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Walking Wholeheartedly, or, the Danger of Winning at All Costs – Shofetim 5781

As you surely know by now, I am not a big sports fan, and the Olympics draw my attention only as much as the spirit of friendly international competition appeals to my love of humanity. The story of the Italian and Qatari high-jumpers agreeing to share the gold medal was heartwarming; Simone Biles’ pulling herself out of some of her events was at turns disappointing and inspiring. In the latter case, and particularly in light of Naomi Osaka’s removal of herself from the French Open earlier this summer due to her own exhaustion, Biles’ predicament brought to light something which we often do not see in these competitions: that even people who display seemingly super-human abilities are still real people with real emotions and physical limitations, who sometimes need to protect themselves.

Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece by former professional skier Zoe Ruhl entitled, “Our Culture of Winning at All Costs Is Broken. It Almost Broke Me.” Ms. Ruhl, now a medical student, was a member of the United States World Cup Telemark ski team, and at age 16 won a World Cup race. She documents how world-class skiing caused her physical and emotional pain, and that the coaches, doctors, and organizations pushed her to push herself harder, and to push all other concerns – school, health, family, life – out of the way in order to win. 

She quit skiing competitively when she was a freshman at Williams College (located in my home town, of course, which is conveniently located near some very good skiing), citing the costs to her body and mind. She describes her departure as follows:

I learned that the dates for nationals were during a school week and would force me to miss classes. I reached out to the heads of the U.S. Telemark Ski Association and appealed to them. I told them I couldn’t miss more school. The association’s board of directors unanimously denied me a waiver.

Here’s how I heard the board’s response: You either care about this sport or you don’t. It felt to me like a choice between giving up my life and health for skiing or quitting. So I made the choice: I was out. I chose to violate my contract. I chose to give up my spot on the team. But really, I chose myself. I chose my future and my well-being.

Though she enjoyed the competition and of course appreciated winning, Ms. Ruhl realized that the cost to herself – her emotional state, her physical health, even her future – was too high. Winning at all costs was not a good strategy. So she gave it up.

Many of us were surprised and perhaps disappointed when Simone Biles temporarily pulled out of Olympic events. The news of Naomi Osaka’s departure following a win at the French Open, because she was threatened with fines and expulsion after refusing to do a press conference, was also shocking. But these women all made the right choices for themselves. They were honest about their limits; they acknowledged that winning at all costs would not be healthy for them in the long run.

Today in Parashat Shofetim, we encountered the following verse, really quite striking in its simplicity of language as well as its spiritual import (Devarim / Deuteronomy 18:13):

תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

You must be perfect with the LORD your God.

What does it mean to be תָּמִ֣ים / tamim / “perfect” with God? I’m so glad you asked!

Judging from its context, adjacent to commandments to avoid fortune-tellers, Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, glosses this with a midrashic interpretation from Sifrei Devarim:

תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלהיך. הִתְהַלֵּךְ עִמּוֹ בִתְמִימוּת, וּתְצַפֶּה לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחֲקֹר אַחַר הָעֲתִידוֹת, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁיָּבֹא עָלֶיךָ קַבֵּל בִּתְמִימוּת וְאָז תִּהְיֶה עִמּוֹ וּלְחֶלְקוֹ:

You must be perfect: walk before God whole-heartedly, put your hope in God and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you, accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with God and become God’s portion.

Rashi suggests that we should go about our lives in humility, understanding that whatever life throws at us, we should try to live with it. It is only in this completely upright approach to life that we can share in the portion of holiness allotted to us.*

Being wholehearted is not about being physically perfect or emotionally flawless, but rather that we can acknowledge and accept our flaws, to take the curveballs as they are launched at us, and handle our lives in a way that reflects who we really are, not the theoretically perfect version of ourselves.

We cannot hold ourselves to some ridiculous high standard of perfection, even those of us who are positively God-like in our abilities. No matter how talented, or athletic, or brilliant we may be, we are still human. To aspire to anything more than that is not just unhealthy, it is foolhardy. It is something akin to the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, back in Parashat Noah. We cannot aspire to be God-like; the results would be disastrous.

So kol hakavod to Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka, and Zoe Ruhl, for knowing their limits, for understanding that ultimately their emotional and physical health was more important than winning. The whole-hearted approach to life is to not to push yourself to be something you are not, but rather to push yourself to be exactly who you are at all times.

And this is an especially important thing to remember a few weeks before Rosh HaShanah, as we begin to take inventory in ourselves in preparation for the odyssey of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. 

Reb Zusya of Anapol, who lived in 18th century Ukraine, is perhaps best known for saying, “When I get to olam haba, the world to come, the Qadosh Barukh Hu will not ask me, “Why were you not more like Moshe, or more like Avraham,’ but rather, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?”

And, lest you think that this principle applies only to world-class athletes, let us also remember that the curse of winning at all costs has infected our world in many areas: in politics, at work, in our families and communities.

