Categories
Sermons

Creating Gan Eden – Bereshit 5783

We are back at the beginning again.

Some of you know that I love Parashat Bereshit, because it opens up all of the big questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Who is this God character, and where did he/she/it come from? How did all of Creation come into being? Why is humanity so complex? 

Not that the Torah alone is equipped to answer such questions, of course, particularly for modern people. On the contrary: Bereshit offers partial answers to some of these questions, but leaves others more or less untouched, and some of those answers are not particularly helpful, given what we know today through scientific inquiry. As is usually the case when we dig into a meaty piece of ancient text, we might come away from the opening chapters of Genesis with even more questions. And particularly for contemporary people of faith, since science addresses the question of “how,” but often leaves off the answer to “why.” That is one reason that we absolutely need Torah.

It makes sense that the Torah starts in Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden; we want our beginnings to be pure. In Hebrew, the term “Gan Eden” is used to mean “paradise,”* but that English term brings with it associations that are not really found in the Torah’s text or Jewish interpretations. Gan Eden is not a place of the so-called “afterlife;” it is rather, you might say, a sort of womb for Creation, a protected, natural space in which God could raise the newly-created plants, animals, and humans. Gan Eden was God’s nursery: fresh and flowering and nurturing.

Our popular conceptions about Gan Eden comes to us from Christianity: that the first humans created there were without sin and immortal, and upon having eaten the apple, experienced a kind of spiritual fall, which made them fundamentally sinful and mortal.

But we, the Jews, read the story in a very different way. Humans were created to be mortal. And, by the way, the Torah never mentions an apple; the fruit is a non-specific fruit, although some Jewish sources suppose that it was a fig or a pomegranate.

More importantly, we do not have the concept of Original Sin, or the Fall. On the contrary, humans were created with the ability to transgress. And of course, they mess up very soon. 

There is a wonderful midrash about the creation of human beings. Prior to doing so, God wisely consults with the angels to see how they feel about this new creature, which will be something like them, and they were not in agreement about humans. (As told in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, JPS 2003, vol. 1, p. 51):

The Angel of Love favored the creation of humans, because they would be affectionate and loving; but the Angel of Truth opposed it, because humans would be full of lies. And while the Angel of Justice favored it, because humans would practice justice, the Angel of Peace opposed it, because humans would be quarrelsome. 

To invalidate his protest, God cast the Angel of Truth down from heaven to Earth, and when the others cried out against such contemptuous treatment of their companion, God said, “Truth will spring back out of the Earth.”

After consulting with the angels, God’s response was effectively, “Thanks for your opinion. And don’t you worry about that Truth business: it will be with us for sure.” So God creates humans, and places them in this lovely Garden, knowing that they will fail. And they will lie. And they will soon be lying and killing and doing all sorts of mischief.

But God also knows that humans have the great potential to do good, to carry out justice, to love, to till and to tend the Earth respectfully. God knows that humanity is a mixed bag, and that, although people will be a source of much pain and grief, they will also pursue and hold up truth. We are not fundamentally sinful, nor can we possibly be exclusively good. Rather, we are somewhere in-between. We are exactly as God the Engineer designed us.

Gan Eden, in Jewish tradition, is not paradise. It is a point of departure, not a future destination. The beginning, not the end.

Nonetheless, the fantastical idea of achieving paradise meanders through human existence. Many cultures have such a concept in their mythologies. We do, however. have the concept of “Olam HaBa,” the world-to-come, and there are some Jews in the world who work hard at performing mitzvot, fulfilling the opportunities for holiness in Jewish law, so they can attain a place in Olam HaBa

Opinions found on the Jewish bookshelf on what Olam HaBa is vary tremendously, from visions of a pleasurable place (like Gan Eden), to denial that there is anything at all after we die. One such vision (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 17a) sees no Earthly pleasures in Olam HaBa, but rather merely sitting, with crowns on our heads, in the splendor of the presence of God, which will vastly exceed any kind of physical enjoyment. 

