Tag Archives: Rabbi Akiva

We Can Change the World Through Civic Engagement: Schmoozing Leads to Action – Beha’alotekha 5780

Milt Eisner passed away and was laid to rest this week. He was a member of Beth Shalom for 57 years, a stalwart of lay leadership, former president, chief gabbai and man of many committees who held a range of roles for this synagogue and for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Those of you who knew Milt knew that he was first and foremost dedicated to community. If you did not know Milt, you should know that it was this dedication that made Beth Shalom what it is. He was a gifted fundraiser, but even more so, a consummate schmoozer. He knew everybody, and he knew you and your kids and your stories and, of course, how much you should be giving to the shul or the Federation. As Federation CEO Jeff Finkelstein put it at his funeral, they don’t make ‘em like Milt anymore.

Milt knew something that not enough of us realize: that civic engagement is the key to a thriving community. 

Now, of course, Milt came up in a time in which the Jews were more likely to look inward. When he first joined Beth Shalom in 1963, the world was a very different place for the Jews. They were still not welcome in some circles. Casual anti-Semitism was still very much alive. It was only 18 years after the end of World War II, and Jews were still struggling to make known the horrors of the Holocaust.

Those Jews who were inclined to participate in communal activities did so with the other people in their neighborhoods, i.e. Jews. They played poker with other Jews; they dined with other Jews;  they donated to Jewish causes.

And people like Milt poured their heart and soul into building the institutions of Jewish community, institutions like Congregation Beth Shalom.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world has changed tremendously. But civic engagement, truly engaging with your community, is the key to the future. We all need to be more like Milt, but we need to do it a little differently. 

Right up front in Parashat Beha’alotekha, in the second verse of this morning’s reading, the one that includes the titular word, we find the following (Bemidbar / Numbers 8:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Speak to Aharon and say to him, “When you raise up the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”

What is God telling Aharon, the Kohen Gadol / High Priest to do? To lift up seven lamps; to elevate the Israelites and their spirits by casting light. Yes, you can read this literally, as a mere prescription for a routine activity in the mishkan (the portable sanctuary in which the Israelites worshipped while wandering in the desert for 40 years). But you can also read it metaphorically as the obligation of leadership to cast light and to elevate the holiness in people and in the community. 

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem being carried away following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE

In fact, Rashi (Rabbi Shelomoh Yitzhaqi, France 1045-1105 CE) points out that the wicks of the three lamps on either side of the seven should be pointed inward, toward the middle lamp, so that nobody would say that it was God who needed the light. In other words, the light cast is for us. Humans, not God.

I’ll come back to that, but let’s pause for a moment of internal self-congratulation. Beth Shalom took a giant leap forward this week with respect to leadership: We passed the new constitution. Mazal tov! Milt would be very proud.

Yes, I know that does not sound so exciting. But it speaks volumes about the health of this institution. In the wake of and of course driven by the new strategic plan, the implementation of which began last fall, we now have a constitution that meets the needs of this congregation now, allowing us to sail boldly together into the future with more efficient, more transparent leadership. And that is tremendously valuable.

And bringing that plan and this new structure to fruition required the help of a bunch of civic-minded people, too numerous to mention right now, but you know who they are. When volunteers put their heads together, great things can happen. And it bodes well for the larger plank in this congregation’s future, that of financial sustainability. 

The leadership of this synagogue is truly worthy of praise and appreciation, and I am grateful for and inspired by your talents and your commitment. Kol  hakavod.

Turning our attention now beyond the walls of Congregation Beth Shalom, we cannot deny that we are facing other great challenges right now as a society.

I spoke last week about the particular challenge of racism seen in the recent murder of George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. And Antwon Rose. And I spoke about how our tradition – verses of Torah and rabbinic literature – speak directly to our obligations as Jews to build a better world. And I spoke about how we are all in this together: Black, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian.

A lot of people are very upset and hurt right now. And a lot of people are looking for positive ways to be involved. And here is my suggestion: we have to channel that energy into being like Milt, that is, being committed to the idea of community.

The future of our society, and our ability to right fundamental wrongs, to change institutional bias that breeds injustice, depends on our interdependence, on our willingness to work together and to support each other. And it also depends on leaders – people who step forward to make things happen.

However, unlike in the Torah, when leadership came through tribal affiliation and primogeniture, leadership today can come from anywhere. Each of us has the potential to be a leader. And we need more leaders. 

Many of us are asking ourselves, what can we do? What can we do about the inherent biases in our schools, in our real estate practices, in our healthcare system, in our policing, that lead to very different outcomes depending on the color of your skin?

And, in particular, what can a synagogue do?

Let me tell you, in particular what we need. We need volunteers, people who are willing to step forward to create dialogue. We need to partner with another community, an African-American church, for example, with whom we can create not just bridges, but opportunities. We need to get to know each other, to share stories, to break bread, maybe even to daven together, to learn what they need from us as allies, as members of the same community. We need to create meaningful joint programming and not just “virtue signaling.” 

