Tag Archives: Rambam

Ani Ma’amin / I Believe – Shemini Atzeret 5778

We are in difficult times. Wildfires. Hurricanes. A horrific mass shooting. A president who thrives on insults and can’t distinguish between Nazis and “fine people.”

I’m going to talk today about faith, about commitment to our spiritual tradition, in the context of challenging times. Ani Ma’amin. I believe.

Belief is a funny thing. My sense is that we don’t believe in too much today, do we? We like our distance, our cool, reserved, “let’s wait and see” stance.

How many of us believe so strongly in something that we can actually put ourselves into it bodily? How many of us fully invest ourselves in a cause, for example, that we’re actually out in the streets, marching? How many of us feel so strongly about our tradition that we commit to the actions of the tradition, rather than merely checking the “High Holiday” or “Yizkor” box?

There is really no greater figure on the Jewish bookshelf than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka Rambam. He lived in the 12th century, primarily in Egypt, and wrote two major works: the Mishneh Torah, and the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed. These two works come at Judaism from two different perspectives. The Moreh Nevukhim is written for the skeptic, the one who has not yet bought into the idea of Judaism. It’s written to try to initiate the uninitiated; it presents the meaning of our rituals and customs and texts with an eye to inspiring connection. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the language of the Jews of Egypt of the 12th century.

Spain - Cordoba - statue of the Jewish scholar Maimonides ...

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

The Mishneh Torah, on the other hand, is a halakhic guide. Its title means, literally, the second Torah, boldly titled to almost suggest that if you read this book, you would not need to read the original Torah. It’s for the already-convinced, the committed Jew who wants to know how to do Judaism properly. It’s for the one who throws his or her whole body and heart and mind into it. It’s written in beautiful, crisp medieval Hebrew, easily understandable to those who have studied our essential tongue.

Sitting next to each other on the shelf, what might this suggest about the Jews that Rambam knew in 12th-century Cairo? Certainly, the Mishneh Torah suggests that there were some Jews who were committed to halakhah and wanted to know more, wanted to know from a master interpreter of our tradition what exactly makes a sukkah kosher, or what Psalms to recite for Hallel. But the Moreh Nevukhim, The Guide for the Perplexed, suggests that there were many that were not yet ready to believe, not yet ready to commit.

Having just completed the odyssey of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, I must say that I find it extraordinarily ironic that one of the best-known piyyutim (liturgical poems) of those days is “Vekhol Ma’aminim.” It includes a litany of statements about God that “all [of us] believe.” And yet, I know that in the sanctuary on those days, there are many who do not believe – do not buy into fundamental traditional understandings of our tradition, of Jewish theology, of the halakhic system, of mitzvot, and so forth. Many of us do not believe, even some of us who are singing along.

Whenever we say the word “amen,” we are saying, I am in a state of faith with you. I believe.

But tefillah, prayer, is not a portrait of what is; it is a vision of what could be. So it’s certainly possible to be in a state of faith that tefillah helps us along the path to building that vision. And that’s certainly where I am.

I believe in the power of Judaism to change your life. I believe in the richness of wisdom that is found in our ancient texts. I believe in the holy spark that may be found in all people, and in all of God’s creation. I believe in the power of that force that flows around and through us that we refer to as the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, to change us and to change the world.

Maybe that makes me an outlier. But it puts me in good company.

A few years back, Elie Wiesel was featured at a performance at the 92nd St. Y in New York. He told a story about how his mother, who came from a well-known family of Vizhnitzer Hasidim, brought him on one Shabbat in 1943 to the court of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. Elie was 15, and although rumors had reached his home town, Sighet, Romania, about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Poland, nobody knew for certain.

Elie Wiesel: 1928-2016

Also there on that Shabbat was a nephew of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a young man who had been in Nazi-occupied Poland, but managed to find his way back Vizhnitz, in the Ukraine. The Hasidim there that Shabbat pressed him for information, but he would not say a thing. He simply could not tell them what he had likely seen: the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen, SS mobile killing squads, rail transports to death camps in cattle cars, and so on. On all these things, the young man was silent. Instead, he only sang. He sang the words of Ani Ma’amin, Maimonides’ fundamental statement of faith in the coming of the mashiah. But embedded in the words, and in the melody, was the message that they needed to maintain faith despite the coming cataclysm:

(You can hear the recording of Elie Wiesel singing this song by clicking here.)

