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Sermons

We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781

I have always been a fan of the original Star Trek series, and not just because the two leads, Captain Kirk and Spock, were played by Jewish actors. As you may recall, the show began each episode with what used to be considered a grammatical faux pas, boldly splitting an infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

And so too does the Torah open with a grammatical “oopsie.” The very first words of the Torah are (Gen. 1:1)

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

Most of us, when we hear these words, we think, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”

But that is not actually what the text says. Actually, we cannot really understand this line, because it is clearly missing at least one word. That is because the word “bereshit” does not mean “In the beginning,” but rather, “In the beginning of…” If you were to translate directly, the verse as it appears in the Torah reads, “In the beginning of…, God created the heavens and the Earth.” 

Now, that sounds a little funny, right? Well, it sounded funny to Rashi, too, in 11th-century France. And so Rashi proposed that the text could possibly be read as

בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרִיאַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

Bereshit beri-at shamayim va-aretz

“In the beginning of creating heavens and Earth, …”

or,

בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה בָּרָא אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Barishonah bara et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

“At first, [God] created the heavens and the Earth.”

But of course, that is not what we have. Every single Torah scroll in the world opens with what cannot be described as anything other than a grammatical error. A typo. (Except, of course, that Torah scrolls are never typed.)

Rashi himself, in surveying this problem, says, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי! “This passage only tells us, ‘Interpret me!’” And he offers two plausible suggestions. Of course, it is completely possible that neither of these may be the original intent of the text. 

And what might we learn from this? Two possibilities, in my mind:

  1. We should never be so sure of ourselves or our opinions. We might be wrong! Always an excellent lesson.
  2. The plurality of voices in interpreting Torah, both ancient and contemporary, heighten our relationship with the text. 

****

If you were paying attention this past week to events on the national stage, you probably heard the term “originalism” thrown around a lot. Originalism is an idea held by some interpreters of constitutional law that the United States Constitution should be interpreted and applied as it was intended when it was written in 1787.

In terms of Jewish life and Jewish law, we are not and cannot be originalists. That ship sailed about 2,000 years ago. If we take the Torah as our analog to the Constitution, let’s say, and the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah – the Talmud, midrash, the Shulhan Arukh, etc. – as the way we understand how the Torah applies to us today, then we are definitely not originalists. 

For example, the Torah says that the primary means of worship is by sacrificing some of our livestock and our produce by Kohanim (priests) on an altar. Do we do that? No. Rather, we have prayer, an idea more or less created by the rabbis, because the altar in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago. Our tefillah / prayer, is actually a substitute offering, in place of the agricultural sacrifices that our ancestors gave. Although the original intent of the Torah is for us to sacrifice, changes in our circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill that, so we do something else.

The Torah says that we should not do melakhah / work on the Shabbat, but does not define the word melakhah. In this case, we do not even know what the intent of the text is. How do we know, for example, that spending money on Shabbat is prohibited, but peeling an orange is not? That is because the rabbis defined 39 categories of work, ל”ט אבות מלאכה, and created a system by which those categories could be managed and expanded to suit any new type of technology that came along.

The Torah, by the way, does not even mention one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year: Hanukkah. Hanukkah does not even appear in the entirety of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It is, rather, also a rabbinic innovation.

And I could go on. We do not practice the ancient Israelite religion described in the Torah. We practice a rabbinic Judaism that is flexible, that is constantly reinterpreted for the moment and the place in which we live.

And that is true of all movements within Judaism. We may disagree on the interpretation, but none of us are originalists. And that, by the way, is exactly the reason that we the Jews are still here, despite the Romans’ best efforts to destroy us. Had we been limited to the Judaism extant in 70 CE, as originalists, we would have disappeared as soon as Titus’s legions razed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

And sure, the rabbis of the Talmud argued that their innovations came from Mt. Sinai, nearly a millennium-and-a-half prior, and that they were originally intended in the unadorned Torah text even though you cannot find them there. This explanation is an attempt to legitimize rabbinic Judaism, which is, after all, what we call “Judaism” today. We are rabbinic Jews, but you cannot really find most of our practices today in the words of the Torah as they appear in the scroll.

