Categories
Sermons

Gathering With Purpose, Then and Now – Vayaqhel-Pequdei 5781

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a fascinating piece this week about the history of Beth Shalom by Rauh Jewish Archives director Eric Lidji, and it is truly a great read. It is about the oldest part of this building, the central piece that is now where the Helfant Chapel is located, and the few floors above it. Drawing on a Beth Shalom yearbook from Rosh Hashanah 5685 (that’s 1924!), Mr. Lidji reports that the building was called the “Community House,” and featured spaces for learning, prayer, physical exercise, and of course preparing and eating food. You should check out the article yourself (there is also a link to it on our Facebook page, and it will be in next week’s print edition), but what caught my eye was a wonderful statement by the congregation’s second rabbi, Rabbi Goodman Rose:

We… are laying the foundations for a new Jewish community, distinctive, and in certain respects different from those from which we had come. We must organize our Judaism and mould our spiritual structures. What plans have we to follow? No set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents are available for our guidance. We must think out our way step by step and act by act — this only being our unswerving principle, that not an iota of our Judaism is to be sacrificed.

I read that and I had one of those moments that remind me of bad ‘80s television, in particular, the George Peppard character on The A-Team, which I must concede that I watched and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. When the team’s solution to the crisis of the week was falling into place, Hannibal would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So as a rabbi, I love it when a sermon comes together.

When Rabbi Rose wrote those words, he was thinking, arguably “outside the box,” about the ways in which we use our spaces to gather. And when this article landed in my inbox, I was thinking about that as well. I was considering the opening line of Parashat Vayaqhel, and also about the keynote lecture that the author and conflict-resolution expert Priya Parker gave to the membership of the Rabbinical Assembly at our annual convention last week. Ms. Parker spoke on the subject of gathering, particularly in the context of the pandemic. She has written a book on this topic, titled, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

I’ll come back to Priya Parker in a moment, but first, it is worth remembering that the Hebrew term for synagogue is “beit kenesset,” which literally means, “house of gathering.” That is what this building is for. We, the Jews, are a communal people. You can’t be Jewish alone, and the essence of “doing Jewish” is doing it in the context of community, in Hebrew, “qehillah.” Even here on Zoom, in this virtual space, we are making qehillah happen, but I must say that I am thinking about gathering in the same physical space again.

It has certainly been a year that has been challenging for many reasons, and from where I stand, the challenge is exceptionally great. For an entire year, beginning on this Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh last year, we have been gathering mostly not in person, mostly online. I am of course very proud of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement for giving us a rabbinic hekhsher (permission) to do so, and I am also particularly proud of Beth Shalom as a congregation for keeping the momentum of gathering up over the last year. We have maintained a morning and evening service every single day of the last year, and our attendance has actually been better than prior to the pandemic. Our tradition has developed over centuries, and our response to the pandemic is on the continuum of ways in which Judaism has grown and changed with time.

But think for a moment about the situations in which we gather:

Certainly, we gather for tefillah / prayer. Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community, says Pirqei Avot (2:4). Rambam takes this even a step further; in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1), he reports that one who does NOT go to a synagogue in his neighborhood is called a bad neighbor! So of course we gather for tefillah.

And did you know that you have to have a minyan, a quorum of ten people at a wedding?

We of course gather for funerals. For shiv’ah. For supporting those of us who mourn.

We gather for benei mitzvah, as we see our young people called to the Torah

We gather for meals – Shabbat, Yom Tov, breaking the fast, etc. You do not need a minyan to eat, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

We gather to learn. We gather to schmooze. We gather to support those in need, and to bring holiday cheer to one another, and to argue over bylaws and synagogue budgets and current events. We gather to toss our sins away on Rosh Hashanah, and to confess them together in public on Yom Kippur.

In short, almost everything in Jewish life involves gathering.

The beginning of Vayaqhel, which we read from this morning, includes an ancient imperative to gather (Shemot / Exodus 35:1):

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃

Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do…

Gathering has a purpose: here, God needed to tell our ancestors about the essence of Shabbat and the building of the mishkan, their new center of worship. The verb, vayaqhel, comes from the same shoresh / Hebrew root as qehillah, community. We have been gathering as a people since ancient times.