אני מאמין
באמונה שלמה
בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה
עם כל זה אחכה לו
בכל יום שיבוא

Ani ma-amin
Be-emunah shelemah
Bevi-at hamashiah
Ve-af al pi sheyitmahmeah
Im kol zeh ahakeh lo
B
ekhol yom sheyavo

I believe
With perfect faith
In the coming of the mashiah (the anointed one)
And although he tarries
Nonetheless, I wait for him
Every day, that he may come

What did the Jews of Vizhnitz and Elie Wiesel learn that Shabbat? That whatever unspeakable horrors lay in front of them, they would survive. That whatever fate was awaiting them at the hands of their oppressors, that some of them would make it to the other side. That there would be Jews at some future time, Jews who would be on this Earth to greet the arriving mashiah. That even though there are dark times ahead, that they would eventually pass.

There is always hope for the future. Our tradition teaches us to be patient, and to look past the current darkness to the better days ahead. Ani ma’amin. I believe.

To be sure, Elie Wiesel lost his faith; he chronicles that moment in his first book, Night, his account of the Shoah, when he arrives at Auschwitz and is hustled out of the cattle car, and an SS officer points to the flames coming from the crematorium and screams, Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there-that’s where you’re going to be taken. That’s your grave, over there.And in that moment, reports Wiesel, he loses his faith. A God that could have allowed such a thing did not deserve his reverence. His faith, he says, was consumed in those flames.

At some point, later in life, he found Judaism again. But anybody who survived the camps had to struggle with belief. I had a congregant back on Long Island who, late in life, authored an account of her own Shoah story. It was particularly striking to me that, in the book, she conceded that, while she raised a family in Jewish tradition, and her children and grandchildren were believers, she could not find the same belief within herself.

And yet, it is that belief that enabled some to survive. It is that sense of “Ani ma-amin,” I believe, that has given our people hope for millennia, through destruction and exile and Crusades and Inquisition and expulsion and genocide.

I believe that we are here today because of our belief.

Because we will be here forever, if we all just reach a little deeper, if we all just put a little more of ourselves into learning our tradition, into acting on our tradition, in keeping the holy opportunities, the mitzvot of our tradition in front of us. If we let go of some of that cool reserve, if we put ourselves bodily into our rituals and customs bodily, if we pray with fervor, if we reach higher to keep the mitzvot, if we yearn to reach past the perplexity to seek answers, to act on that belief, we will survive whatever challenges we face.

Ani ma-amin. I believe. And I’ll wait, and continue to daven every day, until we get to the other side.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shemini Atzeret, Thursday, 10/12/2017.)

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No Justice, No Peace – Ki Tetse 5777

Last Monday, Rabbi Jeremy and I were fortunate to be able to attend a local interfaith commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug 28 1963 March on Washington. Faith leaders from all over the region gathered at the JCC to learn together and share sermons about the need for justice in our society today, a need that is as great as it was 54 years ago when Dr. King gave his most famous speech. Dr. King’s dream is still alive; it is, of course, unfulfilled. 169 local priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams signed a joint declaration, which we read at the ceremony, re-affirming our obligations as clergy to fight hatred and to stand together for compassion and inclusion.

... Who Refused to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

This section of Devarim / Deuteromony is all about justice. It begins with the statement in last week’s parashah, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” “Justice: you shall pursue justice,” (that’s my translation), and the Torah’s requirement to appoint impartial judges and law enforcement officers. The thread of justice continued this week with an assortment of other commandments that maintain the holiness in human relationships. For example, the obligation to pay a day laborer promptly and not take advantage of him (Deut. 24:14), or the commandment not to despise the foreigner among you, because we know what it’s like to be foreigners (23:8). We have to allow needy people to pick up produce that has fallen to the ground, and otherwise glean from our fields (24:19, e.g.), but they are not allowed to take more than their share (23:25).