This highlights, by the way, one of the primary distinguishing features between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. We understand that the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah came much later, and although Divinely inspired, it was not the way the Torah was read prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is this subsequent interpretation that allows us to incorporate new ideas and more flexibility into our understanding of the Torah, and really to helping frame our lives in meaning. Consider, for example, contemporary understandings of God which do not reflect the Torah’s traditional views, or the full equality between men and women in our worship spaces, which we base on the reinterpretation of traditional sources.

Now, there is a certain strain of originalism that I learned while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained as a rabbi and invested as a cantor. That type of originalism is found primarily in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, wherein the scholarly study of Scripture devotes most of its energy into trying to determine exactly what the Torah meant when it was written. To do so, scholars in the field of Biblical studies use the tools of archaeology and literary analysis and comparison to literature contemporary to its time and so forth. Modern Jews sometimes also use these tools to interpret Torah as well; they are welcome addition to the שבעים פנים לתורה, shiv’im panim laTorah, the 70 faces of Torah.

So, turning back to Bereshit, we know what the author meant, right? In this case, yes, and that understanding is not likely to change. The originalists in all of us are struggling right now: on the one hand, we know what the Torah implied, even if that is not what it says. On the other hand, there is something that looks conspicuously, to us at least, like a flaw! 

Or perhaps what looks like a typo is just an opening into a richer, more varied palette of understanding?

Right up front, from the very beginning, the Torah gives us insight into an absolutely human trait: the potential to screw up. We should never be so sure of ourselves that we think we are immune to being wrong. 

And that leads us to the second lesson: in the completely human realm of interpreting the text, we can guard against our own hubris by using every tool at our disposal to try to understand it. We may not know the original meaning of this or of many other parts of the Torah; we may not know what God’s intent was in gifting these words to humanity. But we do know that we are obligated to draw on our own intellect, on the range of human creativity and potential, to continue to seek answers. In some sense, it is that absolute unknowability, the obligation to pursue answers while acknowledging that not a single one of them may actually be “right,” which helps us maintain our own humility.

However the Torah came down to us, whether in a moment of fiery dictation on Mt. Sinai or through the hands of many ancient, anonymous scholars channeling Divine wisdom, it is our ongoing willingness to plumb its depths that will continue to fill our lives with meaning and a sense of purpose, and keep us away from the arrogance that comes with declaring our own correctness.

We are not originalists, and we are definitely not perfect. But we are committed to serious and varied inquiry into the Jewish bookshelf, to all the words and ideas which flow from the Torah, even as we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. And we continue to draw on all of those ideas in seeking meaning for today, for how we live and how we can live better.

Shabbat Shalom! Live long and prosper.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/17/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Happiness? Or Meaning? (Turn! Turn! Turn!) – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5780

Sukkot is acknowledged throughout Jewish tradition as the happiest festival of the year. We referred to it today in Shaharit / the morning service as “Zeman simhateinu,” the time of our joy. The Torah reading from this morning included the commandment, usmahtem lifnei Adonai, you shall rejoice before God on this holiday.

And what’s the best-known Sukkot song?

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ… וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃

Vesamahta behaggekha… vehayyita akh sameah.

You shall rejoice in your festival, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:14-15)

But what does it mean to rejoice? To be happy? And is happiness a goal unto itself, or should we rather seek “meaning”? And what does “meaning” mean, anyway?

When I was a sophomore at Cornell, the folk singer Pete Seeger played on campus. I have always loved folk music, and Seeger’s performances (he was already quite advanced in years then) were special because of the way he incorporated the audience, urging them to sing with him as he accompanied on the banjo.

One of Pete Seeger’s best-known songs goes like this (sing with me):

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die 
A time to plant, a time to reap 
A time to laugh, a time to weep 
A time to kill, a time to heal

Of course, it was popularized by the Byrds. But Seeger wrote the music.

