred of the other, is something that humanity will always live with. And there is really only one solution, and it is not necessarily an easy one. And that is dialogue. We have to talk to one another. We have to sit together. We have to break bread together. We have to share stories. We have to establish depth of relationship in order to overcome mutual apprehension. To defuse the time-bomb of hatred, we must proactively seek to understand each other.
Now, before we go any further, I have to confess something:
This discussion makes me anxious, because I do not think that I am equipped with the tools for having the conversation. But I care, and I want to get it right. And I am trying to listen, and to learn.
Anti-Semitism is the type of hatred with which we are most familiar, and it is the one to which we as Jews are most attuned. And statistics have shown that anti-Semitic activity is double what it was in 2015, just a few years ago.
But let’s face it: Boston is still quite racially segregated. So too are Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, NYC, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and yes, Pittsburgh. And there is not only a physical segregation in our cities, but also a kind of segregation that exists in our hearts. And that segregation in all its manifestations – schools, neighborhoods, income gap, healthcare outcomes – is not just unhealthy; it is in fact dangerous. It continues to reinforce an incarceration rate that is more than five times higher for African-Americans than for caucasians. A recent study in Pittsburgh, which I mentioned on High Holidays, showed that the local black infant mortality rate puts our fair city in the 6th percentile among African-Americans in the whole country. And there are plenty of other horrifying statistics.
We need as a society to have dialogue between people of different groups. And that is not easy, and it’s not always comfortable. And frankly, most of us do not even know where to start. But here is the good news: we at Beth Shalom are trying to move the needle on this, and we have several initiatives already in progress.
And here is another piece of news: we have before us a “teachable moment.”
A few weeks back, at our Comedy Tonight fundraiser, a joke crossed a line that made many of us uncomfortable. In a bit about airports, the comedian mocked agents of the TSA, drawing on stereotypes of African American and Muslim employees. Elsewhere in his routine, he also made fun of old people and, of course, Jews, and particularly old Jews. It is to some extent the job of a comedian as an artist to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to make us consider our own absurdities. Comedy is a study in human failure.
But for us to truly be in dialogue, to be in the deep kind of dialogue that not only brings people together, but rather enables us to address honestly the challenges that we all face as a society, we all have to make sure that nobody is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of the other.
Now, if you were in attendance that night, and you enjoyed yourself, you might be wondering, “What was harmful about the routine? Maybe there was a tasteless joke we could have done without, but harmful?” Well as it turns out, yes. One study about humor and racism from 2011 demonstrated that,
…if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.
Ladies and gentlemen, words matter. We chanted earlier this morning, “Barukh she-amar vehayah ha’olam.” Praised is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. We understand our world as having been created through words. And it can be destroyed through words as well.
When I was a student at Cornell, and the Black Students Union brought Louis Farrakhan to campus, I was out there protesting with Hillel. When local groups have presented one-sided, inaccurate portrayals of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, we the Jews have called them out. And had we as a community heard that a Christian comedian performed a routine in a local church that denigrated Jews using well-worn stereotypes about us, I am sure that we would be up in arms. Even in the context of comedy, words matter.
This teachable moment does not take away from the wonderful spirit of the evening that we shared together as a community. But we must be in dialogue, and dialogue requires that our house is in order first. We must look inward first, before looking outward. So, understanding that while we as a community were not responsible for what came out of the comedian’s mouth that night, we must acknowledge that it happened in our house. To all who may have been insulted by his portrayal of African-Americans or Muslims, we as a community are deeply regretful.
And to all who are ready to reach out your hand in dialogue for the betterment of ourselves as individuals and for the greater good, we welcome your partnership.
And, for everybody among us who is interested in moving the dialogue forward, you should be aware of the following opportunities that Derekh is creating in our community:
We have a book group that is reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be an Antiracist.
As part of our Beth Shalom Speaker Series, on March 25th we will be featuring Marra Gad, the Jewish and multi-racial author of The Color of Love
We have an ongoing partnership with the local Episcopalian community, which continues to bear fruit in dialogue.
We hosted both Richard Carrington and Rev. Tim Smith, who work in the front lines of the local African-American community.
A group of us went on a civil rights tour of the South last spring, and we will be doing it again in April – be on the lookout for more info.
And there are other dialogues and workshops that are flying below the radar right now, which we hope will continue and soon become more visible.
We are working toward making tzedek, that is, justice, an essential part of what we do at Beth Shalom.
My friends, I am going to close with the following thought:
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tomorrow evening. Why is it called “Hanukkah”? That word literally means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Second Temple following its defilement at the hands of Hellenized Syrians in the second century BCE.
We cannot allow our Jewish spaces, or our lives, to be diminished by prejudice of any kind, and we should expect that of our neighbors as well. In this season, as we light those candles in the symbolic act of illuminating the dark corners of this world, we should rededicate ourselves to reaching out, to real dialogue, which leads to the holy work of tzedek. This is one way we may continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations of this world.