I have always subscribed to the idea that we perform mitzvot not for any future reward, but because that reward comes back to us in the present. And I have some good support here: there is a concept in Jewish life of Torah lishmah, learning Torah for its own sake. That is, we do not study our ancient texts and apply them to our lives so that we can get into Olam HaBa, but we do so because it is the right thing to do. The reward is the performance of the mitzvah itself. We read, for example, in Pirqei Avot, the second-century collection of Jewish wisdom(1:3):

אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם

Antigonos of Sokho, received [Torah] from Shim’on the Righteous. He would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward; rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

Antigonos was onto something here, a more robust strategy for life. Since we cannot know what awaits us after we die, do good for the sake of doing good now and reap the rewards now. If it helps us in the Olam HaBa, harei zeh meshuba! All the better.

Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, extends Antigonos of Sokho’s words:

The Sages meant to tell us by this that one should believe in truth for truth’s sake. And this is the sense they wish to convey by their expression, oved me-ahavah, “serving from motives of love.” (from Rambam’s Introduction to Pereq eleq)

We should “serve” our Master (i.e. God) and “fear Heaven” by speaking truth (remember Truth?) and pursuing justice and living according to the mitzvot not because we hope to get there after we die and hang around wearing crowns in God’s court, but rather because we do so out of an act of love for other people and the world. That is its own reward. Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake, is what we reap, and it is right here, right now.

Gan Eden, ladies and gentlemen, is not some mystical future destination for which we should strive. Neither is it an abstraction. It is, rather, what we can create for ourselves here on Earth, in the present moment. 

We all have the potential to build Gan Eden, a place that is protective and nurturing, a place that is safe and innocent, green and pleasant and refreshing. All we have to do is make it happen by fulfilling the holy opportunities which have been given to us.

We create Gan Eden when we keep the Shabbat. Shabbat is a taste of the refreshment of Gan Eden, but only if you do it right – when you set aside your mundane stressors and focus on being there, being present with your family and friends, on gratitude and all that emanates from it, on the qedushah / holiness all around us.

We create Gan Eden when we reach out to others, when we work toward the common good, when we fulfill the mitzvot bein adam leavero, those mitzvot that maintain the qedushah between people: when we treat others with kindness, when we clothe the naked and comfort the mourner and feed the hungry.

We create Gan Eden when we gather in prayer, when we gather in joy and grief, when we fulfill the rituals of Jewish life which color our days with meaning.

One of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s most well-known songs is an ode to Woodstock, from their phenomenal 1970 album Deja Vu, although the song was written by Joni Mitchell (who was actually not at Woodstock because she had a gig on the Dick Cavett Show):

We are stardust
We are golden 
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

But Joni got it wrong. We cannot get back to the Garden. There is no going back.

But we can make it here. All we have to do is act on the truth that is our spiritual heritage.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/22/2022.)

* Interesting etymological note: the Hebrew עֵדֶן / ‘eden means refreshment or pleasure, so Gan Eden might be literally translated as “garden of pleasure.” The word “paradise” seems to have arrived in the English language via Latin and Greek from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza, meaning a garden enclosure.

Categories
Sermons

The Kranjec Test – Noah 5781

One of the most obvious missing pieces of the flood story in Parashat Noah is the voice of Noah’s wife. From the building of the ark, through the fortnight of rain, through the months of floating and waiting thereafter, we do not hear a peep out of Mrs. Noah. We know that she is there; the Torah declares that she boards the ark with him, along with his sons and their wives as well. But there is no glimpse of how she is feeling. A midrash (Bereshit Rabba 23:3) declares that her name is Na’amah, meaning “pleasant one,” because she played a drum to accompany idolatrous worship. (Interesting and ironic, but not so helpful.)

So we are left to wonder: did she approve of her husband’s gargantuan task? Did she maintain peace within the family as they were cooped up in this floating zoo? Did she resent having to help shovel manure, or feed the aardvarks? Did she lock herself up in her cabin until the whole ordeal was over?  Or perhaps she was discreetly running the entire operation, according to the principle of the matriarch in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that Noah was the head, and Na’amah was the neck that turned the head any way she wanted.

For all of its effort to relate a sweeping epic about God’s attempt to fashion a better humanity, the Torah says surprisingly little about the humans who make it possible, and what is said at all only describes the men. You might have thought that the Torah would also give us some kind of hint about the character of the women, particularly if they are to be the mothers of all subsequent people on Earth.

But no. While there are many places in the Tanakh and in later rabbinic literature that mention women and ascribe to them ideas and motives and character, they are, at least compared to the men, few and far between. And that is, of course, a pattern that continues on the Jewish bookshelf until the 20th century. 

