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Sermons

Don’t Be Judgy – Naso 5782

I do not read Twitter very frequently – I find that the platform often reflects what is essentially wrong with everything in American society: no depth, no sense of history, no respect, virtually no guard-rails, nothing but an eternal present of often toxic non-dialogue.

Nonetheless, I peeked at it briefly this week, and found myself face-to-face with an interesting, if disheartening thread. It featured a rabbi I follow asking effectively, “If you do not belong to a congregation, please tell me why.” 

The answers ranged from “it’s too expensive” to “I cannot find the kind of community I need/want” to “I am uncomfortable with my local congregation’s embrace of Zionism / Israel” to “I feel judged by people in the congregation for my gender identity / sexuality / skin color / age / family status / financial wherewithal / insufficient knowledge, etc.”

Now, of course, it is extraordinarily easy on Twitter to create a group of malcontents on any particular subject. This is a platform that excels in “broken-tile syndrome” – the tendency to find and highlight flaws.

Nonetheless, it is that last complex of issues surrounding judgment that I find particularly troubling, because I know people that have felt turned away by this congregation for feeling judged. Any new person that walks into a synagogue and feels judged is pretty much going to walk out and never come back. And that has happened here as well.

So we have a problem. A kind of ancient problem, which is that religious traditions are historically “judgy.” Not only do our traditional texts speak of a the God of judgment, not only do we refer to Rosh HaShanah, the day when there are the most people in synagogues, as “Yom haDin,” the Day of Judgment, but the very foundation of an originally tribal religion such as ours is that there is always the in-group, that is, the people who are following our tradition, or at least are members of the tribe, and the out-group: everybody else. That kind of judginess is hard-wired into humanity, as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition. (I cannot really speak from an informed perspective on the Eastern traditions, although I cannot believe that there is really any group that does not have at least a modicum of that dynamic.)

And actually, Parashat Naso includes one of the judgiest of judgy passages in the Torah. It’s the ordeal of the Sotah, to which the Torah commanded our ancestors to perform upon a woman suspected of cheating on her husband. Now, thankfully, this ordeal is not considered a legitimate ritual today, and even in the time of the Talmud the rabbis effectively claimed that nobody practiced it.* Nonetheless, there it is in the Torah, so of course we have to wrestle with it.

The ordeal is judgy because (א) the woman is subject to it merely if her husband suspects her; it does not matter what the reality is or if she strenuously denies her guilt; (ב) because it relies on an apparently supernatural judgment that is rendered in her taking a reaction to the potion that is prepared; and (ג) because there is no parallel ordeal for anything that a man might do outside of marriage, although of course “adultery” in the Biblical sense only applied to married women. To contemporary readers, this passage is absolutely unconscionable for many reasons.

So we have judginess in our roots. And add to that our centuries of legitimate mistrust and fear of outsiders: fear of pogroms, of genocide, of anti-Semitic actors and actions in all their various pernicious forms, fear of assimilation. Our history has taught us to be wary of those who are different, who do not fit into our expectations or follow our rules or suit our platonic ideal of who is a Jew. And even within the Jewish community, among committed Jews, we have the tendency to judge the choices of our co-religionists to the right and the left as well as the people within our own midst. 

And it is hard not to do.

But here we are in Pride Month, in case you missed all the rainbow signs on the way into the building. And here we find ourselves in the midst of culture wars over race and gender identity and political division over guns and abortion and voting rights and insurrection. And it is really hard not to judge the people with whom you vehemently disagree. We are living in fundamentally judgy times.

But we are going to have to learn not to be judgy if we are to keep this congregation going. Because today’s Jewish world is quite different from that of the past. Few of us grew up with immigrant parents who were steeped in Old World customs. We have far fewer children than in previous generations. People’s priorities in charitable giving have shifted. Virtually none of us feel like we have time to spare volunteering to help make synagogues run. And of course there are so many more choices today, including, of course, the choice not to participate at all, not to raise our children with Jewish knowledge or values or tradition.

And perhaps the greatest challenge that a large legacy institution such as this one faces is the desire that we all have to meet our individual needs exactly as we want them. Synagogues cannot please everybody, as much as we may try.