In politics, winning at all costs can lead to the collapse of democracy; we have seen it in other nations, and we are seeing hints of it here in America as well.

At work and in business, winning at all costs leads to toxic environments and unethical decisions.

In family life, winning at all costs causes emotional rifts that sometimes result in estrangement from those who love us.

In communal life, winning at all costs creates an environment in which dissent is not tolerated, and organizations descend into chaotic infighting.

I’m sure that many of us could think of specific examples in which we as individuals have been hurt by others who pursue winning to the detriment of the people around them.

I noticed this week on Facebook a former ELC parent lamenting the fact that she could not find a recreational sports option for her 10-year-old. She said the following:

This is what I’m finding as I try to find healthy, ongoing rec sports for kids… you can’t casually join a [swim team], it has to be intense training, with parent involvement, fundraising … and often a major commitment at $300-600 a month. My kids aren’t going to be Olympic athletes or necessarily even high school or college athletes yet it feels like there is only the option to invest and train as if that’s the goal? We need more balanced sport-for-healthy-lifestyle instead of just competition and success.

If we are teaching children that young that training to win, at great expense and with great expectations is the only option, what message is that sending? 

One of the most beloved teachers on my bookshelf is Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. I’ll never forget that, on my last day of undergraduate education, my chemical engineering professor read one of his books to our graduating class, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! In that book are the following lines:

Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.

Im yotz’im magi’im limqomot niflai’m! – Oh, The Places You’ll Go

We are all so fond of winning that we just cannot bear losing. We award trophies and dessert to all our kids, even as we attempt to teach them about good sportsmanship, so that their feelings will not be hurt if they lose. But perhaps we are doing more damage than good. We need to learn to accept loss, to accept the curveballs that are thrown at us. Because, as you all know, there are lots and lots of them over the course of our lives, and being a good sport – living and interacting graciously – is so much more valuable than merely winning. Loss is a humbling motivator for improving ourselves, for improving our world.

We are whole-hearted, tamim, when we find the balance, the grace, the healthy serenity between winning and losing, between pride and humility, between shameless self-advocacy and exposing our vulnerability. 

As we journey through Elul, we should take our hearts in our hands, our whole hearts, and approach teshuvah with the sense of, I am not whole, but I can be once again. It is in this way that we improve ourselves, that we see ourselves as who we are, flaws and all, in order to build on what we have. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/14/2021.)

* Rashi’s logic seems somewhat opaque here, and his application of the midrash is admittedly murky. Given the context, I think that he is suggesting that if we manage to walk through life wholeheartedly, we will not need to consult mediums and soothsayers to tell us the future, since we will be “God’s portion,” i.e. God will be on our side, and hence no need for those other characters, upon whom the Torah frowns. But the greater point is not merely about fortune-tellers, but about our general approach to life.

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What Does a Jewish Person Look Like? – Lekh Lekha 5781

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

God said to Avram, “Go forth from your land, your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1)

One person. 

Lekh lekha. Pick yourself up and go, says God. It’s a singular imperative. Avraham is chosen to launch monotheism, and hence Judaism, into the world.

And then there are two monotheists. And then a family. And then Yitzhaq, Ya’aqov, Rivqah, Rahel, Leah, and then 12 tribes and then two million former slaves are standing at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

And what color was their skin? Did they “look Jewish?” Does the Torah tell us?

No, it does not. The only thing we know about the Imahot and the Avot, the Matriarchs and Patriarchs is that they are all descendants of the first humans, who are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. And usually, when we use that term, we are speaking more about our spiritual construction than our physical appearance. Rashi, by the way, disagrees; he claims that God created us in God’s physical image as if stamping us out like coins.

And if we are following Rashi, then, every single human face reflects God’s image, and God’s holiness.

**** 

Perhaps you are familiar with the following rabbinic anecdote:

A man is riding a train from Pinsk to Minsk. He is reading a book, minding his own business, and he becomes aware of a woman seated across from him, who is staring at him intently. He tries to avoid her gaze, but then she speaks:

“Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?”

“No,” he replies politely.

Some time passes and she continues to stare. “Are you sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I’m not Jewish.” Now he’s annoyed. 

More time passes. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Alright, alright. You got me, lady. I’m Jewish. Now will you leave me alone?!”

“Funny,” she says, “you don’t look Jewish!”

Many of us are burdened with a stereotype for what Jews look like. I am blessed with an ample, yet otherwise well-designed nose, for example, and throughout my life have been told that it is a “Jewish” nose. And yet, I know plenty of Jews, even Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews that have more petite, yet fully functional noses.

My wife, however, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and gets very resentful whenever she hears anybody talking about how somebody “looks Jewish.” She grew up in New York, a secular Zionist born to two Hungarian Holocaust survivors. When revealing her Jewishness, it was always a toss-up as to whether the response would be, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” or “Yeah, I figured.” When she went to Israel as a teenager, she was struck by the wide palette of Jewish looks there, and she realized that there is no single Jewish appearance.

I want to suggest something. No, I want to mandate something. (I know, I cannot really do that, but bear with me here.)