Among the principles that Priya Parker spoke about is the fact that good gathering includes storytelling, and understanding why the gathering is taking place, and is not about the form and the details of the room or the furniture or the food, but rather about the purpose therein.

(BTW, although she is not Jewish, she complimented us, the Jews, heavily, saying that she could have written her book drawing exclusively on anecdotes from the Jewish world! All cultures have forms of gathering, but we do it especially well.)

The bottom line, says Ms. Parker, is that we should not gather because we have to; rather, we gather because it meets a certain need. Tefillah, schmoozing, grieving, celebrating – those are the needs; we gather as Jews because we need to, as individuals and as a qehillah.

And when I read that quote from Rabbi Rose, my predecessor of many decades, I understood completely his description of the Community House: no set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents for how Beth Shalom came together in our first building; a new, distinctive Jewish community, an opportunity to “mould our spiritual structures.” In short, purpose over form.

And we are there again, just as we are poised to re-emerge from a year of hibernation.

Over the past year, I know that I have lamented our lack of gathering. I have advocated for us to gather whenever possible; our coronavirus task force has put the kibosh on some ideas. But I am certain that many of you are longing for us to gather once again, in all the ways that we do so.

And so, as more of us are vaccinated, as more of us can safely gather, let’s not just return to where we were, but rather take time (א) to savor our gratitude for being able to be safely in each others’ presence again, but also (ב) to ensure that our gathering is good, that it is meaningful, that it meets the need of molding our spiritual structure.

To that end, let me suggest just a few things that we can consider, inspired by the wisdom of Priya Parker, while we are still in pandemic mode, perhaps to be implemented when we return:

  1. Consider defining your own personal ritual as you enter the synagogue building or our prayer space. Is it to recite, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov,” the words that are traditionally said upon entering a synagogue? Is it to wrap yourself up in your tallit for a minute, for a moment of solitude? Is it to greet everybody in the room?
  2. Consider what we might do as a qehillah to re-establish our presence in this space, in each other’s presence. Should we have a ceremony? Should we spend a moment sitting in utter silence together, or sing songs together, or dance together in one huge, non-socially-distanced circle?
  3. Consider the ways in which we can, moving forward, ensure that all of our gatherings have a shared sense of purpose. Will that require an addition to our service, a moment of focus? Will it necessitate discussions or classes or a revised approach to what we do? Our Board meetings always begin with a devar Torah; maybe all our other gatherings should include a little thought from our tradition as well?  

Every morning of the year, just before the end of Pesuqei deZimra, we recite Psalm 149. It is one of those that we mumble through, without any particular songs or particularly quotable lines. But the first verse reads as follows:

 שִׁ֣ירוּ לה’ שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל חֲסִידִֽים׃

Sing to God a new song, praise of God in the gathering of the faithful.

How can it be a new song every day, particularly when we chant the same ancient words? By ensuring that the gathering of the faithful is endowed with purpose.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/13/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

We Need More Ritual – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5779

A little more than a week ago, two days before Pesah, Rabbi Amy Bardack, a member of this congregation whom many of you know, walked into my office to sell me some hametz. Now, of course, you know how this works: members of the community sell their hametz to me, usually by filling out a form that declares the sale, and then I in turn sell their hametz, plus my own, plus all the hametz in this building, to somebody who is legally permitted to own it during Pesah, according to halakhah / Jewish law. (As you may know, it is not only forbidden to eat any form of the five species of hametz – wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye – during the eight days of Pesah, but also it is forbidden to own or benefit from it. And, by the way, if you do not sell your hametz or get rid of it all, and you own it during the holiday, then it may never be eaten by a Jewish person, ever.)

So the stakes are pretty high here, particularly for expensive items like single-malt Scotches, etc.

So most people fill out the form and send it in with a donation, and my assistant Audrey collates all the addresses and makes a list for our communications director Anthony.

But Rabbi Bardack did not merely send the form in, along with a donation for ma-ot hittin, providing for the needy in our community before the holiday. She felt she needed to make a complete ritual out of it, so she came to my office and made the exchange the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.