And so, with all of that stacked against us, any potential new member who walks in and feels judged for whatever reason is never coming back in. 

Let me be clear on this. It is very simple: we have to welcome everybody who walks in. It does not matter what their knowledge is, who their spouse or partner is, whether they are dressed appropriately, even if they are clearly eating a ham and cheese sandwich. (Well, we would kindly ask them to finish it outside and then warmly welcome them back in.) 

Of course, we must emphasize our engagement with and teaching of halakhah / Jewish law in the building and as a community, and continue to teach the Conservative movement’s contemporary approach. Nonetheless, we cannot judge anybody for their individual choices.

But Rabbi, aren’t there limits? OK, so if they are wearing Nazi symbols or carrying an AR-15 (God forbid!), we should refuse them entry. But otherwise, everybody here should bend over backwards to make sure that folks who walk in are greeted warmly, are treated with respect and dignity, are given honors where appropriate, and not judged for any of their personal choices.

And that means, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes going out of your comfort zone. It means expanding your circle to talk to somebody at kiddush whom you do not know. It means trying to not make somebody feel embarrassed or ashamed about what they know or don’t know about Jewish life and text and practice. It means sharing your enthusiasm for Jewish life and learning and community and Beth Shalom openly and genuinely, without in any way implying that if they do not live like you, they are somehow lacking. We should, as Pirqei Avot teaches us, greet every person with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance.

On Saturday night at the JCC, during the first real community Tiqqun Leil Shavu’ot that we have had in three years, Rabbi Danny Schiff led a wonderful talk about the oeuvre of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. One passage that Rabbi Schiff shared was striking in its power and resonance. It is drawn from his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together. Rabbi Sacks wrote the following:

Covenants and contracts are different things and address different aspects of our humanity. In a contract, what matters is that both gain. In a covenant, what matters is that both give. Contracts are agreements entered into for mutual advantage… on the basis of self-interest… By contrast, covenants are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness. In fact the key word of Judaism, emunah, usually translated as ‘faith’, is better translated as faithfulness. 

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences… Social contract is about the use of potentially coercive force. Social covenant is about moral commitments, the values we share and the ideals that inspire us to work together for the sake of the common good.

A qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness, is established within the framework of covenant: our covenant with God, and our covenant with each other. And those covenants should lead us to give, not to take.

So if a synagogue sets out to try to meet everybody’s needs, we will fail. That is a contractual relationship that will be impossible to fulfill for 600+ families.

But rather, if we emphasize the covenantal relationship which we all share – the values of gratitude and family and generosity and prayer and learning and humility and halakhah – and strive to be the place that welcomes all with open arms, turning nobody away, then we will continue to grow and thrive. And Rabbi Goodman and I cannot do that alone. That is up to you.

Further along in Parashat Naso, we read the so-called Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing that has been bestowed upon our people for literally thousands of years. These are the same words we often hear during the repetition of the Amidah, and they are also traditionally used to bless our children at Shabbat dinner on Friday night (Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26):

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃   

May Adonai bless you and protect you!
May Adonai’s face shine upon you and favor you!
May Adonai’s Divine countenance be lifted up to you and grant you peace!

The simple, almost haiku-like nature of this trifold blessing suggests that every one of us deserves God’s blessing, Divine light, favor, and peace, and that this desire is for all of us without any judgment. Nobody is excluded from this blessing. 

And perhaps we should take our cue from God and the Torah in this regard: Our social covenant requires that we offer blessing to all who seek it. Our values mandate that we extend a loving, accepting hand to all who come in. And our future peace depends upon our willingness to be a beacon for that light, as individuals and as a community.

~ Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2022.)

*Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 47b. The Mishnah states that the ritual only worked if the husband himself was free of transgression, and for whom can that be true?

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Sermons

You Need Your People, and We Need You – Vayyiggash 5782

A funny thing happened a few nights ago here at Beth Shalom: a meeting. An actual, in-person, meeting of members of the congregation. And it was, in fact, a good meeting.