We have to try to strike that idea from our heads, that there is a particular Jewish look. Why? Because it actually causes many Jews very real pain, and very likely has led some people to leave the synagogue and never come back. And yes, even here at Beth Shalom.

Let me explain:

You may have read an opinion piece in last week’s Jewish Chronicle written by a Beth Shalom member, high school senior Naomi Kitchen. I know that Naomi is well-known to many members of our community; she is a CDS alumna, and in fact the first time that I met her was during my first year here on a visit to CDS, Naomi spoke to me as a Student Ambassador.

Naomi’s father is half-Korean, and her mother is of Israeli Ashkesfardi extraction, and in her article, titled “A Message to my Squirrel Hill community, from a Jew with a touch of color,” she documents how she has often been confronted with comments that are related to “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” although many of them were very unpleasant to endure. In a related article that appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy, which Naomi co-wrote with Makeda Zabot-Hall, who is a Black Jew, the two describe being interrogated, to see if they are “really Jewish.” 

Once in this very building in which I stand, ladies and gentlemen, Naomi became so frustrated at people’s assumption that she is not Jewish that a few years ago she swore to herself that she would never enter this institution again.

That was us. That was you and me. And that hurts.

And of course Naomi is not alone. We have a number of members of this congregation who do not present as stereotypical Eastern European Jews. And frankly, that’s a good thing, and not only because stereotypes are bad. 

It is a sign that we have made it in America. In the five and a half years that I have now been in Pittsburgh, I have helped make more than 50 new Jews through conversion. A decent fraction of them would stand out in a crowd of Eastern Europeans. 

But as you may know, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and we are forbidden by halakhah / Jewish law to remind somebody that they were not born Jewish, or question anybody about their background or demean them for what they know or do not know.

We have a member of this congregation who is of Chinese and Japanese extraction whom I have heard reciting Birkat Hamazon / the grace after meals better than the vast majority of members of this congregation, and yet it happened once that when entering Beth Shalom on the High Holidays, she was not handed a siddur, even though the people in front of her and behind her received them.

And of course conversion is only part of the story. There are adoptees. And those born to non-white Jewish father and a Jewish mother. And do not forget that there are many Black Jews in this world, from native populations from Ethiopia and from Uganda. 

Judaism has no requirement for skin color; like Sarah and Avraham, we are only colored with the Divine image.

We all make snap judgments based on the way people look – clothing, hair style, posture, glasses, etc. People are simply wired that way. And we all have biases to which we can either succumb, or try to overlook. And the Jews, at least historically, have a distinctive mistrust of non-Jews, which we have inherited from our ancestors. When we were confined to shtetlakh and subject to blood libel accusations and pogroms and laws applied to dhimmi in Muslim lands, it was hard for Jews to trust strangers. This is a part of the historical burden that has filtered down to us.

But look at us today: we have, the events of two years ago in Pittsburgh notwithstanding, been welcomed into the wider American society with open arms. We have lost many of our number in America to assimilation. That is how successfully the great Jewish-American project has proceeded.

So we should be grateful (א) for those of us who are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who are still willing to come into a synagogue, and (ב) for anybody else who wants to join us. And when a young woman tells me that she was so turned off by people’s assuming that she is not Jewish, because of their preconceived notion of what a Jew looks like, that she decided to leave this building and not come back, I am ashamed. I am embarrassed for all of us. And you should be too.

Shomer yisrael, shemor she-erit yisrael. Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel. That is what we say in tahanun, the brief moment of supplication recited on most weekday mornings. We are but a remnant, a she-erit. And we have to do everything we can to make sure that we cast a wide net, that we share our values and the framework of our tradition with as many as we can. If somebody wants to be a part of us, we have to reach out and embrace them. 

You know, I usually speak about issues of welcoming when we reach Parashat Vayyera, which we will read next week, in which Avraham Avinu rushes to invite three strangers into his home. I know many of you have studied this passage (Genesis 18:1-8) with me.

But how does Avraham become so welcoming? Returning to Lekh Lekha: The Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Chasidic rabbi, suggests that Avraham’s leaving home for Canaan is at least part of it. Avraham travels from the familiar, his home in Haran, to the open-ended, the unfamiliar land of Canaan. The final word in the first verse is “areka,” which is usually read as “I will show you,” that is, God is telling Avraham that he should pack up and leave, and when he gets to the right place, God will tell him when to stop. 

But the Sefat Emet is telling us that we might read this instead as, in leaving your homeland and traveling to this unfamiliar land, I will cause you to see more. I will enlarge your vision. 

We all need to enlarge our vision, to take a step back from our natural biases, and widen our sense of what a Jew looks like. Because none of us really “look Jewish” unless everybody else sees God’s image in your face, and in your words. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/31/2020.)

