Tag Archives: Shofetim

Comedy and the Jews – Shofetim 5776

The Jewish world has lost (at least) two luminaries summer: Elie Wiesel, who passed away in July, and Jerome Silberman, aka Gene Wilder, who died nearly two weeks ago.

We will surely invoke Mr. Wiesel’s memory over the course of the High Holidays, but I think that the proper way to celebrate Mr. Wilder’s life is to recall his humor. And, while we’re at it, to remind ourselves that the Jews practically invented comedy.

A few years back, Robin Williams (alav hashalom) said the following:

I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think that you killed all the funny people?’

We do not tend to think of our ancient Jewish texts – the Torah, the Talmud, and so forth – as being funny. Today’s parashah, Shofetim, for example? Not a funny word in it. Most of it is about our obligations to uphold various commandments, and particularly with respect to law and order. Taking responsibility for an unclaimed, murdered corpse (Deut. 21:1ff)? Not funny. Not destroying fruit trees during a siege (20:19-20)? Not funny. The whole eye-for-an-eye thing (Deut. 19:21)? Definitely not funny.

And yet Jewish life and culture has produced many, many funny people. Allen Konigsberg, known to the world as Woody Allen, once quipped that the Jewish response to centuries of persecution was that we learned to talk our way out of a tight spot. A brief look at Comedy Central’s list of the top 100 stand-up comedians yields four Jews in the top ten. One surprising outcome of the Pew Research study about American Jews from October 2013 is the following: In responding to the statement, “[blank] is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me,” 42% said, “Having a good sense of humor.” (It was the sixth item on the list.)

So where did this wonderful sense of humor come from, if not from our ancient texts? Perhaps, along the lines of Woody Allen’s statement, persecution and oppression indeed produced the Jewish smart-aleck. With all the misery in Jewish history, how could we not respond with humor? Comedy is, after all, human failure; Mel Brooks once defined comedy as follows: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Let’s face it: Jewish history is riddled with human failure. We understand comedy.

And of course, we are masters of the word, the People of the Book, and our greatest scholars have dedicated their lives to parsing our ancient texts. This has refined the way that we Jews use words. Words in our tradition are valuable; they are to be adored, examined, deconstructed and reconstructed again. The inevitable result is the ability to spin every tale, happy, tragic, or otherwise, in multiple directions. It therefore became a Jewish tradition to use words not only for teaching and learning, but also, as a natural outgrowth, for amusement.

I would also like to point out that although our Jewish sources might seem somewhat unfunny, there is the occasional humorous moment. For example, there is the moment in Parashat Balaq when Bil’am’s donkey opens his mouth to berate his rider (Numbers 22:28-30; it is surely not a coincidence that the 2001 movie Shrek features a talking donkey, among other Jewish hints). Or when the prophet Elisha is taunted by a pack of little boys, saying “Go away, baldy!” And so he curses them, whereupon two bears come out of the woods and mangle forty-two of them (II Kings 2:23-24).

But the Talmud is a richer source.

For example:

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 23b

מתני׳. ניפול הנמצא בתוך חמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של בעל השובך, חוץ מחמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של מוצאו

גמ’. בעי ר׳ ירמיה: רגלו אחת בתוך נ׳ אמה ורגלו אחת חוץ מחמשים אמה, מהו? ועל דא אפקוהו לרבי ירמיה מבי מדרשא.

Mishnah: If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a cage for raising pigeons), it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it…

Gemara: Rabbi Jeremiah asked: if one foot of the bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the Beit Midrash.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a

אמר ליה קיסר לרבי תנחום: תא ליהוו כולן לעמא חד. ־ אמר: לחיי, אנן דמהלינן לא מצינן מיהוי כוותייכו, אתון מהליתו, והוו כוותןִ ־ אמר ליה: מימר ־ שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי למלכא ־ לשדיוה לביבר, שדיוה לביבר ולא אכלוה. אמר ליה ההוא מינא: האי דלא אכלוה ־ משום דלא כפין הוא, שדיוה ליה לדידיה ־ ואכלוה.

Caesar said to Rabbi Tanhum, “Come, let us become one people.”

Rabbi Tanhum replied, “By my life, we who are circumcised cannot become like you. You, then, should become circumcised and be like us.”

“A very good answer, Caesar replied. “Unfortunately, anybody who defeats the emperor in an argument must be thrown to the lions.” So they threw Rabbi Tanhum to the lions. But the lions did not eat him.

An unbeliever who was standing nearby said, “The reason the lions do not eat him is that they are not hungry.”

To test this theory, they threw the unbeliever to the lions, and they ate him.

Comedy: human failure.

A piece of Gene Wilder’s work that crossed my e-desk this week was a clip from The Frisco Kid, in which Wilder plays a rabbi from Poland traveling across the US in 1850 to serve a Jewish community in San Francisco, and to bring them a sefer Torah. There is a scene where the rabbi and his traveling companion, a bank robber played by Harrison Ford, are captured by unfriendly natives, and Wilder’s character expresses his willingness to trade everything, including his life, for the sake of the Torah.

It’s not a funny scene, and it certainly contains potentially damaging stereotypes about Native Americans.

But put in the context of Wilder’s body of work, I think there is a larger message we as contemporary Jews can draw from this: Even as we cling to our ancient textual tradition, we should do so along with a sense of humor.gene-wilder-picture-9

Wilder was not a traditionally-practicing Jew. But he was deeply connected, as most of us are, to his heritage. He was an actor. But the fact that this scene sits alongside, say, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (one of my favorite movies, BTW), suggests something about the nature of how we live today. The Torah is not relegated to a library. It is part of us, and we should approach it in the context of all of the enjoyable, playful parts of our lives along with the serious moments, along with the grief, along with the all of the challenges we face.

Our tradition is malleable; the ancient words of Jewish wisdom sparkle as much today as they did 2,000 years ago. But they are not meant to sit on a shelf and collect dust. They are supposed to bring joy into our lives.

Some of you may know that Gene Wilder left this world in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. I find it particularly upsetting to picture Mr. Wilder gripped with that affliction; this man who brought us so many laughs, who at the end of his life would not even be able to recall the punch line, much less the rest of the joke. It seems to me a particularly ironic way for a Jewish comedic actor to go out.

But it is also a reminder of a gem of wisdom from our tradition:

Yalqut Shim’oni, Eqev, 850 (on Deut. 7:25):

אין אדם בעולם בלא יסורין

There is no human being in the world without afflictions.

There is, as they say, one more star in the sky, but the rest of us down here are left in a slightly less-humorous world. Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. And I hope that we can keep laughing, even as we cling to the values of Torah.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2016.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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