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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.)

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Don’t Give Up on the World – Noah 5780

Have you ever been in the situation where you’ve tried and failed at something multiple times, and then you finally achieved your objective, but still it was not quite good enough?

And yet you learned to live with that imperfection, right? I feel like this happens to me all the time.

There is a captivating midrash (explanatory story external to the Torah text) that speaks of God’s creation of the world as an iterative process rather than a one-time event. It draws on language that we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (the very beginning of the book of Genesis):

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן, יְהִי עֶרֶב אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא וַיְהִי עֶרֶב, מִכָּאן שֶׁהָיָה סֵדֶר זְמַנִּים קֹדֶם לָכֵן. אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיָה בּוֹרֵא עוֹלָמוֹת וּמַחֲרִיבָן, עַד שֶׁבָּרָא אֶת אֵלּוּ, אָמַר דֵּין הַנְיָן לִי, יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָן לִי. אָמַר רַבִּי פִּנְחָס טַעְמֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי אַבָּהוּ (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, דֵּין הַנְיָין לִי יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָין לִי

Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said: it does not say, ‘Yehi erev’ / ‘It was evening,’ but ‘Vayhi erev’ / ‘And it was evening.’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:5) Hence we derive that there was a time-system prior to this. Rabbi Abbahu said: This teaches us that God created worlds and destroyed them, saying, ‘This one pleases me;    those did not please me.’ Rabbi Pinehas said, Rabbi Abbahu derives this from the verse, ‘And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good,’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:31) as if to say, ‘This one pleases me, those others did not please me.’ (Bereshit Rabba 3:7)

The midrash says that prior to the six-day creation story that we read last week, God had already created and destroyed many previous versions of the world. We understand this to mean that each of these creations was somehow flawed, and God knew that a better one was possible. The midrash does not suggest how many of these pre-worlds there were – it could have been 3 or 97 million.

And yet, we know that this world is, of course, flawed. Very much flawed. We live in a far-from-perfect universe.

And yet, when it comes to Noah, God does not destroy the world entirely; Noah and his family are saved. And this despite the opening language of today’s parashah (weekly Torah reading), in which we read no less than four occurrences of the shoresh (tri-literal Hebrew root) shin-het-tav, meaning to ruin, corrupt, violate: e.g. Vatishahet ha-aretz… vatimale ha-aretz hamas (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11). The world was corrupt and filled with lawlessness. And the text does not exempt Noah himself – he is described as “ish tzaddiq, tamim hayah bedorotav” – a righteous man, blameless in his generation. It was just fine up until the bedorotav – in a sea of corruption and lawlessness and violence, to call somebody righteous relative to his peers is faint praise at best.

Noah’s Ark. France, Paris, 1240s. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 2v

So God puts all of God’s chips on this one, only somewhat dysfunctional family, along with one set of each type of creature. Which leads us to wonder, why didn’t God simply start over once again, like the midrash explains? For God, the world must seem like a kind of cosmic-scale Etch-a-Sketch. Why not just erase the Etch-a-Sketch and start again?

And the answer must be, of course, that God saw some kind of value in not starting over from scratch. This build was far from perfect, but there was something that worked. Cosmos 97 million point one, while deeply corrupt, had some redeemable features.

And particularly, you might say that it was something about the human spirit that must have intrigued the Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One, i.e. God) to maintain this version of humanity. We all know that people are not perfect; that we are complicated, that we are deceitful, that we are inclined to mistreat one another and the Earth. We know that people are bad at seeing the consequences of their actions, particularly in the long term.

And yet, even as the palette of humanity has yielded malfeasance of many different varieties, we have also filled this world with great creativity and fantastic music, art, architecture, technology, literature and so forth.

So God stuck with Noah, this guy who was not too bad.

And let’s consider the state of the world today:

We have just passed one secular year since the anti-Semitic massacre that occurred a few blocks from here, the deadliest attack on Jews in America ever, and we are approaching the first yahrzeit (annual day of mourning) for those whom we lost on that day.

Wildfires are spreading near Los Angeles, something which has become a regular occurrence. Several important Jewish institutions, including the American Jewish University, where Rabbi Jeremy was ordained, and the Skirball Center, a fantastic Jewish museum, are in the evacuation zone. My brother-in-law has been told that he may have to evacuate as well.

Floods devastated Houston once again this year.

Great Britain has its knickers in a twist over Brexit. Syria has become a Turkish and Russian free-for-all. Venezuela continues to be a tragic, starving mess. Brazil continues to allow the rainforest to be consumed for the sake of development.

Our nation is facing a constitutional crisis of sorts; for only the third time in American history, a president faces charges of high crimes and misdemeanors. 

Thomas Friedman, a generally clear-headed, sober, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote a particular disturbing column this past week in which he stated that, “Not in the Cold War, not during Vietnam, not during Watergate did I ever fear more for my country.” Friedman’s concern is that the magical mix of deceitful politicians coupled with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated unwillingness to take down deliberately false political advertisements may, in fact, break America.