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We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781

I have always been a fan of the original Star Trek series, and not just because the two leads, Captain Kirk and Spock, were played by Jewish actors. As you may recall, the show began each episode with what used to be considered a grammatical faux pas, boldly splitting an infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

And so too does the Torah open with a grammatical “oopsie.” The very first words of the Torah are (Gen. 1:1)

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

Most of us, when we hear these words, we think, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”

But that is not actually what the text says. Actually, we cannot really understand this line, because it is clearly missing at least one word. That is because the word “bereshit” does not mean “In the beginning,” but rather, “In the beginning of…” If you were to translate directly, the verse as it appears in the Torah reads, “In the beginning of…, God created the heavens and the Earth.” 

Now, that sounds a little funny, right? Well, it sounded funny to Rashi, too, in 11th-century France. And so Rashi proposed that the text could possibly be read as

בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרִיאַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

Bereshit beri-at shamayim va-aretz

“In the beginning of creating heavens and Earth, …”

or,

בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה בָּרָא אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Barishonah bara et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

“At first, [God] created the heavens and the Earth.”

But of course, that is not what we have. Every single Torah scroll in the world opens with what cannot be described as anything other than a grammatical error. A typo. (Except, of course, that Torah scrolls are never typed.)

Rashi himself, in surveying this problem, says, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי! “This passage only tells us, ‘Interpret me!’” And he offers two plausible suggestions. Of course, it is completely possible that neither of these may be the original intent of the text. 

And what might we learn from this? Two possibilities, in my mind:

  1. We should never be so sure of ourselves or our opinions. We might be wrong! Always an excellent lesson.
  2. The plurality of voices in interpreting Torah, both ancient and contemporary, heighten our relationship with the text. 

****

If you were paying attention this past week to events on the national stage, you probably heard the term “originalism” thrown around a lot. Originalism is an idea held by some interpreters of constitutional law that the United States Constitution should be interpreted and applied as it was intended when it was written in 1787.

In terms of Jewish life and Jewish law, we are not and cannot be originalists. That ship sailed about 2,000 years ago. If we take the Torah as our analog to the Constitution, let’s say, and the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah – the Talmud, midrash, the Shulhan Arukh, etc. – as the way we understand how the Torah applies to us today, then we are definitely not originalists. 

For example, the Torah says that the primary means of worship is by sacrificing some of our livestock and our produce by Kohanim (priests) on an altar. Do we do that? No. Rather, we have prayer, an idea more or less created by the rabbis, because the altar in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago. Our tefillah / prayer, is actually a substitute offering, in place of the agricultural sacrifices that our ancestors gave. Although the original intent of the Torah is for us to sacrifice, changes in our circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill that, so we do something else.

The Torah says that we should not do melakhah / work on the Shabbat, but does not define the word melakhah. In this case, we do not even know what the intent of the text is. How do we know, for example, that spending money on Shabbat is prohibited, but peeling an orange is not? That is because the rabbis defined 39 categories of work, ל”ט אבות מלאכה, and created a system by which those categories could be managed and expanded to suit any new type of technology that came along.

The Torah, by the way, does not even mention one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year: Hanukkah. Hanukkah does not even appear in the entirety of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It is, rather, also a rabbinic innovation.

And I could go on. We do not practice the ancient Israelite religion described in the Torah. We practice a rabbinic Judaism that is flexible, that is constantly reinterpreted for the moment and the place in which we live.

And that is true of all movements within Judaism. We may disagree on the interpretation, but none of us are originalists. And that, by the way, is exactly the reason that we the Jews are still here, despite the Romans’ best efforts to destroy us. Had we been limited to the Judaism extant in 70 CE, as originalists, we would have disappeared as soon as Titus’s legions razed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

And sure, the rabbis of the Talmud argued that their innovations came from Mt. Sinai, nearly a millennium-and-a-half prior, and that they were originally intended in the unadorned Torah text even though you cannot find them there. This explanation is an attempt to legitimize rabbinic Judaism, which is, after all, what we call “Judaism” today. We are rabbinic Jews, but you cannot really find most of our practices today in the words of the Torah as they appear in the scroll.

This highlights, by the way, one of the primary distinguishing features between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. We understand that the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah came much later, and although Divinely inspired, it was not the way the Torah was read prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is this subsequent interpretation that allows us to incorporate new ideas and more flexibility into our understanding of the Torah, and really to helping frame our lives in meaning. Consider, for example, contemporary understandings of God which do not reflect the Torah’s traditional views, or the full equality between men and women in our worship spaces, which we base on the reinterpretation of traditional sources.

Now, there is a certain strain of originalism that I learned while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained as a rabbi and invested as a cantor. That type of originalism is found primarily in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, wherein the scholarly study of Scripture devotes most of its energy into trying to determine exactly what the Torah meant when it was written. To do so, scholars in the field of Biblical studies use the tools of archaeology and literary analysis and comparison to literature contemporary to its time and so forth. Modern Jews sometimes also use these tools to interpret Torah as well; they are welcome addition to the שבעים פנים לתורה, shiv’im panim laTorah, the 70 faces of Torah.