It was actually an open forum to inform members of the congregation regarding the process for hiring an Assistant Rabbi, a process in which we are already engaged. You may know that we held two such congregational forums – the first was Sunday evening, via Zoom, and the second on Tuesday evening, right here in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary. The Zoom meeting attracted three times as many people. But the in-person meeting was SO MUCH BETTER.

Not better in the sense that the meeting content was better – it was exactly the same material. I think Tuesday’s meeting ran a little shorter, but that’s not why it was better.

The in-person meeting was better because of the chatter beforehand, the chatter afterward, and the actual give-and-take that can happen when people are there with each other in the room, reading each other’s body language, having multiple conversations at once, enjoying a three-dimensional human experience. The incidental, unofficial parts of gathering – the pre-meeting, the post-meeting, the parking-lot meeting, are all an essential part of the picture. And those simply can’t take place on your computer screen in an organic way.

Tuesday’s meeting was, I think, the first official in-person meeting of any lay committee at Beth Shalom in about 21 months. And it felt good, because we need to be together. We need to see each other, unmediated by any technology. People in community with each other belong together.

In fact, what is it that connects people with each other? It is not merely belonging to the same institution, like a synagogue. It is not necessarily living in the same neighborhood. It is not voting for the same party, or sending your children to the same school. 

What connects us one to the other is sharing stories. Being in each other’s presence, and telling our personal stories to one another.

One reason that Jewish people feel connected to each other, all over the world, is our collection of shared stories, to wit, the Torah, the Talmud, the midrash, the medieval commentaries, all of the material on the Jewish bookshelf. But that is a macro-level connection. What connects us as individuals on a local basis is our knowledge of each other’s personal stories. 

In Parashat Vayyiggash, which we read from today, we are reminded of this to great effect. When Yosef is standing before his brothers, who have come to him in Egypt due to a famine in Israel, they do not yet know that the Egyptian vizier who stands before them is the brother who they sold to Ishmaelite traders many years earlier. But Yosef recognizes them, and is yearning painfully to see his father. As he finally reveals himself, you can almost hear his voice tremble in love and anticipation (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3)

אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י

Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi ḥai?

I am Yosef. Is my father still well?

Note that our translation (New JPS) says “well,” because the brothers have told him already that Ya’aqov is alive; the word “ḥai” many of us know as “life / lives.” But the suggestion is that he will not be “alive” for Yosef until he can see him once again with his own eyes.

Later (45:28), his father Ya’aqov echoes Yosef’s language:

עוֹד־יוֹסֵ֥ף בְּנִ֖י חָ֑י אֵֽלְכָ֥ה וְאֶרְאֶ֖נּוּ בְּטֶ֥רֶם אָמֽוּת׃

Od Yosef beni ḥai; elekha ve-er-enu beterem amut!

My son Yosef is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!

There is such a strong need for them to see each other, to behold each other, to be in each other’s presence. It is not enough for them to simply know that the other is alive; it is, rather, essential, for them to be physically together again. Rashi interprets Ya’aqov’s words to mean that since Yosef is alive, and they will see each other once again, that he will have so much joy and happiness. (Never mind the whole “before I die” business…)

Yosef too is overjoyed to be reunited with his family, even though they mistreated him horribly decades before. Despite his fabulous success in Egypt as the head of food distribution for the years of famine, despite his having become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, despite his fine Egyptian clothes and his successful integration into Egyptian society, signified by his having been given an Egyptian name (Tzafnat Pa’aneaḥ), he yearns for the ones with whom he shares a personal story. He yearns for his people, his family.

And we need that as well. We need the others with whom we share stories.

We have just completed the celebration of Ḥanukkah, the most observed Jewish holiday of the year. It feels to me like only a few weeks ago we were dancing with the scrolls on Simḥat Torah, and even though the 100% holiday-free month of Ḥeshvan was there in-between, my pandemic-induced time myopia has made all these holidays kind of blur together.

And now there is a long time before Pesaḥ, especially since 5782 is a leap year and there will be an extra month of Adar in there. So considering that the holidays of Yom Kippur, Ḥanukkah, and Pesaḥ are the three most-observed holy moments of the Jewish year, the coming months will be a long stretch for many of our people. Some of us may not see each other again for some time. 

