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I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

Usually, when I return to the beginning of the Torah, my thoughts turn to the aspects of Creation that concern our relationship with and responsibility to it. That is, our obligation “le’ovdah ulshomerah,” “to till it and to tend it,” (Gen. 2:15).

But one of the best things about Parashat Bereshit (the first weekly reading in the Torah) is that there is just so much to talk about! So something else occurred to me this week.

Rashi asks the essential question up front about Bereshit: Why start here? Why didn’t the Torah begin with the lawgiving parts of Shemot / Exodus, specifically 12:2:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

(That’s Parashat Bo – not quite the end of the Exodus narrative, but more or less the first passage of the Torah which is a series of laws.)

And Rashi answers himself by saying that the reason the Torah starts with Bereshit is that it is of utmost importance for all of us to know that God created the world.* That is a fundamental aspect of our existence, and what amounts to a postulate for all that follows. I must say that, although Rashi and I would most likely disagree on the precise meaning of “God created the world,” or for that matter, the meaning of the word “God,” Rashi is definitely onto something here. The premise that God’s metaphorical hand is active in the world, in its creation and ongoing functioning, is clearly a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, no matter how we understand this parashah.

the earth

As you are surely aware by now, we are in the early stages of a process that will ultimately yield a new strategic plan, and there are plenty of good reasons for why now is the time for Congregation Beth Shalom to do so. I was able this week to see some of the data collected so far by the congregational survey that many of you filled out. We have now received about 220 of them, which is wonderful. One of the things that is instantly clear from some of the data is that the principles of Conservative Judaism are important to a majority of the respondents, and that many believe that a focal point for our activities should be teaching those principles and how to fulfill them.

Now, as you can imagine, this is very good news to me, because that is what I do all day long, and most evenings as well. And, as you know, there is a lot of stuff to teach in Judaism. The question always comes down to this: In the limited time that we all have, what are the essential things upon which we should focus?

I have to concede that I am a fundamentalist. No, not like what you’re thinking of when you hear that word: I am clearly not a literalist, not an extremist, not an ultra-nationalist, not one who shuns modernity. Rather I am a fundamentalist in that I believe that what we need to focus on, in this world of infinite choice and limited time, are the fundamental aspects of Judaism. So what are the fundamentals? In my humble opinion, they are these:

  • Shabbat / Sabbath
  • Kashrut / Holy eating
  • Talmud Torah / Learning the words of our tradition and making them come alive today
  • Ritual / Connecting our actions and thoughts and feelings with our tradition
  • Community

(No promises, but I am going to try to make this a series.)

Let’s talk about Shabbat. This is first on the list for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it is “created” in Parashat Bereshit. When we read the beginning of the Torah on Simhat Torah Tuesday morning, right after we finished the end of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the first aliyah ended with the following (and, by the way, the custom is for the whole congregation to recite this first, because it’s so essential):

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱ-לֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃

On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. (Gen. 2:1-3)

We also chant this, of course, twice every Friday evening: once in the synagogue service and once at home right before reciting qiddush. You might read from this that the framers of our tradition thought it to be fairly important.

And they were right. Shabbat is not just important: it’s essential. It’s the keystone of Jewish life.

And we need Shabbat more than ever. One of the biggest impediments to greater involvement in synagogue activities cited in the responses to the survey was time. We don’t have enough time.

And you know how unhealthy that is. I don’t need to quote you any academic studies or articles to tell you that we are all overworked, under-slept, overtired; that we don’t spend enough time with our family; that we don’t have time to eat properly; that we feel overwhelmed by the constant noise, the constant feeling of go-go-go; that we are constantly assaulted with paid messages vying for our attention: buy this, vote for that one, eat here, and on and on and on.

I am as busy as anybody here who is busy. My family is as crazed as yours, with pickups and dropoffs and instrument lessons and dance lessons and Back to School Night and everything else. And my family and I all manage to shut down for Shabbat. No appointments. No shopping. No Facebook. No television. And you know what? It’s fantastic.

(BTW, from time to time you see people who take “vacations” from social media. You can absolutely do that every 7th day. I highly recommend it.)

Our ancestors knew this, and even though they didn’t have Facebook or TV or cars or smartphones, they understood the value of shutting down every seventh day.

And what is the Shabbat dinner table, if not the altar on which we build family and community?

shabbat dinner

One of the most dismal numbers in the Federation’s community study, which came out at the beginning of 2018, was the number of Conservative-identified Jews who had been to a Shabbat meal in the past year. Do you want to guess what that number was?

