Tag Archives: Qorah

Being Jewish in a World Without Boundaries – Qorah 5778

I must say that I have never been particularly interested in the British royal family. While my wife devoured two seasons of “The Crown,” it would always put me pretty much right to sleep.

However, I was captivated by the recent royal wedding. Not the pageantry and fancy hats, mind you, but the powerful statement of change that it presented. In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne due to the public outcry over his intent to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Meghan Markle is an American, a divorcee, and bi-racial. Was there any opposition to Prince Harry’s marrying her? If there was, I did not hear it. (Maybe someday it will appear in Season 38 of “The Crown.”)

Prince-Harry-Meghan-Markle-Wedding-GIFs

Just think about that for a moment. How many institutions in the world are as committed to tradition as the British monarchy? Even a few decades ago, this marriage would have been impossible.

But all sorts of barriers are breaking down in Western society. And this has tremendous implications for the Jews.

And I am going to propose something here: this struggle, the challenge of Jewish identity in a world without social borders, is the greatest challenge we face today. And it is, in the language of the Talmud, a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven. Here is a brief reminder of what we find in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers,” the 2nd-century collection of rabbinic wisdom):

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקיים
ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקיים
איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי
ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו

Every argument that is for the sake of heaven, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven, it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Qorah and all of his group.

Qorah’s struggle against Moshe and Aharon is effectively one of self-aggrandizement: he and his band of complainants feel that they have been cheated of leadership opportunity, and seek to better themselves by challenging the authority of Aharon and Moshe. Their struggle is selfish; it is not leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, but rather only for the sake of their own egos.

But let me paint a picture, for a moment, of the current state of Jewish America. What we have seen for some time is a hardening on the right, that is, greater zeal for fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah / Jewish law and a robust range of occasionally-obscure minhagim / customs, coupled with greater isolation from modernity in the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox,” although this is something of a misnomer) world, along with increased rightward movement in the rest of Orthodoxy for some time. That accounts for only about 10% of American Jewry, although of course they are growing dramatically due to the fact that these families have many children.

For the remaining 90% of American Jews, who are not Haredi or Orthodox, we have seen a gradual move away from traditional practice – particularly from tefillah / prayer, but also from kashrut, Shabbat observances, and even some lifecycle rituals.

There are many factors that have brought us to where we are, but the most essential driving force in our assimilation is that American society has welcomed us as equals. We are fully integrated into American life. The quotas of decades past, the exclusive clubs, the Gentleman’s Agreement of the 20th century, these things are all mostly gone. I’ll be performing a wedding between two Jews at the Fox Chapel Golf Club in a few weeks (I’m told it used to exclude Jews). All doors are open, including, most notably, the exit from Jewish life entirely without the historically-requisite conversion to Christianity.

And we, the faithful who are also committed to living fully integrated lives, we have largely failed. We have failed to make an adequate case for why we should continue to highlight Jewish education, say, over soccer; we have failed to give our adult adherents the appropriate language to express why they are Jewishly committed; we have failed to make the positive case for Shabbat, kashrut, holidays, lifecycle observances, and so forth. One staggering statistic in the Federation’s recent study of Pittsburgh Jewry is that only about half of Jewish children in Pittsburgh are receiving ANY kind of organized Jewish education. What does that tell you about the future, ladies and gentlemen?

And yet, I am happy to crow about the fact that in my three short years here, I have brought about thirty new Jews into the covenant of Abraham and Sarah through conversion, including several already-married women and their children. Our tradition still has the power to draw people in. At our Shababababa / Shabbat Haverim services, once a month on a Friday night, we attract a mixed crowd of 120-150 people: Jewish families with two Jewish parents, interfaith couples, even families that are entirely not Jewish. And everybody is singing along, schmoozing, and enjoying Shabbat dinner together.

What is our goal, ladies and gentlemen? Is it to produce Jewish children and grandchildren, who are active and willing members of that ancient covenant? Or is it to bring our wisdom and values to the world, to re-emphasize our commitment to ancient Jewish text and the wisdom therein, and continue to apply and teach and learn regardless of the halakhic implications (that is, with respect to Jewish law) of the contemporary Jewish family?

This is the essence of the mahloqet leshem shamayim: are we focused primarily on covenant and halakhic boundaries at any cost? Or do we instead highlight the moral content of Judaism without regard to the ritual and the laws, allowing the Jewish people to move forward as a civilization (to use Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s term), assimilated and intermingled with the non-Jewish population?