I asked her why it was so important to make the sale in person. She responded that she wanted to do it “right,” and that there was something particularly holy about performing a ritual in the traditional way.

Ritual, said Rabbi Bardack, gives us a moment of purity. No matter what kind of craziness might be going on in our lives, our work, our families, no matter what sort of political insanity is taking place on the national stage, no matter what sort of bloodshed might be taking place in the world, performing a ritual is a brief respite, an opportunity to feel holy, at least for a moment.

We all have the opportunity to push aside everything else for a moment of qedushah, of holiness. In fact, we have that opportunity multiple times every day. One tradition suggests that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings every day; you can almost fulfill that merely by reciting shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv (the three regular daily services in Jewish life). But even if you cannot pray that much, you have opportunities to raise your HQ (holiness quotient) all day long: every time you eat something, for example, you can say a berakhah that will elevate your sandwich or snack food from the mundane to the divine. (The Talmud, in Berakhot 35a, tells us that eating food without saying a berakhah is something akin to theft.) Or every time you smell a fragrant plant or flower or tree. Or see a rainbow or a beautiful mountain. Or hear good news, or bad news. There are many such opportunities for holiness – they need not be relegated to Shabbat morning in the pews.

Ritual gives us a moment of purity. We cannot control so many aspects of our lives. But we can be momentarily holy.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently opined that we need ritual. He describes playing a game called, “There should be a ritual for…”

There should be a ritual for when a felon has finished his sentence and is welcomed back whole into the community. There should be a ritual for when a family moves onto a street and the whole block throws a barbecue of welcome and membership. There should be a ritual for the kids in modern blended families, when they move in and join their lives together. There should be a ritual for when you move out of your house and everybody shares memories from the different rooms there.

He points to various religious rituals to make his case. Brooks, who is Jewish, also notes that the majority of rituals in Judaism involve a physical action: putting on tefillin, lighting candles, and so forth. And they help frame our days, our lives, with the sense of connection – to God, to community, to family, to others around us who also need that connection.

So great is our hunger for rituals that when we come upon one of the few remaining ones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras — we tend to overload them and turn them into expensive bloated versions of themselves.

Between these lavish exceptions, daily life goes unstructured, a passing flow of moments. This means we don’t do transitions well. Rituals often mark doorway moments, when we pass from one stage of life to another. They acknowledge that these passages are not just external changes but involve internal transformation.

Our society has become so informal, he suggests, that we have let old rituals go and not replaced them with new ones. We are therefore running a kind of “ritual deficit,” wherein we need to mark the holy moments of our lives, but we do not have the tools or even the framework in which to do so.

And that brings us back to today. Yes, this is the eighth day of Pesah, a holiday marked with a plethora of associated rituals: the cleaning, the hunt for hametz and the burning thereof, the aforementioned sale, the siyyum (learning a tractate of Talmud in order to celebrate and not fast on the day before), the seder and everything associated with it (lots of discrete sub-rituals there), services with special melodies for the festival, the recitation of Tal, and so forth. Loads of rituals. In fact, I am often surprised by the staying power of Pesah rituals. We had 80 or so people show up for the siyyum eight days ago, far more members of our community than are aware of, say, the 10th of Tevet or the 17th of Tammuz, other minor fast days. We know from our own survey data that virtually all the members of Beth Shalom attend a Pesah seder. This is a holiday that continues to draw us into ritual like no other.

And then there’s Yizkor, more properly referred to as Hazkarat Neshamot, the ritual of remembering the souls of those whom we have lost. This is, in fact, our first such public remembering since the 18th of Heshvan, just over six months ago. This is a ritual that is so deeply connected to who we are as Jews.

There is something very important here – not only the value of ritual in general, but in particular, the way that we grieve for those whom we have lost. We do death well. Memorials, remembrance. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around grieving for a lost loved one.

And, let’s face it: this is not the way our society is moving. Everything that happens in the world today is so viscerally current. It’s what scrolls by on our phone from one moment to the next. By the time one piece of news has hit the media, we barely have time to process it before we are on to the next item. We went in the last week or so from lamenting the burning of Notre Dame to mourning the murder of over 300 Catholic Sri Lankans.

