Tag Archives: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I’m a Fundamentalist: God – Bereshit 5780

I am always captivated by Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, as the source of so many Big Questions. Who or what or why is this thing referred to as God? Must we take these stories literally? How can we possibly relate to a completely abstract concept? What can this mean to us as modern people? How might we understand God in this moment?

We cannot read the Creation story that we read this morning (second time this week, actually!) without facing these Big Questions.

I am going out on a limb here with what you might expect to be an unpopular notion, at least outside of this building: we need God. 

This is the fifth installment in an occasional series called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” So far we have covered Shabbat, tallit, tefillin, and “refrigerator-magnet texts” – the best quotes from the Jewish bookshelf that you should really have on your refrigerator. Today’s Fundamentalist topic is God.

A former congregant on Long Island, one who was quite committed to Judaism once lamented to me the fact that her adult children were not very interested in Judaism. She told me that one of her sons had said, “Really, Mom, there’s no need for religion. There is no need for God. Because science has already figured almost everything out, and what it has not yet figured out, it will soon.”

I did not want to insult her son by saying that this is a particularly myopic view of the role of religion as well as a misunderstanding of what science is capable of explaining. But here are a few bullet points that I can share with you:

  • First, it is worth pointing out that science and religion address different questions. Scientific inquiry leads us to a better understanding of electron clouds, or how to cure terminal diseases; it might even describe where we came from. But it does not wrestle with the question of how to respond to somebody who is dying of a terminal disease, or offer a framework for grieving when that disease has run its course. New technology might enable us to choose the eye-color of our babies, let’s say, but it cannot make the argument about why we should or should not do so.
  • Second, what Judaism offers is community. It is learning together. It is breaking bread together. It is holding each other in times of need and celebrating in times of joy. Our tradition gives us the imperative to care not only about ourselves, but rather the others around us as well. Judaism gives us a guide to holy behavior, to sanctifying our relationships. And of course it gives us ritual – opportunities to act while we reflect on the values that we uphold. Science offers none of those things.
  • Third, Judaism offers us a glimpse of the Divine, and the opportunity to see the Godliness in the world around us. Yes, science may teach us that spewing carbon dioxide and methane and chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere will ultimately destroy our environment, but Judaism teaches us why we should care.

Many assume that reason and religion are antithetical.  I cannot speak for other faith traditions, but I know that reason was of utmost importance to Maimonides; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, God in Search of Man, points to the value of reason within Judaism. But Heschel cautions us that, “Extreme rationalism may be defined as the failure of reason to understand itself… The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of the spirit.” 

Rabbi Heschel’s argument is that reason and religion balance each other; we need both. He continues:  

… science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science… Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.

It is the synthesis of reason and religion that yields truth and righteousness. In The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point out how reason alone can be immoral. As an extreme example, they argue that those who followed the orders of the Nazi regime were acting reasonably:

When the average German citizen remained silent while his Jewish neighbors were shipped to concentration camps, he was acting entirely according to reason.

The ones who acted morally, to try to prevent the killing of their neighbors,  were themselves shot.

But Judaism marries reason to spirit. Our entire tradition is derived from interpreting our ancient texts for us today, even incorporating what science teaches us.

We need God so that we can take what we have learned about the world and apply it in a way that is just, that liberates people and does not oppress them; that lifts up the needy and raises the humble of spirit.

Let’s take a real-world example: consider the challenge that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has right now. Here is a guy who created a way, through the use of technology, to connect people to each other in a way that they had never connected before. And lo, how they have connected! Zuckerberg and his friends thought they were changing the world for the better.

And yet, in his appearance before a congressional committee a few days ago to discuss Facebook’s new crypto-currency, Mr. Zuckerberg had to apologize for the company’s “trust issues.” Why do people not trust Facebook? Because people’s information has not been kept confidential. Because the platform has contributed to political upheaval in countries around the world, including our own. Because human interaction cannot be a free-for-all; it must have limits. It must be truthful. 

Science and technology may open up many new pathways for us, but they will not tell us how to behave.

So that brings us back to the problem of God. From where do these boundaries flow? Certainly not from our smartphones. And not from us as individuals, because your boundaries and mine may not coincide.

They must flow from God. God is the one who gives us the limits, the standard by which we measure the truth.

But what is God? And how can I possibly believe in something that I cannot see or hear or feel? And, by the way, wasn’t God just for ancient people who had no other way of explaining where we came from? Haven’t we moved beyond that?

We need God today, as much as ever. No, we may not rely on God for rain, or fertility, or healthy crops, like our ancestors. We may not even see God as being the source of our prosperity (when we are prosperous) or our grief (when we are grieving). 

But we need God to understand what are our limits. What will prevent us from despoiling all of Creation, if not the sense that God gave it to us “le’ovdah ulshomrah,” (Bereshit / Genesis 2:15) to work it and to guard it? What will save us from the devolution of society due to the ease with which falsehood can be spread, if not for the mitzvot regarding telling the truth? What will ultimately prevent us from killing each other, if not for the standard that murder is wrong? 