Ve-ahavta lere’akhah kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. And in order to love your neighbor, we must expand our sense of neighborhood.
I was in Philadelphia over the past week – my first real visit there as a tourist. My son and I went to sites of historical interest – Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and so forth. And we also visited places of Jewish historical interest – we welcomed Shabbat last week at Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest congregations in America, where they still practice the traditional Spanish-Portuguese minhag, and also, of course, the National Museum of American Jewish History, now nearly a decadeold.
If you have not yet been to this museum, it is worth the trip to Philly. It documents and explores the Jewish experience in America, from the arrival of the 23 Dutch Jews seeking safe haven in 1654, straight through to our contemporary moment. The visitor watches as the community grows, primarily through waves of immigration, spreading from the Eastern coastal enclaves and across the continent, developing a distinctly Americancharacter along the way.
Judaism has flourished in this country. And why is that? Because, unlike in the Europe of old, Jews were effectively welcomedfrom the outset. Yes, the initial group that landed in 1654 were only tolerated by the Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, and had to petition the government in Holland for the right to stay. But with independence declared in Philadelphia 122 years later, followed soon by the enshrinement of Democratic principles in the Constitution, Jews were treated as equal citizens, something that did notoccur in most of the rest of the world until much later.
And we continue to thrive here. As I grow older, I am more and more grateful that our founders, even though they most likely saw the Jews as unlike them, created a system that guaranteedreligious liberty.
And so too for other immigrant groups. Though Irish immigrants were discriminated against horribly upon landing here, our government gave them the same protections; so too for the Italians and the Chinese and people from many other places. It took a long time – too long – for the U.S. government to treat the children of African slaves, who were brought here against their will and sold in public markets as animals, as equals, but eventually that happened, albeit imperfectly.
So it is with great pain and dismay that I followed the public clashes over the last two weeks over four first-term congresswomen who were insulted by the most visible representative of the United States government. I will not rehash the story here.
But we have a real problem in confronting this, folks. And we the Jews have to make sure that we are not sucked into the bigotry underlying this.
It seems to me that in the not-too-distant past, Americans were good at keeping prejudices to themselves in the public sphere. But that has changed. Whether due to the lamentable principle that the most outrageous statements are the only ones that rise to the top of the crowded, noisy news pile, or because of our president’s apparent unwillingness to call out xenophobic hatred when given the opportunity, all of our anti-isms are coming out of the closet.
Leading the current pack is the anti-immigrant movement roiling the world.
But not only that. I have heard Jews, friends, colleagues, say horrible, hateful things, like, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.” Or, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” something which is clearly not true. I have heard Jews use slurs and make offensive jokes about racial and ethnic groups.
And, let’s be clear here: this is not unique to the Jews. In fact, I would say that, based on my own personal experience, Jews are no more or less prejudiced than any other group. It is, unfortunately, a natural human inclination to be dismissive, disdainful, or even hateful of people unlike you.
And, in particular, when I hear politicians of any sort saying things like, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” or people applying the terms “apartheid” or “genocide” to the State of Israel, I understand that intolerance is not limited to any particular group or political persuasion.
If we want this nation to hold together, and to continue to uphold the democratic principles that have enabled the Jews and members of every other group to thrive in this country, we must ensure that the infection of bigotry of all sorts is defeated.
We read this morning from Parashat Pinehas, which is the most-read-from parashah in the whole Torah because it contains the festival sacrifices. So we read a passage from it every Rosh Hodesh (at the beginning of each Hebrew month), and on every holiday morning throughout the year. But we only read about Pinehas, the biblical character, on this Shabbat. And that is OK, because he is not necessarily somebody whom we want to cite as a role model.
At the end of Parashat Balaq, which we read last week, Pinehas stabs a couple in flagrante delicto – an Israelite man canoodling with a Midianite woman. The Torah text itself seems to regard this as a good thing; Pinehas’ bloodthirsty action is rewarded by God with an end to a plague that was punishment for idolatry.
But the vast majority of commentators see his vigilante justice as a negative. In fact, there is a custom that is widespread among soferim, the scribes who write out Torah scrolls, that when God says, at the beginning of Parashat Pinehas, “Hineni noten lo et beriti shalom,” I hereby give Pinehas my covenant of peace, they leave the letter “vav” in the word “shalom” as broken, the top piece separated from the bottom by a little white space. The suggestion is that while God clearly did not want the Israelites cavorting with non-Israelites, the zealotry of Pinehas created a fractured peace, not the wholeness that the word “shalom” suggests.
Drawing lines through zealotry, dividing people through anger and hatred, does not create peace. On the contrary, it fractures all of us.