I must say that, despite the current governmental challenges in Israel (after two elections, politicians have been unable to form a governing coalition), aliyah is looking pretty good right now. (And you all know that I am a big supporter of American aliyah – the best thing that we can do to support Israel and work for positive change in Israeli society and policies is to move there.)  

But back to Noah. We have reason right now to want to throw up our hands in defeat. To concede that we cannot change the current trajectory, that we cannot fix what is so severely broken. That the depth of corruption and lawlessness all around is so thick that the world is unredeemable. We can probably think of a whole bunch of reasons to want to throw in the towel right now. But we cannot. 

Rather, I want us all to think like God at the beginning of Parashat Noah. I want us to consider the flawed world that we have, and accept that although change is difficult, that we have the ability, and indeed the imperative to try to improve it. God could have chosen to shake that Etch-a-Sketch once again; but instead of doing that, God doubled down on the less-than-perfect Noah, who, by the way goes on to fail even more, with the whole vineyard episode.

No, we cannot hide out, drunk in our own tents and ignore the brokenness around us. Rather, we must pick ourselves up and act.

Noah, hardly a perfect person, was tapped to be the seed of humanity. Moshe, who, when we get to the book of Shemot / Exodus, will try to flee from his destiny, and yet will ultimately lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Yonah (Jonah), as we read on Yom Kippur, has no confidence in himself to save the people of Nineveh, but eventually does so. Our tradition is built upon heroes who are anything but heroic.  They are ordinary – that is to say, flawed – people who accomplish great things. That is something that we can all relate to.

And if these Biblical archetypes do not inspire, consider the modern folks who have created real change for the better despite dire circumstances. Consider Rosa Parks, whose simple act of refusing to move on a public bus became a symbol that inspired the civil rights movement. Consider Malala Yousefzai, whose teenage advocacy on behalf of education for Pakistani girls led to an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman, which she survived, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize. Consider Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist covering the Dreyfus Affair, whose vision of a Jewish state where Jews would not be subject to the deep-seated anti-Semitism of Europe ultimately became a reality. Consider those who toiled in anonymity for years to create vaccines against horrible diseases; those who led rebellions against tyrannnical governments in public squares, Tiananmen and Tahrir and elsewhere; those artists and writers and investigative reporters who call out the bad actors in society.

None of these people are perfect; all of them live in the same broken world in which we do. And yet they stood up and made change happen. That could be any one of us. 

Some of you know that one of my favorite go-to “refrigerator-magnet texts” is Pirqei Avot 2:21, in which Rabbi Tarfon tells us:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin libbatel mimmena

It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it.

No matter how deep the dysfunction of this world, think like God! Grab hold of the good and run with it. You’re not perfect, we’re not perfect, and the results will not be perfect, but you may just change the world for the better.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/2/2019.)

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Positive Judaism – Noah 5777

Those of you who have been to the melaveh-malkah-in-the-sukkah that my family and I have hosted for the last couple of years know that I love folk music. Way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I saw Pete Seeger perform. Just a tall, gangly guy with a banjo. He was not young then, but he was magical. Mr. Seeger had the amazing ability to ask the audience to sing along with him, and they would do so in four-part harmony. Magic.

My physical chemistry professor, a man whom I still think of to this day as the most boring person on Earth, was seated a row in front of me to my left. He nodded off during the concert, and I felt a certain satisfaction in that my opinion of him was confirmed.

When Pete Seeger died nearly three years ago at the age of 94, his obituary in the New York Times chronicled all the political turmoil of his life: protests of his concerts by members of the John Birch Society, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and so forth. But that obit concluded with a striking statement of Mr. Seeger’s personal take on life. “The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

I have said on multiple occasions in this space that I am an optimist: on Israel, on the Jewish future, on life in general. Those of you who were here on the High Holidays may recall that I mentioned that the Judaism we need to emphasize, if we want our children and grandchildren to embrace it, is positive Judaism. By that I mean that we have to give them Jewish experiences that are affirming: being welcomed warmly into a Jewish community, having prayer experiences that make one feel transformed and invigorated, having affirmative interactions with Jewish institutions, interacting with clergy and communities that validate who we are and why we are here, that are not judgmental, that do not draw lines to exclude people.

Now, if you know a little about the history of contemporary movements in Judaism, you might know that the Conservative movement’s origins are in a group of scholars in the mid-19th century known as the “Positive-Historical School.”

The Reform movement emerged in the early 19th century in the German-speaking lands as a congregational movement led by rabbis who wanted to reform Judaism – to make it possible for Jews to live like Germans on the street and Jews in the home.

At the Reform conference in 1845, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and other early reformers were advocating for German to be the sole language of Jewish prayer. A more traditional reformer, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel and his allies argued that Hebrew was the language of the Jews, and should always be the language of prayer. In less than a decade, Rabbi Frankel & Co. launched the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, the original home of the Positive-Historical School: “positive” because they affirmed the binding nature of halakhah / Jewish law, and “historical” because they embraced the critical, scientific approach for understanding how Judaism developed over millennia, a philosophical stance which the Orthodoxy of the time opposed vigorously.