It is all too easy today to look out for number one; to rationalize – to examine our bank statement and think, I’m OK – nothing to worry about. To talk ourselves out of going the extra distance for a fellow person in need because, eh, somebody else will take care of it. To live our lives in quiet, selfish anonymity. To think, I don’t need community, I don’t need ritual – I have everything I need.

But Judaism, and indeed the presence of God in our lives drives us to dig deeper, to reach out with two hands, to be the best individuals we can be.

And you know what? You do not need to accept any of the traditional understandings of God to do that. You do not need to believe that God created the world in six days, or that God dictated the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, or that God split the Sea of Reeds so that our ancestors could walk through on dry land. 

You can understand God as completely non-understandable. You can conceptualize God as having no concept. You can see God as a spirit that works through us and around us, as with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, or as an imperceptible presence that is completely without condition, as with Martin Buber. Or you can come up with some other idea or metaphor for God that is nothing like anything else.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose writings became the basis of Reconstructionist Judaism

And yes, it is a challenge to accept the God idea in a world in which we seemingly have a rational explanation for everything. And, in a post-Sho’ah world, a world in which an angry Jew-hater with a gun can murder Jews at prayer, one must ask about the challenge of accounting for evil. But, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg argued, the one who believes in God must account for one thing, the existence of evil. The atheist, however, must account for the existence of everything else.

I will conclude with words of caution: once we let go of God entirely, we are lost. Humanity will destroy itself. There will be nothing to prevent us from killing each other. Recent history has demonstrated that those who think only of enriching themselves or amassing more power will inevitably allow or encourage other people to murder each other.

God is a check on that. We need God.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/26/2019.)

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Lifting Up God’s Face – Naso 5779

Last Shabbat I mentioned the panel discussion at Rodef Shalom’s annual congregational meeting about the future of synagogues, and one of the items that I identified at this discussion regarding the future of American Judaism is our knowledge of Hebrew. Yes, we live in a time in which readily-available online translations of ancient Jewish text have made the learning of our collected wisdom so much more accessible. That is a good thing; many of you know that we are currently in a kind of renaissance of Jewish learning, aided and abetted by Sefaria and other such platforms.

Nonetheless, there is no question that the Hebrew language, the language of the Jews, is the key to engaging with Jewish life. I learned most of my Hebrew as an adult, and I must say that, even though I learned to “decode” (i.e. read without understanding) when I was quite young, I had no idea what I was missing.

In 1845, at the conference of Reform rabbis in Frankfurt, Germany, a line was drawn in the sand over the Hebrew language. Some Reform rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the “founding father” of Reform, advocated for dispensing with Hebrew in Jewish worship in favor of the vernacular. German, Rabbi Geiger argued, was the “language of the soul,” of philosophy, of civilization; for Geiger, prayer in German struck “a deeper chord.” The Jews of the time did not understand Hebrew, and if the purpose of tefillah / prayer is for our words to connect with our hearts, then tefillah should be in a language we understand.

Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, one of the leading lights of the Positive-Historical School, which ultimately became the Conservative movement, argued that Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the language of the Torah, the language of God. How could we jettison such an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish?

Our sensitivity to language is borne of the historical Jewish need to code-switch. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, nearly 2600 years ago, Jews have lived in places where they had to speak another language and manage another culture to get along. The Babylonians imposed the Aramaic language on their entire empire, mostly because they had wiped out the Arameans, and so speaking that language implied no political agenda. And from that time forward, Hebrew became the second language for the Jews, taking a back seat to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and the Jewish dialects of all of those, some of which survived the centuries to be spoken today as Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal, and so forth. We are experts at translation of language and culture, because we have been doing it for so long.

And hence the interest we have in parsing our ancient texts; we are constantly moving from our second language to our first and back again. Most of you have heard me say that it is the continual wrestling with the Torah and Talmud and midrash and poetry and halakhic works that has continued to sustain us to this day. That is one reason we are still here, because, as Pirqei Avot (5:22) suggests,

בּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and over, because everything is in it.”

Our ancient words are a lens that help us contextualize our world, to determine what is right, to improve our lives and our communities.

And of course we continue to wrestle.

In that light, we might consider an unusual Hebrew verb, one which has flown by us several times this morning already, and in particular appears, arguably, as what scholars call a leitwort (thematic word) for today’s parashah, Parashat Naso. The verb is the shoresh / root נ-ש-א, from which the very word “naso” is derived. It usually means, “to lift up, elevate.” But its appearances in the Torah are usually idiomatic. Consider the following, the second verse of Naso, and the line from which the name of the parashah derives (Numbers 4:22):

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ בְּנֵ֥י גֵרְשׁ֖וֹן גַּם־הֵ֑ם לְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָ֖ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.

Now the idiom, “Naso et rosh …” might be literally translated as, “Lift up the head of…” But here it means, “count.” That is, take a census.

And then it appears multiple times in the subsequent verses, which one way that we determine a leitwort. In particular, it appears near the end of the parashah in the passage that we generally know as birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

We also use these words to bless our children on Friday evening. (By the way, we sang this at the ELC graduation on Thursday, as we wrapped our 4-year-olds in a sefer Torah, encircling them with the ancient words of our tradition.)

