Tag Archives: Judaism

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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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://i0.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.

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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.

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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.

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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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