But we take time to remember those whom we have lost. We have seven days (shiv’ah) surrounded by friends and family during the deepest days of grief; we have thirty days (sheloshim); we have a full year of mourning for parents. And then we have yahrzeit, an annual commemoration. And four times a year we have Hazkarat Neshamot (Yizkor). So many opportunities to remember. So much time in which to live with our grief, to recall those who gave us life, to hear their words echoing in our heads, to remember what they gave us, how they made us who we are.

David Brooks draws a fine point on it:

People can understand their lives’ meaning only if they step out of their immediate moment and see what came before them and what they will leave behind when they are gone.

It is through remembering those whom we lost that we draw out the meaning of our own lives. Why am I here, if not to live out and teach the values that my parents gave me? Why am I here, if not to strive to leave this world in a better state than it was when I entered it? Why am I here, if not to seek those moments of holiness, of purity, through ritual?

We need ritual. We need memory. We need meaning to fill out the whys of our lives.

Shabbat shalom, and hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning and the eighth day of Pesah, 4/27/2019.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Make It Meaningful! A Passover Charge – First Day Pesah 5778

Ritual. The very word, in English, at least, suggests something that is done the same way with regularity. Your morning coffee, for example. Or shaharit, the morning service.

Some of us find meaning in sameness, in holding on to the framework that shapes our lives. Think of Tevye’s words in the classic Broadway musical: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” Some of us are satisfied with synagogue services that are as they always were. Some of us are satisfied with the institutions of the Jewish world – the synagogues, the Federation, the JCC, etc., doing what they have always done. Some of us are satisfied with knowing that what goes on at Beth Shalom will continue to go on at Beth Shalom forever.

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Some of us in the Jewish world are satisfied with the idea that this is the way we have always done it, and it always will be done this way. That there is no need to change anything.

But not everybody is satisfied. Not everybody agrees with the idea that Jewish ritual should not change. In fact, what makes us the Conservative movement is that, at least historically, we have maintained the vast majority of our tradition while allowing for some conservative, i.e. minimal and gradual change. And, of course, ritual has always changed. What we do today as Jews looks quite different from what our ancestors were doing in Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, or in 9th-century Baghdad, or 12th-century Spain, or 16th-century Tzfat, and so forth.

You may not believe this, but there really is no Hebrew word for ritual, at least the way we use it in English. Yes, if you ask an Israeli, s/he will tell you that the word is minhag, custom, or perhaps pulhan (or even a Hebraized version of the English, ריטואל, ritu’al). But this is actually a borrowed word from Aramaic, from the Talmud and ancient targumim (Aramaic translations of the Tanakh / Hebrew Bible), using a shoresh / root not found in Hebrew; the word is effectively a synonym for the Hebrew avodah, in its ancient meaning of service to God.

But the concept of ritual, which in our language unites the sacred and the mundane, does not exist in Hebrew.

What is the source of meaning in ritual? Is it the safety or comfort of doing something the same way every time? Is it knowing that my ancestors have done it this way for a long time? Is it that the performance of the ritual itself is meaningful? Is it, as may often be the case with a Pesah seder (the evening discussion and festive meal held on the first two nights of Passover), that it is the ancillary stuff that is most meaningful: the gathering of family, the comedic uncle who takes a sip from Eliyahu’s cup when nobody is looking, the time that so-and-so was clearly drunk from four cups of Manischewitz, etc.

Let me propose something: we make our rituals meaningful. We frame our lives in holiness. Do you want to be moved? Then reach higher in seeking and making meaning.

Yes, I know that’s not easy.

My father has told me that when he was a child, his grandfather (alav hashalom / may peace be upon him) would lead the family seder. He would sit at the head of the table, mumble through the haggadah (the book used as a guide for conducting the seder), and pause here and there to instruct everybody to do something: dip the karpas / green vegetable; spill ten drops of wine; eat some maror / bitter herbs, etc. Nobody had any idea what was going on, and then they ate.

Was that meaningful? Maybe in some ways – it still satisfied what you might call the implicit meaning of the seder: a family gathering, a traditional meal marked with ritual, the seder symbols on display, reminding us of our past and the meaning of freedom. But perhaps the explicit meaning – the text and the questions and the discussion and the soul-searching – was absent.