Certainly, there are a few shining examples that we highlight: in the Tanakh / Hebrew bible we find the Matriarchs, Miriam HaNev’iah / the prophetess, the Daughters of Tzelofehad (who challenge Moshe on inheritance law because they have no brothers), Devorah the Judge; Ruth actually gets a whole book, although it’s a short one. In the Talmud, there is Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir. In the late 17th and early 18th century, there is Glikl, about whom I spoke on Yom Kippur.

Miriam the Prophetess

And the number of female commentators on the Torah that appear alongside Rashi and Ibn Ezra and Ramban in traditional rabbinic commentaries? Frankly, none, unless some of these medieval commentators were actually writing under an assumed, male name (that is, the rabbinic equivalent of George Eliot), although this possibility seems remote. (BTW, while Rashi’s daughters are purported to have donned tefillin, they did not write Torah commentary as far as we know.)

A standard tool that I and all Jewish educators use is the “source sheet”. If I want to teach a certain item in Jewish life or text, I assemble a sheet of sources related to the item, usually starting with a verse of Torah and then followed by  Rashi and other commentators. If there is a modern source that suits my interpretive goals, I will include that, although I don’t always make it to the 20th century. (Rabbis often prefer the company of ancient thinkers to contemporaries.)

We are fortunate today to have the wonderful online resource Sefaria.org, which not only includes many, many works from the Jewish tradition in digital form, but also has an online source sheet builder tool! You just select the sources and add them to your sheet, and then you can edit as desired. It’s truly a gift.

Unfortunately, Sefaria does not pick the sources for you as you are building your argument – that’s up to the user. I curate the sources.

So if you read The Jewish Chronicle (and you should), you might be able to guess at this point where I am heading. A few weeks back, there was an article about The Kranjec Test, named after a member of Beth Shalom, Danielle Kranjec, who serves as the Hillel Jewish University Center’s Senior Jewish Educator. You may recall that Danielle spoke in this space as the featured guest for Sisterhood Shabbat back in February, although I know that anything pre-pandemic seems so far away and dreamlike now… (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Danielle is not just a good friend and fellow alum of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where we used to live across the hall from each other, but I also officiated at her wedding a number of years back. So I know her pretty well.)

Here is The Kranjec Test, in a nutshell:

When building a source sheet with more than two sources, Jewish educators (including, of course, rabbis) should include at least one non-male-identified voice. 

According to Danielle and a few other educators who introduced the test in a blog post on the eJewishPhilanthropy site, the idea is to elevate women’s voices, teach women’s wisdom, and learn what she refers to as “women’s Torah,” that is, perspectives that emerge from women’s lived experience of our tradition.

Austrian-Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim posing as Glikl

(It would of course be “cheating” to identify God’s voice as non-male. Although God does not have a gender and is therefore not male, we are going to assume that quoting the Torah itself, if we understand that as Divine in origin, does not qualify because the Qadosh Barukh Hu is just, well, above all that. While the rigidly-gendered Hebrew language almost always refers to God as male, that is more due to the limitations of human language than our understanding of God.)

So, given what I said before about the overwhelming maleness of the Jewish bookshelf, reflecting both a shortage of female characters as well as authors, this is clearly not so easy. The authors of the original blog post concede that they have failed to pass the test consistently.

Speaking from my own experience, of course, I know that when I am assembling a source sheet, my collection of sources is based not on the identity of the authors, but rather on their teaching, and in particular that the teaching fits my agenda. Ideally, a source sheet is tight and focused, so that it does not stray far beyond the matter at hand.

But I must say that Danielle is absolutely right: we are way past the time that women’s voices should always be featured prominently in what we teach as a community. 

As a fully egalitarian congregation, we count women as equals toward the minyan, in leading services and reading Torah and in fulfilling all our ritual roles. The same of course is true for gender non-binary individuals, although of course we are still struggling with liturgy and customs, as many of these include gendered language. (You may have noticed that when our member Debby Gillman chanted the Hineni on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, she used the feminized text of that prayer found in Mahzor Lev Shalem.)

But, as you have heard me say many times in this space, the most important mitzvah among the 613 is not prayer; it’s not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or Pesah, and it for sure isn’t lighting Hanukkah candles or remembering the Sho’ah, although of course all these things are important. The most foundational mitzvah of Jewish life is Talmud Torah, learning the words of Torah.