And so this is a good time to remind you of the following: you need your community. You need the Beth Shalom community. And we need to see more of each other.

Coming up on two years of separation and isolation and anxiety, I want to remind you of the value of community, of the power of being in deep relationship with the people around you. And the synagogue is an essential part of that picture.

This is not just a place where folks mumble prayers in an ancient language and go home. It is a place where we see each other, where we appreciate being in each other’s presence, where we share stories. This is a place where community is fashioned, and we need to behold each other and be together for that to happen.

So come back to shul! As you know, we have been very conservative in our Covid safety protocols, to make sure that everybody feels comfortable. We are meeting in-person twice every day, morning and evening. We are having kiddush – with food! – on Shabbat mornings after services. We have many things going on now; yes, some of them are still via Zoom. But as more of us are vaccinated, we will continue to gather, to build community, to share our stories with each other in-person, in real time, in glorious physical proximity.

And, while we are on the subject, let me point out that we as a community need one more thing (aside from an Assistant Rabbi). One thing that you could help us build.

We need an effective Membership Committee, and in particular a chair of that committee. If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is that we need to work harder to fight against the isolation of these times. We need to bring people together for social purposes, not just for ritual activities, and a solid Membership Committee will help make that happen. 

In Hebrew, the word for “member,” as in the member of a synagogue or a member of Knesset, is  חבר / ḥaver. And, curiously enough, the same word is used to mean a friend, and can also mean a lover. That is what it means to be a member of a synagogue, a חבר בית כנסת / ḥaver beit kenesset*: that we are in deep, loving relationship with one another. And if we are to continue to build as a community, if we are to continue to be a more sustainable congregation, we need to lean into that loving feeling for the חברים / ḥaverim who are with us here in the pews today, tomorrow, and moving forward.

So, if you are ready to help build and connect synagogue membership, please let me know, or speak to our VP of Member Engagement, Mindy Shreve.

And if you’re ready to share more stories, to see your people, to behold and break bread with your ḥaverim once again, come back to shul. I hope to see you in person, maybe even before Pesaḥ, maybe even at a meeting, or in the parking lot after.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/11/2021.)

* The literally meaning of “beit kenesset,” like the English term synagogue (derived from Greek), is “place of gathering.”

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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.)

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Festivals High Holidays music Sermons

Sermon in Song: A Musical Journey Through Jewish Ritual Melodies – Shabbat Shirah 5781

Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of Song,” is the day on which we chant Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites chanted upon having crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, Shemot / Exodus 15:1-21) as well as Shirat Devorah (the song chanted by Devorah the Prophet following victory over the Canaanite commander Sisera, Shofetim / Judges 5:1-31). In honor of Shabbat Shirah 5781, I created this musical explanation of the nusah (prayer-chant melody), musical modes and motifs, and congregational melodies used in the synagogue and in home rituals throughout Jewish life.

Enjoy!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally chanted at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/30/2021.)

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Sermons

The Great Unbundling – Aharei Mot-Qedoshim 5778

Last week I was in Chicago for a few days, at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Between sessions on ancient theology, medieval disputes about Jewish law, and the state of contemporary Judaism, we had some free time, so I took the L to the Art Institute of Chicago, and since I had limited time, I went directly to my favorite period, the French Impressionists. I saw a Renoir that brought tears to my eyes, ogled some Seurat, beheld several breathtaking Monets.

The Two Sisters
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Sisters (on the terrace), (1881)

sunday on la grande jatte
Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884 (1884/1886)

We read today in the Torah my favorite verse in the entire Torah (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2):

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

One of the ways in which we as humans are holy is by acting on the creative impulse within us, the Divine gift of art. When I look at beautiful works of art, I am reminded of the fantastic things that humans are capable of; that despite our many flaws and challenges and vulnerabilities, we often have the potential to create great beauty.

Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit other galleries: the American, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Textiles, Photography, Prints and Drawings, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Film, Video, etc., etc. Pity. I paid $25 for entry, just to see the work of a few 19th-century Frenchmen. I could actually see those items on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website for free.

