Tag Archives: Judaism

Can Creativity and Authenticity Co-Exist in Judaism? – Eqev 5777

A couple of weeks back, I spoke about what it means to be authentic in today’s Jewish world, and how authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. There is a range of authentic approaches to Judaism, and what we do here at Beth Shalom represents a fairly traditional segment of those approaches.

Is there a limit to what we tolerate as authentic Judaism? How do we know when we have crossed this line?

Creativity is a Business Skill: An Interview With Jen Bilik of Knock ...

Back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on teaching Jewish theology, I recall Rabbi Neil Gillman reflecting on the range of understandings of Judaism in today’s world. He remarked that the only thing that everybody can agree on is that the Messianic Jews, the Jews for Jesus, are not welcome at the Jewish communal table.

But within the spectrum of what has become normative Judaism in the last two centuries, there is considerable disagreement on theological issues. (A congregant reported to me last week that at a recent Shabbat dinner, a member of our wider community, but not this congregation, referred to me as a “so-called rabbi.”)

And while ideological, denominational lines are somewhat less clear than they used to be, there are still some among us who cling to the principles of ideological purity. That is, in fact, one expected outcome of modern Judaism.

However, since (a) rabbinic tradition has always thrived on disagreement, and (b) we have no pope, no one centralized authority to decide what is right or wrong, the range of Jewish practice is effectively up for negotiation. No matter what some in our world may believe, there is rarely a single acceptable Jewish position on anything. There is often a minority opinion. And that reality has played out extensively in how we understand what it means to be Jewish today.

The Reform movement decided in the 19th century to reject halakhah /Jewish law in favor of moral instruction. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 stated the following:

“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

In reaction to this move, the Conservative movement emerged from the right flank of Reform, maintaining traditional halakhic practice, while acknowledging that times have changed considerably since, say, the Mishnah was compiled in the second century CE, and that we should account, conservatively of course, for these changes. The movement’s halakhic decisors rely on traditional halakhic literature in doing so. So we see, for example,  egalitarianism as an acceptable halakhic innovation based not only on traditional sources but also contemporary sensibilities.

It’s unfair to paint Orthodoxy with one brush, since there are so many variants within it. But in general, Orthodoxy strives to maintain a strict halakhic practice with few of the leniencies and innovations upon which the Conservative movement has relied.

While the ideologically-committed members of each of these major movements feel very strongly that their way is the right one, I think it is fair to acknowledge that there are, within the wide range of Jewish ideology and practice, a number of legitimate paths through our tradition.

Nonetheless, I think there are limits to what we can say fits under the Jewish umbrella. And those limits exist at both ends of the Jewish ideological spectrum.

We read today at the beginning of Parashat Eqev:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. (Deut. 7:12)

The question is, of course, what does it mean to “listen to” and “keep” and “do” the mitzvot? Does it mean that we must literally stone to death a disobedient son (Deut. 21:21)? Does it mean that we must literally avoid boiling a calf in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21)? In the case of the bad kid, the rabbis interpreted this law minimally to make it effectively inapplicable. In the kashrut case, the rabbis expanded it maximally.

And of course we have the whole range in-between: laws which continue to be observed more or less as they appear in the Torah (e.g. not kindling a fire on Shabbat, telling the story of the Exodus on the night following the 14th of Nisan), and laws which are not observed at all (e.g. everything to do with sacrifices).

And then there are laws which are not explicitly stated at all in the Torah, but become enshrined as mitzvot through rabbinic interpretation (relevant to today’s parashah, saying both birkat hamazon and hamotzi, blessings before and after meals).

Point is, Judaism today is not what’s described in the Torah; it’s what resulted from nearly two millennia of human development and interpretation. And that’s a messy and complicated process. We’re in a very different place today from where we were as a people in 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.

So that’s why two particular items that appeared recently in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle caught my eye, two things which, I think, test the limits of what it means to be a Jew in today’s world.

The first comes from the more traditional quarters of our neighborhood. A group in town has purchased (at least from a halakhic perspective) a pregnant donkey, who has not yet given birth as far as I know, in hopes that her first offspring will be a male. (I don’t think that ultrasound technology has yet been designed for farm animals.) If the baby donkey is a male, it will be redeemed from a resident kohen with a lamb. (I don’t have time to explain the halakhic intricacies of all of this, but it is mentioned three times in the Torah, e.g. Ex. 13:13.)

The donkey was “purchased” for $1 from its owners on a farm in Ohio, where she still lives; after the completion of the ritual, the dollar will be returned. Members of the community have bought “shares” in the donkey for $36 each, so they can get “credit” for the mitzvah.

Pidyon Peter Chamor In Los Angeles – The Yeshiva World

Now, the obvious question here is, “Why?” This is an ancient agricultural mitzvah that is not practiced today, frankly, because very few traditional Jews own donkeys. Furthermore, despite the contemporary practice of pidyon haben, the redemption of a first-born human boy from a kohen, my suspicion is that this ritual has not really been fulfilled by actual, agrarian Jews for two millennia.

My second question is, if you really want to perform a rare agricultural mitzvah, why not buy a few acres of corn and let poor people glean? That’s mentioned more times in the Torah than the donkey.

I think this is a fraught expression of Judaism. Yes, it’s in the Torah. But remember, we don’t practice the ancient Israelite religion of the Torah. We are rabbinic Jews. I’m not sure it passes my own personal test, which is, can we derive meaning from this that will benefit us individually and communally?

At the other end of the spectrum,  a different article was about a sometimes-local woman who completed her training through the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. The Hebrew Priestesses are women who bring together Jewish and “earth-based” customs to create new rituals. From their own website:

“Kohenet celebrates the sacred in the body, the earth, and the cosmos, holding the world to be an embodiment of Shekhinah— divine presence. Kohenet reclaims the traditions of women, from the priestesses and prophetesses of biblical antiquity to healers, dreamers, and seekers throughout Jewish tradition.”

The ordination ceremony for The Kohenet Institute’s new group of ...

Although one of the Kohenet co-founders, Rabbi Jill Hammer, was trained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the current dean of the Rabbinical School, Rabbi Danny Nevins, has described Kohenet’s embracing of new, earth-centered ritual as “pagan.”

Now, we might be inclined to say that one of these articles discusses an actual mitzvah from the Torah, while the other is an interpolation that draws on some aspects of Jewish tradition but then diverges greatly.

However, I don’t think that either of these things will have wide appeal. Nonetheless, as with the contemporary movements, and arguably the entirety of rabbinic Judaism, only time will tell where the boundaries of authenticity lie.

To quote Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” We are living in a time of great creativity in Jewish life, and the limits of Jewish authenticity will be stretched by these endeavors as we move forward.

To that end, I’d like to propose a kind of litmus test for innovation.

  1. Can we derive meaning from ritual that will benefit us individually and communally?
  2. Is there halakhic and/or historical precedent?
  3. If the answer to #2 is no, is this a new creative approach that can be justified within the broad outlines of our tradition?

Given that we have no pope, and that we acknowledge that change must be conservative, we as a community must decide what we can accept. And I am sure that we will.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/12/2017.)

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Authenticity and the “Blacklist” – Devarim 5777

A week and a half ago I was in the Newark airport, dropping off my son for his El Al flight back to Israel, and there was a local Chabad rabbi set up with a kiosk just before security, asking Jewish travelers (men only, of course) to put on tefillin. I observed him put tefillin on one guy, and I noticed that, in contrast to the standard Ashkenazi practice of saying two berakhot, one for the arm and then an additional one for the head, he asked the guy to say only the berakhah for the arm.

tefillin-hands-jjep

Now, I know that Sefaradim only say one berakhah, but that Chabadniks are clearly from the Ashkenazi world. So I asked him why he only said one berakhah. And he said, “Because that’s the way it’s done!” I reminded him that widespread Ashkenazi practice was to say two berakhot, for the two separate mitzvot / commandments identified in the Shema,* and I quoted it for him. But he would not accept that. “It’s one berakhah,” he said. “Now you’ve learned something today.”

