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A Light Unto the Nations, With a Touch of Grey – Shemini 5778

Israel turns 70 years old this week. 70 years of independence. 70 years of “lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu” – of being a free people in our land. 70 years of inspiration to millions of Jews around the world.

Pirqei Avot 5:21* reports that 70 is the year of “seivah,” grey hair. As nations go, Israel is still fairly young, and for 70 she’s looking pretty good. Nonetheless, there are few 70-year-olds who can look back over their lives and see a perfectly-rosy picture of simplicity and wholeness. Life does not work that way. Democratic nations REALLY do not work that way. As with the grey hair, it’s mixed. But there is certainly much to be proud of, and to celebrate at this time.

A very curious news item crossed my desk this week. It was about the chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who released a statement appealing to Jews and leaders of all religions to take a stand to help the Syrian people and prevent, in his words, genocide.

Israeli Chief Rabbi berated for comparing black people to ...

Of note, he referred to the Syrians as enemies, but that we need to help them anyway:

As Jews, we cannot be silent. Let the call come out from here: we cannot move on from genocide, not in Syria nor anywhere or with any people, even if they are not our friends… We are all human beings. I call on you, leaders from all religions—lift up your voices. Let each person use their influence. If this happens, perhaps we will be able to prevent such atrocities.

Now, as is the case with most of the world, Israel is reluctant to be involved in Syria’s civil war, and certainly the stakes are much higher for Israel than, say, France or the US.

But Rabbi Yosef’s point is hanging out there, staring us in the face. I do not have the time to explain the complexity of what is going on in Syria, but the most salient fact is that as many as half a million Syrians have been killed, most by Syrian government forces under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, some with the chemical weapons that splattered across our screens this week. More than 5 million have fled what remains of that country and are living in Turkey, Jordan, Europe, the US and elsewhere. More than 7 million have been displaced within Syria.**

With all of that upheaval, with all of that killing and displacement, how can we in the West simply stand by and let it continue? There is a record number of refugees in the world right now, perhaps 60 million people, affecting the social and political landscape across much of the globe. It is not up to us to find a solution, but we are nonetheless obligated to make sure that we urge our leaders to do so. We cannot look the other way.

And, in particular, Israelis cannot look the other way as their neighbors slaughter each other. And they have not: Israeli hospitals have treated over 4,000 wounded and sick Syrian citizens, and supplied food, fuel, construction materials and other items to Syrian areas near the border.

Rabbi Yosef, whose theology and approach to Jewish law is vastly different from my own, used his position to take a moral stand on the value of human life. And all I can say to that is, “Kol hakavod.” (“All the honor to you.”) If rabbis in this world are not going to stand up for saving lives, then who will? (I refer you back to my discussion a few weeks back regarding the easy availability of semi-automatic assault rifles, and our responsibility vis-a-vis the prime directive of Jewish life, that is, the principle of piqquah nefesh, saving lives.)  

What was most surprising to me, however, was Rabbi Yosef’s use of the word, “genocide,” in Hebrew, השמדת עם “hashmadat ‘am.” This is a particularly loaded term in Jewish life, and all the more so in the history of the State of Israel, because we do not take the term “genocide” lightly. Genocide requires an organized approach to killing, a systematic attempt to eradicate a people. The Nazis were guilty of genocide. The Turks attempted to kill all the Armenians in Turkey (and, by the way, the Nazis studied their methods). Tribal killing in Rwanda in the 1990s. The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. I am not sure that what is happening in Syria is a genocide (there is debate on this), but I am sure that it is not a word that Jews should use capriciously, particularly when critics of Israel egregiously apply that word to Israel’s ongoing struggle against Palestinian terrorism.  

Nonetheless, Rabbi Yosef has a point: the world needs to help Syria find a solution. Now, I have expertise in neither military strategy nor in statecraft, but the great powers of this world have many such experts. And regardless of our religion, regardless of who is at war with whom and for how long and over what piece of land, we need to try to prevent humanitarian catastrophe when we can.