We, the Conservative movement, emerged from the Positive-Historical School. Yeah, I know, it’s not such a great title.

But, to quote Rav Kook, “הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש.” “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified. Together, they shall become torches that shall illuminate Zion.”

For more than a century, we in the theological center of Jewish life have been called “Conservative,” mostly because in changing Judaism for contemporary times, we have moved conservatively. The siddur that you hold is very similar to a traditional siddur; only a very few can readily identify how it is different.

And we have never lost our positive, historical roots. But we have to understand those words differently in the 21st century.

To be positive today, we have to be open. Open to change, open to new ideas, open to new members of the community whom we may have traditionally excluded. We have to be open to the principle that what goes on inside this prayer space reflects how we live outside; that is, that women and men are treated equally with respect to Jewish law; that we consider how the ways we live differently today affect our relationship to tradition.

We have to make sure that we do not merely force our children to memorize ancient words in a strange language, but that we teach them the underlying values of tefillah. We have to ensure that whatever we do here, it’s not just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but because it’s meaningful and brings us closer to God, closer to ourselves, and fills our lives with kedushah, holiness.

A good example of what it means to be positively Jewish is in a part of the service that very few of us hear, and yet it is such an essential statement of who we are as contemporary Jews.

Take a moment to open your siddur (Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s most recent Sabbath/Festival prayerbook) to p. 103. You’ll see on this page and the one that follows a series of 14 berakhot, blessings. We recited them at 9:01 this morning, and we recite them every single morning here at Beth Shalom. They are known as “birkhot hashahar,” the morning berakhot.

There are two patterns that might be discerned here. For the eleven of them (the first and then the fifth through the 14th) they follow the trajectory of how one begins the day: the rooster crows (are there any roosters in Squirrel Hill?) at dawn, then you open your eyes, get dressed, and go on about your morning routine. All of these eleven come from one passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) as things you should say as you start each day.

But the second, third, and fourth berakhot do not match the pattern. They say the following:

Praised are You, God, who made me in the Divine image.

… who made me free.

… who made me a Jew.

Now, anybody who has some familiarity with a traditional siddur knows that that’s not how these berakhot are worded. Rather, they are phrased in the negative, based on the language found elsewhere in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). In contemporary Orthodox siddurim you’ll find:

… who has not made me a gentile.

… who has not made me a slave.

… who has not made me a woman.

These berakhot were designed to acknowledge in ascending order the different levels of commandedness: classically speaking, free, adult male Jews were obligated to 613 mitzvot; slaves in Jewish homes were obligated to somewhat less than that, and gentiles are obligated to very few mitzvot (some say seven – as reported in today’s parashah).

Now, there is an obvious difficulty with the third berakhah; in traditional prayer books, women say “she-asani kirtzono,” “… who has made me according to His will.” And there is another difficulty: the Talmud does not say “… who has not made be a gentile,” but DOES say, “who has made me a Jew.”

farsi-birkhot-hashahar
Endings of these berakhot with Farsi translation, prepared for a Persian siddur. This order differs slightly from that found in Lev Shalem, although it is the same as that found in older Conservative siddurim.

So in 1946, with the publication of Rabbi Morris Silverman’s venerable “Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook,” which was found in the pews of virtually all Conservative synagogues until the 1980s, the language of those berakhot was changed to reflect who we are, rather than who we are not. Rabbi Silverman “positivized” all three, based on the positive formulation of she’asani Yisrael, and other positively-formulated variants of these berakhot used in various places and times throughout the last 2,000 years. We still use them today.

Leaving aside the problem of insulting most of humanity, I think the greater good of emending these berakhot is the statement of positivity. We should begin each day by saying, I am proud to be a free Jewish person, made in the image of God. I am exhilarated by the prospect of beginning my day by acting on the positive relationships suggested by those statements.

And not only that, but I also read another message about liturgical change here. While there are certain key elements of the siddur that have remained fixed for nearly two millennia, there are far more specifics that were in flux for many centuries, until the printing press arrived in the 15th century and caused standardization across vast swathes of the Jewish world. Prior to that, there was much more creativity in tefillah. (Another two points for history.)

The message is, “We have the power to make our Judaism positive. We can embrace the optimism. We can look into our future and see that change will yield positive benefits to how we connect Judaism with who we are, and thus ensure the future of our tradition.”  

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to be free, to have the imprint of divinity on my spirit, to be an inheritor of our two millennia of tradition. I love all those things, and I say them proudly every morning.

Having a positive approach to Judaism, not throwing up walls and dividing people, is an attitudinal shift that is good for the Jews. To paraphrase Pete Seeger, the key to the future of our people, and maybe the world as well, is finding the positive stories and letting them be known.

Shabbat shalom!