What I learned, of course, is that the Jewish world is filled with different opinions, and that some of us are more open to them than others. (I don’t think that’s what he thought I learned.)

The book of Devarim ostensibly takes place nearly 40 years after the rest of the Torah. It’s the end of Moshe’s life. And what does he do? He gives a speech. And not a short one, either; it’s long. A whole book. (Sooo Jewish, right!)

It’s an authentic, personal lecture, summarizing not only some of the major laws of the Torah, but also including historical tales as well, retelling the episode at Sinai, for example, and even documenting his own exclusion from entering the land of Israel. It is almost as if he is speaking thus:

“I have been denied entering Israel, because of my anger. I am being punished. But I remain true to the task I have been given, and that task was to lead you out of Egypt and to Sinai to receive the Torah. My work is done; now it will be up to you to carry our tradition forward.”

So here we are now, thousands of years after this story was written down. We have not had a Moshe Rabbeinu for 3 millennia. And yet we’re still here. And much of that has to do with the fact that we continue to interpret and reinterpret the Torah.

There is a well-known and beloved story from the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who lived around the turn of the second century CE, a good 1300 years after Moshe. The story is as follows (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot 29b):

Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah from God, and he sees that God is affixing crowns to the letters. Moshe asks, “Why the fancy illustrations?”

God says, “More than a millennium from now, there will be a great sage named Rabbi Akiva, who will interpret every jot and tittle in the Torah.”

Moshe says, “Can I see this person?”

God says, “Turn around.” And Moshe is instantly transported to the 2nd century, CE, to the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. And there’s Rabbi Akiva, expounding on the Torah, explaining every jot and tittle in the text. Moshe is very confused, because none of this information is in the Torah that God gave him. A student raises his hand. “But where did you learn this?”

Rabbi Akiva replies, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai.” And Moshe felt much better.

**

Rabbi Akiva somehow understood more Torah than Moshe knew; he had gleaned it from the written Torah and its subsequent interpretation. And we today, living 1900 years or so after Rabbi Akiva, know and understand even more, because that interpretation has continued.

With time and commentary and disagreement has come a wealth of diversity of opinion on Jewish law and custom. And with that diversity comes a similar range of customs and interpretation. And you know what? While each of us claim that our way is the “right” way, in many cases, there is no right way. There are different customs, performing one custom instead of another is not wrong; it’s just different.

And, more importantly, no tradition is more “authentic” than any other.

We love the idea of authenticity. And really, how could you not? We live in an age in which we know our politicians lie, the corporations who supply us with food and medicine and transportation and information can be deceptive to benefit their bottom lines, settled scientific fact is openly disputed by authority figures on television, and so forth. Perhaps some of these examples are merely the bad apples that are spoiling the bunch, but the negative continually gets the spotlight, and it is easy to become cynical and distrustful.

We crave authenticity. We yearn for something that we can hold onto that is not layered with marketing or spin. We need to know that in this world where identity is fungible and the truth cannot be found in a Google search, that there are some things which remain untouched by the taint of modernity.

A fascinating article crossed my desk this week, from the Atlantic magazine. It was about how some people are now willing to pay to watch Jews performing “authentic” religious rituals:

Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.

The article goes on to discuss ways in which contemporary Jews and non-Jews are making traditional rituals their own, and how that indicates our current search for authenticity.

What irked me about the article, though, is the assumption, made by many, that if it’s not performed by people in black hats, then it’s not authentic. The very title, “The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism,” suggests that it’s only Orthodox Jews whose authenticity is being sought.

But we know better. We in the Conservative movement, and, well, all of the non-Orthodox world, know that our customs are just as authentic. OK, so the addition of the Imahot, the names of the Jewish matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, were not recited in any Amidah (the standing, silent prayer that is central to every Jewish service) prior to, I think, the 1970s. Does that mean that including them is not “authentic”? Hasidism adopted the black garb because that was how Polish nobles dressed in the 18th century. Is that “authentic”? The Reform movement jettisoned the laws of kashrut / Jewish dietary laws, a move perhaps made most famous at the “Trefa Banquet” of 1883 in Cincinnati. Does that make them “inauthentic”?

“Authenticity” is just more spin. Customs come and go. Rituals change. Even halakhah / Jewish law changes. What we do here is just as authentic as what happens at Poale Zedeck, or Shaare Torah, or Rodef Shalom. Moshe did not wear a black hat, and neither did Rabbi Akiva. We are firmly based in Jewish tradition, and the process of interpretation that Rabbi Akiva taught.

And that brings me back to Israel, and recent political events there. To summarize briefly:

  1. PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to suspend the completion of a respectful, fully-accessible egalitarian area at the Kotel, where non-Orthodox Jews can worship unmolested by those who just can’t stand seeing men and women davening together.
  2. The cabinet also advanced a bill in the Knesset that would ensure that the Israeli Rabbinate (the “Rabbanut”) would have sole control over conversions in Israel. This bill would mean that any conversions to Judaism conducted in Israel by non-Orthodox or even individual Orthodox rabbis not under the Rabbanut’s auspices would not be recognized by the State of Israel.
  3. The Rabbanut published a list of 160 rabbis from around the world whose letters affirming the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel were rejected in 2016. Rabbi Steindel and I were on that list, even though I have never written such a letter. (The Post-Gazette actually ran a story on this last week.)

I spoke about this a few weeks back when I addressed the Kotel issue, but the problem comes back to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel. The government of Israel turned over the keys to religious decisions to a certain group of Orthodox rabbis 69 years ago, and Judaism has suffered for it. I am not insulted by being “blacklisted.” I suppose it’s a badge of honor. But I am certainly no less a spiritual leader, and no less inclined to continue to teach the diversity of opinion and custom and tradition that we have.

On the contrary, I am more inclined to speak up:

To speak up for the range of what it means to be Jewish.

To speak up for the 85% of the Jewish world that does not identify as Orthodox.

To speak up for those who think that development in Jewish life did not end in the 19th century.

To speak up for those who understand that all Jewish people, women and men, and even those who identify as neither, be recognized as equal recipients of the Jewish heritage and equal participants in Jewish life and learning.

To speak up for my fellow rabbis who are being disenfranchised by the Jewish state.

To speak up for the ongoing engagement with modernity as we continue to unravel the project of what it means to be Jewish today.

Authenticity infuses all of these people and principles. And I’ll speak up for that. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/29/17.)

* וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and wear them as frontlets between your eyes (Deut. 6:8). This has been understood as two separate commandments, and hence two berakhot.

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Jewish Sensibilites and Ya’aqov’s Deception – Toledot 5777

One of the essential questions that we as Jews must ask ourselves is, what are the values that guide us? Aside from rituals and Jewish law, how does our textual framework teach us how to live? What are the values we want our children to carry? How can we use the values expressed in our tradition to live better in this world?

Why are these questions so important? Because we see from demographic data that while there is a hardening on the theological right with respect to living a halakhic lifestyle, with ever-more-stringent approaches to Jewish law, the non-Orthodox world is drifting away from that traditional mode of Jewish living. One does not need to see survey data to know that fewer of us observe Shabbat traditionally, fewer of us are showing up for daily prayer, fewer of us are keeping some form of kashrut, fewer of us are marrying fellow Jews, etc.

And yet, most of us are proudly Jewish, acknowledging on some level our Jewish heritage and at least some of our Jewish traditions. (There is no simhah today, so most of us in the room are regulars – people who are committed to some form of traditional Jewish observance, including tefillah / prayer. But you’d probably all be surprised by how many Jews I hear telling me about how they are proud to be Jewish, love our tradition, are committed to raising Jewish families and to being part of a community, but just have no interest in or understand being in synagogue for services.)