We have an obligation to make sure that our society is a just one. And, as Maimonides explains at the end of the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, the mitzvot (holy opportunities derived from the Torah) are there not only for us to fulfill, but also for us to extrapolate moral behavior according to the spirit of the law. This principle is known in Hebrew as “lifnim mishurat hadin,” that we should behave within the line of the law. So yes, having a just society means setting up legitimate courts, honest weights and measures, and making sure that some of your  produce is set aside for the poor; these are all explicit in the Torah. But extending that line, creating a just society also means that we have an obligation to step forward in the event that your leadership does not. It means that we each have a personal responsibility to make sure that our society is just, and we might fulfill that by supporting organizations that protect the right of everybody to vote, for example, or by making sure that our laws do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, religion, and so forth, or by working to ensure that our public schools offer a worthy education to all who enter.

There has been much recent concern over public statues that feature people who stood for abhorrent things, like slavery. This was, of course, part of the back-story for the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA a few weeks back. I think that there are certainly good arguments for taking down statues to Confederate leaders.

But there is also another way. What do we do with the symbols of an unseemly past? We teach. We talk about them. We study.

There are many such examples in our siddur (prayerbook). To cite just one, consider the image of resurrection that is featured in the second berakhah of the Amidah, the standing prayer that we recite each day. Yes, you heard that right: resurrection. When we say, “Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayye hameitim,” we are saying, praised are You, God, who brings the dead back to life. It is a paean to the ancient understanding that when the Anointed One, the mashiah (messiah) comes, faithful Jews will be resurrected and get on El Al flights to return to Israel, which will be united again under the kingship of a descendant of King David. In today’s Jewish world, some groups have elevated classical messianism to the point where it is an essential part of their theology, despite the fact that no such idea exists in the Torah.

But messianism has always been an uncomfortable area for contemporary Jews, including your faithful rabbinic correspondent. We don’t treat each other justly for some eschatological reward (something to which we can look forward at the end of times). Rather we treat each other justly because it is the right thing to do in the here and now, that the reward comes from elevating the qedushah / holiness in our relationships.

And so, while the Reform movement replaced “mehayye hameitim” with “mehayye hakol,” restoring life to all, we in the Conservative movement say the original text, while reinterpreting the berakhah to mean that God is the source of all life. It does not have to be about messianic resurrection; it can be about how God works as a force in nature all around us, providing the spirit that nourishes all of us in life and in death. We take our traditional text and reinterpret the words, thereby conserving the tradition and making it work with our contemporary values.

But of course, that requires explanation, and you will find one if you look in the margin of Siddur Lev Shalem on a page with the Amidah (e.g. p. 186). In the Conservative movement, we have a long and glorious history of re-interpretation. So the message for today is, whether we take down statues or not, let’s make sure that we make our interpretation explicit.

Let’s make sure that every child knows that slavery was deeply wrong, that racism is wrong, that anti-Semitism is wrong, that anti-immigrant-ism is wrong. Let’s make sure that our elected officials and judges and law enforcement officers do not unfairly target people with different skin color. Let’s make sure that we acknowledge the divinity in EVERY human being, the Godly spark that motivates us all to do good for each other in this world.

It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to recite a prayer for the secular authorities of the jurisdiction in which we live. (One of the most interesting features of old siddurim is to find the prayer for the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or, as referenced in Fiddler on the Roof, a blessing for the czar and/or czarina).

Week after week we pray for our country, that of the United States of America. They are roughly the same words that we have been saying for many years (Lev Shalem, p. 177).

We are living in a time in which many people are in pain. Many in our this great and prosperous nation are suffering from disenfranchisement, from the scourge of readily-available, inexpensive addictive drugs, from the cycles of poverty which afflict us from generation to generation, from the growing gap between rich and poor, from the closing of steel mills and coal mines to the looming threat of unemployment from self-driving cars and trucks and the coming automation of, well, everything. We are frustrated by stagnant wages and the outrageous cost of health care. We are frightened at the prospect of emboldened racists and anti-Semites parading through our streets, and the attendant regression in race relations. We are once again roiled by the fear of immigrants in our midst. We are living in a time of great philosophical divide in our country, and the reluctance to compromise on a range of issues.

As the center of American Judaism, we have what to teach the world about these things. We, particularly as Conservative Jews, understand listening to all sides, left and right. We understand the value of maintaining tradition while reinterpreting and explaining for today to reflect contemporary sensibilities.