Did you notice the occurrence of our leitwort? It’s the first word of the third verse: yissa. (If you wondered why there is no letter nun there, there is a reason: the nun is assimilated into the sin; that’s why there is a daggesh hazzaq in the sin, suggesting a “doubling” or “gemination” of the letter.)

But what does it mean here? Again we’ve come against an idiom. Yissa Adonai panav elekha is translated as something like, “May God bestow favor upon you.” But what it literally means is, “May God lift up God’s face to you.”

OK, so now there is something strange in this idiom. Most of us conceive of God as being above us, or all around us, or perhaps as some indeterminate, de-localized force within nature. And many of us conceive of God as not having a particular face. At the beginning of the Amidah, we refer to God as El Elyon – God on high; by comparison, we are lowly and Earthbound.

But whatever your understanding of God, how is it that God might be lifting up God’s face to us? Should it not be exactly the opposite? Should we not turn our faces up to God, for inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge of right and wrong? The second half of the verse, “May God grant you peace,” seems totally reasonable within our range of understanding God; so too the preceding statements. So what gives?

When we pray or study words of Torah, we lift our faces to God. When we pursue outward actions that better our relations with others, God’s face lifts up to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest contemporary figures in Jewish thought and one of the most essential thinkers on the totality of the Jewish bookshelf, taught that the reason the Torah forbids images of God is NOT that God has NO image, but rather that God has just ONE image: that of every living, breathing human being. That is, we humans create the image of God with our lives – by doing mitzvot, by sanctifying time, by highlighting the holiness in all other beings and in all of God’s Creation.

It is when you fashion yourself in the Divine image that “Yissa Adonai panav elekha,” God lifts up God’s face to you.

When we as Jews take our Judaism outside of our homes and synagogues into our work and social lives, God looks up to us.

When we give generously and anonymously to those in need, God looks up to us.

When we act in compassion on behalf of those who are mistreated by governments and other organizations, God looks up to us.

When we support our cousins in Israel with our time and energy, God looks up to us.

When we take seriously the obligation to treat all of the people around us with derekh eretz, with respect, God looks up to us.

And, not insignificantly, when we parse the words of our living texts in our ancient language to inspire us to do these works, God’s face lifts up, and God will grant us peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/15/2019.)

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The Shabbat Blueprint, or How to Improve Your Life in 5 Easy Steps – Vayaqhel 5779

This past Shabbat (March 1-2, 2019) was the National Day of Unplugging, an annual program run by the Sabbath Manifesto to promote Shabbat observance not just for Jews, but for everybody. Because you know what, folks? We need Shabbat, and in honor of NDU, I offered a basic template for improving your life by raising your Shabbat bar:

Be grateful that I am not going stand before you today to talk about all of the crazy that’s going on in the world right now. In fact, I’m going to ask you to try to put those things out of your head. Because you deserve that. You deserve a break. Leave those things for tomorrow.

Because Shabbat is special. And it is valuable. And it frames our lives with meaning. But it’s also woefully under appreciated in this 24/7, instant gratification world.

(And, of course, it’s mentioned right up front in Parashat Vayaqhel, which we read today!)

The Conservative movement is filled with many ironies. One of them is that we expect our adherents to live a Jewish life, and we offer tools for them to do so, but most of us do not rise to that challenge in the way that Judaism expects us to. And let’s face it: the bar is pretty high.

Based on our own Beth Shalom survey data, only about one-quarter of us keep kashrut inside and outside the home (an additional 34% keep kashrut at home only). And about 60% light Shabbat candles regularly. Four out of five of us fast for all of Yom Kippur, but according to the Federation study only about 44% of Conservative-identified Jews in Pittsburgh ever attend a Shabbat meal. Less than half.

And even among our most committed synagogue-goers, I am often puzzled by the amount of surreptitious smartphone use that goes on in the synagogue on Shabbat; I am surprised by the lack of interest in Friday evening services which, with the exception of our monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, only barely make a minyan every week. I am confounded by the members of our community that attend events on Shabbat, some sponsored by Jewish organizations, that are clearly not Shabbat-friendly.  

Now, there are many reasons why we make the choices that we do, from family to theology to convenience and availability, and I usually say that guilt is not part of my religion. But advocating for Jewish tradition is, and so every now and then it is my responsibility as a rabbi to stand up for what is right Jewishly, what is good for all of us in our holy, ancient framework.

But I am also cognizant of how challenging it is to live as an observant Jew in contemporary America. I had a congregant at a previous congregation who was extraordinarily dedicated to our tradition: she was a loyal attendee not only at Shabbat services but also during the week, she was involved in synagogue governance and committed to learning and promoting Jewish observance. But once she told me that she was trying not to use her smartphone on Mondays, because she needed a break from feeling constantly connected.

I was incredulous. “Why not Shabbat?” I said.

She countered with something along the lines of, “It’s complicated,” alluding to weekend family activities and suggested, in a particularly Rosenzweigisch moment, that she was not yet ready for embracing traditional Shabbat observance entirely.