And if those words of Torah are a male-only sphere, shame on us.

So that brings us back to the humble source sheet. I must say that I have a handful of Torah commentaries written and edited by women that do the work that The Kranjec Test suggests. They take up, admittedly, a much smaller portion of the shelves in my office populated by male commentators, and of course they are all from the last 50 years or so. And while I have made an effort to include women’s voices, I have certainly not made that my primary goal in teaching Torah. So I am going to try to dig a little deeper and work a little harder at that. And I cannot promise that I will pass The Kranjec Test every time. Because I certainly will not.

But I am going to try.

Pulling back the lens a bit, we might consider the following business mantra as a  guiding principle in this regard: Under-promise and over-deliver. It is a rough analog to the ancient wisdom of Shammai found in Pirqei Avot (1:15): אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה – say little and do much.

One of the overarching principles of living Jewishly is that we give each other kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt – that we assume that one has noble intentions, even if he or she fails. Noah, after all, manages to save humanity and all of God’s creatures, but then suffers from a humiliating episode involving alcohol. We still give credit to Noah for what he accomplished; the Torah judges him to be at least somewhat righteous. 
So during this transition period as we strive to elevate women’s voices in teaching and learning Torah, let’s under-promise and over-deliver, and give one another a bit of kaf zekhut.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/24/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Welcoming Interfaith Families / Our Two Lives – Hayyei Sarah 5780

It seems that I’m giving an inadvertent sequel to the sermon that I gave last week.

And that is mostly because last Shabbat morning, I was reading the Federation’s new study on the experiences of interfaith families in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. I served on an advisory committee of clergy members and community leaders for the study, and also helped the researchers locate interfaith couples with whom they could speak to collect information about their experiences within the Jewish community. As you may know, we have members of this congregation where one or more family member is not Jewish according to halakhah / Jewish law, and of course we welcome those members just as we welcome Jewish members to our services, our programs and activities, and to participate in this community just as the Jewish members do, with a few exceptions related to ritual leadership.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study are the quotes collected from these couples. Some of the material actually made me feel that Beth Shalom is doing a decent job, like the note that only five out of 17 non-Orthodox congregations’ websites actually contain language explicitly welcoming interfaith couples. Ours is one of them:

While Beth Shalom is a community rooted in the Jewish tradition, many of our members are part of families who celebrate other traditions, cultures, and religions. Rather than separate ourselves from other traditions, we embrace the diversity of our members and seek to welcome their friends and family into our community in as many ways as possible. This year, we have formed a committee to investigate how we can do this in a meaningful and respectful way.

So that’s a good thing, even if the committee was actually formed three years ago.

But something else in the study caught my eye, and it connects directly to the subject of last week’s sermon, that is, when I spoke about the challenge of being welcoming while preserving our standards of synagogue behavior:

At one service we went to, they just put a yarmulke on my kid’s head. And when I took it off there was judgment, and there were comments made, and I’ve really never felt comfortable in that setting since. And I haven’t really felt comfortable with that rabbi since then either. (Non-Jewish partner)

I read that, and I thought, well, that might have been me. And I really try very hard not to be judgy. I know that we live in an environment in which any kind of perceived slight is something that may drive people away from the synagogue in such a way that they will not come back. And yet, there was this quote from a non-Jewish partner, from a family that was clearly looking for community and connection.

And I’m picturing the situation: here comes the rabbi, with the best of intentions, and he slaps a kippah on a little boy’s head. And mom is not happy.

OK, so maybe that wasn’t me. I don’t know. I certainly hope it wasn’t.

Here’s the key: we have to find a way to make people feel welcome AND to uphold our standards.

****

Switching gears for a moment, a curious textual oddity happened in the first verse that we read this morning (Bereshit / Genesis 23:1):

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

If you’re listening closely, you’ll see that the word “shanah” or “shanim,” that is, “year” or “years” appears no less than 4 times in this verse. It is the fourth one, “shenei,” that is most curious. To understand it, you have to know that Hebrew has a grammatical phenomenon that sometimes changes the shapes of words.