In our prayer for the country, we said the following:

Help [the inhabitants of this country] understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

If there were ever a time that we needed those words, it would be right now. If there were ever a time in which we needed those ideals, it is the current moment. And so we have to get out there and teach our Torah, our values.

To have peace, happiness, freedom, and security, we need justice. And justice requires thoughtful reflection, to making sure that the choices we make will ultimately support the institutions that we have set in place. We cannot respond out of hatred and fear of the other. We cannot support authority figures who seek only to destroy institutions and prop up the bigotry-mongers. We cannot violate the sacred ideals of democracy and individual protections which immigrants to this great nation have sought for centuries. We have to make sure that our leaders follow not only the rule of law, but also the spirit. Lifnim mishurat hadin.

Image may contain: one or more people, crowd, sky, tree and outdoor

We have the potential to reignite those values. Because, in the words of Pirqei Avot (the 2nd-century collection of ancient rabbinic wisdom), “Im lo akhshav, eimatai?” If not now, when?

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/2/2017.)

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Renewing Our Relationship With Judaism -Ki Tetse 5776

I am always captivated by passages in the Torah that list laws, because they give us some insight into what our ancestors valued. Today’s parashah was especially rich with such laws, and among them some of my favorites:

  • returning your neighbor’s donkey
  • not abusing an employee
  • leaving some of your harvest for the needy
  • not taking chicks from the nest while the mother is there
  • stoning to death a disobedient son
  • stoning to death a newlywed woman in whom “the tokens of her virginity” were not found

Wait a minute – back up.  I’m sorry about those last two.

And, in some sense, so is Rabbinic Judaism.  Yes, those are in the Torah, but we have never actually stoned anybody to death (thank God!). In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show that the applicability of these laws is so limited that they could never actually be carried out.

Fortunately, we do not practice the religion of the ancient Israelites. Judaism is not the literal application of the laws as written in the Torah.  Rather, Jewish law has been codified by our sages who interpreted the Torah in subsequent centuries.  In other words we practice rabbinic Judaism, which is much more reasonable.

Given the issues surrounding some of the laws described in the Torah, there is a debate in rabbinic literature that continues to this day: Do the mitzvot have some internal value, or moral worth, or are they simply commandments that we must follow without searching for any higher message?

Maimonides (1135 – 1204 Spain -> Egypt) sees reason behind each commandment. For example, he believes that the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, shooing away the mother bird in order to take the chicks teaches us compassion for all of God’s creatures.

הכן מצות שילוח הקן מעוררת אותנו לתמיהה ...

In his seminal work of philosophy, Moreh Nevukhim, “Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides connects the suffering of animals with the suffering of people:

“Since therefore the desire of procuring good food necessitates the killing of animals, the Law enjoins that this should be done as painlessly as possible…  [the suffering of animals] does not differ from that of man, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings…  If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow people!”

The mother hen and her chicks, says Rambam, are representative; the mitzvah applies equally to humans, if not literally, then figuratively.

But not everybody agrees with Rambam.

Ramban – Nachmanides (1194 -1270 Spain -> Israel) states clearly and unapologetically  that “The ruling on the mother bird is not based on the Almighty’s pity for the animal.”  To Ramban, this is merely one more decree, albeit one that does teach us to avoid cruelty.  No further conclusions may be drawn.

Elsewhere, Rashi (1040-1105 France) states in a commentary on a different passage that the reason one should not steal (e.g.) is not because it is “wrong” to steal; rather, because God commanded us not to steal.

There are modern commentators that come down on either side of this equation. But I must say that this rabbi is with Rambam. Our inner motivations in following Jewish law should be in line with our behavior. We do not merely fulfill mitzvot like so many sheep, but rather use them as a tool to bring greater holiness into our lives. Our goal in taking these holy opportunities is to extrapolate these commandments for the greater good.

It is therefore not enough merely to shoo the mother bird away before taking the chicks, but also a lesson about minimizing suffering for all of God’s creatures, no matter their size or significance, and even as we use some of them wisely to produce our food. And that message is as much reinforced by the mitzvot surrounding kashrut, holy eating, as it is by the obligation to return not only your neighbor’s donkey, but your enemy’s donkey as well.

***

You may be aware that Rosh Hashanah is a little more than two weeks away…

This is a time to reset the dials of our lives, or, to use more contemporary language, it’s time for a full system restore.