It’s complicated. I know – it’s not easy to take it all on, particularly if you did not grow up with it. My family was an every-Shabbat-morning Shabbat family, but we lived 20 miles away from our Conservative synagogue. So we drove, in accordance with the 1950 Conservative teshuvah that permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, despite the actual combustion that is going on in the engine, the kindling of fire being explicitly, Torah-itically prohibited in Parashat Vayaqhel.

But the problem with driving to shul is that, driving home from synagogue after services, it was hard not to stop at the video store to rent videos for the weekend (remember video stores?). And it was also hard not to stop at the sandwich shop and get some subs. And in winter in Western Massachusetts, when there was a good amount of snow on the ground and great skiing a 15-minute drive away, it was really hard not to put the skis on the rack and head off to the mountain for a few good runs. We did all of those things.

And yet, here I am, standing before you, exhorting you not to do them because it’s theoretically good for you. What gives?

I need you to trust me on this: Shabbat makes my life better; my family and my community benefit tremendously from turning off certain things for 25 hours every week, and doing certain other things that heighten enjoyment and qedushah / holiness. We need that break – physical, mental, spiritual. We need the moment of recharge. We need to reconnect in a traditional, simpler way.

So, I’m hearing some of you think, “That’s great, Rabbi.  Count me in. But where do I start?” I’m glad you asked, because that is indeed the challenging part. Taking Shabbat on whole-hog (you should pardon the expression) is not so easy.

But I am going to offer you today a blueprint for raising the bar:

  1. Meals
  2. Family time
  3. Avoid commerce.
  4. Turn off the devices.
  5. Kindle lights before and after, setting off the full 25 hours from the rest of the week.
  1. Meals. In particular, have Shabbat dinner. And I don’t mean go to a restaurant. Make Friday night a holy, home-cooked meal night. Or, if life is too crazy, order in and support one of our kosher food purveyors. There is nothing quite like it. It’s something I discuss with every single couple I marry: have Shabbat dinner together. Set that precedent for your family. Your schedules may be crazy all week; you may not have time to see each other. But if you set aside Friday night dinner time as holy time, that regular practice will pay off for the rest of your life.

    The next level, of course, is to have a Shabbat lunch. Yes, it’s a little more laid back. But still valuable. Actually, my wife prefers lunch:  She’s not as tired and having family and guests pass the time on Shabbat afternoons is much of what Shabbat is all about.

  2. Family time. Spend time together, at home or with another family nearby, not out and about, not going shopping or to amusement parks or even museums, but just hanging around in an unstructured way. Take Saturday afternoon to lounge around and enjoy each other’s company. Play board games. Read the newspaper. Be old school – low tech, low stress, high interpersonal engagement.

  3. Avoid commerce. While I know that it is our civic duty as individuals to keep the economy movin’ and shakin’, the local unemployment rate will not skyrocket if you keep your wallet in a drawer on Shabbat. It’s a wonderful opportunity to just be – not to acquire or trade or take part in commerce of any kind. It’s actually quite liberating.

  4. Turn off the devices. I could have easily put this first on the list, but I must concede that, if we are trying a soft entry here, this has to be number four, mostly because we all think of our smartphones as a part of our body today. Some people feel disconnected or anxious without it. If that describes you, you might want to try this in small chunks, i.e. maybe just Friday night from sundown until the following morning, and then some of Saturday as well.

    But trust me: this may be difficult, but it is also extraordinarily rewarding.

  5. Demarcating the full 25 hours. Perhaps when you have reached this level, you might consider what is really the easiest of all, but which requires the greatest commitment: lighting candles 18 minutes before sundown (that’s the published candle-lighting time you’ll find on Jewish calendars; you have an 18-minute margin if you need it), and performing havdalah (“separation”) when it’s dark. If you have succeeded in all of the above, this is the way that you know you have made it: demarcating the full 25 hours with lights before and after.

Five easy steps to improving your life.

Now, of course I know that I am preaching to the choir. You who are here in this room right now are the most likely to be doing many of these things. But I also know that we all have the potential to stretch ourselves, and doing so will surely heighten the experience for all of us. But may I ask you to be my ambassadors?  Would you engage those you love in a conversation about this? Check out the link to the Sabbath Manifesto website. Send someone that link and start a conversation. Since you are reading this on my blog, you can easily share it, and/or leave comments below. A little more dialogue doesn’t hurt.

The Talmud tells us (BT Shabbat 118b) that if all Jews were to observe two Shabbatot fully according to halakhah, we would all be immediately redeemed. While I don’t expect this to happen soon, we can certainly aim higher. Rather, I prefer Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s take: Shabbat is a palace in time, but we must build that palace.

We all need a little more Shabbat. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/2/2019.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

Usually, when I return to the beginning of the Torah, my thoughts turn to the aspects of Creation that concern our relationship with and responsibility to it. That is, our obligation “le’ovdah ulshomerah,” “to till it and to tend it,” (Gen. 2:15).