But the even greater point, and the one that goes to the reason that we celebrate 70 years of the State of Israel, is that underneath his message is the essential Jewish imperative to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is a principle that (roughly) quotes a line from the book of Isaiah (49:6):

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥ לִי֙ עֶ֔בֶד לְהָקִים֙ אֶת־שִׁבְטֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּנְצוּרֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהָשִׁ֑יב וּנְתַתִּ֙יךָ֙ לְא֣וֹר גּוֹיִ֔ם לִֽהְי֥וֹת יְשׁוּעָתִ֖י עַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God has said: “It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, That My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

As with the principle of piqquah nefesh, the obligation to save a human life, which outweighs just about every other mitzvah, another Jewish value is in play here: the obligation to stand up for what is right. While immigrants and refugees are roiling European governments, while the United States argues with itself about our responsibility to needy neighbors, while Medinat Yisrael / the State of Israel herself struggles with the challenge of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the chief rabbinate of Israel stands up and speaks the truth. We may not be able to resolve Syria’s internal mess, but Israel could save even more lives by setting up dedicated field hospitals at the border, by sending in more aid. Crates of flour and chickpeas and cooking oil with huge Israeli flags proudly displayed on the side.

That is what it means to cast light in this world. That is what it means to be a Jew, to radiate some light in the darkness.

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And yes, like the grey hair of the 70-year-old invoked in Pirkei Avot, reality is complex. Being a sovereign nation is difficult. Sometimes the light we cast is not pure; sometimes it is inflected with a touch of grey.

70 years after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, we are still figuring out what it means to have a Jewish state and what that state looks like. But although it’s a work in progress, although we in the Diaspora continue to examine and re-examine our relationship with Israel, the good news is that, 70 years later, Israel is still strong, and her light will shine as a beacon to all the nations of the world.

Let’s continue to work to make the State of Israel better. And there are many ways to do that, but the best way by far is to go there, to learn about Israel and the land and all the people who live there. We are celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday tomorrow evening with a Yom Ha’Atzma’ut program including a dance troupe from Karmiel/Misgav, sponsored by Derekh and the Federation. There will be food; come join us at 5 PM.

But even better than that, and also a Derekh project, in the Israel portal, is an actual trip to Israel for adults. We’ll be going there as a Beth Shalom group from October 28th to Nov. 8, and the goal will be to provide an Israel experience for the whole self, mind and body. It’s not a family trip (we’ll get around to doing one of those eventually), but whether or not you have been before, you should join us on this trip. (Click here to check out the itinerary!Click here to check out the itinerary!)

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/14/2018.)

***

 

* Pirqei Avot (literally, “Chapters of the Fathers”) is a book of the Mishnah, the earliest piece of rabbinic literature, dating to roughly the 2nd century CE in Israel. It is a collection of wisdom about how we should conduct ourselves, and emphasizes learning and teaching Torah as an essential imperative in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the consequent end of the ancient Israelite sacrificial cult and priesthood.

** Over 3,000 non-Syrian residents have been killed, and the vast majority of those have been Palestinians.

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To Prevent Harassment, Change the Power Dynamic – Vayyishlah 5778

Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Leon Wieseltier, playwright Israel Horovitz, John Hockenberry, etc., etc.

My daughter, who is in 5th grade, asked me a few days ago what “harassment” is. I fumbled through an answer appropriate for a precocious 10-year-old who can’t help but hear what’s going on in the world.

I must say that in the wake of all of the allegations that continue to splash across our collective consciousness, I have had three thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  1. I wish that fewer of the accused were Jewish.
  2. This is not going to stop anytime soon, until people change their behavior such that they do not abuse others based on a power dynamic.
  3. While the inherent sexism in Judaism’s ancient texts might tend to reinforce that power dynamic, we have to ensure that we work to reinterpret our tradition so that it does not.

So I have what may be construed to be some good news on that front: that we at Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement, by standing up for egalitarianism wherever possible, by re-affirming our commitment to the equality of women in all aspects of Jewish life, we are in fact actively working to change the equation. Let me explain.

Let us consider, for example, the Dinah narrative, which is featured today in Parashat Vayyishlah (this week’s Torah reading).

As you may recall from last week in Vayyetze, when Dinah is introduced, unlike all 12 of her brothers, her name is not given an etymology in the Torah. Leah merely gives birth to Dinah (Gen. 30:21), and the event is reported tersely in seven words; no mention of why she is named Dinah; no mention of how Leah rejoiced at giving birth to a girl. Nothing.

What we read today in Vayyishlah then takes it from bad to worse. The passage is downright judgmental; in Gen. 34:1-2, the Torah effectively slurs Dinah as a yatz’anit, which you might translate into English as a “streetwalker”:

א וַתֵּצֵא דִינָה בַּת-לֵאָה, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב, לִרְאוֹת, בִּבְנוֹת הָאָרֶץ.  ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי–נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Ya’aqov, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shekhem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

This is undeniably a classic case of “blaming the victim.” And we should read it as exactly that, through 2017 lenses. The Torah sees this case of rape as Dinah’s fault, for going out and visiting with the women of the land. Rashi even worsens the matter, by pointing out that because Dinah is identified here as “bat Leah” (daughter of Leah) but not “bat Ya’aqov,” (daughter of Jacob) it is an indicator that her mother was also a yatz’anit.

