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In Tension with Tradition – Noaḥ 5783

In 1958, Esquire published a graphic version of the story of Noaḥ, called “The Deluge,” by Jewish satirical cartoonist Jules Feiffer. He depicted one Harvey W. Noah, government employee, who is contacted by an angel in a dream to build an ark.

The angel instructs Mr. Noah more or less according to the story we read today in the Torah. Feiffer wrote:

“What a screwy dream,” thought Harvey W. Noah, and he went back to sleep, only to be awakened the next morning by a telegram being slipped under the door. “This is to confirm your hallucination of last night. Proceed as directed re conversation pertaining to deluge, etc.”

So Mr. Noah goes to work and speaks to his government supervisor, who proceeds to alert the Navy, which contacts the Atomic Energy Commission, and a series of committees are launched to respond to the message, which is soon hopelessly garbled. 50 boats are launched, one for each state, containing lawyers, doctors, philosophers, and atomic scientists, but no animals, and no Harvey W. Noah. So he heads home. 

And then it starts to rain.

Harvey W. Noah is caught in the tension between a message from an ancient God, and the response of modern institutions. And of course, Feiffer’s work is satire, so we can chuckle at the mess of it all, and maybe be grateful that we have never had such a dream, or all the more so received a follow-up telegram.

But we all live in tension between the ancient and the modern. In fact, we are all doing that right now, as we celebrate today with a young woman who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, something which did not happen until 1922, but is an idea with truly ancient roots. The first indication that a young boy becomes an adult with respect to the mitzvot at age 13 is found in Pirqei Avot (5:21), which dates to the 2nd century CE.

The idea that we are in tension of any sort with our tradition is not a new one. You can actually find it just about anywhere you look on the Jewish bookshelf. 

Consider just the first verse of Parashat Noa (Bereshit / Genesis 6:9)

אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

Noaḥ was a tzaddiq, a righteous man. Had the Torah stopped there, everything would be fine and dandy. But then there is a qualifier: תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו. He was blameless in his generation. 

So what’s the problem with that? The world at the time, as we learn in the subsequent verses, was filled with corruption and lawlessness. So when the text says, “in his generation,” what does it mean?

Rashi, the 11th-century French wine merchant, might have been sampling his product a little too hard when he wrote his commentary for this verse. On the one hand, says Rashi, this qualifier suggests a compliment: if he was righteous when everybody around him was corrupt, then how much more righteous would he have been in a righteous age! He would have been a saint! (Not that we have saints, of course.)

And then Rashi offers exactly the opposite. In his own generation, he says, Noaḥ was the most righteous. But in Avraham’s generation, Noaḥ would have been considered a nothing.

In other words, it could go either way. Thanks, Rashi, for clarifying that.

And there is even more tension in the verse, related to the curious end: 

אֶת־הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ

Which is generally translated as, “Noaḥ walked with God,” but that actually obscures the grammatical impossibility of what the text says, which, if translated somewhat more literally, might read, “Noaḥ walked God.”

Don Yitzḥaq Abarbanel, the Iberian commentator of the 15th century, tells us:

והיה זה לפי שאת הא-להים התהלך נח ר”ל שעם היות שדר בתוך רשעים לא הלך בדרך אתם אבל נתחבר ונדבק אל הא-להים לא נפרד ממנו כל ימיו

Being that Noaḥ lived among wicked people, he did not go along with them; rather, the text is telling us that he cleaved to God for all of his life.

In this case, resolving the grammatical tension leads to a different sort of tension, the problem of what it could possibly have meant for Noaḥ, who would have lived ten generations before Avraham and many centuries before Moshe received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, to “walk with God.” So what guidance did Noaḥ have that led him to be such a tzaddiq?

It is an intrinsic anachronism. We, the readers, know what it means to be righteous in our day. But how could Noaḥ have known?

The idea of living in tension with our text, with our traditions, is really an essential feature of being Jewish, and all the more so in the Conservative movement.

In 2005, Rabbi Neil Gillman, one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary and, perhaps coincidentally, the grandfather of our bat mitzvah, addressed the convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Boston. His talk was titled, “A New Aggadah for the Conservative Movement,”* and in it he attempted to reframe what it means to be a Conservative Jew.

Now, many of us tend to think of Conservative Judaism as being neither Orthodox nor Reform, but rather somewhere in-between with respect to practice and approach to Jewish life. And that is a somewhat over-simplified view. 