But one of the best things about Parashat Bereshit (the first weekly reading in the Torah) is that there is just so much to talk about! So something else occurred to me this week.

Rashi asks the essential question up front about Bereshit: Why start here? Why didn’t the Torah begin with the lawgiving parts of Shemot / Exodus, specifically 12:2:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

(That’s Parashat Bo – not quite the end of the Exodus narrative, but more or less the first passage of the Torah which is a series of laws.)

And Rashi answers himself by saying that the reason the Torah starts with Bereshit is that it is of utmost importance for all of us to know that God created the world.* That is a fundamental aspect of our existence, and what amounts to a postulate for all that follows. I must say that, although Rashi and I would most likely disagree on the precise meaning of “God created the world,” or for that matter, the meaning of the word “God,” Rashi is definitely onto something here. The premise that God’s metaphorical hand is active in the world, in its creation and ongoing functioning, is clearly a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, no matter how we understand this parashah.

the earth

As you are surely aware by now, we are in the early stages of a process that will ultimately yield a new strategic plan, and there are plenty of good reasons for why now is the time for Congregation Beth Shalom to do so. I was able this week to see some of the data collected so far by the congregational survey that many of you filled out. We have now received about 220 of them, which is wonderful. One of the things that is instantly clear from some of the data is that the principles of Conservative Judaism are important to a majority of the respondents, and that many believe that a focal point for our activities should be teaching those principles and how to fulfill them.

Now, as you can imagine, this is very good news to me, because that is what I do all day long, and most evenings as well. And, as you know, there is a lot of stuff to teach in Judaism. The question always comes down to this: In the limited time that we all have, what are the essential things upon which we should focus?

I have to concede that I am a fundamentalist. No, not like what you’re thinking of when you hear that word: I am clearly not a literalist, not an extremist, not an ultra-nationalist, not one who shuns modernity. Rather I am a fundamentalist in that I believe that what we need to focus on, in this world of infinite choice and limited time, are the fundamental aspects of Judaism. So what are the fundamentals? In my humble opinion, they are these:

  • Shabbat / Sabbath
  • Kashrut / Holy eating
  • Talmud Torah / Learning the words of our tradition and making them come alive today
  • Ritual / Connecting our actions and thoughts and feelings with our tradition
  • Community

(No promises, but I am going to try to make this a series.)

Let’s talk about Shabbat. This is first on the list for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it is “created” in Parashat Bereshit. When we read the beginning of the Torah on Simhat Torah Tuesday morning, right after we finished the end of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the first aliyah ended with the following (and, by the way, the custom is for the whole congregation to recite this first, because it’s so essential):

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱ-לֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃

On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. (Gen. 2:1-3)

We also chant this, of course, twice every Friday evening: once in the synagogue service and once at home right before reciting qiddush. You might read from this that the framers of our tradition thought it to be fairly important.

And they were right. Shabbat is not just important: it’s essential. It’s the keystone of Jewish life.

And we need Shabbat more than ever. One of the biggest impediments to greater involvement in synagogue activities cited in the responses to the survey was time. We don’t have enough time.

And you know how unhealthy that is. I don’t need to quote you any academic studies or articles to tell you that we are all overworked, under-slept, overtired; that we don’t spend enough time with our family; that we don’t have time to eat properly; that we feel overwhelmed by the constant noise, the constant feeling of go-go-go; that we are constantly assaulted with paid messages vying for our attention: buy this, vote for that one, eat here, and on and on and on.

I am as busy as anybody here who is busy. My family is as crazed as yours, with pickups and dropoffs and instrument lessons and dance lessons and Back to School Night and everything else. And my family and I all manage to shut down for Shabbat. No appointments. No shopping. No Facebook. No television. And you know what? It’s fantastic.

(BTW, from time to time you see people who take “vacations” from social media. You can absolutely do that every 7th day. I highly recommend it.)

Our ancestors knew this, and even though they didn’t have Facebook or TV or cars or smartphones, they understood the value of shutting down every seventh day.

And what is the Shabbat dinner table, if not the altar on which we build family and community?

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One of the most dismal numbers in the Federation’s community study, which came out at the beginning of 2018, was the number of Conservative-identified Jews who had been to a Shabbat meal in the past year. Do you want to guess what that number was?

It was 44%. That to me is shockingly low. But it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to teach the fundamentalist value of Shabbat: of dining together with friends and family, of shutting down and reconnecting in real time, of learning a little something of Jewish tradition, of holy eating, of expressing gratitude for what we have.

So in this regard, I have some wonderful news: We can do something about that. We are in fact doing something about that figure. And by we, I mean, all of us.

I would make a reasonable guess that most of us in this room are in that 44%. Part of the reason that you are here this morning is that you “get” Shabbat. You understand the value that it brings to you and your family. You understand how it shapes your week, how it gives you some time to unwind, to do something heady and holy and healthy.

You know that, to quote Ahad Ha-Am, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. You know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his infinitely ethereal prose, called Shabbat a “palace in time” and you can feel the power in his observation that (The Sabbath, p. 93):

On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.