But for many of us today, the implicit is not enough.

A moment of gentle, internal criticism: I mentioned two weeks ago that the Federation’s 2017 Community Study said that only 22% of self-identified Conservative Jews have found their “spiritual needs met, very much.” That number is, in my mind, embarrassingly low. Much lower than Orthodoxy, and even lower than Reform. Why is that, ladies and gentlemen? Is it that your rabbi is uninspiring? Is it that your synagogue is not spiritually-inclined? Is it our rituals?

Well, if that’s the case, let’s change it! Let’s find the meaning together. Help me out.

How do we make it meaningful? In my mind, the best way to make it meaningful is to talk about it. We do an awful lot of “davening” here at Beth Shalom – and I use the Yiddish/English term deliberately, because I am not confident that what we do is really tefillah, in the spiritual sense of the word. (Tefillah / lehitpallel means “self-judgment.”)

You see, true tefillah requires understanding. It requires stepping away from your tough exterior to expose the mushy stuff underneath. It requires that the words that you say have something underneath them – that they are being spoken from the heart (Pirqei Avot 2:18):

רבי שמעון אומר, הוי זהיר בקריאת שמע ובתפילה; וכשאתה מתפלל, אל תעש תפילתך קבע–אלא תחנונים לפני המקום ברוך הוא, שנאמר “כי חנון ורחום, הוא” (יואל ב,יג).

Rabbi Shim’on says: Be careful when you say the Shema and Amidah, and when you pray, do not make your prayer rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy before God, as it says (Joel 2:13), “For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers.”

An awful lot of words of tefillah go by at this synagogue (and many others), and I just can’t believe that they are all saturated with pleas for mercy before God. Much of it is merely mumbling. Granted, that mumbling is part of the tradition. (One of my cantorial school professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Boaz Tarsi, had an academic jargon term for the buzz of synagogue prayer: “heterophonic chant mumbling.”) But it seems to me a whole lot more like qeva (rote recitation) than kavvanah (intention).

So here is the good news: the seder is actually a low-hanging fruit with respect to finding meaning in Jewish practice. Why? Because (א) there are lots of great haggadot out there that have good translations and commentary for a whole range of interests and levels; (ב) because it’s not shul / synagogue, and you can take your time and your creativity to personalize and discuss your seder. Most of us spend far more time on the food preparation than we do on the discussion part. But the Maggid section (in which we tell the story) is often left unloved – hurried through without dwelling on what it all means. What does it mean to be free? Where are the slaves in this world, and what are our obligations to them? What are the questions that the story of the Exodus raises for us today? How does our contemporary relationship with the Torah fit in?

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In fact, we find in multiple places in the traditional haggadah what seem to be direct commands to make the seder meaningful. One such place is the following (a direct quote from Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו. כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים. שנאמר (שמות יג, ח) והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר. בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים.

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim

In every generation one must see oneself as having come forth from Egypt, as it is written (Exodus 13:8): “You shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”

Each year at the seder, and arguably every day of our lives, our tradition requires us to see ourselves as having personally gone from slavery to freedom. For many of us who remember the events of the 20th century, that meant recalling the Sho’ah / Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, and the intimate connection between these two events. Or those of our people who left the Soviet Union. Or those who left Iran in the context of the Iranian Revolution.

What sort of meaning will our children and grandchildren derive from these rituals? What is the meaning that we are making today? Will it be triumph over rising anti-Semitism? Will it be an end to the scourges of drugs, mass shootings, and demagoguery? Will it be a solution to rising tides, melting polar ice caps, and flooded cities?

A ritual is never simply a ritual, unconnected to who we are and how we live. A ritual is never entirely meaningless. But sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, implicit or explicit. Sometimes we have to think about it and talk about it. Sometimes we need our rituals to help us hold on for dear life.

I hope that most of us will be attending a second seder tonight. If you did a straightforward, “let’s just hurry through this and get to dinner” seder last night, maybe tonight is the night to go deep. Take your time. Have some more karpas if you’re hungry, and spend some more time talking. That’s the ritual we need. Make it meaningful.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Pesah, 3/31/2018.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #1: Why be Jewish? – Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777

Take a moment to think about why you are here today.