Rather, we prefer a definition which includes our adherence to halakhah / Jewish law. We like to refer to ourselves as being similar to Orthodoxy in that we respect and maintain (i.e. “conserve”) halakhah, the laws which govern our observance, while also sharing some similarities to Reform in that we seek lenient positions which allow for adaptations to modernity.

A perfect example: calling a girl to the Torah as a bat mitzvah can only happen because we are egalitarian – we count men and women as being equal under Jewish law, an idea which is not acceptable in mainstream Orthodoxy.

But Rabbi Gillman rejects calling our movement halakhic, even as he states that our conservation of halakhah is a foundation stone of our movement.

Rather, he says, the primary way we should describe ourselves is as being “in tension.” And he pulls no punches in describing the ironies of our movement. 

Our approach to halakhah is a superb paradigm of living with tension. Why do some laws change and others don’t? Why can we drive to worship on Shabbat but not to a museum? Why are all cheeses now kosher but oysters still treif? Why can a kohen marry a divorcee, but a Jew can’t marry a non-Jew? … Why change some portions of our liturgy but not others? I concede that these distinctions are real and important and I and my rabbinic colleagues can defend each of them, but for the layperson who has neither the education nor the time to study and speculate about these matters, the impression we make is total confusion. Our message is complicated… In contrast, the messages of the movements to our right and to our left, their aggadot [back-stories] are relatively clear. Polar positions are always clear. Center positions rarely are.

And he’s spot on. I spend a lot of my time trying to teach the nuance of what we do as Conservative Jews, and I often wonder how much is absorbed. We are complicated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is hard to relate, particularly in a world with attention spans that stop at 280 characters.

Rabbi Gillman concludes by saying that, rather than calling ourselves “halakhic,”

I suggest that we embrace the tension and ambiguity which has always been at the heart of our reading of Judaism. If we believe that all of God-talk is metaphorical, if we deny the historicity and the literalness of the Sinai narrative as it appears in Torah, and if we claim that the Jewish religion was essentially the creation of the Jewish people, of groupings of Jews at various critical moments in our history, … a notion that I am convinced most of the ideologues of our movement share—then we must conclude that authority in matters of belief and practice lies within the hands of the committed Jews of every generation. To say this is to relativize all of our ideological commitments, and effectively to consign us to a life of tension—which, I suggest we should embrace and which we will find liberating.

Now, I do not have time to unpack all of what Rabbi Gillman said here regarding how our religious tradition came into being; that is a lecture that would require several hours. But the tension which we experience as 21st-century Jews attempting to muddle our way through ancient rituals and texts is nothing new. It has always been a part of the Jewish experience, in every generation. 

And Rabbi Gillman is right on: we should embrace the tension. That is how Jews have always lived, and that is how our tradition, particularly right here in the ideological center of the Jewish world, will continue. This is what keeps our religion alive, relevant. Ledor vador / from generation to generation we wrestle with God.  

So what does that mean to us? How can we act on this today, here in Pittsburgh? 

It means that we can confidently continue living how we live: firmly in the contemporary world, and yet still striving to find the ways in which our tradition still helps us to be better people. It means believing on the one hand that we are still cleaving to the framework of the Torah’s mitzvot, given at Mt. Sinai, because they fill our lives with structure and meaning, and that we also adapt them to our current circumstances. It means that we can celebrate a bat mitzvah, and still see ourselves connected to the spiritual pathways of our forebears.

I am grateful to be living in that tension, and proud to be a Conservative Jew.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/29/22.)

* Aggadah: Aramaic, equivalent to the Hebrew haggadah, “telling.” Refers to the collection of rabbinic folklore, as opposed to the parts of rabbinic text that are law-giving (halakhah). The aggadah sits alongside the halakhah, in the pages of the Talmud and other works, giving context and story which often illuminate the halakhic discussion.

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Sermons

Why Can’t We Edit the Torah? – Naso 5778

One of the greatest points of confusion regarding Jewish law is the following:

The Torah is NOT Judaism.

More accurately, the religious tradition described in the Torah is not how we practice Judaism today. Yes, certain items in halakhah / Jewish law appear in the Torah, and you can make the case that Judaism is derived from the Torah. But Jewish practice today contains far more complexity and subtlety and detail than what is found between the two atzei hayyim (posts) of a Torah scroll.