Given that many of us want to maintain some kind of connection to Judaism even as we disconnect from Jewish observance, one answer is that we have to focus on the Jewish values that move us.

What are some of these values?

    • Honesty
    • Integrity
    • Charity
    • Doing for others in need
    • Hakhnasat orehim  / welcoming guests
    • Ahavat hinnam /

      boundless love

    • Community, and all it suggests
    • Study
  • Etc.

With help from the Judaism Unbound podcast, I recently came across an interesting article by Dr. Vanessa Ochs, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, entitled “Ten Jewish Sensibilities.” It appeared in the journal Sh’ma in 2003. In it, Dr. Ochs identifies ten Jewish values which, she proposes, many Jews draw on in their daily lives, even if they do not practice any of the ritual aspects of Judaism. I do not need to list them all here, but they include such basic principles as teshuvah / return (she translates as “turning), tiqqun olam / repairing the world, shelom bayit / maintaining peaceful relationships, and so forth.

I would like to draw your attention to two of these sensibilities: top of the list, havdalah – literally separation, but understood here as making distinctions in time and situations. That is, acknowledging that Jews create holy spaces in time, not places or people.

Number 10 on the list is zekhut avot, recalling the good deeds and attributes and acting upon the merits of those who came before us. We’ll come back to these in a few minutes.

Now, of course these values come, as does all of Jewish life, from the Jewish bookshelf. Just as we know that we must drink four cups of wine at a Pesah seder or light the Hanukkah candles from left to right from our ancient literature, so too do we understand that eliminating oppression or questioning authority are Jewish values gleaned from sources in the Torah, Talmud, midrash, codes, and so forth.

But what happens when values that are apparent in those sources seem to contradict values that we hold dear? Let’s take a look at a passage from Toledot.

Open the humash. Gen. 27:19-27 (98, 156). This is where Rivqah has prepared some meat for Yitzhaq and put an animal hide on Ya’aqov’s arms in order to deceive his father and receive the blessing that he intends for Esav.

יט  וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ–עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי–בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ.

19 And Jacob said unto his father: ‘I am Esau thy first-born; I have done what you have told me. Arise, sit and eat of my venison, that your soul may bless me.’

כ  וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-בְּנוֹ, מַה-זֶּה מִהַרְתָּ לִמְצֹא בְּנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי הִקְרָה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְפָנָי.

20 And Isaac said unto his son: ‘How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?’ And he said: ‘Because the LORD thy God sent me good speed.’

כא  וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, גְּשָׁה-נָּא וַאֲמֻשְׁךָ בְּנִי:  הַאַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו, אִם-לֹא.

21 And Isaac said unto Jacob: ‘Come near, please, that I may feel you, my son, whether you be my very son Esau or not.’

כב  וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב אֶל-יִצְחָק אָבִיו, וַיְמֻשֵּׁהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב, וְהַיָּדַיִם, יְדֵי עֵשָׂו.

22 And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’

כג  וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ–כִּי-הָיוּ יָדָיו כִּידֵי עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, שְׂעִרֹת; וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ.

23 And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.

כד  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו; וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנִי.

24 And he said: ‘Are you my very son Esau?’ And he said: ‘I am.’

כה  וַיֹּאמֶר, הַגִּשָׁה לִּי וְאֹכְלָה מִצֵּיד בְּנִי–לְמַעַן תְּבָרֶכְךָ, נַפְשִׁי; וַיַּגֶּשׁ-לוֹ, וַיֹּאכַל, וַיָּבֵא לוֹ יַיִן, וַיֵּשְׁתְּ.

25 And he said: ‘Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s venison, that my soul may bless thee.’ And he brought it near to him, and he did eat; and he brought him wine, and he drank.

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, יִצְחָק אָבִיו:  גְּשָׁה-נָּא וּשְׁקָה-לִּי, בְּנִי.

26 And his father Isaac said unto him: ‘Come near now, and kiss me, my son.’

כז  וַיִּגַּשׁ, וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ, וַיָּרַח אֶת-רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו, וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי, כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ ה’.

27 And he came near, and kissed him. And he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which God has blessed.

Superficially, this passage does not read so well to me. It highlights Ya’aqov’s deception, and this is in fact a theme that runs through Ya’aqov’s life (e.g. the lentil stew, Gen. 29:34; his marriage to Leah and Rahel, Gen. 29:21-30; his sons’ selling Joseph and lying to their father about his death, Gen. 37:29-35). Although the blessings seem good, at least to an ancient audience, the means by which Ya’aqov achieves them are certainly not.

https://i1.wp.com/www.medart.pitt.edu/image/france/france-t-to-z/vezelay/capitals-nave/veznave30as.JPG

Most of the commentaries seek to excuse Ya’aqov – they argue that he was fulfilling God’s destiny; that Esav was truly evil; that Yitzhaq was not only actually blind, but also blind to the fact that his younger son was really the good son, and so forth. But one midrash, from Bereshit Rabba, actually suggests that when Ya’aqov goes to fetch a few goats from the flock so his mother can prepare them (27:14), he does so “under duress, bent, and weeping.”

יב  אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי, וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ; וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה, וְלֹא בְרָכָה.

12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.’

יג  וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ, עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי; אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי.

13 And his mother said unto him: ‘Upon me be your curse, my son; only heed my voice, and go fetch me them.’

יד  וַיֵּלֶךְ, וַיִּקַּח, וַיָּבֵא, לְאִמּוֹ; וַתַּעַשׂ אִמּוֹ מַטְעַמִּים, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהֵב אָבִיו.

14 And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother; and his mother made savory food such as his father loved.

So while the hermeneutic conversation, the discourse of rabbinic interpretation surrounding this passage in general supports Ya’aqov and Rivqah and the whole operation, there is in fact at least one voice, echoing across the ages that suggests that deception is not, in fact, a value we should support. And I think that most of us agree with that opinion, despite the conspiracy to defraud Yitzhaq.

So that brings us back to Vanessa Ochs’ Jewish sensibilities. On the one hand, we aim to emulate our ancestors and follow their lead based on their merits: zekhut avot. On the other, we also know that nobody in the Jewish canon is without fault, that they are all exceedingly human characters. Thus we must draw distinction (havdalah, if you will) between having the means justify the ends, as in this case, vs. always behaving in an upright, honest way. Ya’aqov, according to the midrash, knows that what he is doing is wrong, and we do too. So we can acknowledge and learn from this story, even as we concede that Ya’aqov’s outright deception of his father is reprehensible.

While the Torah itself may suggest that the end may justify the means, the rabbinic lens, the midrash, disagrees. And yet both of these ideas sit on the Jewish bookshelf in the same corner of the whole panoply of human behavior described by our tradition.

The lesson that we may draw from this is that havdalah is not just what is recited on Saturday night (the separation of Shabbat from weekday), it is not only about the division of time between holy and ordinary. It is an essential tool in how we relate Torah to who we are and the choices we make. Real wisdom comes from making distinctions. And we do that very well as Jews.

And to come back to where we started, the greater Jewish value that we must teach and live is discernment, perhaps a more refined version of havdalah: digging into our collected body of wisdom to extract the best way to handle a situation, given all the factors in play. I think that if we can relate that to the next generation, we will have a rosy Jewish future.

Shabbat shalom.

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4 Whys #4: Why Do We Need Torah? – Yom Kippur 5777

As you surely know by now, this is the fourth and final sermon on the topic of “Why?” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we covered, “Why be Jewish?” On the second day, “Why do we need the mitzvot, and Shabbat in particular?” Last night, we discussed why we need Congregation Beth Shalom.

Today’s why is, “Why do we need Torah?” Why do we need to learn the words of our ancient tradition, our stories, our customs and principles and values and laws?

***

I recently heard a podcast that positively blew my mind. It was on Radiolab, which is an NPR program about ideas, often featuring scientific subjects.