We tend to think of the High Holidays as being associated with the Book of Life (Besefer hayyim… nizakher venikatev… lehayyim tovim ulshalom), the extended metaphor of God’s weighing our souls. But I would like to offer a different perspective.

Perhaps we can dedicate this time not just to wiping the slate clean regarding our actions, but also our relationship with Judaism. Not merely a behavioral renewal, but rather a theological and ideological renewal

I’ll tell you what I mean:

In some ways, it is easier just to perform the rituals of Jewish life without thinking about them.

I remember so clearly the day back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on practical theology, and hearing education professor Dr. Steve Brown telling a roomful of future rabbis, cantors, and  educators-to-be that the language of hiyyuv, of obligation, does not speak to people today, so there is no point in trying to use it.  I recall feeling let down – like, what kind of Jewish world is this where nobody sees themselves as being obligated to anything?

I have since learned to take a more nuanced view. For many of us, our relationship with Judaism is based more on sociological motivations – history, cultural connections, the need for moral guidance in complicated times, the desire to “resonate” with our ancestors, and so forth, than it is with the traditional perspective of fulfilling obligations.

The challenge, however, will be to maintain our connection in the future, when that particular set of sociological conditions goes away. And that’s why we need to re-examine our relationship with our textual tradition now.

We relate easily to the narrative portions of the Torah, the stories of our ancestors (and their dysfunctional family) as our national myths, our history; we can learn from them; we can sometimes strive to interact with them (What would Moshe do? What’s troubling Rashi? etc.).

And it is particularly difficult to relate to the vast swathes of the Torah that are about irrelevant things, like the sacrificial cult in the Temple, which has not been active for nearly two millennia, and will likely never be re-established.

Somewhere in the middle, though, between narrative and sacrifices, are the lists of laws.  Here in the depths of Devarim, we find lots of them.  Some we like.  Some make us uncomfortable.  Thank God for the lens of rabbinic literature for helping us to understand that we do not ACTUALLY have to put anybody to death.  (Aside from the difficult moral quandaries that this would place us in, it would also not be so good for synagogue membership.)

And the essence of our relationship with the Torah and Judaism is building those personal connections with the text; wrestling with it; agreeing and disagreeing with it, and so forth.

As the High Holidays approach, now is the time to consider how we might renew our covenant, and particularly here at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Judaism is as much about thinking and learning as it is about doing (i.e. prayer, saying qaddish, mitzvot, etc.). Ours is an intellectual tradition. In this season of return, perhaps we can consider returning to the foundational principles of the synagogue: that it should be not only a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, but also a beit midrash, a house of study. Let’s rededicate ourselves to learning about and redefining our relationships to Judaism through learning, discussing, and passing our textual heritage from generation to generation.

Along those lines, there are two things I want you to know about:

  1. I am starting up a learners’ service that will meet on one Shabbat morning per month, the second Shabbat morning of each month. I think that the entire community has the potential to benefit from learning more about tefillah / prayer. Due to various logistical considerations, it will not start until December. It will be primarily for beginners, but even veteran daveners will be able to learn as well.
  2. The other thing is that, in collaboration with a number of key members of the congregation, I have put together a concept for this community that will help transform Beth Shalom into that beit midrash in addition to being a beit tefillah. The concept is the Open Community Beit Midrash program at Beth Shalom. We will be approaching major donors with this concept as a part of the greater fundraising plan connected with our centennial year celebration. But the goal is to offer a whole new range of programming, the likes of which have not been seen in Squirrel Hill. The centerpiece will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, wherein all will be welcome to come and learn, regardless of their background, knowledge, experience, membership status, sexuality, whatever. This new arm of Beth Shalom has the potential to renew and reinvigorate not just this synagogue, but the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I’ll speak more about this concept on Yom Kippur itself, but I wanted to give you all a taste while we were on the subject of renewal.

Meanwhile, use these holidays to reconsider your commitment to our intellectual heritage.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/17/2016.)

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Looking Forward: Tradition, Change and the Future – Shofetim 5775

A few years back, my previous congregation, Temple Israel of Great Neck, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Rabbi Mordecai Waxman’s seminal work, Tradition and Change. Rabbi Waxman had been the rabbi at TIGN for an astonishing 55 years, from 1947 until he retired in 2002. The book’s title (apparently coined by his wife Ruth) became the de facto slogan of the Conservative movement.