Another site of interest that we happened upon in Philly was the Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City. It includes six memorial pillars, representing the six million Jewish victims, with each pillar “chronicling an atrocity of the Holocaust and contrasting it with American constitutional protections and values” (according to the memorial’s website). One of those pillars includes a well-known quote from President George Washington, in a letter to the congregation in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit there in 1790:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, 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 in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Although not appearing on this memorial pillar, Washington continued as follows:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Our nation has been a safe haven and a beacon of hope flowing from the democratic principles it has upheld since its establishment. We, along with other immigrant groups, have been welcome and treated as equals by our government, if not always by our fellow citizens, for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, contrary to the words of the prophet Micah whom Washington cited, I am afraid.
When angry mobs are chanting against immigrants, and indeed American-born politicians,
when the level of public discourse has become so debased as to feature public figures insulting each other with obscenities,
when supporters of the State of Israel find themselves unwelcome on both right and left, I am afraid.
But even more so, I am afraid because of the oft-quoted words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, originally delivered at a church in Frankfurt in January, 1946, not long after World War II:
Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen;ich war ja kein Kommunist…
When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I was not a Jew.
Niemoller’s reflection, that by the time they came for him, there was nobody left to speak up, applies to us today as well. We the Jews may not be the current target, but we better not find ourselves in Niemoller’s shoes.
When we hear anybody say anything that can be construed as demeaning or derogatory to another group, whether it comes from a friend, a politician, or your mother, it is our obligation to speak up for the disenfranchised, because, as you know, we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And when angry mobs start chanting anti-immigrant epithets, we have to stand up as a community and say, “Never again.”
On this trip to Israel, I experienced Israel’s true national religion: kaduregel, known to the rest of the world as football, but that game which we Americans call soccer. From the moment we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, when our taxi driver insisted on trying to talk to me about soccer all the way to Tel Aviv, to the games I watched with my son at various scenic locales (on the Tel Aviv beach, literally in the streets of Jerusalem, in the airport as we waited for our departing flight), the constant subject was the World Cup, which is a far bigger deal, apparently, than either the Stanley Cup or the Superbowl. (I know! Hard to believe!)
Soccer is all about this moment, about the exhilaration of scoring, of winning, of watching the sublime mechanics of team sports and admiring the talents of super-human players. It is something that unites Arab and Jew, Christian, Muslim and Druze, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Labour and Likud, black and white, and so forth. In that exceptionally divided land, the World Cup brings everybody together. Sure, when I saw the Russia-Croatia game seated outdoors at a Jerusalem restaurant surrounded by screens, the crowd seemed evenly split between those cheering for Russia and those rooting for Croatia, but it’s all in good fun.
However, just as present in the Israeli psyche and across the land in memorials, museums, politics and places, is history. The past. And while there is history in soccer (this is the first time that England made the semifinal in 28 years, for example), once the World Cup is over, the excitement lays low for another four years.
Not so with the history of Israel. You can’t ever get away from history in the Promised Land. Not in a place with names from the Tanakh (the Hebrew bible), with memorial statues and plaques wherever you look, where you are greeted in the airport by a bust of Ben Gurion and a mosaic from an ancient synagogue, where every tourist itinerary includes visits to sites that are thousands of years old. Depending on how you count, there have been about 17 different ruling bodies over the historic land of Israel in the last 3,000 years, from the time of King David’s unified rule; each left their mark on the land, a land that is as soaked in blood as it is in qedushah, holiness.
One thing that drove this point home for me on my most recent trip was the Yitzhak Rabin Centre, a relatively new museum, only about 13 years old, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. I had never been there before.
The way that this museum works is that it is structured around Rabin’s life; you start at the top of a downward spiral, learning about his early years and his rise as one of Israel’s foremost military leaders, coming eventually to his two terms as Prime Minister and of course, his assassination at the hands of a Jewish right-wing extremist angered by Israel’s signing of the Oslo peace accords. Along the course of his life, entryways lead off to rooms on the side that include more general descriptions of the Israeli and world context that are the background to Rabin’s personal story. All the while, in the center of the building, you hear the music of Rabin’s favorite song, HaRe’ut / “The Fellowship”. Written after the first year of the War of Independence by the Israeli poet Hayyim Gouri and set to music by Sasha Argov, who created the popular sounds of the new state, the song captures marvelously the yearning for those comrades who died for the sake of establishing the new State of Israel:
על הנגב יורד ליל הסתיו
ומצית כוכבים חרש חרש
עת הרוח עובר על הסף
עננים מהלכים על הדרך
כבר שנה לא הרגשנו כמעט
איך עברו הזמנים בשדותינו
כבר שנה ונותרנו מעט
מה רבים שאינם כבר בינינו
אך נזכור את כולם
את יפי הבלורית והתואר
כי רעות שכזאת לעולם
לא תיתן את ליבנו לשכוח
אהבה מקודשת בדם
את תשובי בינינו לפרוח
הרעות נשאנוך בלי מילים
אפורה עקשנית ושותקת
מלילות האימה הגדולים
את נותרת בהירה ודולקת
הרעות כנערייך כולם
שוב בשמך נחייך ונלכה
כי רעים שנפלו על חרבם
את חייך הותירו לזכר
Al hanegev yored leil hastav Umatzit kokhavim heresh heresh Et haruah over al hasaf Ananim mehalkhim al haderekh.