It was 44%. That to me is shockingly low. But it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to teach the fundamentalist value of Shabbat: of dining together with friends and family, of shutting down and reconnecting in real time, of learning a little something of Jewish tradition, of holy eating, of expressing gratitude for what we have.

So in this regard, I have some wonderful news: We can do something about that. We are in fact doing something about that figure. And by we, I mean, all of us.

I would make a reasonable guess that most of us in this room are in that 44%. Part of the reason that you are here this morning is that you “get” Shabbat. You understand the value that it brings to you and your family. You understand how it shapes your week, how it gives you some time to unwind, to do something heady and holy and healthy.

You know that, to quote Ahad Ha-Am, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. You know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his infinitely ethereal prose, called Shabbat a “palace in time” and you can feel the power in his observation that (The Sabbath, p. 93):

On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.

You know that God’s having rested on the seventh day is as meaningful as God’s having created the world in the first six.

And that’s why you have to help us out in creating a Shabbat meal program.

A few brave volunteers have planned a pilot program for members of Beth Shalom inviting others into their homes for a Shabbat dinner on October 19th. The ultimate goal, and it might take a couple of years for us to do this, is to personally invite all of the other members of this congregation into our homes.

This is the realization of a fantastically fundamentalist move. If done properly, it will hit all five of the fundamentalist buttons: Shabbat, kashrut, Talmud Torah, ritual, and community.

But we need you to make it happen. We need you to be a part of it, you who “get” Shabbat. Here’s the link:

bethshalompgh.org/shabbatdinners/

Be a fundamentalist with me! Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/8/2018.)

 
* What Rashi says is a little more complicated: “If the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are thieves! You have conquered the land belonging to the seven nations of Canaan,’ they can reply, ‘The whole world belongs to the Holy One. He created it and gave it to whomever He wanted to. He first willed to give it to them, and then He willed to take it from them and give it to us.’” (Translation from The Commentators’ Bible by Michael Carasik.)

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Horeb and Sinai: Pennsylvania’s Clergy Abuse Report – Shofetim 5778

I was actually not planning on giving a formal sermon this week, given that I should be dedicating my time to preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then the report released by the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into more than 1,000 victims of abuse by Catholic priests over the last 70 years hit the news. And I realized that I cannot let this go by without comment.

And here is why: we who care about religion, and the image that religious people have, are all affected by this. Yes, it might be easy to say, “That’s not us; that is the Catholics.” But that would be an exercise in rationalization. While I think it would be difficult to make the case that the horrific, even systematic kinds of abuse described in this report exist to this extent in the Jewish world, there have certainly been a few cases among the Jews, and even here in Pittsburgh as well, and recently.

I do not think that there is anything that anybody can say or do that can help those who have been hurt in this way by religious leaders. There is nothing that will remove the fear and suspicion, pain and mistrust caused by the abusers. It is a “hillul haShem,” a profanation of God’s name of the highest possible order. And I am simply devastated that those victims may never again be able to put their trust in God, or even in people.

This is not good for the Jews. It’s not good for Judaism, because we, the faithful, have to continue to reach out to those who have been turned off by the appalling behavior of few outwardly pious people. As you know, it is not only my job, but yours as well, to make the case for the value of our tradition, of our prayer and learning and community. However, the echoes of those sins described in the report, and the failure of these dioceses to respond properly, will continue to ring in the ears of those who are looking for an exit not only from the church, but from all forms of religious life, including ours.

Perhaps the only upshot that will come from this is that the report has made it clear that, even though the Church claims that it handles abuse allegations very differently from in the past, the most important thing to do if you ever hear anything that suggests that a case of abuse has taken place is to go immediately to local law enforcement.

You might say that this principle is enshrined in the opening of today’s parashah, Shofetim, which mandates the creation of “shofetim veshoterim,” judges, courts, and law enforcement officers, and gives the imperative, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof.” Justice; you shall pursue justice. It is our responsibility as Jews to ensure that we live in a just society, and that we have the people in place to enforce justice.

***

A childhood acquaintance of mine, Andrew Nicastro, was abused by his Catholic priest in my hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts, when we were in junior high school. Most of you know that I grew up in an idyllic New England setting, a small college town where life was generally quiet; scandals happened elsewhere.