From beginning to end, Dinah is not treated equally to her brothers.

But we have an obligation today to learn from this story that while we cannot change the Torah, we can indeed change the dynamic. It is our responsibility, as contemporary Jews, to make sure that we acknowledge the equal measure of qedushah / holiness allotted to every single human being, and that we reinforce at every turn that men and women be treated equally in a Jewish context and in the wider world.

Why? Because if we internalize the notion that men and women are equal, then we have a better shot at maintaining the qedushah in all our relationships; we have a chance of re-affirming respect for all people, despite their intrinsic differences; and we might be able to eliminate the power dynamic that enables harassment of all kinds.

Those of us who are committed to egalitarianism are still fighting that battle. And, given the demographic trends of the Jewish community, in which Orthodoxy is growing and non-Orthodoxy is shrinking (see, e.g. the Pew Study of Jews and Judaism of 2013), we have to keep fighting it.

You may have heard some people in the Jewish world, who perpetuate the halakhic inequity of men and women say that women are not obligated to the positive, time-bound mitzvot (holy opportunities of Jewish life) because they are “on a higher spiritual plane.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call “apologetics.” (Now, I’m not saying that women are NOT more spiritual; I’m just saying that has nothing to do with their being exempt from most of the mitzvot of Jewish life.)

But I have some even more good news: Orthodoxy is moving, ever so slowly, toward an acknowledgment that times have changed, and that women deserve greater roles in Jewish life. Within the past few months, a new demographic study of Modern Orthodox Jews, produced by Orthodox researchers, revealed the following tidbits:

  • 74% of respondents approved of women serving as synagogue presidents
  • 80% support co-ed classes in an Orthodox context
  • 69% support women reciting Qaddish (the memorial prayer) without men
  • 85% support women giving sermons from the bimah
  • 53% believe that women should have the opportunity for such expanded roles as clergy
  • 38% said they strongly or somewhat support women in clergy holding a title of rabbinic authority.

All of this despite the fact that the Orthodox Union, which the largest Orthodox synagogue movement, earlier this year published a report written by seven prominent rabbis, which concluded that women should be prohibited by serving from rabbinic roles. (There are four such women right now serving in Orthodox congregations; about 50 Modern Orthodox rabbis wrote a letter in response asking them not to “expel” these synagogue.)

As a captivating aside, the report also found that:

One third of respondents said their attitudes towards sexuality have changed, most citing an increased acceptance of gay Jews; 58 percent of respondents support synagogues accepting gay members, and 72 percent report being “OK with it.” While support is highest among the liberal factions, significant support exists on the right as well (24 percent of the right-most cohort support gay Jews joining their synagogues).

Two more interesting anecdotes:

I was unable to attend the Yonina concert, produced by Derekh, which, for those of you who have missed it, is Beth Shalom’s new programming rubric, because I was attending a friend’s wedding in Cleveland. About 350 people did attend, and it was a great and joyous success. But a quick glance at the crowd revealed that there were many Orthodox men in attendance, who were openly flouting their communities’ norm of men not being permitted to listen to women’s voices (from the Talmud, Berakhot 24a, where Shemu’el says, “Qol be-ishah ervah,” a woman’s [singing] voice is a sexual prohibition; there have been a range of understandings of this prohibition, and it is entirely discounted in the non-Orthodox world).

Women, Tefillin, and the Orthodox Schism - Paperblog

In another quarter of the Jewish world, I was party to a discussion a week and a half ago at CDS, where a group of 8th-grade girls are not only putting on tefillin (phylacteries*) regularly, but also advocating that the school change its tefillin policy to be more egalitarian. Right now, the school requires that boys in 7th grade wear tefillin during morning tefillot, and teaches the application of tefillin to all, but does not require girls to do so. I am very happy indeed that these discussions are going on, and that our young women are committed not only to the mitzvah of tefillin, but also to the principles of egalitarianism.

We are continuing to right the historical wrongs of Jewish life and living; we are continuing as a people to lead by example, by changing the dynamic.

To those friends and colleagues who maintain a non-egalitarian position, I love and respect you, but I can only say, “Open up the doors! You have nothing to lose except the inequality.” If you are, in fact, committed to modernity, then be modern! Acknowledge that the world has changed; that the judgment of Dinah in the Torah and rabbinic literature is no longer acceptable. Your wives and mothers and daughters are doctors and lawyers and judges and engineers and programmers and professors; why should they be relegated to second-class status in their synagogues?