The Petite Creuse River
Claude Monet, The Petite Creuse River (1889)

Nonetheless, I was moved. I am also grateful that this museum has so many things in its collection, among them Renoir and African fertility goddess dolls and ancient Egyptian stelae and Andy Warhol’s pop art. And I probably will not return there for a long time – I’m not in Chicago very often.

But imagine how weak a museum it would be if it only held one of those things. What makes a great museum wonderful is the range, the comprehensive nature of its offerings; the dedication to the entirety of the holiness in human creativity. Even if I could only have paid, let’s say, two dollars to only see the French Impressionists, the extra $23 in my pocket would represent a loss to me – my ability to take advantage of all that the museum offers – and a loss to the museum – its ability to provide all those other things.

The experience was, it occurred to me, relevant to something that I was planning to speak about today, and that is the so-called “unbundling” of Jewish life.

What is meant by “unbundling”? It’s going on all over the place right now. Show of hands: how many of us are still paying for cable? How many of us still buy CDs (or vinyl albums)? How many of us prefer AirBnB to a full-service hotel? We are in the process of unbundling our lives in many ways. Now, if you only want to watch ESPN, you don’t have to pay for CNN and BET and Lifetime. You don’t need to get the whole bundle.

Unbundling is a term that has come to the fore recently by people in the Jewish world who are advocating a different approach to living Jewishly: to separating the offerings of legacy institutions, particularly synagogues, from each other. That is, if you need a rabbi for a funeral, you hire a rabbi. If you want to learn Talmud, you can go online to find a Talmud class. If you have a 13-year-old child, you can rent an event space for a bar mitzvah. Why do we need big, full-service institutions? Can’t we just cobble together a few Jewish things by ourselves, DIY-style, and call it Jewish life?

The idea has been tossed around liberally by both hosts and guests of the Judaism Unbound podcast, which, for the last two years, has been examining the new ways in which people are engaging with Jewish living and learning today. And it also came up at a recent discussion hosted by Rodef Shalom Congregation about the Jewish future. The featured panel consisted of one of the hosts of Judaism Unbound, Dan Libenson, Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL: The Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, and two members of Beth Shalom: Rabbi Amy Bardack of the Federation, and Danielle Kranjec, the senior Jewish educator at the Hillel Jewish University Center.

It may be that unbundling is the way we are moving as a society. But that presents a kind of dilemma for synagogues. If I only want High Holiday tickets, or I only want my 2-year-old in the ELC, or I only want JJEP, or to celebrate a bar mitzvah, I have to buy the whole membership. I am effectively paying  a lot of money for services that I do not necessarily need or want.

Now, I am a big fan of Judaism Unbound, the podcast and the idea. It has been a forum for many good ideas, some of which I have happily appropriated.

But unbundling is short-sighted. It misses the fact that the synagogue is a home for the community. It’s an extension of your living room. It is, literally, a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the Hebrew term for the Greek word synagogue. This is a place to gather. Not just for services. Not just for baby namings and dancing with the Torah and Shabbat dinners. It’s also a place where we learn about each other, where we share our stories, where we grow together spiritually as individuals, as families, as a community.

What makes us a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community, is that we understand that in order to have this gorgeous building, in order to have the staff that keeps it open, the people to send our yahrzeit and birthday notices and new baby announcements, in order to be able to host Shabbat dinners or the Hod veHadar instrumental service that we had last night, we have to support it. Just like you cannot have Impressionists without Diego Rivera, Ai Weiwei, and Botticelli, you also cannot have a bar mitzvah or Ne’ilah without a community or an ark to open.

Still, there are skeptics who will say, “So tell me, Rabbi, what does a synagogue offer? Why do I need it?” (I am, in fact, asked variations on this question quite often.)