The idea featured in this particular episode is about inter-connectedness, about networks, but not how we usually think of them. It was uncovered primarily by a professor of forestry from University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, whose research has demonstrated, effectively, that trees are networked with each other through something called a mycorrhizal network, and that this network helps the trees support each other.

The way it works is as follows: in the soil, there are tiny, nearly invisible tubes called mycorrhiza, which are parts of various kinds of mushrooms. Fungi. There can be miles of these tubes in a pinch of soil. The tubes affix themselves to the roots of trees, and engage in a kind of exchange with them: the tree provides sugar to the mushrooms, and the mushrooms provide minerals to the tree.

Brain Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the example of an ideal leaf The Fungi ...

Note to plant pathologists: yes, I know this is not the kind of fungus we’re talking about here. But it’s a pretty photo nonetheless, don’t you think?

OK so far? It’s even better than that.

Not only is there an exchange between the fungi and the tree, but the fungi, which are connected to many of the other trees nearby, actually share nutrients through the network between trees. And the trees support each other – when one tree needs more nutrients, the other trees will, with the help of the network, send them. When there is a shortage of one type of nutrient, the mycorrhizal network will hoard that nutrient and dole out to the neediest trees. The network also ropes in the assistance of other creatures – bacteria and insects – to help maintain the whole system.

It’s almost as though the forest is “thinking,” like some kind of huge plant brain; strategizing, sharing, supporting.

What is truly revelatory and beautiful about this is that it seems that there is no such thing as a lone tree. Each tree is linked into the whole system. Prior to discovering the network, Dr. Simard had noticed that when you pulled out one tree, sometimes another nearby tree of a different species would die, clearly a result of upsetting the balance in the network.

So why am I telling you this?

When I heard this story, my mind immediately went to us, the Jews, and how we are linked together.

When you think about it, it’s downright unbelievable that we are still here. I mentioned this briefly on Rosh Hashanah – we outlasted the great empires that ruled Israel, that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, that dispersed us all over the world. We have long since bid goodbye and good riddance to the Babylonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Russian czars, the Fascist regimes of the middle of the 20th century.

What has kept us alive? I would like to propose that our metaphorical mycorrhizal network, the invisible, powerful connection that has maintained our network and supported us is Torah. Not THE Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, but “Torah,” without any definite or indefinite article. It is a much more comprehensive term. Torah is what flows from THE Torah.

It refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf.  Torah obviously begins with the Torah, which we read through each year. But that is just the beginning – Torah in its greater sense is all of our collected learning, including the rest of the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – the entire Hebrew Bible), and it flows through the collected network of rabbinic texts which make up the Jewish bookshelf: the Talmud, commentaries and supercommentaries on the Torah, midrashim, halakhic codes (Jewish law), mussar (ethical commentaries), Hasidic stories, kabbalistic literature, the words of tefillah (prayer), Jewish music and artistic interpretation, and on and on.

“Torah” in its greater sense is the ongoing project of two thousand years of intellectual development: debating the meaning of our ancient texts across generations, continents, and centuries; it is the thread that connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to our families, to Israel, to our people.

Torah (in its greater sense) is what holds us all together. It is our unseen, yet essential network. None of us are individual trees; we are the Jewish forest, connected by a textual, mycorrhyizal network, sharing and distributing all of that wisdom, ancient and modern.

What holds us together is words. Centuries ago, we were dubbed by the Muslim world as Ahl al-Kittab, the People of the Book. But we took that moniker proudly as our own: we are Am haSefer.

“Ours is not a bloodline,” write Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book, Jews and Words, “but a textline.” What connects us from generation to generation is not Hanukkah candles or matzah or even Yom Kippur. It is not our being an extended cousins’ club. It is not mah-jongg, or eating Chinese food on Christmas. It is our collected body of wisdom. What connects Moshe (Rabbeinu) on Mt. Sinai to Moshe (Maimonides) in 12th century Cairo to Moshe (Mendelssohn) in 18th century Berlin is that thread of interpretation that makes the matzah come alive for us today. Without the text, it’s just a lousy, unsalted cracker.

In what is one of the best-known stories found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b-57a), Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai effectively launches rabbinic Judaism by having his students smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin.

The year is 69 CE. The Jews have been revolting against the Romans for a few years, trying to preserve their way of life, their land, and particularly their Temple, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, wherein they have been sacrificing animals and produce to God for nearly a thousand years. The Romans, led by Vespasian (who is not yet the Roman Emperor), have taken Israel by force, and have surrounded Jerusalem.

After having been smuggled out as a corpse, Rabban Yohanan arrives at Roman military headquarters, and pops out of the coffin in front of Vespasian. A lively debate ensues in which the Romans exhibit their inclination to live by the sword, and Rabban Yohanan counters with proto-rabbinic wisdom: “All neighbors who do harm to others find that they have done it to themselves,” he says. Vespasian understands that he is in the presence of a very wise man.

Then something happens that changes the course of Jewish history.

Rabban Yohanan has predicted that Vespasian will soon be the emperor, and sure enough, while they are speaking, a messenger arrives to crown him as Caesar. Vespasian says to him, “I am now returning to Rome, and will send somebody else to take my place. You may, however, make one request of me, and I will grant it.”

Rabban Yohanan says, “Give me Yavneh and all its sages.” That is, give me a little, out-of-the-way, sleepy seaside town where I can assemble a crack team of rabbis to figure out what comes next in Jewish life.

He did not say, give me back Jerusalem. He did not say, just let me keep the Temple and let the Kohanim continue making sacrifices for the Jews.

He said, give me space to start writing the first chapter in the textline. I need a forest where I can plant some fungi.

20161014_095403_resized

 

Sometimes, we have to conquer our fears of the future and embrace change. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the rabbis of Yavneh fashioned from the rubble of the Roman destruction not a Third Temple, but rather what we know today as Judaism. Thanks to Rabban Yohanan and his scholars, Judaism was re-invented. We, the Jews underwent a paradigm shift, eliminating the barbaric rituals of animal sacrifice and replacing it with the meditations of our hearts. This was the biggest historical turn for our people since leaving slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah, 1300 years prior.

We all need to be a little bit more like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: facing down our fears, letting go of what was, and embracing the future. That’s why I spoke last night about re-envisioning this synagogue, about the vision of Beth Shalom as a center of contemporary Jewish life and learning for the whole region.

And that brings me back to our mycorrhizal network, about our need for Torah, about our need for connection to each other through our ancient wisdom. But first, a collective “Al het.”

Al het shehatanu lefanakha. For the sin we have sinned against you God, by practicing Judaism without seeking meaning within it.

If there is a bottom line to everything that I have said over the past ten days, it is that Judaism’s future depends on our willingness to let it bring meaning to our lives.

Why are we like so many individual trees, not connected to the network? Because we have failed as a community to look to our textual heritage. Because we have assumed that being Jewish meant lighting Hanukkah candles and saying kaddish and “having a bar mitzvah,” without making any serious effort to connect these things to who we are, how we live, what we feel. Because Judaism loves to tell us more about how to do something rather than why.

The key to the Jewish future is the mycorrhizal network of Torah. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai pulled off a nervy stunt to get an audience with Vespasian so he could ask, not for ritual, not for ancient sacrifices, NOT EVEN FOR JERUSALEM, but for Torah.

20161014_095628_resized

As disconnected trees, we will die. As trees whose roots intertwine with the tiny underground tubes, connecting us to our Etz Hayyim, our tree of life, we will thrive.

That’s why we are still here. That’s what makes us a community, a qehillah, brought together for a holy purpose, sustained and nourished by the words of Torah, thousands of years of collected knowledge that is still fresh and fragrant today.

****

Why have I devoted these four sermons, nearly 100 minutes of talking, over 10,000 words, to answering the question of “Why?”