You know that God’s having rested on the seventh day is as meaningful as God’s having created the world in the first six.

And that’s why you have to help us out in creating a Shabbat meal program.

A few brave volunteers have planned a pilot program for members of Beth Shalom inviting others into their homes for a Shabbat dinner on October 19th. The ultimate goal, and it might take a couple of years for us to do this, is to personally invite all of the other members of this congregation into our homes.

This is the realization of a fantastically fundamentalist move. If done properly, it will hit all five of the fundamentalist buttons: Shabbat, kashrut, Talmud Torah, ritual, and community.

But we need you to make it happen. We need you to be a part of it, you who “get” Shabbat. Here’s the link:

bethshalompgh.org/shabbatdinners/

Be a fundamentalist with me! Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/8/2018.)

 
* What Rashi says is a little more complicated: “If the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are thieves! You have conquered the land belonging to the seven nations of Canaan,’ they can reply, ‘The whole world belongs to the Holy One. He created it and gave it to whomever He wanted to. He first willed to give it to them, and then He willed to take it from them and give it to us.’” (Translation from The Commentators’ Bible by Michael Carasik.)

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Rabbi Heschel on Religion and Race

My ancestors were not from Norway, but they were slaves in Egypt.

It is this simple, foundational story in Jewish tradition that reminds us on a daily basis to remember the stranger, to lift up the oppressed, to do good works for the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 Poland – 1972 US), one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, was perhaps best known for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965. At the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, Rabbi Heschel said the following (as reprinted in his 1967 collection of essays, The Insecurity of Freedomp. 89):

It is not within the power of God to forgive the sins committed toward men. We must first ask for forgiveness of those whom our society has wronged before asking for the forgiveness of God.

Daily we patronize institutions which are visible manifestations of arrogance toward those whose skin differs from ours. Daily we cooperate with people who are guilty of active discrimination.

How long will I continue to be tolerant of, even a participant in, acts of embarrassing and humiliating human beings, in restaurants, hotels, buses, or parks, employment agencies, public schools and universities? One ought rather be shamed than put others to shame.

Our rabbis taught: “Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled without answering, act through love and rejoice in suffering, of them Scripture says: ‘They who love the Lord are as the sun when rising in full splendor’ (Judges 5:31).”

Let us cease to be apologetic, cautious, timid. Racial tension and strife is both sin and punishment. The Negro’s plight, the blighted areas in the large cities, are they not the fruit of our sins?

By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge, to chastise.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

(Although Rabbi Heschel used the terms “men” and “Negroes,” we should feel free to mentally substitute more inclusive/appropriate language and not be distracted by outmoded terms.)

As Heschel moves smoothly from the Talmud to Thomas Jefferson, I too tremble for our country when I recall that one of our primary imperatives as Jews is to fulfill the Torah’s words: “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – “Justice: you shall pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The vision shared by Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel is still alive, but far from completion; let us keep tzedeq / justice in front of us as we continue to not be silent, to not be complacent, to not let the strife of the moment prevent us from working toward a better society, a better United States of America, and a better world.

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Find the Holy Moments – Aharei Mot-Qedoshim 5777

What does it mean to be holy? (Take a moment to answer that question for yourself.)

What we read this morning, parashat Aharei Mot – Qedoshim, is entirely about holiness. In addition to the Yom Kippur rituals of the Kohen Gadol (in Aharei Mot), there is also the passage of Qedoshim which is known as the Holiness Code: for example, the instruction not to put a stumbling block before the blind, the commandments not to defraud others or withhold the wages of your employees, the imperative to leave some of your produce for the poor. But most of all, there is my favorite line in the whole Torah (Lev. 19:2): Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Holiness is an alien concept to us today. We are living in a very concrete world. Thanks to technology, industrialization, the scientific method, and all the ways that we have squelched the mystery out of our daily existence, everything is quantifiable. Everything is measured. Explanations regarding how everything works can be easily found. There is very little room left for the unseen; very few cracks through which the light – the Divine light – can enter our lives.

blog-contemplation

And our understanding of Judaism has been likewise quantified, analyzed, researched. What was an organic folk tradition has, for at least a century and a half, become another field of academic study. This is the tradition from which the Conservative movement emerged; the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was founded by American congregations led by rabbis trained, for the most part, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where I studied to become first a cantor and then a rabbi.

The modern movements that we know today, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodoxy, all emerged from the intellectual ferment of 19th-century Germany, and particularly the approach to Jewish studies known as “Das Wissenschaft des Judentums,” literally, the science of Judaism. It used the tools of rigorous academic inquiry to analyze Jewish texts, history, rituals, laws, and customs. And it appealed to the newly-emancipated, newly-educated Jewish elite of Western Europe, who sought to be Germans on the street and Jews in the home. And its scholarly appeal soon reached across the Atlantic to take root here in America. Congregation Beth Shalom and synagogues like this all across North America grew out of this modern, scholarly approach.

I am about to admit something big. Actually, huge.

I love the history of the Conservative movement. I love the scientific, historical approach to Judaism, the style of teaching and relating to our tradition that views everything on a time line. I love the approach that values the original context of every piece of our unfolding tradition.