Not the lyrics, however. It is almost a direct quote of the opening verses of Chapter 3 of the King James translation of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as Qohelet, some of which we read earlier. This particular passage, to which scholars refer as “the Catalogue of Times,” is a reminder that while every event in life occurs in its proper time, we have no control over these times; the “when” is solely in the hands of God. Since they are paired as opposites, one way of reading this is that neither happy times nor sad ones are to be expected. Reality is such that sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad, and much of the time we are neither.

Qohelet, ostensibly written by an ancient king of that name, is among the more-challenging books of the Tanakh, theologically-speaking. It puts itself forward as a book of philosophy (e.g. 1:14: “I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind.”), but, somewhat like the book of Job, leaves us with a very unsatisfying conclusion. To Qohelet, effectively everything that we pursue – wealth, wisdom, food and drink, labor, and so forth – is vanity and emptiness. Nothing will bring you lasting satisfaction. Qohelet’s conclusion is, therefore, merely to enjoy the things that you have when you have them, fear God and perform the mitzvot. That’s it.

Not very satisfying, right? Perhaps, though, there is an important message here. After all, there must be a reason that we read this book during Sukkot, the most joyous festival of the year. So what’s the reason? One possibility is that Qohelet points to the transience of human life, which is also suggested by the fragile, temporary sukkot in which we are commanded to live for the week. Another is that fall is the season that most suggests mortality, a feature of our lives that the Catalogue of Times clearly invokes.

Here is another thought: in the wake of Yom Kippur, after beating our chests and seeking return and forgiveness and afflicting our souls and so forth, it may be our intent to seek happiness, albeit perhaps from a new perspective. Qohelet is a reminder that happiness is not an end unto itself, but rather ebbs and flows with the randomness of our lives.

Speaking of ebb and flow, allow me to return for a moment to Cornell University of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Despite a physical chemistry lecture that occasionally made me consider javelin catching as a career, those were great days. The academic ferment of that particular ivory tower provided a rich backdrop for developing strong social bonds and discovering who I was as a person. I had good friends and good times. It makes me think of the well-known song, “Those Were the Days” (Mary Hopkins, 1968, although based on a Russian folk tune).

We tend to speak of the “good old days.” Maybe those were they; there is a time for every purpose under heaven.

But perhaps reality is not so simple; we do tend to see the past through etrog-scented glasses (or something like that). The gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello recorded a philosophically-minded song titled “Ultimate,” which decries the existence of such days. On the contrary, the song suggests that to refer to the “good old days” is in fact an insult to both the present and future:

There were never any good old days,
They are today, they are tomorrow
It’s a stupid thing we say
Cursing tomorrow with sorrow.

Qohelet, I think, would agree with Gogol Bordello. There were no “good old days,” says Qohelet. Ve-ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh. And there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).

Maybe my university days were the good old days, or maybe these days are just as good, and 5780 will be even better. Only God knows, and about that I’m not even so sure.

One thing, however, is certain: happiness is fleeting, while “meaning” is enduring. Rather than seek happiness, we should seek meaning. That is a message that is difficult for a college student to understand, but it is a message that we can glean from Jewish tradition.

An article in The Atlantic from a few years back cited a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that

asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

This is a fascinating revelation. Perhaps Qohelet’s suggestion to fear God and fulfill the mitzvot is an ancient attempt to steer us away from seeking happiness in favor of meaning. You might make the case that a certain portion of the mitzvot are about giving, not taking: giving your time and yourself over to holy pursuits. It’s not what we reap in this world, to borrow Qohelet’s language, but rather what we sow.

And that may in fact be one message of Sukkot. Why does the Torah command us to live in a shack in the backyard for a week? To remember that it is not our possessions that are important and valuable; that meaning may be sought in the simplest environment. That living in a sturdy, well-appointed home, when compared to a shaky, non-climate-controlled sukkah, might seem more like taking than giving.

The article goes on to say:

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.”