I told you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that these are essential questions that we must be asking if we want there to be a future to progressive Judaism.

But more importantly, I want to make you care. I want you to understand the value of what we have inherited. I want you to ask why, and then go seek out the answer. And sometimes, all it takes to appreciate what we do as Jews is a new take, a fresh perspective, a captivating insight.

And beyond that, we should never do anything merely because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” That answer is insufficient for me, and it will not further the cause of connecting Jews with Judaism.

We need to ask “Why?” more. And we need to dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to find the answers.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)

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4 Whys #3: Why Do We Need Congregation Beth Shalom? – Kol Nidrei 5777

This is the third installment in a four-part series, “The Whys of Judaism.” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we discussed “Why do we need Judaism?” On the second day, it was “Why do we need the holy opportunities known as mitzvot?” It might be a good idea to read those posts before reading this one.

***

Today’s why: Why do we need Congregation Beth Shalom?

How many of us in this room grew up as members of the Beth Shalom community? Raise your hands.

This congregation has had an impact on many, many people, and has been an anchor of Squirrel Hill for just shy of a century. 2017 promises to be a very exciting year for Beth Shalom, and we are all fortunate to be a part of it. Judy and I feel extraordinarily lucky and grateful to be here with you at this time, and looking back over the past year, over 5776, we have seen wonderful growth and excitement. We are very happy to be with Beth Shalom as we begin the next hundred years.

Actually, some of us in the room may not appreciate what it means to be a part of a thriving community; not all synagogues are thriving. Yes, I know that some of us here look back to a time when the membership of this congregation was twice what it is today. But unlike most synagogues, this one is growing. We gained over 50 new member families over the past year, which is truly outstanding. And I’m confident that we will continue to grow and I will share with you why.

beth-shalom-exterior

But let’s face it: times are tough for membership-based organizations of any kind, and even tougher for religious institutions. People are wary of institutions. We are less loyal today. We are less likely to pay for things that do not necessarily give us some kind of immediate gratification. And of course, secularism is on the rise; you may be aware that the fastest-growing religious group in America is “None.”

And so the synagogue, if it is going to sustain its membership model, must demonstrate its immediate value.

Just a week and a half ago, there was a story on the front page of the NY Times Business section about a new development in Japan for what we Jews might call “unaffiliated” Buddhists. It’s a service provided by Amazon to order a Buddhist priest for rituals. You point and click, and the priest comes to you. Not bad, eh?  You know, Rent-a-Rabbi / Buy-a-Buddha.

The problem is that nobody is a Buddhist for just a half-hour once a year when they need a memorial service on the anniversary of the death of a departed loved one (which, BTW, is called in Japanese, “yahrzeit”).

Similarly, you cannot really be Jewish for a few hours a year either. And that is one primary reason for the existence of synagogues. We are not part-time Jews, flipping on the Jewish switch when you are saying qaddish or standing under the wedding huppah; we are Jewish throughout our lives.

And that’s why we need synagogues. The synagogue is not just valuable, it’s vital, and not just for the reasons that immediately come to mind:

  1. We offer a sense of qehillah, community. I spoke about this extensively last year, so I’ll just briefly remind you that our society has very few gathering places today. The synagogue is one place where you can rub elbows with other members of your community in real time, where you can belong. And that’s not only rare, but also priceless.
  2. We are a full-service organization for the entire Jewish lifecycle. We are here for you from, as they say, cradle to grave. We are here not only to offer support in times of need, but we offer resources to help you be Jewish and to be a better person at every stage of your life.
  3. Something that Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA said, which I find quite striking, which is that the synagogue is the only place that teaches you how to be a family. We are all about relationships. We are multi-generational, and we offer a rare framework in which it is possible to spend time together as a family, to learn together, and to discuss together our relationships in the context of holidays, lifecycle events, learning, services, and so forth. We create a space for true inter-connectedness in a way that few other organizations can.And here are just a few ways we do that: our Early Learning Center; our children’s services; Shababababa, which attracts 100 or more people once a month for a Friday night service; the Kiddush Club creates a space on Shabbat after services where families can hang out together; the pre-Benei Mitzvah Retreat, which we will be an annual event; and on and on.

But here is the reason that we really need Beth Shalom: that this congregation is the laboratory where we will strive to create the Jewish Future with a capital F here in Squirrel Hill.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I made the case for why we need Judaism, that is, because it can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. And we need a place where we can do those things; that place is Beth Shalom.

Yes, there are other synagogues nearby, but I am absolutely certain at this point that Beth Shalom is poised to become the center of traditional, and yet fully contemporary Jewish life and learning in Western Pennsylvania.  I know this is a lofty statement. Please bear with me as I explain.

****

Some of you have heard me reference many times the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews from 2013. That data has been a goldmine. Among the valuable revelations that the study gave us were that virtually all of us (94%) are proud to be Jewish. That may not have been historically true, in days when garden-variety anti-Semitism and the stigma of being an immigrant pressured our parents and grandparents to assimilate as quickly as possible.

Another fascinating piece of data is that most of us, around 72% believe in God, however we might understand what it means to “believe in God.”

These two data points alone suggest the need for synagogues, wherein Jews can gather to exercise their pride in Judaism and their relationship with qedushah / holiness.

I was recently struck by an idea, promoted by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie on a podcast of Judaism Unbound (http://www.judaismunbound.com, Episode 29), that the synagogue can be not only a laboratory for spirituality, but should be infused with creativity somewhat like an art studio.

Beth Shalom has the potential to become that creative studio for Judaism in this neighborhood.

I have a vision to entirely re-think what it means to be a synagogue. To make that vision a reality will require change, and a bit of risk, and a vote of confidence from you, the congregation.

I have said before in this space: the Beth Shalom of the future cannot be the Beth Shalom of the past. We have to change our model.

Here’s why: What motivated our parents and grandparents to build huge edifices like this was intimately tied to a specific point in time, in the middle of the 20th century, when Jews were finally “making it” in America, gradually being welcomed into the wider society. The Jews were movin’ on up.

And in the wake of the Shoah, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel, there was a certain pride that American Jews took in boldly identifying with Jewish national struggles and aspirations. So they paid their dues to institutions, many institutions, built big buildings, and assimilated into American culture. For the most part, they relegated their Judaism to Friday night or Saturday morning, expected the rabbi and cantor to live Jewishly on their behalf, and from Saturday afternoon until the next Friday dispensed with many of the old-world trappings that Jewish practice demands.

Our children have none of these motivations. They have nothing to prove about their Jewishness. They live in a world where identity is fluid, which is at the same time as liberating as it is lonely and bewildering. They feel that they have little need for or interest in institutions. They did not grow up trying to “fit in” as Americans, because there is no question on that front. They have never known a world without Israel, and I am saddened that many of them have learned to squelch their Jewishness on college campuses, lest they be tagged as pro-Zionist, a dirty word in some quarters.

Whereas in the past, synagogues could depend on hooks like High Holiday tickets and the bar/bat mitzvah process to prop up our membership rolls, that  model is mostly gone. So we have to do something to make a positive change. We have to give our children a legacy that they will rise to meet. To recall the challenge of today that I identified on Rosh Hashanah, we have to find a way to make them care.

The vision of Beth Shalom’s future will be to cultivate within all who enter a sense of what it means to be positively Jewish. Not reflexively Jewish, as most of us have historically been.   In other words, when you can be anything you want, we have to convince you of the value of wanting to do Jewish and to do it here.

To demonstrate that our tradition enriches your life, and that the synagogue is the place where you can share it with others, where you can learn to act, collectively and as individuals on  Jewish values. That is what we need to do.

How do we do this? By creating positive Jewish experiences. Jewish involvement that is meaningful. Jewish experiences that are contemporary. That are thoughtful and multi-layered. That include women and men and gay and straight and transgender as equals. That acknowledge that not all Jews are white, or know some Yiddish. That face the reality that many of us are now married to people who are not yet Jewish, and that we must reach out to all people in our midst. That open new doors, new portals to all.