The synagogue is the place that offers you all the tools you need to thrive in today’s world. We offer you a framework to help you live a better life: one characterized

  • by tzedakah, charity;
  • by understanding and supporting the others in our midst – our family and friends but also the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the unprotected;
  • by modeling what it means to be a family and to do familial things together in the context of community and Jewish life;
  • by providing opportunities to gather, not in front of a screen, but in real time with real people across multiple generations and demographics;
  • by bringing people together for a multitude of holy purposes, social, ritual, and otherwise;
  • by highlighting the holy moments in our lives and giving us a framework of gratitude, of celebration, and of grief;
  • by teaching ancient wisdom, translated into today’s context, which will:
    • heighten your relationships,
    • improve your understanding of yourself and the world around you, and
    • make you feel more grounded.

We need this.

I am grateful that the Art Institute of Chicago has a solid collection of Impressionists; I am also grateful for the all the other parts of the museum that I did not take advantage of. But just as you cannot unbundle a museum, so too must the synagogue, as the communal center, include and highlight all the aspects of Jewish life.

As we unbundle ourselves, we grow more isolated; synagogues are on the front lines of fighting that isolation. That’s why we need at least 10 people for a minyan, a prayer quorum, and that sense pervades Jewish life. We are a beit kenesset, a house of gathering. That is what this building, this community is here for. We will continue to improve the model of how we bring people together, to connect our ancient traditions and wisdom with how we live today. And we need you to be a part of it to make it happen, and to help shape our future together.

 

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/28/2018.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #3: Why Do We Need Congregation Beth Shalom? – Kol Nidrei 5777

This is the third installment in a four-part series, “The Whys of Judaism.” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we discussed “Why do we need Judaism?” On the second day, it was “Why do we need the holy opportunities known as mitzvot?” It might be a good idea to read those posts before reading this one.

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Today’s why: Why do we need Congregation Beth Shalom?

How many of us in this room grew up as members of the Beth Shalom community? Raise your hands.

This congregation has had an impact on many, many people, and has been an anchor of Squirrel Hill for just shy of a century. 2017 promises to be a very exciting year for Beth Shalom, and we are all fortunate to be a part of it. Judy and I feel extraordinarily lucky and grateful to be here with you at this time, and looking back over the past year, over 5776, we have seen wonderful growth and excitement. We are very happy to be with Beth Shalom as we begin the next hundred years.

Actually, some of us in the room may not appreciate what it means to be a part of a thriving community; not all synagogues are thriving. Yes, I know that some of us here look back to a time when the membership of this congregation was twice what it is today. But unlike most synagogues, this one is growing. We gained over 50 new member families over the past year, which is truly outstanding. And I’m confident that we will continue to grow and I will share with you why.

beth-shalom-exterior

But let’s face it: times are tough for membership-based organizations of any kind, and even tougher for religious institutions. People are wary of institutions. We are less loyal today. We are less likely to pay for things that do not necessarily give us some kind of immediate gratification. And of course, secularism is on the rise; you may be aware that the fastest-growing religious group in America is “None.”

And so the synagogue, if it is going to sustain its membership model, must demonstrate its immediate value.

Just a week and a half ago, there was a story on the front page of the NY Times Business section about a new development in Japan for what we Jews might call “unaffiliated” Buddhists. It’s a service provided by Amazon to order a Buddhist priest for rituals. You point and click, and the priest comes to you. Not bad, eh?  You know, Rent-a-Rabbi / Buy-a-Buddha.

The problem is that nobody is a Buddhist for just a half-hour once a year when they need a memorial service on the anniversary of the death of a departed loved one (which, BTW, is called in Japanese, “yahrzeit”).

Similarly, you cannot really be Jewish for a few hours a year either. And that is one primary reason for the existence of synagogues. We are not part-time Jews, flipping on the Jewish switch when you are saying qaddish or standing under the wedding huppah; we are Jewish throughout our lives.