This is especially important in understanding parashat Naso, which we read today, and in particular, one of the most disturbing passages in the Torah, found therein: the description of the ancient ritual for the Sotah, the woman who is suspected by her husband of being unfaithful.

In short, the Torah’s description is like this: the Kohen (priest) writes a curse on a scroll, and then pours water over the scroll to dissolve the ink. The inky water is collected and the suspected wife is given some to drink. If she dies (or suffers greatly, or miscarries; it’s not exactly clear; the text says “latzbot beten velanpil yarekh,” causing her “belly to distend and her thigh to sag”), she was guilty. If she survives the ordeal, she is innocent.

Antique Print-CEREMONY-BITTER WATER-RITUAL SOTAH-ADULTERY-Cunaeus-1682

Now, you probably did not hear about that in Hebrew school. And for sure you have never heard of such a thing practiced by Jews, and there is a good reason for that: it’s barbaric. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the Talmudic period thought it interesting enough that they put together a tractate on it: Massekhet Sotah, in which they detail the process. However, toward the end we discover that the practice had been discontinued some time in the past, although of course they do not know how far back. (Scholars cannot confirm whether or not the ritual was actually ever practiced.) BT Sotah 47a:

משרבו המנאפים פסקו המים המרים

From the time when adulterers proliferated, [the performance of the ritual of] the bitter waters was nullified; [they would not administer the bitter waters to the sotah.]

This is, it seems to me, a rabbinic cop-out. They can’t say, “When they realized that the ritual was cruel and unjust, they stopped performing it.” Rather, they cite the proliferation of adultery as the reason – i.e. there were just too many adulterers for us always to be performing this ceremony. But this is not really a logical conclusion; it is, rather, in line with the traditional rabbinic attempt to mitigate the harsh punishments encoded in Torah law. The Talmud often seeks to lessen the severity of the Torah’s harshest decrees. We do not put people to death for violating Shabbat in public, or for being disobedient children, both of which appear in the Torah as commandments. Likewise, we do not perform cruel punishments like the ritual of the bitter waters. And we likely never have.

But what do we do about passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable? After all, there are many: the tale of Noah’s drinking and his son Ham’s apparent misbehavior; Lot and his daughters; Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar; the Torah’s apparent condoning of slavery, concubinage, prostitution, etc.*

When I was working on my first master’s degree at Texas A&M University, a very traditional, conservative campus, I would occasionally hear very serious Christians talk about living according to the Bible. My (thought, not spoken) response was, “Aha. So do you check your garments for sha’atnez (mixture of wool and linen forbidden by the Torah)? Do you plan on marrying multiple wives? Should you kill the entire family of somebody who raped your sister?”

The writer AJ Jacobs seized on this idea a few years back in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he describes his attempt to live according to the Torah, literally. What results is an often hilarious series of episodes. But his overarching point is clear: neither Judaism nor Christianity takes the Bible at its word. And we should acknowledge this.

We do not live according to the Torah. We live according to rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, which is colored by centuries of societal development and modifications to account for how we live today.

So what on Earth could be the reason that we still read about the sotah ritual? Can’t we just edit it out? Doesn’t it make us look bad?

I mentioned earlier that Massekhet Sotah (the Talmudic tractate) covers many of the details of the sotah ritual, as if the rabbis discussing it, long after the practice had been abandoned, was meant to be preserved, as if some day, like the Temple sacrifices, it would be reinstated (has veshalom / God forbid!). But the Talmud is not necessarily a linear book, and, as a text devoted to argument, you find within it pieces that comport well with contemporary sensibilities, even when the subject matter is arcane and/or obsolete. Elsewhere in Massekhet Sotah, we read the following (17a):

דריש ר”ע איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן לא זכו אש אוכלתן

Rabbi Akiva taught: When a man and a woman merit it [through their appropriate behavior], the Divine presence stands between them; when they do not, fire consumes them.

I have often used this piece of wisdom at weddings. It plays on the fact that “ish” (man) and “ishah” (woman) share the letters for esh (fire), and the additional letters between them are yod and heh, which spell out Yah, a short name for God. So when you take God out, when you remove the qedushah, the holiness from a sexual relationship, all you have left is fire – empty passion – which will not last, which will consume itself.