So, turning back to Bereshit, we know what the author meant, right? In this case, yes, and that understanding is not likely to change. The originalists in all of us are struggling right now: on the one hand, we know what the Torah implied, even if that is not what it says. On the other hand, there is something that looks conspicuously, to us at least, like a flaw! 

Or perhaps what looks like a typo is just an opening into a richer, more varied palette of understanding?

Right up front, from the very beginning, the Torah gives us insight into an absolutely human trait: the potential to screw up. We should never be so sure of ourselves that we think we are immune to being wrong. 

And that leads us to the second lesson: in the completely human realm of interpreting the text, we can guard against our own hubris by using every tool at our disposal to try to understand it. We may not know the original meaning of this or of many other parts of the Torah; we may not know what God’s intent was in gifting these words to humanity. But we do know that we are obligated to draw on our own intellect, on the range of human creativity and potential, to continue to seek answers. In some sense, it is that absolute unknowability, the obligation to pursue answers while acknowledging that not a single one of them may actually be “right,” which helps us maintain our own humility.

However the Torah came down to us, whether in a moment of fiery dictation on Mt. Sinai or through the hands of many ancient, anonymous scholars channeling Divine wisdom, it is our ongoing willingness to plumb its depths that will continue to fill our lives with meaning and a sense of purpose, and keep us away from the arrogance that comes with declaring our own correctness.

We are not originalists, and we are definitely not perfect. But we are committed to serious and varied inquiry into the Jewish bookshelf, to all the words and ideas which flow from the Torah, even as we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. And we continue to draw on all of those ideas in seeking meaning for today, for how we live and how we can live better.

Shabbat Shalom! Live long and prosper.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/17/2020.)

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Black Lives Matter – Qorah 5780

In the classic Israeli pop tune from 1974, Natati La Hayyai, the first Israeli supergroup, Kavveret, opined about giving one’s life to one’s country, only to be insulted in return.

נתתי לה חיי, ירדתי על ברכי
יאמינו לי כולם, למדתי מה זה סתם ונעלבתי

Natati la hayyai, yaradti al birkai
Ya’aminu li kulam, lamadti mah zeh stam vene’elavti

I gave her my life, I got down on my knees
Believe me, everybody, I learned what’s meaningless, and I was insulted

It was Israel’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest of 1974, their second year of participation in the annual competition. They didn’t win; it was not until 1978 and 1979 that they had two monumental hits that won Eurovision two years in a row (Abanibi and Halleluyah). 

But the song was also a critique of Israel’s government, a plea for a two-state solution long before that idea was taken seriously by anybody in the mainstream:

אחד אומר שנגמרים לו השמיים
כשיש מספיק אוויר למדינה או שתיים

Ehad omer shenigmarim lo hashamayim,
ksheyesh maspik avir lemedinah o shtayim.

One says that the sky is ending for him,
When there is enough air for one or two countries.

It’s a statement of disaffection — the feeling that after what the song’s composer, Danny Sanderson, had given to Israel – his army service, his taxes, his ideological commitment to building the State of Israel, which was only about a quarter-century old when he wrote the song – that the State had left him behind, had smacked him down.

It’s been floating around in my head for a couple days, not for Zionist reasons, but for patriotic American reasons. Because I have been thinking, as many of us have, about the range of challenges facing Black Americans.

Yes, the police brutality, the chokeholds, the default suspicion, the profiling. Yes, the unequal distribution of resources. The ineffective schools. The double standards of justice. The higher rates of infant mortality. Yes, the redlining. The income statistics: As NY Times columnist David Brooks (no liberal snowflake, that one) points out, Black families earn 57 cents for every dollar white families earn. Black college graduates earn only about 80 cents for every dollar earned by white college graduates. “Between 1992 and 2013,” Brooks writes, “college-educated whites saw the value of their assets soar by 86 percent, while their black counterparts saw theirs fall by 55 percent.”

That is truly staggering. The feeling that I have been left with after surveying the depths of these challenges, is that Black Americans were not only mistreated from the moment that they arrived in chains on this continent, but that the very foundations of the American economy depended on the free or very cheap labor that Black Americans provided. And it seems that even after Emancipation, every attempt was made, whether deliberate or through the invisible hand that moves markets, to keep them from moving beyond the lowest rung on the economic ladder. Perhaps you heard last week about the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921?

It is easy to understand why many Black Americans feel that they have given their lives to America, for the building of this nation. And yet many also feel that not only have they NOT received credit, but feel as if this country continues to try to smack them down. And when a police officer kneels on a Black man’s neck patiently until he dies, we do not have to wonder why people are angry and disaffected. Natati lah hayyai. I gave her my life.

I have been trying to find the right way into this issue for a while. Three weeks ago, I quoted an assortment of texts from the Jewish bookshelf on the various ways of respecting one’s neighbor. Two weeks ago I suggested that the way that we can help is by being engaged with society, with all the people around us. But there is something else that we need to acknowledge, hevreh, and that is this:

Black lives matter.