The future of this congregation will be built on the framework of the past, but with a commitment to reach people that the current model is not reaching.

How do we reach all of those people? We have to create a set of programming that is awesome, that is so well-done, presented by a top-shelf lineup of speakers and artists and presenters of all sorts, people who will show us the richness of what Judaism has to offer.

So we are embarking at this very moment on a great challenge indeed, one that will, in fact, re-envision the synagogue for this century. A team of members of this congregation, plus our Executive Director Rob Menes and I have crafted a road map for the future of Beth Shalom. It’s called Derekh, literally, the way. (Derakheha darkhei noam, vekhol netivoteha shalom. The Torah’s ways are of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.)

Derekh will feature five portals of entry, five ways in which people can become involved in Jewish life:

  1. Jewish learning.
  2. Hesed / Acts of lovingkindness
  3. Israel
  4. Culture
  5. Mindfulness

The cornerstone of the operation, the first portal of Jewish learning will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, which will be a new twist on an ancient Jewish place. As you may recall from when I described this last year at this time, the synagogue was classically a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, and also a beit midrash, a house of study.

Today, the beit midrash is a place for the handful of Jews who are  highly Jewishly knowledgeable: rabbis, rabbinical students, Talmud scholars and the like. But I want to create, here at Beth Shalom, a new kind of beit midrash: one that is open and flexible and accessible to all. It will also be designed to reach not just members of Beth Shalom, but to bring in people from across the Pittsburgh community. This Open Community Beit Midrash will feature programming for a range of skill levels and interests from the curious- but-intimidated to the insatiable scholar.  And it will feature guest speakers and visiting scholars that are on the avant-garde of Jewish learning from across the spectrum.

Believe it or not, text-based Jewish learning is now fashionable in Israel, and not just for men in black hats. Former Member of Knesset Dr. Ruth Calderon founded one such house of study in Tel Aviv called Alma, and it has brought many Israelis, people who may otherwise have no connection to what we think of as Jewish life, to study Talmud and other Jewish texts.

And there is something of a renaissance in this area going on in America too. Mechon Hadar, founded by one of my rabbinical school classmates, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, is a center of contemporary Jewish learning in New York that has produced a wonderful range of classes and workshops and podcasts, with people coming from all over to study there, and others (like me) taking advantage of their materials online. Sefaria is a web-based platform that enables people to share Jewish resources – texts, translations, study materials – so that anybody with a computer has easy access to our tradition.

And we can be the contemporary center for Jewish life and learning right here.

But while the center of Derekh will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, there will be so much more:

The Hesed portal, through which we will step up our commitment to deeds of lovingkindness, featuring a range of social action activities, including awareness-raising, partnering with the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and Repair the World, for example.

The Israel portal, including regular trips, greater involvement with the Carmiel-Misgav partnership, Skype sessions between our teens and theirs.

The Culture portal: artists, films, musicians, maybe a studio space in this building for an artist-in-residence.  Just as nations are strengthened by arts and culture, so too will this portal strengthen us.

And the Mindfulness portal: Yoga, meditation, new approaches to the Jewish spiritual experience.

The goal is for Beth Shalom to be the primary resource for spiritual growth in the community, the lynchpin in generating a renaissance in Jewish life in our little shtetl. We need an infusion of exciting, meaningful programming here, and Derekh will provide that and more.

That’s our vision. That’s what will guarantee our future as a congregation.

We will need new staff to do what I’d like us to do. We’ll need to reconfigure spaces. And of course we will need to raise funds. This project, which will be significant and transformative not only for Beth Shalom, but also for the whole community, will depend on raising our endowment significantly.

So along those lines, please know that we will be in touch with you – by mail, but hopefully also in person – about contributing to Beth Shalom’s future.

We hope – we urge you to take hold of this opportunity to participate in this campaign, to consider a meaningful gift that will ensure that the Beth Shalom of the next 100 years will be more meaningful, more connective, more essential than the last 100. Beth Shalom has been here for you for nearly a century; now Beth Shalom needs you.

Why do we need this congregation? Because it will guarantee a strong, traditional, yet egalitarian and progressive Jewish anchor in this community for the next century. Because it will continue to support and nourish our subsequent generations. Because it will continue to enrich your life through community, lifelong Jewish learning, and spiritual growth. Because our lives need more qedushah, more holiness.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Kol Nidrei, October 11, 2016.)

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4 Whys #1: Why be Jewish? – Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777

Take a moment to think about why you are here today.

Are you here because you could not imagine being anywhere else on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

Are you here because you are energized by the themes of the High Holidays? About sin and repentance and the Book of Life? About God’s sovereignty in this world? About remembering our texts and tradition?

Are you here because of guilt?

Are you here for the first time, because you want to check it out?

Are you here because the moving melodies of the High Holiday liturgy always transport you to a unique spiritual zone?

Are you not sure why you’re here?

Why Values Based Communication?

This year, 5777, the theme of my sermons for of these days, these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awesomeness, is “Why?” The Four Whys, actually. And I’m going to attempt something that is in fact a wee bit bold. You might even call it (to use the lofty French term), “khutzpadik.”

I am going to try to answer a question that you may not have thought too deeply about, but which, I think, is an essential question of our time:

Why be Jewish? Why do we need Judaism?

And, to be even more specific, the question is more accurately not about “being Jewish,” which many of us can do quite easily by default, but rather, “Why DO Jewish?” Why be a part of a Jewish community? Why engage with Jewish life and learning? Why commit yourself to an ancient tradition that might seem sometimes charmingly irrelevant, and at other times downright oppressive?

This is the first why, and perhaps the biggest of the four.

The questions of “Why be Jewish”  has not always been a feature of Jewish life. Most of our ancestors did not have the luxury of asking. But today, we need to address this head-on.

Not too long ago, I saw a TED talk featuring a television producer named Andrew Stanton. Mr. Stanton said something that I found particularly relevant about the way we engage with anything today.

We are constantly bombarded with various sponsored messages: buy this, eat here, do that, make yourself thinner, happier, healthier, etc. This barrage causes some of us to want to retreat to within a protective shell, to tune out the noise.

As one who makes his living trying to get people to pay attention to his work, what Mr. Stanton said really struck me: “Make me care.” We are all equipped today with a dispassionate outer shell; not much breaks through. In order to be heard you have to find the hook that connects to the soul beneath.

I want to make you care about being Jewish, and about living a Jewish life. I want you to tune into that voice that comes from within, calling you to something greater.

We here in congregations like Beth Shalom are firmly engaged with the rest of the world. And let’s face it: some of the things we know and feel contradict some ideas found in traditional Judaism. We know, for example, that the universe came into being 14.5 billion years ago, not 5777 years ago today. Traditional Judaism does not count women and men as equals. The theology espoused in the Torah is woefully simplistic.

Even the Jewish values that we learn from our tradition: expressing gratitude, respect for others, responsibility for the Earth, honoring your elders, visiting the sick, redeeming captives, seeking justice for all people, and so on. Aren’t these simply human values? Why do we need Jewish text to teach us these things?

For sure, a handful of us are convinced of the value of Jewish tradition. But the vast majority of us are not.

Beginning right now, and stretching over the four sermons between now and Yom Kippur, I will be making the case for Judaism in four general areas, going from the macro “why” to the micro “why”:

RH day 1: Why we need Judaism (in general)  

RH day 2: Why we need mitzvot / Shabbat

Kol Nidrei: Why we need Beth Shalom?

Yom Kippur morning: Why we need Torah

These are the Four Whys.

So without further ado: Why do we need Judaism?

I recently heard Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in LA retell a good story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest luminaries of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel meets a Jewish fellow who tells him that he does not need to go to synagogue or otherwise participate in Jewish rituals. “I’m basically a good guy. I treat my family well, my friends well, I take care of people,” he says. “I don’t need Judaism.”