So one advantage to studying and re-reading passages that make us uncomfortable is that we might in fact uncover gems of wisdom when we dig deeper. But in order to find those gems, we have to keep reading.

Another lesson we might glean is that our understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism changes. Just as the Talmudic rabbis, living around Baghdad in the 3rd century or so, could not stomach the ritual of the bitter waters (!), so too can we look back on Jewish practices historically and make judgments based on who we are and how we live today. Halakhah, Jewish law, evolves. The world changes, and Judaism changes with it. We treat women and men equally under Jewish law (i.e. egalitarianism). We uphold the values of Shabbat, even as we encourage people to drive to synagogue if they live too far away from the synagogue. We ordain gay men and women as rabbis, and join them in marriage under the huppah (wedding canopy).

At the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (late-night study session on the first night of the festival of Shavuot) last Saturday night, we read the words of Rabbi Neil Gillman, who taught that our understanding of God, the Torah, and halakhah changes as we change, and these things are shaped by our cultural context. “Halakhah is indispensible,” he wrote, “‘because it is what the Jewish community understands God’s will to be.” Not God’s will, but rather our understanding of God’s will. And that changes.

The final message we might glean here is, you might say, related to the current “#MeToo” moment. The sotah tale sits there in Bemidbar / Numbers to remind us that horrible things have been done by people to other people, and in particular by men to women, throughout history, and that these historical wrongs must be righted. Even if it was never performed, even if the tale found herein is merely to scare women and men away from adultery, the descriptions in the Torah and the Talmud are there as a caution: this is the kind of thing that can happen when we do not count women as equals.

Why is this here? As a reminder that we need to struggle to overcome it. We do not edit the Torah; on the contrary, we edit our behavior to reflect the holiness in all of us.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/26/2018.)

* Given the death of Philip Roth this week, one might ask the same question about Portnoy’s Complaint, and other works in his oeuvre that do not necessarily make the Jews look so good.

 

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

May (S/He) Remember – 8th Day Pesah 5778 / Yizkor

In last week’s New York Times, there was a column by Nicholas Kristof about clergy in America (“The Rise of God’s Spokeswomen,” Sunday Review, April 1, 2018), and how clergy of most denominations are increasingly female.

We in the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and as their numbers have grown, the idea of a female rabbi has become more widespread and more acceptable. I have female colleagues who are in large congregations, who are the senior spiritual leaders of their flocks, and who are as respected and as effective in their positions as men. And that is a good thing.

Kristof says something that I found particularly moving: that our changing attitudes to spiritual leadership, that our increasing openness to women in the role of rabbi or minister or priest will ultimately transform our theology. He cites Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary (just across the street, by the way, from my rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), who suggests that women will ultimately dominate religious leadership in America, and that this will reshape our understanding of the role of God in our lives, moving from “stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

The student body at Union is now nearly 60% female; at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 63% of rabbis ordained since 1998 have been women. About one-fifth of all Conservative rabbis are women, and that percentage grows a bit each year; this spring’s ordination class is 16 women and 12 men, or 57% female. The membership of the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization that consists primarily of cantors serving in Conservative synagogues, is 35% female.

Women Rabbis Lean In
Conservative rabbis

With so many more women joining the ranks of clergy, our relationships with the various faith traditions, at least in the progressive movements, will naturally change. And so too will our theology.

Still, the sense of “maleness” in Jewish tradition is ever-present, and hard to miss. Consider the special service that we will perform in a few minutes, the proper name for which is “hazkarat neshamot,” the “remembering of souls.” But almost everybody in the Ashkenazi world refers to it as Yizkor (accent on the “yiz,” since both Yiddish and English tend to accent the penultimate syllable in most words; the original Hebrew, properly pronounced, accents the “kor”). “Yizkor” is the first word in the memorial prayers that we recite during that part of the service; these prayers are recited only four times per year: on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesah, and the second day of Shavuot.

What does “yizkor” mean? Literally, “May He remember,” and since it is followed by the word Elohim (one of the common terms for God), it should be understood as, “May God remember,” as in, May God remember my mother, my father, my sister, etc. Now, in English, the translation is non-gender specific. But in Hebrew, the word yizkor is totally, unapologetically masculine. There is actually nothing we can do about it – there is no gender-neutral third person conjugation in Hebrew. It’s either yizkor or tizkor, may She remember, and with that latter term there is the same challenge. So, while we might avoid the issue by referring to the service by its proper name, Hazkarat Neshamot, we can’t really do much about the memorial prayer itself.