And that’s why we need synagogues. The synagogue is not just valuable, it’s vital, and not just for the reasons that immediately come to mind:

  1. We offer a sense of qehillah, community. I spoke about this extensively last year, so I’ll just briefly remind you that our society has very few gathering places today. The synagogue is one place where you can rub elbows with other members of your community in real time, where you can belong. And that’s not only rare, but also priceless.
  2. We are a full-service organization for the entire Jewish lifecycle. We are here for you from, as they say, cradle to grave. We are here not only to offer support in times of need, but we offer resources to help you be Jewish and to be a better person at every stage of your life.
  3. Something that Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA said, which I find quite striking, which is that the synagogue is the only place that teaches you how to be a family. We are all about relationships. We are multi-generational, and we offer a rare framework in which it is possible to spend time together as a family, to learn together, and to discuss together our relationships in the context of holidays, lifecycle events, learning, services, and so forth. We create a space for true inter-connectedness in a way that few other organizations can.And here are just a few ways we do that: our Early Learning Center; our children’s services; Shababababa, which attracts 100 or more people once a month for a Friday night service; the Kiddush Club creates a space on Shabbat after services where families can hang out together; the pre-Benei Mitzvah Retreat, which we will be an annual event; and on and on.

But here is the reason that we really need Beth Shalom: that this congregation is the laboratory where we will strive to create the Jewish Future with a capital F here in Squirrel Hill.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I made the case for why we need Judaism, that is, because it can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. And we need a place where we can do those things; that place is Beth Shalom.

Yes, there are other synagogues nearby, but I am absolutely certain at this point that Beth Shalom is poised to become the center of traditional, and yet fully contemporary Jewish life and learning in Western Pennsylvania.  I know this is a lofty statement. Please bear with me as I explain.

****

Some of you have heard me reference many times the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews from 2013. That data has been a goldmine. Among the valuable revelations that the study gave us were that virtually all of us (94%) are proud to be Jewish. That may not have been historically true, in days when garden-variety anti-Semitism and the stigma of being an immigrant pressured our parents and grandparents to assimilate as quickly as possible.

Another fascinating piece of data is that most of us, around 72% believe in God, however we might understand what it means to “believe in God.”

These two data points alone suggest the need for synagogues, wherein Jews can gather to exercise their pride in Judaism and their relationship with qedushah / holiness.

I was recently struck by an idea, promoted by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie on a podcast of Judaism Unbound (http://www.judaismunbound.com, Episode 29), that the synagogue can be not only a laboratory for spirituality, but should be infused with creativity somewhat like an art studio.

Beth Shalom has the potential to become that creative studio for Judaism in this neighborhood.

I have a vision to entirely re-think what it means to be a synagogue. To make that vision a reality will require change, and a bit of risk, and a vote of confidence from you, the congregation.

I have said before in this space: the Beth Shalom of the future cannot be the Beth Shalom of the past. We have to change our model.

Here’s why: What motivated our parents and grandparents to build huge edifices like this was intimately tied to a specific point in time, in the middle of the 20th century, when Jews were finally “making it” in America, gradually being welcomed into the wider society. The Jews were movin’ on up.

And in the wake of the Shoah, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel, there was a certain pride that American Jews took in boldly identifying with Jewish national struggles and aspirations. So they paid their dues to institutions, many institutions, built big buildings, and assimilated into American culture. For the most part, they relegated their Judaism to Friday night or Saturday morning, expected the rabbi and cantor to live Jewishly on their behalf, and from Saturday afternoon until the next Friday dispensed with many of the old-world trappings that Jewish practice demands.

Our children have none of these motivations. They have nothing to prove about their Jewishness. They live in a world where identity is fluid, which is at the same time as liberating as it is lonely and bewildering. They feel that they have little need for or interest in institutions. They did not grow up trying to “fit in” as Americans, because there is no question on that front. They have never known a world without Israel, and I am saddened that many of them have learned to squelch their Jewishness on college campuses, lest they be tagged as pro-Zionist, a dirty word in some quarters.

Whereas in the past, synagogues could depend on hooks like High Holiday tickets and the bar/bat mitzvah process to prop up our membership rolls, that  model is mostly gone. So we have to do something to make a positive change. We have to give our children a legacy that they will rise to meet. To recall the challenge of today that I identified on Rosh Hashanah, we have to find a way to make them care.

The vision of Beth Shalom’s future will be to cultivate within all who enter a sense of what it means to be positively Jewish. Not reflexively Jewish, as most of us have historically been.   In other words, when you can be anything you want, we have to convince you of the value of wanting to do Jewish and to do it here.