Kvar shana, lo hirgashnu kim’at Eikh avru hazmanim bisdoteinu. Kvar shana, venotarnu me’at Ma rabim she’einam kvar beineinu.
Akh nizkor et kulam Et yafei hablorit vehatoar Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam Lo titen et libenu lishkoah Ahava mekudeshet bedam At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.
Hare’ut, nesanukh bli milim Afora, akshanit veshoteket Milelot ha’eima hagdolim At noteret behirah vedoleket
Hare’ut, kin’arayikh kulam Shuv bishmekh nehayekh venelekha Ki re’im shenaflu al harbam Et hayyekh hotiru lezecher
Venizkor et kulam Et yafei hablorit vehatohar Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam Lo titen et libenu lishko’ah Ahava mekudeshet bedam At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.
An autumn night descends on the Negev
And gently, gently lights up the stars
While the wind blows on the threshold
Clouds go on their way.
Already a year, and we almost didn’t notice
How the time has passed in our fields
Already a year, and few of us remain
So many are no longer among us.
But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us
Fellowship, we bear you with no words
Gray, stubborn and silent
Of the nights of great terror
You remained bright and lit
Fellowship, as did all your youths
Again in your name we will smile and go foreword
Because friends that have fallen on their swords
Left your life as a monument
But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us
he song brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. And so I was walking through this museum, constantly tearing up as the beautiful and tragic story of Yitzhak Rabin unfolded: a man of war who sought peace and paid the ultimate price. His is merely one chapter in the many ironies of that small strip of land, and the pain and glory and frustration and pride that are all mixed together in the Israeli narrative.
Contrary to what you might think, I do not believe that this museum is a naive peacenik display that presents a hagiography of Rabin while appealing to the left’s desire to continue to pursue foolishly the two-state solution when everybody else agrees that it is dead. Not at all. Rather, this museum displays over and over the nearly insurmountable challenges that Israel faces: the need to protect her people and her territory alongside the horrible, painful costs of war, the essential relationship between military strategy and peaceful coexistence. Rabin lived and died knowing that both war and peace are expensive, just in different ways.
Last Shabbat I davened on Shabbat morning at the Masorti (Conservative) synagogue on Agron St. in central Jerusalem, where of course I bumped into fellow travelers, including the Federation’s regular visiting rabbi, Danny Schiff. Rabbi Adam Frank, who is the rabbi of that congregation, has the somewhat-enviable position of having a different traveling group of American Jews every Shabbat, He could actually give the same sermon every single week, although the handful of Jerusalem-based regulars might eventually complain. (He is a proud vegetarian, like myself, and have heard him give the “you-should-be-vegetarian-too” sermon at least twice.)
But last week it was about history and current events. It was about how Israel is portrayed in foreign media and on American college campuses, and how the reality of the situation is far more complex, one that requires a far greater knowledge of history than most people have. He told the following story:
Suppose you watch a TV show in which you see a pack of wolves – mean, snarling, slobbering wolves – howling and chasing after a fox – a cute, furry, defenseless fox. The wolves chase, the fox runs, and eventually the fox evades the mean, ugly wolves and makes it to her lair. Relieved, you turn off the TV.
What you do not see is what follows: the fox returns to her young, dropping the wolf cub it had taken into the mouths of her own pups.
Now, the image is perhaps over-simplified, but the message is clear: there is always more to the story. It is never as clear-cut as, “The Palestinians are the aggressors; they are building tunnels with cement that could be used to build new homes for their people, and sending burning kites over the border to destroy Israeli crops.” Nor is it as simple as, “The Israelis have created an open-air prison in Gaza, limiting the transfer of resources as they continue to oppress the Palestinian people.” Just as there is no “apartheid” or “genocide” being committed by either party. And it is definitely not so simple as for either side to point and say, “But they started it.”
There is history. There is context. And it can be hard to see through all of the spin.
Yitzhak Rabin was a leader who knew war and peace, who understood context and history, who did not seek power for selfish reasons, but sincerely cared about his work for all of the people crowded together in that tiny, highly-charged area. I wish that there were leaders like him today.
Yes, the history of the land of Israel is complex, painful, and ubiquitous. Yes, there are many grievances on both sides. Yes, compromise hurts. But so does the status quo. And, as with soccer, there are things that unite us, and it is up to us to find them and build on them.