There is a midrash that I truly love about the creation of humans as described in Bereshit / Genesis on the sixth day of Creation. It’s about the verse, Genesis 1:27:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

The midrash interprets the verse to indicate two stages of the fashioning of human beings. The first adam, the first human creature, has two sides, a male side and a female side. Because the Hebrew in the first half of the verse has a singular direct object (“vayivra et ha-adam… bara oto,” “God created man… He created him”), it is clear that God created only one creature at first. Furthermore, one may also extrapolate that, since the text tells us twice that this being is fashioned in the image of God, that God also has two sides, a female and a male.

adam and eve
Adam and Eve, by Tsugouharu Fujita

The second part of the verse, “zakhar uneqevah bara otam,” “male and female He created them,” has a plural direct object, so the midrash’s perspective is that God took this two-sided figure and split it into two distinct beings, a female human and a male human. Both are therefore equally in the image of God. Both are God-like, and God is neither male nor female but actually both.

I must concede that when I think and speak about God, I am trying not to envision a specific image. On the contrary, my personal understanding is much more along the lines of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s view of God as kind of force within the natural world, a process that works through and around us, and such a force has no gender, no body, no clear “actions” as described in the Torah and midrash. But I know that if you scratch two Jews, you’ll get at least three different theologies. And, of course our text and liturgy is saturated with images of God as a distinct character, and in particular, a distinctly male character: Avinu malkeinu, Avinu shebashamayim, God sitting on a heavenly throne, God creating the world, God dictating to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and so forth. And all that language is unquestionably masculine.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share a personal anecdote, one that might help illustrate a different model for understanding God.

A few of you know that I lost my first cousin, Anne Lerner, last week. She was 50 years old, and taught in a middle school for “inner-city” kids in Hartford. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and we were all shocked and raw, particularly in the context of Passover, to be burying her at such a young age. Anne was never married; she did not have children of her own. But she was so loved by all her students, current and former, that there were about 300 people at her funeral. The school where she taught actually closed on Monday so that teachers and students could attend, and the school actually brought the students in buses to the synagogue in Manchester, CT where the funeral was held.

I am telling you this not to share with you my grief over the loss of my cousin, but rather because in discussing the arc of my cousin’s life with my family members in preparation for delivering a eulogy, I came to understand that she saw her students as her children. She was to them like a nurturing mother, leading and guiding and nudging where possible, making sure they were taken care of, making sure that their needs were met, that if they were not receiving love and support at home, then at least they would get it at school.

Anne loved those students. She loved them dearly. And they loved her right back.

Teaching is holy work, and although my cousin would not have thought of herself as holy, she was in some sense modeling for all of us a way that we might understand God: our teacher, our guide, our provider, our nurturer, the one who makes it possible for us to love. God need not be “Our Father, Our King,” but rather, “The One who loves us and gives us the ability to love.”

That is a theology that appeals to me, and arguably an understanding that is made even more reasonable as the clergy becomes more female.

Any of you who have ever discussed theology with me, in a class or my learners’ service or one-on-one, knows that I am all for re-thinking how we understand God, because the traditional images do not work well for me. And some of you may also know that I draw heavily from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (zekher tzaddiq livrakhah / may his righteous memory be for a blessing) in this matter, whose bottom line was that we have to seek the understanding of God that works for us as individuals. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about this, come to my session at the Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Saturday night, May 19th at the JCC. I will be discussing Rabbi Gillman’s legacy and why connecting to theology is so essential.)

What works for me is to see the entire palette of humanity as reflecting the image of God: God is male and female, black and white and everything in-between. And God is also none of these things.

As we embrace more women in the clergy, we will surely welcome a broader understanding of the Divine, a more balanced sense of God that incorporates both paternal and maternal aspects.

While I am almost certain that we will always continue to refer to hazkarat neshamot as “Yizkor,” may He remember, I think it would be a good thing to, when we recall our loved ones who are no longer with us, to remember that they were as much subject to God’s nurturing love as to God’s justice.

May that God, the one that reflects the balance of humanity, remember all of those whom we recall today. May our God-given ability to love inspire us, in their memories, to spread more love in this world.

anne lerner
My cousin, Anne Lerner z”l

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning / 8th day Pesah, 4/7/2018.)

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Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

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What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)