We’re past this. We have made that change. And you know what, it works. We in the progressive Jewish world are leading by example, challenging the existing power dynamic. And, by the way, there’s room for you in our tent.

As a final note here, we are approaching Hanukkah, arguably the most-misunderstood holiday of the Jewish year**. I am always in Israel during Hanukkah, and the overarching message I hear about the holiday (other than the omnipresence of various kinds of fancy-schmancy sufganiyot (donuts), is that it is a triumph of Jewish culture over Greek culture. That is certainly one historical message of the holiday, which celebrates the rededication of the Beit HaMiqdash (Temple in Jerusalem) following its desecration of the hands of the Hellenized Syrians in the mid-2nd century BCE.

All about Hanukkah - the 8 night Jewish festival of lights ...

But how should we understand Hanukkah today? About light – about spreading light in this oh-so-dark world:

  • Cast some light on the recently-invigorated forces of anti-Semitism, ethnic nationalism, white supremacy, racism, anti-immigrantism, and so forth
  • Cast some light on the political forces that want to build walls, keep us fighting against each other rather than continuing dialogue
  • And cast some light on the cultural forces that want to keep women from being seen as full, respected equals in all corners of society.

Those are the messages of Hanukkah. So as you light those candles, don’t just think about the latkes  potato pancakes) or the sufganiyot, but think about the ways that we can keep moving forward in light and in enlightenment.

Shabbat shalom.

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/1/2017.)

 

* Nobody actually knows what “phylacteries” are. Tefillin are boxes containing hand-written portions of the Torah that are bound by leather straps to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers by traditional Jews.

** It’s actually something of a stretch to call Hanukkah a holiday – it’s a minor, post-biblical commemoration that is minimal in customs and traditions in comparison to holidays like Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, etc. It has become elevated today primarily due to its proximity to Christmas.

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Bringing Light: The Message of Hanukkah

I’m writing from just about as far north in Israel as one can be, in the mountainous hamlet of Neve Ativ, just west and slightly downhill from the lofty Druze city of Majdal Shams, perched high on the Hermon mountain shared by Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It’s the upper limit of the Golan Heights, and my son and I were able to look down tonight into the Hulah Valley below, framed by the lights of Kiryat Shemonah. There is actually no wifi in our cabin (I know… Can you believe it?), so if you’re reading this I have already returned to a more central locale.

Hanukkah is, as you might imagine, a happy time in Israel. Sufganiyyot (jelly doughnuts) are everywhere; schools are closed, and there are performances throughout the country. And, of course, there are lights and lightings all over – I was in a franchise of a well-known coffee-and-sandwich chain around sunset time last night, when the manager announced over the intercom, “OK, everybody, time to light the candles!” I had been nursing a kafe hafukh (literally, upside-down coffee, it’s the common Israeli term for cappucino), and there were only 3 or 4 other patrons. But the waitstaff, all clearly secular Jews, found kippot, produced a hanukkiyyah with two candles (plus the shammash) and motioned for everybody to gather around the bar. And then, despite the fact that I was desperately trying to mind my own business, they volunteered me to lead us in the berakhot. So I sang for a bunch of strangers who hummed along – they had no idea that they had picked out the only Conservative rabbi/cantor in Israel – and we had a joyous moment of Jewish holiday bonding.hanukkiyyah

More so in Israel than in America, Hanukkah carries a message: that of bringing light where there is darkness. In my own childhood, Hanukkah was the Jewish answer to Christmas – we lit lights proudly and placed them in the window to demonstrate that we were different. We played dreydl games  and ate latkes and sang silly songs about the joy of the holiday and ate chocolate coins (the best ones were always those made by the Israeli chocolate manufacturer Elite). But the message was always of (a) the miracle of the oil and (b) the Maccabean victory, neither of which really resonated so much.

But Israelis seem to get it right. The songs sung by children on this holiday invoke the theme of light. It suggests to my adult ear the classically-understood role of the Jews in the world: to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is our obligation in this world to bring light where there is darkness, that is, to reach out to those in need, to seek peace and pursue it, to protect God’s Creation zealously, to live the values taught by our ancestors, to apply the principles of Talmud Torah, of Jewish learning to illuminate this otherwise unenlightened world, to counter the forces of chaos, terror, and hatred with love, equality, and reason.

That is the message of Hanukkah. That is the light we bring. חג אורים שמח! Hag urim sameah! A joyous and enlightening festival of lights to you and yours.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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