Are you here because you could not imagine being anywhere else on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

Are you here because you are energized by the themes of the High Holidays? About sin and repentance and the Book of Life? About God’s sovereignty in this world? About remembering our texts and tradition?

Are you here because of guilt?

Are you here for the first time, because you want to check it out?

Are you here because the moving melodies of the High Holiday liturgy always transport you to a unique spiritual zone?

Are you not sure why you’re here?

Why Values Based Communication?

This year, 5777, the theme of my sermons for of these days, these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awesomeness, is “Why?” The Four Whys, actually. And I’m going to attempt something that is in fact a wee bit bold. You might even call it (to use the lofty French term), “khutzpadik.”

I am going to try to answer a question that you may not have thought too deeply about, but which, I think, is an essential question of our time:

Why be Jewish? Why do we need Judaism?

And, to be even more specific, the question is more accurately not about “being Jewish,” which many of us can do quite easily by default, but rather, “Why DO Jewish?” Why be a part of a Jewish community? Why engage with Jewish life and learning? Why commit yourself to an ancient tradition that might seem sometimes charmingly irrelevant, and at other times downright oppressive?

This is the first why, and perhaps the biggest of the four.

The questions of “Why be Jewish”  has not always been a feature of Jewish life. Most of our ancestors did not have the luxury of asking. But today, we need to address this head-on.

Not too long ago, I saw a TED talk featuring a television producer named Andrew Stanton. Mr. Stanton said something that I found particularly relevant about the way we engage with anything today.

We are constantly bombarded with various sponsored messages: buy this, eat here, do that, make yourself thinner, happier, healthier, etc. This barrage causes some of us to want to retreat to within a protective shell, to tune out the noise.

As one who makes his living trying to get people to pay attention to his work, what Mr. Stanton said really struck me: “Make me care.” We are all equipped today with a dispassionate outer shell; not much breaks through. In order to be heard you have to find the hook that connects to the soul beneath.

I want to make you care about being Jewish, and about living a Jewish life. I want you to tune into that voice that comes from within, calling you to something greater.

We here in congregations like Beth Shalom are firmly engaged with the rest of the world. And let’s face it: some of the things we know and feel contradict some ideas found in traditional Judaism. We know, for example, that the universe came into being 14.5 billion years ago, not 5777 years ago today. Traditional Judaism does not count women and men as equals. The theology espoused in the Torah is woefully simplistic.

Even the Jewish values that we learn from our tradition: expressing gratitude, respect for others, responsibility for the Earth, honoring your elders, visiting the sick, redeeming captives, seeking justice for all people, and so on. Aren’t these simply human values? Why do we need Jewish text to teach us these things?

For sure, a handful of us are convinced of the value of Jewish tradition. But the vast majority of us are not.

Beginning right now, and stretching over the four sermons between now and Yom Kippur, I will be making the case for Judaism in four general areas, going from the macro “why” to the micro “why”:

RH day 1: Why we need Judaism (in general)  

RH day 2: Why we need mitzvot / Shabbat

Kol Nidrei: Why we need Beth Shalom?

Yom Kippur morning: Why we need Torah

These are the Four Whys.

So without further ado: Why do we need Judaism?

I recently heard Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in LA retell a good story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest luminaries of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel meets a Jewish fellow who tells him that he does not need to go to synagogue or otherwise participate in Jewish rituals. “I’m basically a good guy. I treat my family well, my friends well, I take care of people,” he says. “I don’t need Judaism.”

Rabbi Heschel responds by saying, “Gee, I envy you. I often say things that I regret. I don’t feel like I am generous enough with my time and my money. I wish I were a better parent and colleague and friend. I wish I were more like you.”

Who do you think has a better understanding for why we need Judaism?

I am going to make the case for how personally meaningful our tradition is, and how it can improve your life by making you feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious, more satisfied, and improve your relationships, your family life, and your inner peace.

In short, the answer to “Why be Jewish?” that may be recited while standing on one foot is, “Because drawing on Jewish knowledge and Jewish living will yield tangible benefits to your life.”

I’m going to warn you up front, however. To get these benefits, you have to put some effort in. Jewish living takes work. It takes time. But let me assure you: the time you put in will pay you back, and then some.