As Jews, we are commanded to offer words of prayer three times daily. In the course of every Jewish service, we offer statements about Israel: about restoring us to our land, about rebuilding and bringing peace to Jerusalem / Yerushalayim / Ir shalom, the “City of Peace.” The one prayer a week we offer for Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, which we read on Shabbat morning, reminds us not only that we seek strength for those who defend the State, but also strength to its leaders in bringing about the peace for which we pray.
The Psalmist (34:15) tells us, “Baqqesh shalom verodfehu.” Seek peace and pursue it. The life and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin teach us that those who have fought and lost comrades can ultimately seek peace, and the greater lessons of history show that this is the ultimate challenge. As Rabin did, we must rise from the depths of pain and loss to the challenge of reaching out for the greater good.
Shanah tovah! Welcome to 5778, and of course welcome to Beth Shalom as we continue to celebrate our 100th year.
You may recall that, two years ago, when I first stood before you at this moment, the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5776, I made a heartfelt confession as a way of introducing myself. I confessed that I know next to nothing about sports, and that I would not be able even to make cocktail-party-level conversation about what’s going on with the local teams.
So I now have some very good news. No, I have not been following the Pirates this summer (although I was there at the stadium for Jewish Heritage Night in August). But the good news is that since I have been in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup two years running! Coincidence? I don’t think so.
One hundred years ago, long before there were Penguins in Pittsburgh, there was no rabbi to give a high holiday sermon in Squirrel Hill; there were only a handful of optimistic Jews who needed a place to daven (to pray), and set up over a store on Forbes. A century later, it is clear that we, that you have built something truly awesome. We will be celebrating by throwing the party of the century on November 11th, and I hope you will join us then – gala chairs Marlene Silverman and Bernice Meyers and the rest of the centennial team are cooking up something wonderful for that night.
So 5778 is a truly special year for this congregation. As such, I am framing this series of High Holiday sermons on past, present, and future. At the current moment, we are at one end of a lengthy time line. But there are thousands of years before us, and (we hope) thousands after us as well. 100 years, though it may seem like a lot to us, is really only a very small slice of the Jewish path through history.
So that’s a weighty thought. Here we are in 2017, the beginning of 5778. We are looking backward one century, and looking forward into the next. But really, we are at the nexus of a paradigm shift as to how we relate to Judaism. We have received thousands of years of tradition, and now it is our job to carry it forward, to make it our own and make sure that our children and grandchildren carry it as well. This is, in my mind, the primary reason we are gathered here today. This is the reason we have a synagogue. This is why we need Beth Shalom.
But the framework here is not only about past, present, and future. For the four sermons over these holidays, I am also going to borrow from another holiday, one that is a reflection of the High Holidays directly across the cycle of the year: Pesah / Passover, and specifically, the Arba’ah Banim, the Four Children. (I know the tradition is sons; I prefer the more egalitarian, non-gender specific “children.”) To refresh your memory, the Four Children are:
The Wise Child – חכם (hakham)
The Wicked Child – רשע (rasha)
The Simple Child – תם (tam)
The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask – שאינו יודע לשאול (she-eino yode’a lish’ol)
How is it, you may ask, that I can just borrow a theme from a totally different part of the Jewish year? Simple: we do this all the time!
For example, there is a custom that some have of saving their lulav and etrog after Sukkot, allowing them to dry out, and using them to help burn the hametz on the day before Pesah. On Simhat Torah, there is the custom of using melodies from the entire Jewish year in the hatzi qaddish before Musaf (it’s called, in Yiddish, the “yareskadish,” the qaddish of the whole year. There is the custom that some have of wearing a kittel, the white robe that is traditionally worn on the High Holidays to suggest purity, at the Pesah seder. And so forth.
Our customs connect us across the Jewish year. Melding past, present, and future with the Four Children, we arrive at the following:
Today, I will speak about the wise child, the one who sees past, present, and future.
Tomorrow, I will speak about the wicked child, who sees only the present.
On the evening of Kol Nidrei, I will discuss the simple child, who sees only the past, and does not know how to connect it with the future.
And, on the day of Yom Kippur, I will focus on the child who does not know how to ask; that child is our future. And we have to show them the way in.
Today we consider the חכם, the wise child.
Stephen Hawking, in his work, A Brief History of Time, cites a familiar story about theories about the world:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
Perched up here in 5778 / 2017, looking down at all the turtles supporting us, or better, at the giants of our history upon whose shoulders we stand, we have the benefit of hindsight. We have a sense about where we have been. And, like wise children, we will take the lessons of the past, apply them in the present, and thereby shape the future.
What has brought us to this day is the past. But as we stand here in the present, we must look toward the future. The future is in innovation – the kind of innovation that will help lead us onward while strengthening the roots that connect us to our tradition.
And the cynical among us might ask, “Why should we care about our tradition?” Because we need it. And I am going to make the case over these holidays for how we will move forward – standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were, creating the innovation of the future, and helping you to find your way in.