We should also acknowledge that the landscape of American Judaism is no longer only Yiddish-speaking, gefilte-fish-eating, Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. We need to have dialogue within our own community about the palette of contemporary Jews. 

And before we even get to those dialogues, we need to prepare ourselves. Did the Israelites receive the Torah on day 1 at Sinai? No. It was day 3, after extensive preparation.  We have to make sure that we understand our own biases first, our own comfort and discomfort zones. We have to make sure that our intentions are pure and our hearts are open.

Ladies and gentlemen, this will take time. I know, the urgency of the moment feels like we need to swoop in and do something dramatic. And for sure, there are many people in this world who do not have the luxury of time. 

True leadership is thoughtful and mission-driven. And now that many of us have been drawn into the cause of casting more light in this world, into considering how we might make a difference in the fight against racism, we have before us an unprecedented opportunity to show real leadership.

Congregation Beth Shalom should be building that metaphorical seven-branched menorah. Not the one in the mishkan, but the one that serves as a beacon of light, here on Beacon Street, to our neighborhood, our city, and our country; to lift us all up, together, black, brown, white, and everything else. 

Building that menorah will not be easy. Milt Eisner and other people like him put decades of work into building the institutions of this community. And where did it begin? With the schmooze. With sharing stories; with breaking bread together. With being involved with people and organizations.

Rabbi Aqiva teaches us (Babylonian Talmud Masekhet Qiddushin 40b) that study is greater than action, because study leads to action.

We have a lot of learning to do before we get to the action. Now is the time to discuss, to learn, to take a good long look at ourselves, and then to reach out to others to expand the dialogue. And then we can lift up the lamps that will illuminate all of us.

And we need you to be involved first. Derekh has sponsored a few initiatives in the past year or two, including the civil rights trip last year and the book group reading Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist. We intend to turn up the volume in this area, to raise the level of dialogue. So when those opportunities come, please take them. 

We will also need a dedicated task force to prepare and create the dialogue, and to facilitate the learning opportunities that will lead to action. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we will all need to be involved if we as a synagogue community want to make a difference. We will need you to step forward as a leader. We will all need to be a little more like Milt.

Milt (z”l) and Sarita Eisner

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/13/2020.)

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Authenticity and the “Blacklist” – Devarim 5777

A week and a half ago I was in the Newark airport, dropping off my son for his El Al flight back to Israel, and there was a local Chabad rabbi set up with a kiosk just before security, asking Jewish travelers (men only, of course) to put on tefillin. I observed him put tefillin on one guy, and I noticed that, in contrast to the standard Ashkenazi practice of saying two berakhot, one for the arm and then an additional one for the head, he asked the guy to say only the berakhah for the arm.

tefillin-hands-jjep

Now, I know that Sefaradim only say one berakhah, but that Chabadniks are clearly from the Ashkenazi world. So I asked him why he only said one berakhah. And he said, “Because that’s the way it’s done!” I reminded him that widespread Ashkenazi practice was to say two berakhot, for the two separate mitzvot / commandments identified in the Shema,* and I quoted it for him. But he would not accept that. “It’s one berakhah,” he said. “Now you’ve learned something today.”

What I learned, of course, is that the Jewish world is filled with different opinions, and that some of us are more open to them than others. (I don’t think that’s what he thought I learned.)

The book of Devarim ostensibly takes place nearly 40 years after the rest of the Torah. It’s the end of Moshe’s life. And what does he do? He gives a speech. And not a short one, either; it’s long. A whole book. (Sooo Jewish, right!)

It’s an authentic, personal lecture, summarizing not only some of the major laws of the Torah, but also including historical tales as well, retelling the episode at Sinai, for example, and even documenting his own exclusion from entering the land of Israel. It is almost as if he is speaking thus:

“I have been denied entering Israel, because of my anger. I am being punished. But I remain true to the task I have been given, and that task was to lead you out of Egypt and to Sinai to receive the Torah. My work is done; now it will be up to you to carry our tradition forward.”

So here we are now, thousands of years after this story was written down. We have not had a Moshe Rabbeinu for 3 millennia. And yet we’re still here. And much of that has to do with the fact that we continue to interpret and reinterpret the Torah.

There is a well-known and beloved story from the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who lived around the turn of the second century CE, a good 1300 years after Moshe. The story is as follows (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot 29b):

Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah from God, and he sees that God is affixing crowns to the letters. Moshe asks, “Why the fancy illustrations?”

God says, “More than a millennium from now, there will be a great sage named Rabbi Akiva, who will interpret every jot and tittle in the Torah.”

Moshe says, “Can I see this person?”

God says, “Turn around.” And Moshe is instantly transported to the 2nd century, CE, to the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. And there’s Rabbi Akiva, expounding on the Torah, explaining every jot and tittle in the text. Moshe is very confused, because none of this information is in the Torah that God gave him. A student raises his hand. “But where did you learn this?”