But I think that as a guiding principle for the Jewish people in the 21st century, it no longer resonates.

Why? Because it is possible to know a lot but feel little. We may be able to speak authoritatively about our ancient texts, or about the development and structure of our liturgy, or why the eating of qitniyot on Passover / Pesah is permissible even for Ashkenazim, and still not have an emotional connection to our heritage. It is possible to invest yourself in the meaning of the siddur or the humash, and still only hold it at arm’s length, rather than in your heart.

Rabbinical school does not teach you how to be a rabbi. What I have learned in my 10 years in the pulpit is to connect through feeling, through finding ourselves in our ancient texts, through emotional rather than academic engagement. What they failed to teach me at the Seminary is that Judaism is a coin with the emotional on one side and the scholarly on the other. Judaism cannot be relevant without both sides.

What we need to embrace is the decidedly anti-scientific concept of the holy moment.

Why do many synagogues today have difficulty filling the pews? Because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in famous speech to the members of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1953, we have become more concerned with the technical aspects of the execution of the service than with the Godliness, the holiness therein. We are very worried about getting it right:

There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray.  There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

This is all in service of God, my friends. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about the recitation of words or the singing or chanting. It’s about communication – with ourselves, with each other, with the Divine. It’s about baring our vulnerability. It’s about sincere pleas for mercy and justice and salvation. This is a holy pursuit. It’s not about the how, it’s about the why.  The how matters, but only inasmuch as it is meant to get us to the why. What we do in a Jewish context is a means to an end.

And we live in a time in which the why, the meaning of the words and the rituals and how they are supposed to make us feel and influence our behavior, is the most important thing. Maybe that wasn’t so important to my parents or grandparents. But it’s important to me, living here in 5777 (also known as 2017).

Why do we count the omer? Why do we recite the Shema (other than because it says to do so in the Shema itself)? Why must we avoid using dairy implements for meat meals? We have a million such whys. You might be able to think of many yourself right now.

It’s not enough to answer those whys by saying, “Because it says so in the Torah,” or, “Because we have always done this.” It’s definitely not enough to say, “I don’t know, but I do it anyway.” It’s not enough to respond this way, even though all of those are legitimate answers in Jewish tradition.

Why do we do what we do, as Jews? Because that is how we become holy people. And every person here in this room could use a little extra holiness. Even the diehard skeptics among us.

Counting the omer, for example, gives us a framework through which we connect freedom with Torah. As we rise from 1 to 49, counting off daily for seven weeks, we anticipate the spiritual fulfillment given at Mt. Sinai. We heighten our expectation; we count our blessings; we look forward to ascending yet another rung of self-improvement, of learning, of yearning. Imagine adding an extra moment of holiness to your evening for seven whole weeks! That’s why we count the omer.

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Two years ago, around this time, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a moving essay in which he identified the paradigm shift through which we are all living with respect to how we understand ourselves and our purpose on this Earth. He points to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as having been a public theologian, among others in the middle of the 20th century, and how the era of such thought leaders has passed:

Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against. All of that went away over the past generation or two…

These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.

The difficulty to which Brooks points is that while our great public sages have set like the sun, we have filled that space with Big Data: knowing everything about everything. Concreteness. There’s an app for that. We have much knowledge, but little wisdom. And hence Brooks says that there is a real hunger for change in this regard:

“People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”

We have an answer to the why. And that answer is holiness. The answer can be found in every holy moment that we encounter. And we have to broadcast that message at every opportunity.

And here’s the really good news: the fact that we are all sitting here, on a day when we celebrate the stepping up of a young man into the big leagues of Jewish tradition, indicates that there is still an interest in, and a forum for engaging with holiness. Our tradition offers wisdom. It offers mystery. It offers connection. As we said at our Passover tables a month ago, in Aramaic, kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Come and devour those brief moments of holiness, when the cracks in our reinforced walls of knowledge let in the Divine light.

This synagogue, and others like it stretching back for 2,000 years, have been places where our people have come to seek connection. We have to make sure that it’s not only about the how, but about the why. We need purpose. We need meaning. We need to find the holy moments in our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/6/2017.)

 

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Be an Upstander – Shemot 5777

You know the old joke about how I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out? There is a related Jewish story. It’s an old fable about two brothers (Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, JPS 1973, pp. 77-78):

One brother had a wife and children, the other did not. They lived together in one house – happy, quiet, and satisfied with the portions which they inherited from their father. Together they worked the fields with the sweat of their brows.

And the harvest came. The brothers bound their sheaves and brought them to the threshing floor. There they divided the crops of the field in two parts equally between them, and left them.

That night, the brother who had no family lay on his bed and thought: I am alone, but my brother has a wife and children. Why should my share be equal to his? And he rose from his bed, went stealthily out into the threshing floor, took from the stalks of his own sheaf, and added them to the sheaf of his brother.

That same night, the other brother turned to his wife and said: “It is not right that we have divided the crop into two equal parts, one for me and one for my brother. He is alone and has no other joy or happiness, only the yield of the field. Therefore, come with me, my wife, and we will secretly take from our share and add to his.” And they did so.