Yes, yes, I know. Jewish lives matter too. And some of you are surely thinking, “Rabbi, shouldn’t you be talking about the Jews?”

Well, I am talking about the Jews. I’m talking about the Jews of Boston – my great-grandparents, who owned a house in Dorchester, which at some point in the early 1960s they sold because they were scared – the neighborhood was changing. I’m talking about the Jews of the Hill District here in Pittsburgh, and of cities all over America, who were busy fleeing to the suburbs, and who did not look back over their shoulders, like Lot and his daughters, to see the faces of those who moved into their old neighborhoods.

And I am also talking about the Jews who signed up for the civil rights movement; who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, who worked alongside Black activists in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, who died along with them.

And I am also talking about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote in his essay, “Religion and Race” in 1963:

There are people in our country whose moral sensitivity suffers a blackout when confronted with the black man’s predicament. How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person?… What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.

Bias and fear of the other are, of course, a part of being human, and these things are very hard to overcome. And while I am certain that the vast majority of us do not sympathize with white supremacy, which would of course be ludicrous for Jews, there is no person without biases.

But we are all part of this system, whether we like it or not. And that is why it is essential right now to affirm something that we might all have missed as we were busy becoming fully accepted in American society: that black lives matter too.

Now, I know that some of you have heard that that slogan is anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel. It is true that the Movement for Black Lives, which is one group within the sphere of those who have participated in the wider Black Lives Matter movement, has featured language on their website since 2016 that is anti-Israel, using odious terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” in ways that are completely inappropriate. The attempt to link the Palestinian cause to the struggles of Black Americans indicates a woeful misunderstanding of the history of the Middle East and muddles the message of the latter. 

However, the Movement for Black Lives does not speak for all who carry the banner of Black Lives Matter. This is not the message that most people hear when they repeat that slogan. What they hear is, We care about our neighbors; we care about equity in our society; we care about the disenfranchised, and we want to make sure that all are given a fair opportunity to make it in this world.

And those are clearly things which are drawn from Jewish tradition, some of which I have previously identified.

So yes, we must be wary of those who seek to delegitimize Israel, but we can also work for the benefit of our African-American neighbors at the same time. Those things are not in conflict. (And many have written about this already, including my rabbinical school classmate Rabbi Avi Olitzky: Why I, A Minneapolis Rabbi, Changed My Mind About Black Lives Matter, and Amanda Berman, the founder of Zioness, a progressive, Zionist group: We Can – We Must Show Up As Zionists For Black Lives Matter). 

Turning back to the Torah for a moment, the first two words of Parashat Qorah, which we read this morning, are, “Vayiqqah Qorah.” Literally, Qorah took. But there is a problem with this verse, in that the verb “laqahat” (to take) is transitive – in Hebrew as in English, it requires a direct object. You cannot merely take; you must take something. Rashi tells us something useful: that 

לקח את עצמו לצד אחר להיות נחלק מתוך העדה

He took himself to one side, splitting off from the community.

That is, Qorah’s attempt to effect change was to selfishly and violently lead others astray, to divide the Israelites so as to upset the balance of power. Moshe, by the way, does not fare much better; he is angered by Qorah’s accusations, by dividing people and leading malcontents astray, and fires back with similarly accusatory language at Qorah and his posse.

And folks, this is not leadership. True leadership requires working together for the common good. It does not encourage division, or accusation, or aggressive, one-sided actions.

Good leadership requires talking to everybody, listening to all the voices around you and forging a path forward together. It does not mean that everybody agrees on everything, but that disagreement is respectful and does not impact the common welfare.

How can we in the Jewish community show true leadership at this time? By being part of the discourse, by listening to our Black friends and neighbors, by understanding that the message of “Black lives matter” is one that we can and should sign onto. We need to be at that table. We need to make sure that Jewish voices are heard in that context. We need to give of our lives as well, to make sure that, as Rabbi Heschel put it, the inequality of some does not inevitably become the inequality of all.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/27/2020.)

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Sermons

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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Sermons

We Support Abortion Rights Because We Are Pro-Life – Behar 5779

My primary rabbinic mission is to make the words of Torah relevant – that is, I want everybody who hears me teach to come away thinking, “Oh, that was useful and meaningful to me today.” I must say that there is so much going on in the world right now that is just begging for a meaningful Jewish framework.

I could speak today about the war of terror on American synagogues that continues, with a firebombing of a synagogue in Chicago and two in the Boston area the previous week.

I could speak this morning about the recent report released by the UN on biodiversity, and the coming extinction of a million species on the planet; coupled with the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to roll back emissions controls on power plants by downgrading the estimates of deaths caused by particulate pollution. This one fits nicely with Parashat Behar, since it details the requirement to give agricultural land a shemittah, a seventh-year rest. This suggests a fundamental sensitivity in our tradition to God’s Creation. (Also, my first job after graduate school, in environmental consulting, required that I use computer models of air pollutant distribution in permit applications for things like power plants, so I actually have a little professional expertise there.)