Rabbi Akiva replies, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai.” And Moshe felt much better.

**

Rabbi Akiva somehow understood more Torah than Moshe knew; he had gleaned it from the written Torah and its subsequent interpretation. And we today, living 1900 years or so after Rabbi Akiva, know and understand even more, because that interpretation has continued.

With time and commentary and disagreement has come a wealth of diversity of opinion on Jewish law and custom. And with that diversity comes a similar range of customs and interpretation. And you know what? While each of us claim that our way is the “right” way, in many cases, there is no right way. There are different customs, performing one custom instead of another is not wrong; it’s just different.

And, more importantly, no tradition is more “authentic” than any other.

We love the idea of authenticity. And really, how could you not? We live in an age in which we know our politicians lie, the corporations who supply us with food and medicine and transportation and information can be deceptive to benefit their bottom lines, settled scientific fact is openly disputed by authority figures on television, and so forth. Perhaps some of these examples are merely the bad apples that are spoiling the bunch, but the negative continually gets the spotlight, and it is easy to become cynical and distrustful.

We crave authenticity. We yearn for something that we can hold onto that is not layered with marketing or spin. We need to know that in this world where identity is fungible and the truth cannot be found in a Google search, that there are some things which remain untouched by the taint of modernity.

A fascinating article crossed my desk this week, from the Atlantic magazine. It was about how some people are now willing to pay to watch Jews performing “authentic” religious rituals:

Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.

The article goes on to discuss ways in which contemporary Jews and non-Jews are making traditional rituals their own, and how that indicates our current search for authenticity.

What irked me about the article, though, is the assumption, made by many, that if it’s not performed by people in black hats, then it’s not authentic. The very title, “The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism,” suggests that it’s only Orthodox Jews whose authenticity is being sought.

But we know better. We in the Conservative movement, and, well, all of the non-Orthodox world, know that our customs are just as authentic. OK, so the addition of the Imahot, the names of the Jewish matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, were not recited in any Amidah (the standing, silent prayer that is central to every Jewish service) prior to, I think, the 1970s. Does that mean that including them is not “authentic”? Hasidism adopted the black garb because that was how Polish nobles dressed in the 18th century. Is that “authentic”? The Reform movement jettisoned the laws of kashrut / Jewish dietary laws, a move perhaps made most famous at the “Trefa Banquet” of 1883 in Cincinnati. Does that make them “inauthentic”?

“Authenticity” is just more spin. Customs come and go. Rituals change. Even halakhah / Jewish law changes. What we do here is just as authentic as what happens at Poale Zedeck, or Shaare Torah, or Rodef Shalom. Moshe did not wear a black hat, and neither did Rabbi Akiva. We are firmly based in Jewish tradition, and the process of interpretation that Rabbi Akiva taught.

And that brings me back to Israel, and recent political events there. To summarize briefly:

  1. PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to suspend the completion of a respectful, fully-accessible egalitarian area at the Kotel, where non-Orthodox Jews can worship unmolested by those who just can’t stand seeing men and women davening together.
  2. The cabinet also advanced a bill in the Knesset that would ensure that the Israeli Rabbinate (the “Rabbanut”) would have sole control over conversions in Israel. This bill would mean that any conversions to Judaism conducted in Israel by non-Orthodox or even individual Orthodox rabbis not under the Rabbanut’s auspices would not be recognized by the State of Israel.
  3. The Rabbanut published a list of 160 rabbis from around the world whose letters affirming the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel were rejected in 2016. Rabbi Steindel and I were on that list, even though I have never written such a letter. (The Post-Gazette actually ran a story on this last week.)

I spoke about this a few weeks back when I addressed the Kotel issue, but the problem comes back to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel. The government of Israel turned over the keys to religious decisions to a certain group of Orthodox rabbis 69 years ago, and Judaism has suffered for it. I am not insulted by being “blacklisted.” I suppose it’s a badge of honor. But I am certainly no less a spiritual leader, and no less inclined to continue to teach the diversity of opinion and custom and tradition that we have.

On the contrary, I am more inclined to speak up:

To speak up for the range of what it means to be Jewish.

To speak up for the 85% of the Jewish world that does not identify as Orthodox.

To speak up for those who think that development in Jewish life did not end in the 19th century.

To speak up for those who understand that all Jewish people, women and men, and even those who identify as neither, be recognized as equal recipients of the Jewish heritage and equal participants in Jewish life and learning.

To speak up for my fellow rabbis who are being disenfranchised by the Jewish state.

To speak up for the ongoing engagement with modernity as we continue to unravel the project of what it means to be Jewish today.

Authenticity infuses all of these people and principles. And I’ll speak up for that. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/29/17.)

* וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and wear them as frontlets between your eyes (Deut. 6:8). This has been understood as two separate commandments, and hence two berakhot.

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