Since the book was published in 1958, the world has changed dramatically. Consider just one thing: technology. The ubiquity of small computers for personal use has changed our lives in ways that are so profound that many of us cannot even imagine a world without them.

And of course, the Jewish landscape has changed as well. Jews have many more options today for their Jewish involvement, including, of course, the option of opting out entirely.

When Tradition and Change was published, the Conservative movement accounted for half of American Jewry. Today, demographic studies suggest that about one-third of affiliated American Jews are members of Conservative synagogues. And the number of Conservative synagogues is going down as smaller congregations merge or close.

In Rabbi Waxman’s original introduction, he indicated the following as essential features of our movement:

  1. A commitment to Kelal Yisrael. Rabbi Waxman uses Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s term, “Catholic Israel,” the idea that all Jews are one people, united by common texts, rituals, and values, a common language and shared history.
  1. Positive-Historical Judaism: This is a concept that originated in the 19th-century German-Jewish sphere, that our approach to Judaism is at once aware of the historical changes within Jewish law, halakhah, and custom, minhag, and that we emphasize our connection with history as we look to the future.
  1. Acceptance of modern thought: Our approach to Torah demands that we open our minds to the changing currents of science, philosophy, archaeology, Biblical criticism, and so forth, and not ignore them or obfuscate when they challenge accepted tradition.
  1. Authority and interpretation: We are bound by Jewish legal tradition, and our reading of halakhah depends on the classical methods of interpretation that Jewish scholars have used for millennia in different lands. And yet we are able to make serious changes in halakhic practice based on our engagement with modern thought and values.

I believe firmly in this formula. Growing up attending a Conservative synagogue,  I knew that although driving a car to synagogue on Shabbat would violate several traditional Shabbat prohibitions, nonetheless the Conservative movement had decided that it was more in the spirit of Shabbat to drive there than not to go to synagogue at all.

No matter the numbers of the Conservative movement, we are still here. And we still stand for the principles of Tradition and Change – of the approach to halakhah / Jewish law, as halakhic decisors have guided it for centuries.

The Conservative movement has changed in the last half-century. In particular, in the 1950s, the extent of egalitarianism in American Judaism was mixed seating. I think we have also witnessed a change in Conservative clergy. The Rabbi Waxman model was rabbi-as-academic-scholar. Today’s Conservative rabbis and cantors are scholarly, yes, but are also expected to make personal connections and work harder at community-building initiatives, to focus on pastoral care and engaging contemporary Jews in new ways.

And, of course, the Conservative laity has changed dramatically. While the bulk of Jews in the Conservative pews in 1958 were immigrants and children of immigrants, today’s membership is in a different place. We are largely not naturalized Americans. We are simply Americans. The State of Israel is a given, and its influence both in the Jewish world and out is far greater than its size. Attendance at synagogue services is way down. Sermonic pyrotechnics and cantorial recitatives that moved congregations of the last century are rarely heard, let alone appreciated, by Jews under the age of 60.

And American society has changed dramatically as well. Formality is out; digital interconnectedness is in, even while our actual, physical interconnectedness (that which sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”) is down. Personal choice is our highest ideal. Membership in organizations of all kinds, including religious institutions, is declining. Intermarriage of all kinds is commonplace; homosexuality has moved into the mainstream.

And for all these reasons, the need for synagogues like Congregation Beth Shalom is as prominent as ever. Ladies and gentlemen, Judaism needs the American middle. Let me tell you why:

While most Jews will never commit to the halakhic expectations of Orthodoxy,  most still want some kind of Jewish experience, and many of those, when they come for their Judaism fix, they want it to be traditional, and yet open to contemporary thought and sensibility.

Consider the recent Conservative publication, The Observant Life. Meant as a successor to the classic halakhic work by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (1979), The Observant Life contains all you need to know not only to practice the ritual aspects of Judaism (kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, daily tefillah / prayer, mourning practices and so forth), but also includes chapters on such non-ritual topics as business ethics, civic morality, sexuality, intellectual property, caring for the needy, and so forth.