Before we go further, however, some things that I am not going to tell you:

  • I am not going to say that eating kosher food is healthier for you.
  • I am not going to say that keeping the Shabbat for 25 hours every week will give you a boost in your paycheck.
  • I am not going to tell you that making sure that your doorposts have properly-mounted, kosher mezuzot will keep your family safe from harm.

There are certainly people in the Jewish world who say those things. I’m not one of them.  Let’s dispense with superstition entirely and talk about meaning.

I think it is helpful to frame our discussion in terms of three major paths through Jewish life: ritual, action, and learning.

  1. Ritual

 

This is probably the most familiar area of Judaism, because it is what American synagogues have bet on. It includes tefillah / prayer, of course, but also holiday activities, including the observance of Shabbat, lifecycle events like berit millah / circumcision, weddings, and funerals. While ritual is an essential and often meaningful part of Jewish life, it is only a part of what Judaism offers.

Here are a few examples from the most popularly-observed Jewish rituals, and some perspective that makes them more relevant:

  • Lighting Hanukkah candles, for example, illuminates not only our windowsills but also our world; they remind us of the need for us to continue to spread light throughout the spiritually dark places all around us. And we know that our world needs more enlightenment.
  • Gathering family and friends to dine and tell the story of Pesah is not just about the food, nor is it merely about an ancient tale of taskmasters and slaves and a stubborn king. It is about the value of freedom and our obligation to seek out and eliminate oppression in all its forms.
  • Fasting on Yom Kippur is not an endurance test; it is an opportunity to cleanse your body, your mind, and your heart. It is a personal challenge that helps us to understand the mind-body connection, and to greater appreciate the creature comforts to which we are all accustomed. As your grandmother may have told you, there’s nothing wrong with suffering a little now and then.

Ritual requires context. The synagogue service, circumcision, eating particular foods, mourning rituals, etc. must be connected to the larger picture of Judaism. Ritual cannot stand alone; when we connect it to ourselves and our world, it can enrich our lives, enshrine moments in holiness, and provide a framework for expression that helps us celebrate, grieve, discover ourselves, and express a whole range of emotions.

All ritual is accompanied by liturgy: words that make the ritual complete. Without it, the ritual would fall flat; it would be left unmoored from its past and future. And just as important are the traditional melodies that accompany the words, that remind us of our own pasts, of our paths of learning and connection with our parents and teachers. Think of how powerful some of the words and  melodies that we have chanted today are; they are like wormholes in the time-space continuum that connect us to our ancestors.

Ritual replays for us the Jewish story, reminding us why we are here and what our responsibilities are to everybody around us.

  1. Action

This is the whole sphere of Jewish behaviors that are not explicitly tied to ritual. Examples include the dietary laws (kashrut), guidelines for how we speak to each other / Leshon HaRa, the obligation to repair this very broken world / Tikkun Olam, business ethics, and the moral code that ensures a just society (not murdering, honoring your parents, etc.). This area is much more far-ranging, and potentially rewarding, than most of us are aware of.

We all know, on some level, that action is a mandatory feature of Judaism. You may have heard that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity generally is that being a Christian requires faith, while being Jewish requires action.

The underlying value of Jewish actions is that they improve ourselves and our world. We may not always understand the value of a particular non-ritual action, but after doing something over and over, its internal wisdom is revealed.

Let’s take, for example, kashrut, the Jewish dietary principles. You may ask, “Why, Rabbi, if God created the shrimp, am I not permitted to eat it?” Or, “Pork has fewer calories than beef. Shouldn’t I eat more pork?” How can avoiding cheeseburgers possibly improve this world?

One possible answer is this:

In their excellent introduction to our tradition, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point to the following interpretation of kashrut (from Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Shemini, #7):

The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?

You might think that kashrut is about food, but I would counter that kashrut is about maintaining the sanctity of life through boundaries. And this is becoming ever so much more important in the Information Age, when all the boundaries are melting away before our eyes. Eating is such an essential part of our lives that our understanding the limits in consumption easily transfers to other aspects of our relationship with all creatures.

We’ll speak about action a little bit more tomorrow.