Williamstown

My perspective as an adult makes everything back in my childhood home seem somehow smaller, less powerful when seen through adult eyes.  The soccer field upon which we rejoiced in victory and choked up over loss; the schoolyard where 6th-grade drama played out in its full, nasty glory, the single-screen movie theater where my friends and I saw the best and worst movies of the 1980s are today less valent, less polarized with emotional residue.

My current realities of fatherhood, of meetings and mortgages and the endless logistics of scheduling the modern family have changed the equations of memory and my youth. We grow, we change, we mature.

But more than this, we learn to take responsibility for our choices.  We learn independence, and we learn how to lead.

A few weeks back, in Parashat Va-ethannan, we read the re-iteration of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, the so-called Ten Commandments or Aseret Ha-Dibberot.  It is worth noting that in Shemot, the place where they receive it is called Sinai, and in Devarim it is called Horev / Horeb.

Moshe

Why the change?  What’s the difference?

The names are different precisely because the context is different.  Not Shemot vs. Devarim, per se, but rather that in the first recounting of Moshe’s sojourn on the mountain, the Israelites have just left Egypt; they are, for the first time, masters of their own destiny, but not yet mature. We all know that the generation of freed slaves, as if they were children, whined their way across the desert.  “Moshe, are we there yet?” “Moshe, we’re thirsty.” “Moshe, we miss the meat and the leeks of Egypt.”

But the second telling, the one we read today, occurs nearly forty years later.  The tribes are now led by the children and grandchildren of those former slaves, and they have a new perspective.  As such, they are ready to accept the mitzvot, to accept the obligations of the covenant with God.  They are now a mature people, about to enter their own land. They have grown.

Horeb and Sinai are not really two names for the same place; they are distinct names for different states of mind.  Sinai is a place of immaturity; Horeb is a place of readiness, of willingness to step forward into a new life, of leading rather than following. Of responsibility.

At Sinai, Moses is at the height of his leadership, but that is as much about the Israelites as it is about him.  At Horeb, Moses is preparing to relinquish leadership, to hand over the reins to Joshua, the only clear leader who emerged from the prior generation.  This leadership piece is an essential part of the Horeb equation. As the Israelites have matured between Sinai and Horeb, they have also gained the ability to accept and participate in leadership.

Now back to Massachusetts. My abused friend, Andrew Nicastro was awarded a settlement of $500,000 in 2012 for his civil lawsuit against two retired bishops of the local diocese of the Catholic church. Between 1982 and 1984, when we were in junior high school, Mr. Nicastro was regularly molested by a local priest, Father Alfred Graves. The lawsuit charged that the bishops knew that Father Graves had committed similar sins elsewhere within the diocese in 1976, and had covered it up.

I knew Andrew from the age of eight or so because we played on the same soccer team; his father was also a member of the faculty with my father at nearby North Adams State College; I was unaware of the abuse until 5 years ago. However, the details of this case suggest that this horrible crime against him could easily have been prevented.

I am clearly not in a position to judge the Catholic Church and its issues; let’s leave that to God. But it is clear that what happened to my friend resulted from a disastrous failure of leadership.  Rather than do the right thing in 1976, when charges against Father Graves were first raised, the bishops covered up the problem and moved him to a different parish, as was done with Catholic priests in Pittsburgh and all over the world when such charges came up.

The diocesan elders were not at Horeb; they were at Sinai.  They responded to the problem not by defrocking Father Graves (as eventually happened, but not soon enough), but rather by seeking a quick fix.  This is not leadership. We can only hope that after all of the similar cases that have come to light in recent years, that they have in fact made the move to Horeb, have learned to make the responsible choice, and have atoned for their past failures.

I was shocked when I first heard this news a few years ago. But this was not a faceless victim; this was somebody I knew personally. And I remembered Andrew again this week. And I remember that although I never went to St. Patrick’s Church in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on some level, that could have been me.

This tale serves as a reminder that no matter where we are, we are never exempt from the responsibilities of doing the right thing.  We can never be at Sinai; we must always be at Horeb. We must always step back from the situation, from the anxiety and the emotion and sometimes even the inclination to forgive those whom we know personally for their wrongs.  Moshe will not be there to accompany us into the Promised Land; that we must do ourselves. Let us hope that the Catholic Church has taken that step, so that not only will my friend Andrew find some peace, but that there will be no more like him.

The grand jury report demonstrates that the shofetim veshoterim / judges and law enforcement officers are the right people to handle cases of abuse at the hands of clergy. As for the task of restoring faith in religion, well, I leave that up to all of us to continue to teach the values of the Torah, among them the values of leadership, of responsibility, of making the right choices in our interactions with everybody.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/18/2018.)