American Judaism needs the middle. And that means that we in the middle are going to have to work harder to maintain ourselves. We need to take a longer, harder look at the “Change” part of Rabbi Waxman’s slogan, and consider ways to make the middle more viable. To that end, I am going to suggest three important areas that we need to address here at Beth Shalom, in the spirit of Tradition and Change:

  1. To ask ourselves serious questions about why we do what we do. You will hear me frequently quote Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University. Dr. Wolfson has observed that although most synagogues have “Da lifnei mi atah omed” / “Know before whom you stand” written over the bimah, most of us think that what it says is, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” In re-examining ourselves – our services, our programs, our schools – the question, “Why are we doing this” can never be answered with, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” This is not an acceptable answer.On the contrary: rabbinic tradition requires us to ask questions, and the Jewish way is to come up with good answers. Sometimes, “Because it says so in the Torah,” is sufficient. But that is never really the answer. Why do we say the Shema twice a day, evening and morning? Because it says so in the Shema itself. But the real reason is because it keeps us focused on the big picture: loving God, teaching our children, and keeping the words of Torah around us at all times.
  2. To be as open as possible. It is worth pointing out (although I know that there are safety reasons for this) that there are many entrances into this building, almost all of which are always locked. The metaphor for entry into Beth Shalom is unfortunate: it’s not so easy for outsiders to get in.Every single one of us should be leaping over each other to pull others into our circle. That means the following:
    1. We are all ambassadors for Congregation Beth Shalom, and that means that we should all be promoting this congregation, what we do, why we do it, and the benefits of belonging. We should all be reaching out in particular to those who have left to welcome them back, but also to unaffiliated members of the community to make the case for belonging.
    2. For people to join, this has to be a place that they would want to join. And that means that at every opportunity we need to welcome people in. We need a group of greeters – people who are skilled at making others feel welcome, and to do so not just at services, but at all events in the building.On a related note, I am aware that on some seats in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary, there are names. However, there are no names here or in the Helfant Chapel or in the Homestead Hebrew Chapel. What that means is that no seat belongs to anybody. So if a guest is sitting in what you think is “your” seat, please greet that person kindly, and sit somewhere else. There is nothing more awkward and humiliating than coming into an unfamiliar synagogue and immediately being told to move.
    3. We have to be open to all the types of people who come in here. Gay, straight, transgender, Jewish, not yet Jewish, in-married, inter-married, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, single parents, and so on, and so on. The changing face of America is not just in New York and California, it’s here too. We are not in a position to make any judgments. We must welcome all who come here with open arms.
  3. To think relationally. This again courtesy of Dr. Wolfson’s most recent book, Relational Judaism. We live in a very impersonal world – anybody who has ever had to call a customer service number knows that. But the synagogue must be a place that builds relationships; the Greek etymology of the word “synagogue” is “place of coming together,” and is a direct translation of the Hebrew, beit kenesset.What makes a group of Jews a beit kenesset? Personal relationships. This is a place where relationships are forged. We have to work harder to build stronger relationships among ourselves, and to create them with others. And that means thinking relationally. The true measure of the success of a program, says Ron Wolfson, is not how many people there were or whether or not they liked it, but rather how did it build relationships between people?

All of this will require that we work for change, that we stretch ourselves a bit, perhaps beyond what is comfortable for us. But from my vantage point of having just arrived, I can see no other way forward.

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Today in Parashat Shofetim, we read about the commandment to the (at this point theoretical) Israelite king that he must keep a copy of the Torah next to his throne. Nobody is above the words of the Torah, the words of God. But a flesh-and-blood king deals with real problems; he must be engaged with society in real time. The Torah is not to keep him in the past, but rather to help him confront the present.

When Rambam was asked why he rejected astrology, when the rabbis of the Talmud clearly believed in it, he answered by saying that our eyes are in front of us, so that we look to the future, and not to the past.

We will continue in the spirit of Tradition and Change, and change we must if we are continue to provide a home for the much-needed Jewish middle ground.

One final note: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is holding its biennial convention in Chicago, Nov. 15-17, where members and professionals from synagogues from all over will gather to learn tools for communal change. Our president Dave Horvitz and I will be there, and Rabbi Waxman will be there in spirit. Please let me know if you will be coming.

Join us as we look to the future, and consider how to move forward. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/22/2015.)

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