What makes Judaism so special is that we continue to acknowledge the depth and breadth of our past. You may be familiar with the popular, witty summary of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.” Cute, yes. Accurate? Well, not really.
Jewish history, our national story, continues to inform us; we continue to learn how to be better people, how to improve ourselves and our relationships from the lessons of history.
My family has recently become obsessed with the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Hamilton; its success has as much to do with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop grooves as it does with the eternally-valid lessons of history.
How did we get here? To paraphrase (badly) the opening lines of Hamilton (if you’re reading this on the blog, please imagine a tall, skinny, white rabbi trying to rap):
How did a worn-out, ragtag bunch of former slaves
emerge from the desert a new nation,
to give to the world the most meaningful,
the most magical,
the most awe-inspiring long-lasting story ever written?
How did we outlast the Romans, the Babylonians, the Assyrian Empire, the Crusaders?
Was it because of ritual?
Was it because of commitment to Torah?
Was it because of bagels? Or a prodigious talent for comedy?
(OK, so I’m not much of a rapper.)
The answer is, of course, is not simple; there is no particular moment or item that we can point to and say, “Aha! There it is. That’s the reason we are still here.”
At the very least, there are three dates in Jewish history that you should memorize. And I’m going to pretend that the wall behind me is our time line. (Did I mention how much I love time lines?):
586 BCE, the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians;
70 CE destruction of the second Temple by the Romans; and
1948, establishment of the State of Israel.
1492, the Expulsion from Spain, is a bonus.
And of these four dates, one is a wee bit more special than the others. One particular moment in history, one cataclysm that spawned a paradigm shift that forced innovative thinking, enabling us to survive until today. That change was the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
What happened in the Temple was NOT what we think of as Judaism today; our ancestors practiced, until about 2,000 years ago, an ancient form of animal sacrifice, coordinated by a priestly class, the Kohanim and Leviim. The way you expressed your gratitude to God or sought atonement for your transgressions was by bringing animals or grain to be sacrificed by the priests on the altar. There were no synagogues and few rituals that could be performed without a kohen. Everything in Jewish life was centrally controlled in Jerusalem and rigidly hierarchical.
So what did the Romans do? By destroying the Temple, by putting an end to the sacrifices performed there by our ancestors, they caused us to rethink who we are and what we do. They created a situation in which everything that the Jews had known up to that time about God and the Torah became suddenly irrelevant.
But while the Romans thought that they had crushed the Jews and Judaism, the joke’s on them, because we’re still here, and where are they?
The Jews had no choice but to create a new framework. That is the framework that ultimately was written down in volumes you find on the Jewish bookshelf: in the Talmud, the midrash, the Torah commentaries, the medieval halakhic codes of Jewish law, and so forth. The Romans are long gone. But by burning Jerusalem and ultimately banning Jews from living there, they caused us to re-invent ourselves, and make it such that our tradition was no longer top-down, no longer specific to one particular mountain in the Middle East, no longer in the hands of a privileged few.
Judaism became open to the Jews. The regular folks. And, in some sense, the rest of the world as well. The events of 70 CE enabled us to create a system in which we were bound not to an ancient sacrificial altar, but contained within the “arba amot shel halakhah,” the four cubits / six feet of personal space in which we each carry out our tradition as individuals. That system is what we know as Judaism today; it is what we refer to as “rabbinic Judaism” – the Judaism that was created and led by rabbis, not kohanim. Rabbis are decidedly NOT priests; they are teachers.
So the last two millennia of Jewish life, of rabbinic Judaism, have been dedicated to the ongoing project linking our hearts and minds; of learning and interpreting our texts and creating personal and communal rituals. This 2,000-year project of fashioning Judaism after the Temple has been about finding a way to connect the Torah with how and where we live, how we treat ourselves, others, and the world, day after day.
The most wonderful secret of the pages of the Talmud is that the lessons to be found therein crackle today with vibrancy. Jewish texts provide a framework for life that has worked for these two millennia. Our tradition is rich with advice on how to live and improve our lives and our relationships, ideas that still apply today.
Just a small taste, straight out of the Mishnah, Avot 4:1:
.איזה הוא מכובד? המכבד את הברייות
Eizehu mekhubad? Hamekhabed et haberiyot.
Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.
Imagine what a spectacular world we would live in if all of us went through life remembering that every other person, every other living thing, and even the earth itself deserved honor and respect? Imagine what this world could be like if we took to heart the kedushah, the holiness all around us?
This is only one tiny but resonant example. We are all inheritors of a wonderful, rich, inspiring tradition. It’s all there if you reach out. The past is part of our present. The novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And he was not even Jewish.
Our past is not past; it is our future.
The Jewish future in America depends on two things: our willingness to open those ancient books, and our willingness to accept change. Because as much as many of us are committed to this – this building, this mode of worship, this siddur – the Jewish future will require us to recommit to the most essential mitzvah of Jewish life: Talmud Torah: learning the words of our tradition.