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The Tent of Love – Balaq 5778

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

ahavah - love 5779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are they connected?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. Everybody is welcome here, period. 

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Being Jewish in a World Without Boundaries – Qorah 5778

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

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

Prince-Harry-Meghan-Markle-Wedding-GIFs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Why Can’t We Edit the Torah? – Naso 5778

One of the greatest points of confusion regarding Jewish law is the following:

The Torah is NOT Judaism.

More accurately, the religious tradition described in the Torah is not how we practice Judaism today. Yes, certain items in halakhah / Jewish law appear in the Torah, and you can make the case that Judaism is derived from the Torah. But Jewish practice today contains far more complexity and subtlety and detail than what is found between the two atzei hayyim (posts) of a Torah scroll.

This is especially important in understanding parashat Naso, which we read today, and in particular, one of the most disturbing passages in the Torah, found therein: the description of the ancient ritual for the Sotah, the woman who is suspected by her husband of being unfaithful.

In short, the Torah’s description is like this: the Kohen (priest) writes a curse on a scroll, and then pours water over the scroll to dissolve the ink. The inky water is collected and the suspected wife is given some to drink. If she dies (or suffers greatly, or miscarries; it’s not exactly clear; the text says “latzbot beten velanpil yarekh,” causing her “belly to distend and her thigh to sag”), she was guilty. If she survives the ordeal, she is innocent.

Antique Print-CEREMONY-BITTER WATER-RITUAL SOTAH-ADULTERY-Cunaeus-1682

Now, you probably did not hear about that in Hebrew school. And for sure you have never heard of such a thing practiced by Jews, and there is a good reason for that: it’s barbaric. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the Talmudic period thought it interesting enough that they put together a tractate on it: Massekhet Sotah, in which they detail the process. However, toward the end we discover that the practice had been discontinued some time in the past, although of course they do not know how far back. (Scholars cannot confirm whether or not the ritual was actually ever practiced.) BT Sotah 47a:

משרבו המנאפים פסקו המים המרים

From the time when adulterers proliferated, [the performance of the ritual of] the bitter waters was nullified; [they would not administer the bitter waters to the sotah.]

This is, it seems to me, a rabbinic cop-out. They can’t say, “When they realized that the ritual was cruel and unjust, they stopped performing it.” Rather, they cite the proliferation of adultery as the reason – i.e. there were just too many adulterers for us always to be performing this ceremony. But this is not really a logical conclusion; it is, rather, in line with the traditional rabbinic attempt to mitigate the harsh punishments encoded in Torah law. The Talmud often seeks to lessen the severity of the Torah’s harshest decrees. We do not put people to death for violating Shabbat in public, or for being disobedient children, both of which appear in the Torah as commandments. Likewise, we do not perform cruel punishments like the ritual of the bitter waters. And we likely never have.

But what do we do about passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable? After all, there are many: the tale of Noah’s drinking and his son Ham’s apparent misbehavior; Lot and his daughters; Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar; the Torah’s apparent condoning of slavery, concubinage, prostitution, etc.*

When I was working on my first master’s degree at Texas A&M University, a very traditional, conservative campus, I would occasionally hear very serious Christians talk about living according to the Bible. My (thought, not spoken) response was, “Aha. So do you check your garments for sha’atnez (mixture of wool and linen forbidden by the Torah)? Do you plan on marrying multiple wives? Should you kill the entire family of somebody who raped your sister?”

The writer AJ Jacobs seized on this idea a few years back in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he describes his attempt to live according to the Torah, literally. What results is an often hilarious series of episodes. But his overarching point is clear: neither Judaism nor Christianity takes the Bible at its word. And we should acknowledge this.

We do not live according to the Torah. We live according to rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, which is colored by centuries of societal development and modifications to account for how we live today.

So what on Earth could be the reason that we still read about the sotah ritual? Can’t we just edit it out? Doesn’t it make us look bad?

I mentioned earlier that Massekhet Sotah (the Talmudic tractate) covers many of the details of the sotah ritual, as if the rabbis discussing it, long after the practice had been abandoned, was meant to be preserved, as if some day, like the Temple sacrifices, it would be reinstated (has veshalom / God forbid!). But the Talmud is not necessarily a linear book, and, as a text devoted to argument, you find within it pieces that comport well with contemporary sensibilities, even when the subject matter is arcane and/or obsolete. Elsewhere in Massekhet Sotah, we read the following (17a):

דריש ר”ע איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן לא זכו אש אוכלתן

Rabbi Akiva taught: When a man and a woman merit it [through their appropriate behavior], the Divine presence stands between them; when they do not, fire consumes them.