In other words, happiness is in the moment. Those university days were joyful for what they were, but the real satisfaction of living comes from the fullness of life’s experiences: the glorious and the miserable, the bountiful and the meager, the cacaphonous and the silent, and the entire palette of humanity in between. The researchers agree that “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”

To everything there is a season, and we all need the carefree periods in our lives in which to pursue the momentary happiness that sustains youth. But we also need, at some point, to reach deeper, to seek out those things which bring us meaning, to give as much as we have taken, and maybe more. The good old days are indeed today and tomorrow.

So it is as much comforting your screaming child in the middle of the night as it is to see her standing under the huppah, as much receiving a wonderful promotion as losing a parent that makes life meaningful and rich. These are the things that make us human, and this is the takeaway from Sukkot.

As we celebrate the transience of life on this joyous festival, we would do well not only to fulfill the mitzvah de’oraita (commandment from the Torah) of being happy in the wake of Yom Kippur, but also to reflect on the discomfort that comes with being removed from your house for a week. Spend some time in the sukkah, with the bugs and the rain and the cool fall breeze. It’s the human thing to do, and will help make these days as good as the good old days.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot, 10/19/2019.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Make It Meaningful! A Passover Charge – First Day Pesah 5778

Ritual. The very word, in English, at least, suggests something that is done the same way with regularity. Your morning coffee, for example. Or shaharit, the morning service.

Some of us find meaning in sameness, in holding on to the framework that shapes our lives. Think of Tevye’s words in the classic Broadway musical: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” Some of us are satisfied with synagogue services that are as they always were. Some of us are satisfied with the institutions of the Jewish world – the synagogues, the Federation, the JCC, etc., doing what they have always done. Some of us are satisfied with knowing that what goes on at Beth Shalom will continue to go on at Beth Shalom forever.

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Some of us in the Jewish world are satisfied with the idea that this is the way we have always done it, and it always will be done this way. That there is no need to change anything.

But not everybody is satisfied. Not everybody agrees with the idea that Jewish ritual should not change. In fact, what makes us the Conservative movement is that, at least historically, we have maintained the vast majority of our tradition while allowing for some conservative, i.e. minimal and gradual change. And, of course, ritual has always changed. What we do today as Jews looks quite different from what our ancestors were doing in Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, or in 9th-century Baghdad, or 12th-century Spain, or 16th-century Tzfat, and so forth.

You may not believe this, but there really is no Hebrew word for ritual, at least the way we use it in English. Yes, if you ask an Israeli, s/he will tell you that the word is minhag, custom, or perhaps pulhan (or even a Hebraized version of the English, ריטואל, ritu’al). But this is actually a borrowed word from Aramaic, from the Talmud and ancient targumim (Aramaic translations of the Tanakh / Hebrew Bible), using a shoresh / root not found in Hebrew; the word is effectively a synonym for the Hebrew avodah, in its ancient meaning of service to God.

But the concept of ritual, which in our language unites the sacred and the mundane, does not exist in Hebrew.

What is the source of meaning in ritual? Is it the safety or comfort of doing something the same way every time? Is it knowing that my ancestors have done it this way for a long time? Is it that the performance of the ritual itself is meaningful? Is it, as may often be the case with a Pesah seder (the evening discussion and festive meal held on the first two nights of Passover), that it is the ancillary stuff that is most meaningful: the gathering of family, the comedic uncle who takes a sip from Eliyahu’s cup when nobody is looking, the time that so-and-so was clearly drunk from four cups of Manischewitz, etc.

Let me propose something: we make our rituals meaningful. We frame our lives in holiness. Do you want to be moved? Then reach higher in seeking and making meaning.

Yes, I know that’s not easy.

My father has told me that when he was a child, his grandfather (alav hashalom / may peace be upon him) would lead the family seder. He would sit at the head of the table, mumble through the haggadah (the book used as a guide for conducting the seder), and pause here and there to instruct everybody to do something: dip the karpas / green vegetable; spill ten drops of wine; eat some maror / bitter herbs, etc. Nobody had any idea what was going on, and then they ate.

Was that meaningful? Maybe in some ways – it still satisfied what you might call the implicit meaning of the seder: a family gathering, a traditional meal marked with ritual, the seder symbols on display, reminding us of our past and the meaning of freedom. But perhaps the explicit meaning – the text and the questions and the discussion and the soul-searching – was absent.