The events of 70 CE were a paradigm shift in Jewish life. And we are on the verge of another shift. The Information Age may not change the value of our ancient texts, but it has certainly already made their dissemination easier. And we all have the potential to benefit in ways that our parents and grandparents could not.
To be wise children, we have to take the past and make it the future. We have to think about what comes next.
As you may recall from just about anything you might have heard me say over the last two years, the time is now for us to be rethinking what we do as Jews. Gone are the days when people would simply join a synagogue because, well, that’s what you did. Today, we have to continually make the case for what involvement in Jewish life will give you. We have to show the world that being a part of a synagogue community, learning the words of Jewish tradition, and engaging with our customs and rituals will enrich your life, will strengthen your relationships, will bring you a greater sense of appreciation and satisfaction and will better our world.
So what will it take to be innovative? Well, we have already begun. As you may know, we have just begun to build, in conjunction with our Centennial fundraising campaign, the new set of programming offerings known as Derekh, meaning literally, “the way.”
We have hired Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, who is also our director of Youth Tefillah, to get this program off the ground, to fashion the entry points into our tradition. The whole idea, of course, is to make the synagogue essential to your life, to help you find your way into our tradition, to help you discover the various ways that Judaism can benefit you individually and communally.
Derekh is our engine of innovation; it is the means by which we will be wise children, seeing past, present, and future. We will be using the new technologies at our disposal to reach out better. We will be thinking creatively about new ways to reach you, and to engage the people who are not in this room. We will be offering new means to connect to Jewish text, to Jewish culture, to social action, to Israel, and to the mindfulness that our tradition teaches.
Today’s Beth Shalom is firmly rooted in our 100-year history, and the 2,000-or-so year history of rabbinic Judaism. But tomorrow’s Beth Shalom will rely on your willingness to embrace innovation, to consider new paths in Jewish life, and to invest yourself in building this community.
I want you to reach higher. I want you to come around for something you do not usually do. Come join me for a lunch and learn discussion on a Jewish philosopher that you should know. Have coffee with me or with Rabbi Jeremy to discuss building community. Take advantage of all the monthly beit midrash programs, in which you’ll learn about the ancient wisdom which continues to guide us. Come learn with scholars from the whole community in JJEP’s adult learning programs. Come to the new early Shabbat morning program (on non-benei mitzvah days) at 9 AM, in which we will offer a rotating offering of meditation, niggun singing, and text study. Watch for an upcoming film series. Check out a weekend retreat. Check out the range of short videos we are putting out through the Beth Shalom Facebook page. We’ll be putting together a trip to Israel as we begin our next 100 years.
We have so much new stuff going on, and I promise you that it will be informative, connective, and worth your time. Join us.
So even as we recall all the turtles supporting us, even as we invoke and cherish what our ancestors have given us, even as we celebrate 100 years, we have to reach higher. We have to be the חכם, the wise child.
I am, in some sense, throwing down the gauntlet. Here is a challenge to you: let’s make this community sparkle with all the illumination that our ancient texts still shed. Come find your way in.
For three days this week, I am in Chicago to participate in the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is boldly titled, “Shape the Center.” Dave Horvitz (our president) is already there, and Ed Frim will be there as well. I have heard that the attendance will exceed that of the centennial convention two years ago, with over 1200 attendees from all over North America.
This is, of course, a time of great anxiety for the Conservative movement: declining numbers, an aging population, financial and spiritual challenges.
And yet, in my mind, this is also a time of great optimism. The core of the movement is excited to act, to re-envision what we do, to create new modes of engagement and learning. Maybe we’re a wee bit late – why were we not re-thinking and re-envisioning two decades ago? Nonetheless, the great renovation project of the Conservative movement is underway, and the USCJ convention is ground zero for this groundswell of activity.
Why the optimism? Because there will always be a need for the center in contemporary Jewish life. Because although we have lost numbers, those whom we have retained are more committed. Because there will always be a demand for a Jewish environment which is at once traditional and and yet sensitive to contemporary sensibilities. Because, as my colleague, Rabbi Joshua Rabin, put it in a recent opinion piece that appeared in the Forward,
The fact that the Pew Study showed that Conservatives Jews are by far the most engaged non-Orthodox population in every measurable category, including Israel activism, ritual practice, synagogue attendance and investment in Jewish education, is proof that Conservative Judaism is not only a critical Jewish voice, but an effective one, too.
But among the greatest challenges that we face as a movement, and all the more so in our 140-character world, is that it is difficult to describe who we are. What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew? I am a lifelong Conservative Jew, and I could not really adequately articulate that until I was a student at JTS.
We have no effective soundbite. Maybe that’s not a bad thing – an ancient religious tradition, after all, cannot be reduced to a few glossy phrases.
But here is the irony: What I think really makes us the Conservative movement is history. History is on our side, and the future is shaped by the past.