I have often used this piece of wisdom at weddings. It plays on the fact that “ish” (man) and “ishah” (woman) share the letters for esh (fire), and the additional letters between them are yod and heh, which spell out Yah, a short name for God. So when you take God out, when you remove the qedushah, the holiness from a sexual relationship, all you have left is fire – empty passion – which will not last, which will consume itself.

So one advantage to studying and re-reading passages that make us uncomfortable is that we might in fact uncover gems of wisdom when we dig deeper. But in order to find those gems, we have to keep reading.

Another lesson we might glean is that our understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism changes. Just as the Talmudic rabbis, living around Baghdad in the 3rd century or so, could not stomach the ritual of the bitter waters (!), so too can we look back on Jewish practices historically and make judgments based on who we are and how we live today. Halakhah, Jewish law, evolves. The world changes, and Judaism changes with it. We treat women and men equally under Jewish law (i.e. egalitarianism). We uphold the values of Shabbat, even as we encourage people to drive to synagogue if they live too far away from the synagogue. We ordain gay men and women as rabbis, and join them in marriage under the huppah (wedding canopy).

At the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (late-night study session on the first night of the festival of Shavuot) last Saturday night, we read the words of Rabbi Neil Gillman, who taught that our understanding of God, the Torah, and halakhah changes as we change, and these things are shaped by our cultural context. “Halakhah is indispensible,” he wrote, “‘because it is what the Jewish community understands God’s will to be.” Not God’s will, but rather our understanding of God’s will. And that changes.

The final message we might glean here is, you might say, related to the current “#MeToo” moment. The sotah tale sits there in Bemidbar / Numbers to remind us that horrible things have been done by people to other people, and in particular by men to women, throughout history, and that these historical wrongs must be righted. Even if it was never performed, even if the tale found herein is merely to scare women and men away from adultery, the descriptions in the Torah and the Talmud are there as a caution: this is the kind of thing that can happen when we do not count women as equals.

Why is this here? As a reminder that we need to struggle to overcome it. We do not edit the Torah; on the contrary, we edit our behavior to reflect the holiness in all of us.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/26/2018.)

* Given the death of Philip Roth this week, one might ask the same question about Portnoy’s Complaint, and other works in his oeuvre that do not necessarily make the Jews look so good.

 

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The Great Unbundling – Aharei Mot-Qedoshim 5778

Last week I was in Chicago for a few days, at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Between sessions on ancient theology, medieval disputes about Jewish law, and the state of contemporary Judaism, we had some free time, so I took the L to the Art Institute of Chicago, and since I had limited time, I went directly to my favorite period, the French Impressionists. I saw a Renoir that brought tears to my eyes, ogled some Seurat, beheld several breathtaking Monets.

The Two Sisters

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Sisters (on the terrace), (1881)

sunday on la grande jatte

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884 (1884/1886)

We read today in the Torah my favorite verse in the entire Torah (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2):

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

One of the ways in which we as humans are holy is by acting on the creative impulse within us, the Divine gift of art. When I look at beautiful works of art, I am reminded of the fantastic things that humans are capable of; that despite our many flaws and challenges and vulnerabilities, we often have the potential to create great beauty.

Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit other galleries: the American, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Textiles, Photography, Prints and Drawings, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Film, Video, etc., etc. Pity. I paid $25 for entry, just to see the work of a few 19th-century Frenchmen. I could actually see those items on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website for free.

The Petite Creuse River

Claude Monet, The Petite Creuse River (1889)

Nonetheless, I was moved. I am also grateful that this museum has so many things in its collection, among them Renoir and African fertility goddess dolls and ancient Egyptian stelae and Andy Warhol’s pop art. And I probably will not return there for a long time – I’m not in Chicago very often.

But imagine how weak a museum it would be if it only held one of those things. What makes a great museum wonderful is the range, the comprehensive nature of its offerings; the dedication to the entirety of the holiness in human creativity. Even if I could only have paid, let’s say, two dollars to only see the French Impressionists, the extra $23 in my pocket would represent a loss to me – my ability to take advantage of all that the museum offers – and a loss to the museum – its ability to provide all those other things.