Rabbi Heschel responds by saying, “Gee, I envy you. I often say things that I regret. I don’t feel like I am generous enough with my time and my money. I wish I were a better parent and colleague and friend. I wish I were more like you.”

Who do you think has a better understanding for why we need Judaism?

I am going to make the case for how personally meaningful our tradition is, and how it can improve your life by making you feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious, more satisfied, and improve your relationships, your family life, and your inner peace.

In short, the answer to “Why be Jewish?” that may be recited while standing on one foot is, “Because drawing on Jewish knowledge and Jewish living will yield tangible benefits to your life.”

I’m going to warn you up front, however. To get these benefits, you have to put some effort in. Jewish living takes work. It takes time. But let me assure you: the time you put in will pay you back, and then some.

Before we go further, however, some things that I am not going to tell you:

  • I am not going to say that eating kosher food is healthier for you.
  • I am not going to say that keeping the Shabbat for 25 hours every week will give you a boost in your paycheck.
  • I am not going to tell you that making sure that your doorposts have properly-mounted, kosher mezuzot will keep your family safe from harm.

There are certainly people in the Jewish world who say those things. I’m not one of them.  Let’s dispense with superstition entirely and talk about meaning.

I think it is helpful to frame our discussion in terms of three major paths through Jewish life: ritual, action, and learning.

  1. Ritual

 

This is probably the most familiar area of Judaism, because it is what American synagogues have bet on. It includes tefillah / prayer, of course, but also holiday activities, including the observance of Shabbat, lifecycle events like berit millah / circumcision, weddings, and funerals. While ritual is an essential and often meaningful part of Jewish life, it is only a part of what Judaism offers.

Here are a few examples from the most popularly-observed Jewish rituals, and some perspective that makes them more relevant:

  • Lighting Hanukkah candles, for example, illuminates not only our windowsills but also our world; they remind us of the need for us to continue to spread light throughout the spiritually dark places all around us. And we know that our world needs more enlightenment.
  • Gathering family and friends to dine and tell the story of Pesah is not just about the food, nor is it merely about an ancient tale of taskmasters and slaves and a stubborn king. It is about the value of freedom and our obligation to seek out and eliminate oppression in all its forms.
  • Fasting on Yom Kippur is not an endurance test; it is an opportunity to cleanse your body, your mind, and your heart. It is a personal challenge that helps us to understand the mind-body connection, and to greater appreciate the creature comforts to which we are all accustomed. As your grandmother may have told you, there’s nothing wrong with suffering a little now and then.

Ritual requires context. The synagogue service, circumcision, eating particular foods, mourning rituals, etc. must be connected to the larger picture of Judaism. Ritual cannot stand alone; when we connect it to ourselves and our world, it can enrich our lives, enshrine moments in holiness, and provide a framework for expression that helps us celebrate, grieve, discover ourselves, and express a whole range of emotions.

All ritual is accompanied by liturgy: words that make the ritual complete. Without it, the ritual would fall flat; it would be left unmoored from its past and future. And just as important are the traditional melodies that accompany the words, that remind us of our own pasts, of our paths of learning and connection with our parents and teachers. Think of how powerful some of the words and  melodies that we have chanted today are; they are like wormholes in the time-space continuum that connect us to our ancestors.

Ritual replays for us the Jewish story, reminding us why we are here and what our responsibilities are to everybody around us.

  1. Action

This is the whole sphere of Jewish behaviors that are not explicitly tied to ritual. Examples include the dietary laws (kashrut), guidelines for how we speak to each other / Leshon HaRa, the obligation to repair this very broken world / Tikkun Olam, business ethics, and the moral code that ensures a just society (not murdering, honoring your parents, etc.). This area is much more far-ranging, and potentially rewarding, than most of us are aware of.

We all know, on some level, that action is a mandatory feature of Judaism. You may have heard that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity generally is that being a Christian requires faith, while being Jewish requires action.

The underlying value of Jewish actions is that they improve ourselves and our world. We may not always understand the value of a particular non-ritual action, but after doing something over and over, its internal wisdom is revealed.

Let’s take, for example, kashrut, the Jewish dietary principles. You may ask, “Why, Rabbi, if God created the shrimp, am I not permitted to eat it?” Or, “Pork has fewer calories than beef. Shouldn’t I eat more pork?” How can avoiding cheeseburgers possibly improve this world?

One possible answer is this:

In their excellent introduction to our tradition, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point to the following interpretation of kashrut (from Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Shemini, #7):

The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?

You might think that kashrut is about food, but I would counter that kashrut is about maintaining the sanctity of life through boundaries. And this is becoming ever so much more important in the Information Age, when all the boundaries are melting away before our eyes. Eating is such an essential part of our lives that our understanding the limits in consumption easily transfers to other aspects of our relationship with all creatures.

We’ll speak about action a little bit more tomorrow.

  1. Learning

This is probably the area that has been the least-emphasized in contemporary Jewish life, but in my opinion the most important. Why? Because Judaism is a tradition of the heart and mind, and understanding this is essential to deriving meaning from our traditions. Without the basis of knowledge, mature, sophisticated understanding of how to connect Jewish action to ourselves, the former are empty, meaningless.

Once upon a time, there was the Temple in Jerusalem; it was the center of Jewish life.  The Kohanim / priests ruled.  If you were fortunate, you went maybe a few times a year to the Temple to offer your animals and produce as sacrifices. That was the extent of Jewish ritual.

The Romans destroyed it for the 2nd and final time in 70 CE, leaving the Jews with a dilemma: How would we connect with God?  How would we maintain our national identity?

Out of the ashes of the Temple came rabbinic Judaism, and with it the tradition of Jewish learning which has enabled Judaism to survive to this day. The Romans did us two great favors: (א) they ended the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice, and (ב) they made Judaism decentralized. The center of Jewish tradition could never be taken away from us again, because it would now be carried in our heads (and ultimately written down in books).

No more would we be a hierarchical religion, led by priests. The Romans democratized us. Anybody who wanted access to the tradition could learn our textual sources and thus argue with leaders and teachers and scholars.

We began to offer the words of our lips, in prayer and study, instead of animals on the altar. And thus words became the glue that bound us together as a people. And it is this focus on teaching and learning from generation to generation that has enabled us to survive, long after the Babylonians and the Ptolemies and the Romans and the Byzantines and the Ottomans are all gone.

The center of Jewish life is not the Temple in Jerusalem, nor is it the ruin that remains there, the Kotel, the Western Wall, or any other physical place. It is the Jewish bookshelf, which exists not only on physical bookshelves or online, but in the Jewish heart and mind. It is not just the Torah, but the Talmud, the midrash, the commentaries, the halakhic interpretation, the stories of the last 2,000 years.

And it is from this center of ancient wisdom from which we draw meaning about our lives, our interactions, our families, our businesses. The Jewish bookshelf has sustained us for two millennia; our future depends on it.

I will discuss this in greater depth on Yom Kippur.

***

It is the combination of these three things – ritual, action, and learning – that gives our lives shape, that bring us meaning.

That’s a tricky concept: meaning. You can’t find it on the Internet. You can’t buy it with any form of currency. You won’t find any photos of it on Instagram.

Why? Because meaning is the ultimate intangible. It is elusive. But it is something we all need. A life without meaning is a life that is not worth living.

The reason we need Judaism is that when we embrace it, it elevates our lives by giving them meaning. And by engaging with Jewish life and learning, by being a member of the Jewish community, we have the opportunity to experience that elevation and that meaning in a joyful, sociable context.

So, now that you’ve made me care, Rabbi, what’s the entry point? Where do I start?

The tale is told of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who is famous for two particular moments in his life: the first was that, after having decided to convert to Christianity to advance his career prospects, he stopped into a synagogue at Kol  Nidrei to give Judaism one last shot. After experiencing that service, he changed his mind, realizing that he could not possibly leave such a rich and inspiring tradition. He opted to remain Jewish.