In the morning, the brothers went out into the threshing floor, and they wondered that the sheaves were still equal. Each one decided to himself to investigate. During the night each one rose from his bed to repeat his deed. And they met each other in the threshing floor, each with his sheaves in his arms. Thus the mystery was explained. The brothers embraced, and kissed each other.

And the Lord looked with favor on this threshing floor where the two brothers conceived their good thoughts… and the children of Israel chose it for the site of their Holy Temple.

An Israeli variant is about two other brothers who lived on a nearby hill, and did exactly the opposite: each stole from the other in the middle of the night. And that was where the Israelis chose to build the Knesset. (#Rimshot!)

I have become very concerned about the state of our society. I think that something that we have lost is a tangible sense of togetherness. On the contrary: the level of mistrust seems to me higher than it has been in my lifetime. And a related contemporary challenge about which I am particularly concerned is the lack of civility in our public discourse.

On Monday, as part of Community Day School‘s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the themes invoked was the principle of being an “upstander.” To be an upstander means, according to the website of the educational and professional development organization Facing History and Ourselves:

“A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.”

This word was just added to the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016.

Given our history and our tradition, we Jews have a special obligation to be upstanders: to speak out against that which we know is wrong, to intervene on behalf of those who are being persecuted, to call out hatred and racism and anti-Semitism when we see it.

Martin Luther King Day is always an opportunity for us to recall that Jews were there when the civil rights movement in this country was forged. It is a reminder that one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walked with Dr. King on the latter’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Afterwards, Rabbi Heschel declared, “I felt as though my legs were praying.”

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group. (AP Photo)

When Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King, the level of mistrust in America was also quite high. Society was changing. The established orders were being upended. People who had been historically oppressed were throwing off their yoke.

And people were angry. The civil rights movement inspired many Americans, including many Jewish volunteers, to do some really wonderful, holy work. But it also caused many others to behave badly in public, to scream and burn and even murder to try to prevent change.

In 1965, there was no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. So people actually had to confront each other in person. Not so today.

One can hardly read an article of any sort on the Internet without being assaulted by a blast of name-calling, hyperbolic accusations, and general disregard for others. And whether we are participating in these troll-fests or not, even those of us who read the comments sections on popular news sites are somehow metaphorically guilty of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors (from Parashat Qedoshim, Leviticus 19:16).

The relative anonymity of the online environment makes it far easier for us to cut each other down, to trade insults, to grandstand with impunity. And our online behavior is ultimately reflected in our feelings for one another offline.

We read this morning about how the new pharaoh “did not know Yosef.” (אשר לא ידע את יוסף – Ex. 1:8) Rashi points to a disagreement in the Talmud between Rav and Shemuel about whether this was, in fact, a new king or not. And if it was, in fact, the old king, then suddenly he was pretending not to know Yosef.

It is perfectly normal, perfectly human, and definitely Jewish to disagree with each other. And it is completely appropriate for us to stand up for the principles in which we believe. But a functional society depends on our willingness to be able to disagree with each other and continue to talk to each other and work with each other. We are, as I have mentioned in this space before, faced by many contemporary challenges; we will never solve them by demeaning each other.

And, indeed, we cannot be like the pharaoh who pretended not to know Yosef. We cannot pretend not to know our fellow Americans. We cannot dismiss the people with whom we disagree, as if their feelings and opinions cancel our ability to perceive any and all traces of decency.

On the contrary, says the Torah. Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Lev. 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. Even if they believe things that you find absolutely odious. The Torah clearly does not say, love your neighbor as yourself, but only if she thinks like you do. We, the Jews, must lead by example; we must continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.

I offer you the following piece from the Talmud for your consideration:

ת”ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה”ר. מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה”ר, ומצאו חסיד אחד, אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך! לגלג עליו. לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רה”ר ונכשל באותן אבנים, אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך.

Our rabbis taught: “A person should not throw stones from his property into public grounds.

It happened that one man was throwing stones from his property into the public domain. A pious man passed by and said to him, “Foolish one, why are you throwing stones from property that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?”

The man laughed at him. As time went by he had to sell his field and when he was walking on those public grounds, stumbled over his own stones.

He then exclaimed, “That pious man was right when he said to me, “Why are you throwing stones from ground that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?” (Bava Qamma 50b)

We have to work hard to protect not only our physical public spaces, but our political, social, spiritual, and emotional public spaces as well. Throwing insults and epithets as a form of discourse into the online cloud is like tossing rocks into the street. We’re all going to eventually trip over them.

If we truly want to be upstanders, we must work hard to rekindle our civility. We cannot allow differences of opinion to fragment our democracy. We have to build a temple to love and compassion in that metaphysical public space. We have to remember and invoke our shared values.

That does not mean we have to agree. That does not mean that we have to tolerate hatred, bigotry, intolerance, or shaming of any kind. But it does mean that we have to speak nicely to each other, and occasionally give our produce up for the benefit of the other, so that we may build that temple.

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/21/2017.)

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