We understand that Judaism and Jewish practice has always been influenced by the culture and time in which it existed. We understand that the Oral Law, the rabbinic interpretation documented in the Talmud and later literature, is more malleable than principles enshrined in the Torah, that it actually encourages argument and multiple acceptable positions. We understand the motivations of the human hand in our sacred scriptures, revealed through academic study. We understand that halakhah / Jewish law and Jewish rituals have changed continuously over the last two millennia.
History is our friend, and the future depends on our understanding of history.
Our understanding of the Torah is also intimately tied to our history. I am something of a grammar buff, and I have always been drawn to Torah commentaries that address the eccentricities of our historical language, Hebrew.
“Pluralizm” means (I know this is hard to believe) “pluralism.”
Philologos points to, among others, the Hebrew word “historiya,” which means, of course, history. “Historiya” is a Greek word which arrived in English via Latin as “history,” and is derived from the Greek term for learning.
Now, if I were you, I would be wondering, “Given that Rabbi Adelson just told us about the importance of history in Jewish tradition, why did Hebrew need to borrow a Greek term for history? Is there no original Hebrew word?”
I’m so glad you asked! It does seem surprising that the language of the Torah, and for that matter, all of rabbinic literature does not include such a word.
And yet, as Philologos points out, the correct form of “historiya” when used in construct with another noun (construct: like birkat ha-mazon, the blessing of food, or qeri’at ha-Torah, the reading of the Torah) is not “historiyat ha-yehudim” for example. Rather, the first word of the construct changes entirely, replaced with “toledot.” As in, Ve-elleh toledot yitzhaq (Gen. 25:19), which were the opening words of our parashah this morning. The JPS translation renders this as, “This is the story of Isaac.” To modern Israeli ears, these words sound more like, “This is the history of Isaac.”
The word “toledot” seems to be a form of the shoresh (root) “yod-lamed-daled,” child, and from which all forms of begetting and begotten are derived (e.g. yeled, laledet, velad, holid, moledet, molad). It seems to mean history, but literally, it means, these are the generations of Isaac. When used, however, it is not merely about who begat whom – it is also used to introduce important details of the lives of Biblical characters. The same word, by the way, introduces the second Creation story in Genesis as well (Gen. 2:4 – Elleh toledot hashamayim veha-aretz), the one that includes the intrigue of Adam and Eve in Gan Eden – not generations, but history.
As Jews, we constantly, actively relive our history. From week to week, as we observe the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays that tell the story of one ancient happening after another, we are invoking our history.
We are here today because God rested on Shabbat, and our ancestors have always done so. We built our Sukkot seven weeks ago because our ancestors wandered through the desert. In a few weeks, we will kindle the Hanukkah lights to commemorate the Hasmonean military victory over the Hellenized Syrians in middle of the 2nd century, BCE. And so on.
So while you can make the case (as some scholars do) that “historiya” is a modern idea, you cannot deny that the Jews have always been committed to retelling the past – celebrating the victories, and recalling the low points to avoid them in the future.
History is central to who we are. And all the more so as Conservative Jews. The Conservative movement was originally called “the positive-historical school,” referring to a group of Central European Jewish scholars of the mid-19th century who were positive toward Jewish tradition and law, but also historically-inclined. That is, they saw Judaism as a developing tradition and studied it in the historical and cultural context of the wider cultures in which it has existed, and were likewise committed to halakhah, Jewish law, in its own historical arc.
We like to think historically. Whenever I teach rabbinic literature, and many of you know this already, I have a timeline nearby to put everything in context.
It is only through the historical lens that we can truly understand who we are and where we are going – from the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and a whole range of dates and places and kings and rabbis and interpreters and wars and exiles and migrations. And so forth.
And here we are today, still trying to find our paths through Judaism. Here is where our long view becomes even more important. We are living in a time in which historical memory is painfully short. Who has to remember anything anymore, when everything you could ever possibly need to know is a few swift keystrokes away?
We as Jews know and understand history, and as the wider world drifts into an ahistorical stew of digital present, we must continue to take the long view, to continue to seek our future in the context of the past.
I spoke last week about the mandate to teach our teens the history of the State of Israel. But really, the task is much greater than that. Isaac’s story, toledot yitzhaq, is our history, and so is everything that follows, right up to the events of last week. We have to keep referring back to that timeline, and all of the characters and places and events on it, to maintain a vital Jewish center here in North America. We have to continue to teach the value of Shabbat, to live the value of hesed, acts of lovingkindness, to resonate with the traditional words of the siddur, even as we find ways to balance these practices with contemporary society and where our people are today. And we can do this without compromising our essential ideals.
And that’s why I am in Chicago for a few days. David and Ed and I will bring back material to share with everybody, so that we can continue to re-fashion the Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement that will ignite the passions of our grandchildren.