But the second moment came years later, after he was famous for having embraced Judaism and written a contemporary philosophical work on the subject, The Star of Redemption. He was asked publicly, “Herr Rosenzweig, are you putting on tefillin every day?”

Rosenzweig’s answer: “Not yet.”

We are all somewhere on that continuum of “Not yet.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be a perfectly-observant, ritually-correct, Talmudically-fluent Jew to elevate yourself through Jewish tradition.

You can enter it from any point: come see me about where to start: it could be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or taking time to visit someone in the hospital, or we could jump right into learning Talmud. But if you want the benefits that Judaism offers, you have to start somewhere.

All of it – ritual, action, and learning – can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. I am sorry if they did not teach you that in Hebrew school, but that’s how it looks from my vantage point. Embracing Judaism has dramatically improved my life; the same could be true for you.

למה ללמה קוראים למה? צילום: sxe

למה?

So, why are you here today? Why Judaism? Because we need it.

Tomorrow we’ll talk more about action.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/3/2016.)

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Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

Who Are We? – Pesah 5776

Pesah is about identity in a way that no other holiday is. It is the festival that tells us who we are, and that is the essential Jewish question of our time.

Not too long ago, there were very specific cultural and tribal definitions of what defines a Jew. We knew who we were, the non-Jews knew who we were, and there were very clear lines. There was no liminality, no ambiguity around the borders of the tribe.

All of that began to change with Jewish emancipation. From the time that Napoleon first granted French Jews the rights and privileges of French citizenship in 1789, the gradual inclusion of Jews into the wider, non-Jewish society has yielded the situation in which we find ourselves today. Now there are all kinds of Jews in the mix: black, white, Asian, openly gay, straight, transgender, secular, not-so-secular, of course, but also all sorts of combinations that are the product of interfaith relationships. The Jewish world is no longer demarcated by simple, clear lines.

Add into this melange our changing concept of personal identity in 21st-century America. The idea of “Who are we?” in the wider culture is far more fluid than it has ever been. One need not look too far beyond the very-current struggles over who can relieve themselves in a public bathroom to understand this. Are we who we were at birth? Or can we become something else entirely?

Fortunately, for Jews, we have some common themes of identity, and some of the most important aspects of Jewish identity are invoked in the Pesah seder. For one thing, some of our most fundamental, personal Jewish memories involve the seder table – a home ritual that brings friends and family together.

It’s worth noting that, after the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the seder is the second-most observed ritual of the Jewish year: about 70% of American Jews (according to the Pew study of 2013) show up for a seder. That’s a pretty impressive number, especially since only 22% of us have kosher homes and 13% avoid spending money on Shabbat. It is therefore a very strong identity-building ritual, even if it’s just dinner with matzah. Think of your own seminal sedarim: how you may recall your silly uncle’s embarrassingly-loud, horribly off-tune singing, or that time your teenage cousin actually drank four full cups of wine, or checking to see if the wine in Eliyahu’s cup had actually gone down when you opened the door. Think of the lessons learned, how proud you may have felt being invited to engage in serious discussion of tough questions with grown-ups, the sense of community engendered by making your first seder on your own for your friends when you couldn’t get back home, the feeling of togetherness created by having all the people you love together, and so forth. Even the implicit messages — who are we? We are the people that gather to eat traditional foods and to discuss their history.

Passover 1946 - the Seder Table at the Elinoff home, with Joel's great-grandparents, grandparents, and extended family.

Pesah in Pittsburgh, 1946.

And all the more so for those of us who spend some time at the seder discussing the themes of the holiday. If you dwell at length on the text of the traditional haggadah, then you have most likely encountered the most relevant statement about what it means to be Jewish. It’s quoted straight out of the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5):

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

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim, shene-emar: “Vehigadta levinkha bayom hahu lemor, ba’avur zeh asa Adonai li betzeti miMitzrayim.”

In every generation, one must see oneself as having personally come forth from Egypt, as it is written (Ex. 13:8), “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”

When I was growing up, we used to read through the haggadah in English, full-speed ahead, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 sheqels. So I never really paid much attention to this line until I was in my 30s.

But this is in fact the whole reason that we gather and tell the story on the first night of Pesah : to make it personal. To put ourselves into the story. To walk a mile in the shoes of our ancestors, to connect with their struggles. To re-live the formation of the Israelite nation, conceived in slavery and delivered at Mt. Sinai. We went down into Egypt as a family and emerged as a people, as Am Yisrael. And as much as we celebrate our freedom on Pesah, we also celebrate our identity as members of the tribe that left Egypt together and received the Torah together.

And so it is our duty to reinforce that message at the seder, not only to dine as free people in the style of the Greek symposium, reclining and dipping and telling weighty stories, but also to connect ourselves with slavery, and to tell our children about it.

And how do we do that? How do we teach our children, who are mostly, thankfully, being raised sheltered from even the strife and hardships that our grandparents knew, what it’s like to be a slave? While we are reclining in our safe, comfortable homes, in an environment in which food is always plentiful, where debts are mostly politely confined to paperwork, where manual labor is generally an option, how do we continue the generational transmission of understanding oppression?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Ask those gathered to discuss what we are “slaves” to (job, mortgage, alarm clock, etc.). Are we really “free?”
  2. If you have any Shoah survivors at the table, ask them if they were ever slaves, and perhaps to describe their experiences.
  3. Find some information in advance about slaves in the world today. Estimates vary, but there are many millions. Consider our economic habits and how they may keep people enslaved in distant lands (see, for example, slaveryfootprint.org). Consider what that means in the context of our heritage.
  4. Consider another essential line in the haggadah, the preamble to the Maggid (storytelling) section of the seder: Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Discuss how our understanding of / history of slavery require us to act in this world?
  5. Consider that the Torah invokes our having been slaves many times, and uses that statement of our history to justify our not mistreating strangers, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Talk about how that obligation affects our relationships with others.

Your creativity at the seder should not go only into the food! On the contrary! The more that you put into making your first nights of Pesah engaging, informative, and reflective, helping those around the table enter into our tradition, the greater chance that they will carry on that tradition, creating new memories and new opportunities for our collective spiritual growth.

Why have Jews always been at the forefront of issues of social justice? Why did Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many other Jews, march with Dr. Martin Luther King? Why was the American Federation of Labor founded by Samuel Gompers, a member of our tribe? Why did so many American Jews advocate to help free our Soviet cousins in the 1980s? Why did the Zionist movement ultimately succeed in building a Jewish state? Why did Sigmund Freud seek to liberate the unconscious mind? Why did Jonas Salk work to rid the world of polio?

Because of the identity formed around the seder table, where we see ourselves as slaves and learn about the imperative to help all those who are suffering from persecution and oppression of all forms to gain their freedom. That is who we are, regardless of all of the other ways in which we differ.

And the very foundation upon which this identity has been forged, the one thing that we all have in common, is the Torah. Yes, we interpret it differently. Yes, we disagree over its meaning. But that is simply the way that Jews have always related to our tradition, and it is, in fact, ours. The Pesah tale, the story of our nation’s departure from Egypt, is the seminal moment of identity formation, and it connects directly to Shavuot, seven weeks later, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. That is the cornerstone of what it means to be Jewish, and perhaps that is why we keep coming back to the seder table every year.

So when you gather with your family and friends tonight, look around the table at the young people there, and ask yourself, “Have I engaged them? Have they learned something? Have I helped them fashion their identities? Have I enhanced that multi-generational connection?

That is what Pesah is all about. Not necessarily the food, not the karpas, not even the Pesah-Matzah-Maror or the four retellings of the story. It’s about identity. It’s about who we are.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First Day of Pesah 5776, 4/23/16.) 

 

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Filed under Festivals, Sermons