I could speak this morning about slavery, which Parashat Behar describes in detail, and how slavery is still a real thing in our world. There is a great sermon to be given on this subject regarding speaking truth to power, since there were rabbis in slave states in the early 19th century who actually used the words of Torah to support the type of slavery that drove the economy of the American South.

I could speak about the grossly inaccurate retelling of history by Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who suggested on a podcast that Palestinians provided a safe haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust. (The historical record shows that their leaders actually fought against this, and their efforts led directly and indirectly to the deaths of more Jews.)

Alas, I will not be giving any of those sermons today. Rather, we need to talk about abortion and Jewish law, because as efforts multiply around the country by state legislators to deny abortions to women who need them, we the Jews should know what our tradition teaches us on the subject, particularly since this will, I am certain, be very much a part of our national discourse in the coming years.

As a sort of preamble, let me point out that this is an issue which is important not only to women, but to all of us. While it is true that the progressive Jewish movements have done an admirable job in approaching full egalitarianism in Jewish life, the perception remains, not unreasonably, that Judaism is not entirely fair to women. It is only within the last century, for example, that Jews began celebrating bat mitzvah; it is only within the last half-century that synagogues started calling women to the Torah and counting them as equals in minyan (the quorum of 10 Jews needed for certain parts of religious services), and inviting them to lead services. It is only 34 years since the Conservative movement ordained Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first female Conservative rabbi.

Female Conservative rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2013

But the Jewish case for permitting abortion highlights the fact that we are, in fact, “pro-life,” and in particular, pro-women’s life.

What do I mean when I say that we are pro-life? Judaism is an ongoing celebration of life. Every morning we express gratitude for our lives as the first words of tefillah / that emerge from our lips. Every day we thank God for the ability to open our eyes and behold the sunrise and start our day with all of our body parts functioning properly. Every day we ask for peace, multiple times, so that more people in this world will be able to thrive. On this day of Shabbat, we emphasize life through words of prayer, for example A few minutes ago, we recited an Aramaic prayer for “zar’a hayya veqayama,” – living, thriving children, but also we highlight life implicitly by celebrating with meals and family time together.

And not only that: we celebrate life at all of its transitional moments: birth, bat/bar mitzvah, marriage; even funerals and mourning customs are forms of celebration of the life of the deceased. We celebrated life today when our bar mitzvah stepped forward into direct relationship with the 613 mitzvot / commandments of Jewish life.

We are indisputably pro-life. And abortion is understood in Jewish tradition, going all the way back to the Mishnah in the 2nd century CE, as promoting the life of the mother (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6):

האשה שהיא מקשה לילד מחתכין את הולד במעיה ומוציאין אותו אברים אברים מפני שחייה קודמין לחייו יצא רובו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש

If a woman’s labor becomes life threatening, the fetus is dismembered in her womb and then taken out limb by limb, for her life comes before (the life of the fetus). If most of the child has emerged [naturally] it is not be be touched, for one life is not put aside for another.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France and commenting on the Talmud’s elaboration on this mishnah, clarifies as follows (Sanhedrin 72b):

יצא ראשו – באשה המקשה לילד ומסוכנת, וקתני רישא: החיה פושטת ידה וחותכתו ומוציאתו לאברים, דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לאו נפש הוא וניתן להורגו ולהציל את אמו, אבל יצא ראשו – אין נוגעים בו להורגו, דהוה ליה כילוד ואין דוחין נפש מפני נפש

This concerns a woman whose labor proves so difficult as to threaten her life…The midwife should reach and dismember and remove it limb by limb. For as long as it has not emerged into the air of the world it is not a nefesh/person and one is allowed to destroy it in order to save its mother. But if its head has emerged, it is not to be harmed, for at that point it is considered born, and one nefesh/person is not to be put aside for another.

And here is Maimonides, MT Hilkhot Rotzeah UShmirat haNefesh 1:9, writing in 12th century Egypt:

הרי זו מצות לא תעשה שלא לחוס על נפש הרודף. לפיכך הורו חכמים שהעוברה שהיא מקשה לילד מותר לחתוך העובר במיעיה בין בסם בין ביד מפני שהוא כרודף אחריה להורגה, ואם משהוציא ראשו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש וזהו טבעו של עולם

This is a negative commandment: one must not take pity on the life of a rodef/pursuer. Therefore the sages taught: if a pregnant woman’s labor becomes life-threatening, it is permitted to dismember the fetus in her womb, either by a medication or by hand, for it is like a rodef who is pursuing her to kill her. But from the moment his head emerges he is not to be touched, for one life is not to be put aside for another, for this is the natural course of things.

Here, Maimonides describes the fetus as a “rodef,” rabbinic shorthand for a pursuer who intends to kill or injure somebody, suggesting that the pregnancy is physically dangerous. His position is more stringent than Rashi’s, but even so, there are certainly cases where Maimonides permits.

With such sources in our canon, including some of the greatest interpreters of Jewish law, it is clear that:

א. Abortion is clearly permitted under some circumstances in Jewish law, since the fetus is considered a potential life, but not a full human being with the same status as the mother.