But for many of us today, the implicit is not enough.

A moment of gentle, internal criticism: I mentioned two weeks ago that the Federation’s 2017 Community Study said that only 22% of self-identified Conservative Jews have found their “spiritual needs met, very much.” That number is, in my mind, embarrassingly low. Much lower than Orthodoxy, and even lower than Reform. Why is that, ladies and gentlemen? Is it that your rabbi is uninspiring? Is it that your synagogue is not spiritually-inclined? Is it our rituals?

Well, if that’s the case, let’s change it! Let’s find the meaning together. Help me out.

How do we make it meaningful? In my mind, the best way to make it meaningful is to talk about it. We do an awful lot of “davening” here at Beth Shalom – and I use the Yiddish/English term deliberately, because I am not confident that what we do is really tefillah, in the spiritual sense of the word. (Tefillah / lehitpallel means “self-judgment.”)

You see, true tefillah requires understanding. It requires stepping away from your tough exterior to expose the mushy stuff underneath. It requires that the words that you say have something underneath them – that they are being spoken from the heart (Pirqei Avot 2:18):

רבי שמעון אומר, הוי זהיר בקריאת שמע ובתפילה; וכשאתה מתפלל, אל תעש תפילתך קבע–אלא תחנונים לפני המקום ברוך הוא, שנאמר “כי חנון ורחום, הוא” (יואל ב,יג).

Rabbi Shim’on says: Be careful when you say the Shema and Amidah, and when you pray, do not make your prayer rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy before God, as it says (Joel 2:13), “For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers.”

An awful lot of words of tefillah go by at this synagogue (and many others), and I just can’t believe that they are all saturated with pleas for mercy before God. Much of it is merely mumbling. Granted, that mumbling is part of the tradition. (One of my cantorial school professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Boaz Tarsi, had an academic jargon term for the buzz of synagogue prayer: “heterophonic chant mumbling.”) But it seems to me a whole lot more like qeva (rote recitation) than kavvanah (intention).

So here is the good news: the seder is actually a low-hanging fruit with respect to finding meaning in Jewish practice. Why? Because (א) there are lots of great haggadot out there that have good translations and commentary for a whole range of interests and levels; (ב) because it’s not shul / synagogue, and you can take your time and your creativity to personalize and discuss your seder. Most of us spend far more time on the food preparation than we do on the discussion part. But the Maggid section (in which we tell the story) is often left unloved – hurried through without dwelling on what it all means. What does it mean to be free? Where are the slaves in this world, and what are our obligations to them? What are the questions that the story of the Exodus raises for us today? How does our contemporary relationship with the Torah fit in?

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In fact, we find in multiple places in the traditional haggadah what seem to be direct commands to make the seder meaningful. One such place is the following (a direct quote from Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו. כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים. שנאמר (שמות יג, ח) והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר. בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים.

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim

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

Each year at the seder, and arguably every day of our lives, our tradition requires us to see ourselves as having personally gone from slavery to freedom. For many of us who remember the events of the 20th century, that meant recalling the Sho’ah / Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, and the intimate connection between these two events. Or those of our people who left the Soviet Union. Or those who left Iran in the context of the Iranian Revolution.

What sort of meaning will our children and grandchildren derive from these rituals? What is the meaning that we are making today? Will it be triumph over rising anti-Semitism? Will it be an end to the scourges of drugs, mass shootings, and demagoguery? Will it be a solution to rising tides, melting polar ice caps, and flooded cities?

A ritual is never simply a ritual, unconnected to who we are and how we live. A ritual is never entirely meaningless. But sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, implicit or explicit. Sometimes we have to think about it and talk about it. Sometimes we need our rituals to help us hold on for dear life.

I hope that most of us will be attending a second seder tonight. If you did a straightforward, “let’s just hurry through this and get to dinner” seder last night, maybe tonight is the night to go deep. Take your time. Have some more karpas if you’re hungry, and spend some more time talking. That’s the ritual we need. Make it meaningful.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Pesah, 3/31/2018.)