The last three words, “shenei hayyei Sarah,” should be understood as “the years of Sarah’s life.” The word, “shenei” is called a construct form. It appears when two nouns are smushed together in such a way that indicates that the first belongs to the second. You know many constructs: Rosh Hashanah: the head of the year; Simhat Torah: celebration of the Torah; birkat hamazon: the berakhah of food (i.e. grace after meals). In our verse, the word “shenei” is the construct form of “shanim,” years. Actually, this is a dual construct: shenei hayyei Sarah is “the years of the life of Sarah.”

However, an alternate translation, nonsensical according to the context, is that “shenei” here means “two.” So you might translate shenei hayyei Sarah as “Sarah’s two lives.” A midrash in Bereshit Rabba (58:1), following this read, tells us the following:

 וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מַה צֹּרֶךְ לוֹמַר שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה בָּאַחֲרוֹנָה, לוֹמַר לְךָ שֶׁחָבִיב חַיֵּיהֶם שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְלָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

“Sarah’s lifetime.” What is the need for adding shenei hayyei Sarah, “the years of the life of Sarah” at the end of the verse? It tells you that the lives of the righteous are beloved by God, both in this world and in the world to come.

That is, Sarah’s two lives are the one in the here and now, and the one in the afterlife.

But another way we might read this is that Sarah had two lives in her 127 years: one as a partner to Avraham and a mother to Yitzhaq, and everything associated with those things – her life in relationship to those around her; and the second as the first of the imahot, the matriarchs of the Jewish story: the powerful, decisive leader who stood alongside and guided her husband through the challenges of life, who became a role model for her compassion, her strength, and her industriousness.

We too fulfill multiple roles. And I am thinking now of the way that most of us move seamlessly between our secular lives and our Jewish lives. Many of us are parents or grandparents who work in the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) world, proud citizens of this secular nation who are committed to democratic ideals and engaged with contemporary society.

And yet, many of us are also deeply committed to Jewish tradition – our Shabbat, our holidays, our lifecycle events, our Torah learning, our Jewish values. And it may in fact be that when we travel amongst non-Jews, we do not think about that Jewish life. Perhaps we just think of ourselves as Americans, or Pittsburghers. We do not feel our Jewishness in every interaction.

But just as Sarah was one person, so too are we. And what we might learn from this is that there should be no mehitzah, no divider between who we are as Jews and who we are in a secular context. We should make our daily choices based on Jewish values and guided by the Jewish calendar and halakhah / Jewish law. We should act on the principles of qehillah / communal interdependence, derekh eretz / respect for the other, hakarat hatov / gratitude for the good that we have, Talmud Torah / learning our texts, and so forth as we interact with everybody around us, in all the spheres of our lives.

This is what Judaism teaches us: fuse those two lives together. Make them one. You are not a Jew only on Shabbat morning! We smell fragrant spices at havdalah to bring the joy of Shabbat into the rest of the week; so too with the Torah of compassion, of responsibility, of tzedaqah, and so forth. We bring that Torah to the world as an essential part of who we are.

And the converse should also be true: just as we bring our Judaism proudly into the world, so too should we welcome those non-Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks who come into our space, into our synagogues and homes. We should welcome them in with the same zeal with which we should carry our Torah out into the wider world.

Let’s face it folks: history has taught us, for thousands of years, to keep our Judaism to ourselves. The anti-Semitic blood libels, the pogroms, the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians in which the Jews could never really win, the second-class dhimmi status imposed on Jews in the Muslim world, and of course the attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis taught us to keep quiet and keep our religion to ouselves.

But you know what? Today we can walk proudly through our streets with our Judaism clearly visible. I refuse to be terrorized by re-energized anti-Semites. And we must be proud to share that tradition with whoever enters a synagogue.

We don’t have to beat them over the head with it. We don’t have to put a kippah or a tallit on anyone who does not want one, or on any kid whose parent does not like it.

But we must, at the same time, invite them in. Perhaps the language should be simply, “Would you like a kippah?” Or, “Would you like a tallit?” Or, as I say to those without tefillin on weekday mornings, “Would you like a set of tefillin? I am happy to help you put them on.”

If the answer is no, then it’s no, and there is no need to press any further.

But in bringing together our Jewish and our secular selves, we ought to be sensitive to where people are, particularly those who are anxious about entering a Jewish space. We do not need to give anybody an excuse not to come back. Rather, we want them to leave thinking, “Wow. Those folks really love their tradition. And they invited me in.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/23/2019.)