ב. The permissibility is dependent upon the mother’s life being threatened in some way.

Now, the complicated part is, what does it mean for the mother’s life to be threatened? As you may anticipate, there are a range of opinions, and they do vary in the Jewish world.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly, which determines matters of Jewish law for the Conservative movement, has published several teshuvot, rabbinic opinions on the matter of abortion, going all the way back to 1980. (In case you are unfamiliar with the way the CJLS works: it is a body of Conservative rabbis who meet regularly to consider issues in Jewish law that are brought up with new situations.)

The CJLS has generally reaffirmed that abortion is permitted in cases in which “continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.” I do not need to go into details about what these various types of physical and psychological harm might be, but I am sure that you could consider any number of situations in which a pregnancy could cause such harm, in which the fetus is a rodef, a dangerous pursuer.

Nonetheless, there is no question that even though abortion is not considered murder, it is not a desirable outcome. It should not be used as a means of contraception, where avoidable, and it should not be taken lightly. The CJLS has also affirmed that contraception is always a better path than abortion when pregnancy is not desired.

Halakhah is all about boundaries of kedushah / holiness, and reinforcing those boundaries is an essential aspect of what we do as Jews. If you or anybody you know is facing this question, please know that I am always available as a spiritual and halakhic resource.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are pro-life. And how do we highlight life? By valuing the actual life, and not the theoretical, by prioritizing a mother’s life over that of her unborn child. That is why our tradition understands that abortion, while never the ideal, is sometimes necessary, and should certainly be available, safe, and legal.*

Shabbat shalom.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, Shabbat morning, 5/25/2019.

* After hearing this sermon, a congregant suggested that the message of “we are pro-life” should translate to Jewish support for greater availability of health care for women (as well, one presumes, as for men). While of course I agree, that is a subject for another sermon, on another Shabbat. My goal here was to present Jewish sources on the halakhic permissibility of abortion.

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Sermons

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.)

Categories
Kavvanot

The Dreamers Among Us – Vayyeshev 5776

“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one”

Embedded in John Lennon’s idealistic song is a little dig at dreamers: the line suggests that to call somebody a dreamer is a put-down. Those who pursue dreams, who chase after a seemingly impossible vision, are unrealistic. They are fools.

Bereshit / Genesis features several dreams: a few are Jacob’s, a few more are courtesy of his son Joseph, and still more belong to Joseph’s jailed companions. These dreams all move the narrative forward, and in the case of Joseph, his own dreams (and his boasting thereof) cause such aggravation that his brothers plot to kill him, resulting in a tale so sublime that it found its way to the Broadway stage.

As the brothers are conspiring against Joseph, they declare (Gen. 37:19), “Hinneh ba’al ha-halomot halazeh ba.” “Here comes that dreamer!” You can hear in the Hebrew how they are almost spitting these words out with rage. “Venihyeh ma yihyu halomotav!” “We’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

Rashi tells us that the latter statement is a challenge: We’ll see whose dreams come true, yours or ours! If they had succeeded in killing Joseph, of course, his dreams would not have come true. (Spoiler alert: the brothers’ attempts to foil Joseph fail; the latter’s dreams are eventually fulfilled.)

But in general, dreaming is neither solely fantasy nor reality. In an extended passage in Massekhet Berakhot (55a), the Talmud sees dreams as containing both some reality and some meaninglessness. “Neither a good dream nor a bad dream is wholly fulfilled,” says Rav Hisda. And so too for us today: we all dream, and we often look to our dreams for fulfillment.

Of course, there are dreams and there are “dreams.” We often speak in clichéd terms of “hopes and dreams,” although really those are only our conscious hopes. The “dreamer” put-down in Lennon’s Imagine refers to one whose hopes are unrealistic: those who picture an end to all war, a comprehensive solution to world hunger and poverty, universal access to clean water and decent education, and so forth.  

But I would posit that those are the people among us, the “dreamers,” who ultimately move us forward as a society. They are the optimists, and I count myself among them. When it comes to the future, I would rather not succumb to the fear and hopelessness in which many trade; I prefer to keep dreaming.

I prefer to dream that tomorrow will be better than today; that terrorists will lay down their knives and suicide vests, that we learn to manage our natural resources so that we preserve God’s Creation, that racism and anti-Semitism and hatred of all kinds will disappear from our world, that no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will need to seek refuge from warring factions in Syria. And so forth.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. But if we cease to dream, if we manage only the symptoms and not the causes, if we are so distracted by cat videos and media circuses that we fail to confront the most pressing challenges of our time, then I am certain that nothing will change for the better. And those of us who look toward the better world of the future will lead us there.

Speedily, in our day. Even as Rav Hisda’s tempered words of caution continue to resonate, we cannot give up those dreams. Joseph’s dreams came true; let us hope that ours will too.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(A version of this devar Torah appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015 edition of The Jewish Chronicle.)