  1. Learning

This is probably the area that has been the least-emphasized in contemporary Jewish life, but in my opinion the most important. Why? Because Judaism is a tradition of the heart and mind, and understanding this is essential to deriving meaning from our traditions. Without the basis of knowledge, mature, sophisticated understanding of how to connect Jewish action to ourselves, the former are empty, meaningless.

Once upon a time, there was the Temple in Jerusalem; it was the center of Jewish life.  The Kohanim / priests ruled.  If you were fortunate, you went maybe a few times a year to the Temple to offer your animals and produce as sacrifices. That was the extent of Jewish ritual.

The Romans destroyed it for the 2nd and final time in 70 CE, leaving the Jews with a dilemma: How would we connect with God?  How would we maintain our national identity?

Out of the ashes of the Temple came rabbinic Judaism, and with it the tradition of Jewish learning which has enabled Judaism to survive to this day. The Romans did us two great favors: (א) they ended the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice, and (ב) they made Judaism decentralized. The center of Jewish tradition could never be taken away from us again, because it would now be carried in our heads (and ultimately written down in books).

No more would we be a hierarchical religion, led by priests. The Romans democratized us. Anybody who wanted access to the tradition could learn our textual sources and thus argue with leaders and teachers and scholars.

We began to offer the words of our lips, in prayer and study, instead of animals on the altar. And thus words became the glue that bound us together as a people. And it is this focus on teaching and learning from generation to generation that has enabled us to survive, long after the Babylonians and the Ptolemies and the Romans and the Byzantines and the Ottomans are all gone.

The center of Jewish life is not the Temple in Jerusalem, nor is it the ruin that remains there, the Kotel, the Western Wall, or any other physical place. It is the Jewish bookshelf, which exists not only on physical bookshelves or online, but in the Jewish heart and mind. It is not just the Torah, but the Talmud, the midrash, the commentaries, the halakhic interpretation, the stories of the last 2,000 years.

And it is from this center of ancient wisdom from which we draw meaning about our lives, our interactions, our families, our businesses. The Jewish bookshelf has sustained us for two millennia; our future depends on it.

I will discuss this in greater depth on Yom Kippur.

***

It is the combination of these three things – ritual, action, and learning – that gives our lives shape, that bring us meaning.

That’s a tricky concept: meaning. You can’t find it on the Internet. You can’t buy it with any form of currency. You won’t find any photos of it on Instagram.

Why? Because meaning is the ultimate intangible. It is elusive. But it is something we all need. A life without meaning is a life that is not worth living.

The reason we need Judaism is that when we embrace it, it elevates our lives by giving them meaning. And by engaging with Jewish life and learning, by being a member of the Jewish community, we have the opportunity to experience that elevation and that meaning in a joyful, sociable context.

So, now that you’ve made me care, Rabbi, what’s the entry point? Where do I start?

The tale is told of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who is famous for two particular moments in his life: the first was that, after having decided to convert to Christianity to advance his career prospects, he stopped into a synagogue at Kol  Nidrei to give Judaism one last shot. After experiencing that service, he changed his mind, realizing that he could not possibly leave such a rich and inspiring tradition. He opted to remain Jewish.

But the second moment came years later, after he was famous for having embraced Judaism and written a contemporary philosophical work on the subject, The Star of Redemption. He was asked publicly, “Herr Rosenzweig, are you putting on tefillin every day?”

Rosenzweig’s answer: “Not yet.”

We are all somewhere on that continuum of “Not yet.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be a perfectly-observant, ritually-correct, Talmudically-fluent Jew to elevate yourself through Jewish tradition.

You can enter it from any point: come see me about where to start: it could be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or taking time to visit someone in the hospital, or we could jump right into learning Talmud. But if you want the benefits that Judaism offers, you have to start somewhere.

All of it – ritual, action, and learning – can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. I am sorry if they did not teach you that in Hebrew school, but that’s how it looks from my vantage point. Embracing Judaism has dramatically improved my life; the same could be true for you.

למה ללמה קוראים למה? צילום: sxe
למה?

So, why are you here today? Why Judaism? Because we need it.

Tomorrow we’ll talk more about action.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/3/2016.)