Perhaps you are aware of the discussions going on in the wider Jewish world, mostly as a response to the intermarriage rate of 70% (or so), regarding how we move forward. While the Reform movement sidestepped the halakhic challenge by embracing patrilineal descent (that is, recognizing that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is Jewish, provided that the child is raised Jewish) in the 1980s, the Conservative world continues to argue with itself. On the one hand, we want to keep our Jewish children and grandchildren, regardless of who they marry. On the other, we have our halakhic standards, standards which seem to become increasingly more difficult to maintain.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, scion of a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbinic family, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary a few years back. He now runs a synagogue in New York called Lab/Shul, and last year issued a statement that justified his performing intermarriages based on the rabbinic concept of the “ger toshav,” the resident alien who lives among Jews, who has forsworn idolatry and committed to certain aspects of Jewish tradition, albeit without formal conversion. Without digging too deeply into the halakhic principles in play, Rabbi Lau-Lavie found halakhic cover for marrying Jews and non-Jews together. As you can imagine, not everybody has jumped on Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s bandwagon.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar, also in New York, recently put together a stellar analysis of the halakhic sources surrounding intermarriage, with an eye to the practical. (You can listen to it and read his collected info here.) His conclusion is that we have no choice but to stand for the covenantal aspects of Judaism, to reinforce the traditional boundaries.

Covenantalism is where my training and our heritage wants us to be. But the reality is that the vast majority of us have already accepted the civilization model. And I do not think that we can deny that.

What I would like to propose is a kind of mixed model. Yes, we have to continue to acknowledge the traditional halakhic understanding of who is a Jew, and retain our commitment to the boundaries in Jewish law that we have inherited. (e.g. not performing intermarriages, counting only halakhic Jews in a minyan / quorum of 10 adults for services, etc.)

At the same time, we need to highlight some of the civilizational aspects of who we are as Jews, and promote them as a way into Jewish life. The Torah was given not only to the Jews, folks, but to the world, and it is up to us to teach it to whoever wants to learn. And implicit within that is to welcome all who want to come in, regardless of their religious background, or to whom they are married.

As a final note, it is worth pointing out that this is a healthy struggle. What has kept us together as a people for nearly two millennia, following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE is not rabbinic control, or commitment to halakhah, or living in ghettos. Rather, it is the willingness to keep studying, to keep asking questions, to continue to revisit who we are, what we believe, and how we tackle each challenge that our journey has brought us. That is why this is a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven, and that is why it, and we, will endure.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/16/2018.)

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Race, Gender, and Who We Are Today, or, Is Gal Gadot White? – Qorah 5777

You may be aware of an Internet dispute that popped up a few weeks ago with the release of the new Wonder Woman film. Some critics were quick to note the unfortunate tendency in the world of comic-book heroes turned into movies to feature only white actors. Wonder Woman is, according to some, yet another example of such an oversight.

Leaping into this fray, with a commentary posted on the website comicbook.com, was a brief piece about this by Matthew Mueller, arguing that Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress and model who plays the lead, is not “white”; rather, she is Ashkenazi Jewish.

How Wonder Woman Solves The Comic Book Movie Villain Problem

I must concede that I have often questioned the idea of Jews being white, and when I have submitted forms that ask for my race, I have occasionally checked off “Other.”

Despite the fact that Jewish students on college campuses are reminded of their “white privilege,” I think it’s a stretch to call us “white.”

But that’s mostly because “race” (I’m using a lot of air-quotes here) is an unfortunately enduring social construct that comes from 19th-century thinking about the palette of human physical traits, reducing them into approximately three major branches. But of course humanity is more of a continuum; the lines are not so clear. That is why scientists today speak of ethnic groups or populations rather than “races.”

But really, the challenge is that the human mind likes categorization. That’s the way we work. Part of the lens through which we understand the information we take in relies on a kind of series of shortcuts: black/white/yellow, male/female, gay/straight, etc. Our minds are not trained to think flexibly about these categories.

And this mode of thinking certainly permeates our tradition as well. The Torah exhibits a need to categorize, to classify, to separate. Consider the laws of kashrut: if a land animal has split hooves and chews its cud (series of stomachs and culture of gut bacteria that break down cellulose) it is fitting to eat; if not, then are not permitted to eat it. There is no grey area. Fish, as you know, must have fins and scales. (And some of you know that there are certain fish, like sturgeon and swordfish, which have scales early on but lose them. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards permit these fish as kosher.)

The sociologist Mary Douglas, in her seminal work Purity and Danger, examined the need of religion to categorize; things that cross boundaries were, to ancient people, dangerous. Our ancestors strived to keep things separate; think about the Torah’s laws about not sowing two kinds of seed together (Deut. 22:9), or not allowing wool and linen to be woven together in clothing (Deut. 22:11).

And that thinking continues into rabbinic literature; hence the continuous need in halakhah to determine where are the boundaries: what time of the day may you recite minhah / the afternoon service? Can you eat a grilled cheese sandwich on a plate used for eating a hamburger within 24 hours? Is electricity a form of fire, and if not, can you turn on a light switch on Shabbat?