The experience was, it occurred to me, relevant to something that I was planning to speak about today, and that is the so-called “unbundling” of Jewish life.

What is meant by “unbundling”? It’s going on all over the place right now. Show of hands: how many of us are still paying for cable? How many of us still buy CDs (or vinyl albums)? How many of us prefer AirBnB to a full-service hotel? We are in the process of unbundling our lives in many ways. Now, if you only want to watch ESPN, you don’t have to pay for CNN and BET and Lifetime. You don’t need to get the whole bundle.

Unbundling is a term that has come to the fore recently by people in the Jewish world who are advocating a different approach to living Jewishly: to separating the offerings of legacy institutions, particularly synagogues, from each other. That is, if you need a rabbi for a funeral, you hire a rabbi. If you want to learn Talmud, you can go online to find a Talmud class. If you have a 13-year-old child, you can rent an event space for a bar mitzvah. Why do we need big, full-service institutions? Can’t we just cobble together a few Jewish things by ourselves, DIY-style, and call it Jewish life?

The idea has been tossed around liberally by both hosts and guests of the Judaism Unbound podcast, which, for the last two years, has been examining the new ways in which people are engaging with Jewish living and learning today. And it also came up at a recent discussion hosted by Rodef Shalom Congregation about the Jewish future. The featured panel consisted of one of the hosts of Judaism Unbound, Dan Libenson, Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL: The Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, and two members of Beth Shalom: Rabbi Amy Bardack of the Federation, and Danielle Kranjec, the senior Jewish educator at the Hillel Jewish University Center.

It may be that unbundling is the way we are moving as a society. But that presents a kind of dilemma for synagogues. If I only want High Holiday tickets, or I only want my 2-year-old in the ELC, or I only want JJEP, or to celebrate a bar mitzvah, I have to buy the whole membership. I am effectively paying  a lot of money for services that I do not necessarily need or want.

Now, I am a big fan of Judaism Unbound, the podcast and the idea. It has been a forum for many good ideas, some of which I have happily appropriated.

But unbundling is short-sighted. It misses the fact that the synagogue is a home for the community. It’s an extension of your living room. It is, literally, a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the Hebrew term for the Greek word synagogue. This is a place to gather. Not just for services. Not just for baby namings and dancing with the Torah and Shabbat dinners. It’s also a place where we learn about each other, where we share our stories, where we grow together spiritually as individuals, as families, as a community.

What makes us a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community, is that we understand that in order to have this gorgeous building, in order to have the staff that keeps it open, the people to send our yahrzeit and birthday notices and new baby announcements, in order to be able to host Shabbat dinners or the Hod veHadar instrumental service that we had last night, we have to support it. Just like you cannot have Impressionists without Diego Rivera, Ai Weiwei, and Botticelli, you also cannot have a bar mitzvah or Ne’ilah without a community or an ark to open.

Still, there are skeptics who will say, “So tell me, Rabbi, what does a synagogue offer? Why do I need it?” (I am, in fact, asked variations on this question quite often.)

The synagogue is the place that offers you all the tools you need to thrive in today’s world. We offer you a framework to help you live a better life: one characterized

  • by tzedakah, charity;
  • by understanding and supporting the others in our midst – our family and friends but also the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the unprotected;
  • by modeling what it means to be a family and to do familial things together in the context of community and Jewish life;
  • by providing opportunities to gather, not in front of a screen, but in real time with real people across multiple generations and demographics;
  • by bringing people together for a multitude of holy purposes, social, ritual, and otherwise;
  • by highlighting the holy moments in our lives and giving us a framework of gratitude, of celebration, and of grief;
  • by teaching ancient wisdom, translated into today’s context, which will:
    • heighten your relationships,
    • improve your understanding of yourself and the world around you, and
    • make you feel more grounded.

We need this.

I am grateful that the Art Institute of Chicago has a solid collection of Impressionists; I am also grateful for the all the other parts of the museum that I did not take advantage of. But just as you cannot unbundle a museum, so too must the synagogue, as the communal center, include and highlight all the aspects of Jewish life.

As we unbundle ourselves, we grow more isolated; synagogues are on the front lines of fighting that isolation. That’s why we need at least 10 people for a minyan, a prayer quorum, and that sense pervades Jewish life. We are a beit kenesset, a house of gathering. That is what this building, this community is here for. We will continue to improve the model of how we bring people together, to connect our ancient traditions and wisdom with how we live today. And we need you to be a part of it to make it happen, and to help shape our future together.

 

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/28/2018.)

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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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