One of my favorite examples of the rabbinic need to set boundaries is that of the woman in labor who is in the miqveh, in the process of converting to Judaism, and she is crowning at the same time (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot 46b). How far out, the rabbis ask, may the baby be before s/he requires a separate conversion? The answer is (drum roll!) that if the baby’s nose has not yet emerged, then s/he is a Jew. Now THAT’S a boundary.

So one of the curious things about living in the 21st century is that we are rapidly expanding the range of identities.

Consider our erstwhile president, Barack Obama, who has described his family as “a mini-United Nations.” He was born to a Kenyan father and a mother descended from English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, and French ancestors, who was also connected to a black former slave as well. Mr. Obama defies easy categorization, and although he may be referred to by some as the first “black” president, the reality is much more complex.

Have you had genetic testing? Nowadays, among the things that you can learn when you have your genes analyzed is your ethnic composition. I have not had this done, but I’d lay a fair wager that in addition to a hefty chunk of Ashkenazi Jew (itself a construct that dates to no earlier than about 1000 years ago, really only yesterday in terms of Jewish history), that there would be a fair mix of Slavic and Germanic, and who knows, perhaps even some Italian. (I’ve always enjoyed a hearty marinara.)

We are inching toward an age of gradients, in which there will be no black and white, nor gay or straight, but a virtually infinite variety of people that fall somewhere in-between.

While we may have been inclined to categorize people with reductionist brushes in the past, what may soon be the new norm is to acknowledge those gradients, to accept that none of us fits neatly into precise categories. And this transitional time will be challenging to many of us.

In parashat Qorah, which we read from today, there is a tension that comes through based on rabbinic interpretation of a couple of verses, a tension between what is eternally fixed and what is not.

First, there is the Qorah rebellion, which our bat mitzvah spoke about earlier. Pirqei Avot (5:19) cites this as challenge to the authority of Moshe and Aharon as a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven, a mahloqet she-einah leshem shamayim. What is a mahloqet leshem shamayim? A dispute which is holy, and will last forever. Internecine political struggles, which are not holy, do not last; disputes over the various understanding of our tradition are.

Elsewhere in the parashah (Numbers 18:19), we read about the “berit melah,” literally the “covenant of salt” that is between God and humans.

יט  כֹּל תְּרוּמֹת הַקֳּדָשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר יָרִימוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לַה’–נָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶיךָ אִתְּךָ, לְחָק-עוֹלָם:  בְּרִית מֶלַח עוֹלָם הִוא לִפְנֵי ה’, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ.

19 All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord, and for your offspring as well.

What is the nature of this covenant? It is something that lasts forever, that is stable and unchangeable, like salt.

The tension that we might perceive here is that nothing is fixed and immutable. The way we relate to God, the way we understand Jewish life, our relationship to Jewish text – these things have all changed over the last twenty years, let alone the last 2,000. And these things are, in fact, in the category of mahloqet leshem shamayim, holy controversies that will continue forever; how we worship, how we observe Jewish law, how we engage with our holy texts – these things are not fixed.

Two weeks ago, in honor of Pride Shabbat, BD Wahlberg spoke to us about BD’s experience in not being confined to one of two binary genders, and how we might understand that in a Jewish context.

I know that for some, BD’s talk was inspiring and affirming. For others among us, it may have been challenging and disorienting.

But facing the challenges of how we understand gender, how we understand “race” and ethnicity, these are holy challenges that we must continue to wrestle with. We cannot pretend that any of these things are like salt, unchangeable. We have to acknowledge that just as Judaism made room for relating to God through words instead of sacrifices, or accepted sturgeon as kosher, or learned that electricity is not fire and therefore may be used on Shabbat, that the way we categorize people also has to change.

And, to refer back to a point that BD made, we have to acknowledge that all of us are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And if that means that we do not fit into neat categories, well, then we are in mahloqet leshem shamayim territory once again. It is a holy struggle that will continue.

So is Gal Gadot “white”? Is Barack Obama “black”? Is BD a man or a woman? The answer to any of those questions could be yes, no, or neither. Once our minds have acclimated to this brave new world, we will no longer have to answer such questions. But in the meantime, let’s just live with the postulate that each of us is divine in our own way.

Shabbat shalom!

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/24/17.)

~

Articles about Gal Gadot and the “whiteness” of Ashkenazi Jews

May 31

http://comicbook.com/dc/2017/05/31/wonder-woman-person-of-color/

June 2

http://forward.com/culture/film-tv/373658/gal-gadots-wonder-woman-is-white-lets-not-pretend-otherwise/

June 4

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yes-ashkenazi-jews-including-gal-gadot-are-people-of-color/

June 11

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ashkenazi-jews-are-still-people-of-color-reply-to-critics/

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