To demonstrate that our tradition enriches your life, and that the synagogue is the place where you can share it with others, where you can learn to act, collectively and as individuals on  Jewish values. That is what we need to do.

How do we do this? By creating positive Jewish experiences. Jewish involvement that is meaningful. Jewish experiences that are contemporary. That are thoughtful and multi-layered. That include women and men and gay and straight and transgender as equals. That acknowledge that not all Jews are white, or know some Yiddish. That face the reality that many of us are now married to people who are not yet Jewish, and that we must reach out to all people in our midst. That open new doors, new portals to all.

The future of this congregation will be built on the framework of the past, but with a commitment to reach people that the current model is not reaching.

How do we reach all of those people? We have to create a set of programming that is awesome, that is so well-done, presented by a top-shelf lineup of speakers and artists and presenters of all sorts, people who will show us the richness of what Judaism has to offer.

So we are embarking at this very moment on a great challenge indeed, one that will, in fact, re-envision the synagogue for this century. A team of members of this congregation, plus our Executive Director Rob Menes and I have crafted a road map for the future of Beth Shalom. It’s called Derekh, literally, the way. (Derakheha darkhei noam, vekhol netivoteha shalom. The Torah’s ways are of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.)

Derekh will feature five portals of entry, five ways in which people can become involved in Jewish life:

  1. Jewish learning.
  2. Hesed / Acts of lovingkindness
  3. Israel
  4. Culture
  5. Mindfulness

The cornerstone of the operation, the first portal of Jewish learning will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, which will be a new twist on an ancient Jewish place. As you may recall from when I described this last year at this time, the synagogue was classically a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, and also a beit midrash, a house of study.

Today, the beit midrash is a place for the handful of Jews who are  highly Jewishly knowledgeable: rabbis, rabbinical students, Talmud scholars and the like. But I want to create, here at Beth Shalom, a new kind of beit midrash: one that is open and flexible and accessible to all. It will also be designed to reach not just members of Beth Shalom, but to bring in people from across the Pittsburgh community. This Open Community Beit Midrash will feature programming for a range of skill levels and interests from the curious- but-intimidated to the insatiable scholar.  And it will feature guest speakers and visiting scholars that are on the avant-garde of Jewish learning from across the spectrum.

Believe it or not, text-based Jewish learning is now fashionable in Israel, and not just for men in black hats. Former Member of Knesset Dr. Ruth Calderon founded one such house of study in Tel Aviv called Alma, and it has brought many Israelis, people who may otherwise have no connection to what we think of as Jewish life, to study Talmud and other Jewish texts.

And there is something of a renaissance in this area going on in America too. Mechon Hadar, founded by one of my rabbinical school classmates, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, is a center of contemporary Jewish learning in New York that has produced a wonderful range of classes and workshops and podcasts, with people coming from all over to study there, and others (like me) taking advantage of their materials online. Sefaria is a web-based platform that enables people to share Jewish resources – texts, translations, study materials – so that anybody with a computer has easy access to our tradition.

And we can be the contemporary center for Jewish life and learning right here.

But while the center of Derekh will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, there will be so much more:

The Hesed portal, through which we will step up our commitment to deeds of lovingkindness, featuring a range of social action activities, including awareness-raising, partnering with the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and Repair the World, for example.

The Israel portal, including regular trips, greater involvement with the Carmiel-Misgav partnership, Skype sessions between our teens and theirs.

The Culture portal: artists, films, musicians, maybe a studio space in this building for an artist-in-residence.  Just as nations are strengthened by arts and culture, so too will this portal strengthen us.

And the Mindfulness portal: Yoga, meditation, new approaches to the Jewish spiritual experience.

The goal is for Beth Shalom to be the primary resource for spiritual growth in the community, the lynchpin in generating a renaissance in Jewish life in our little shtetl. We need an infusion of exciting, meaningful programming here, and Derekh will provide that and more.

That’s our vision. That’s what will guarantee our future as a congregation.

We will need new staff to do what I’d like us to do. We’ll need to reconfigure spaces. And of course we will need to raise funds. This project, which will be significant and transformative not only for Beth Shalom, but also for the whole community, will depend on raising our endowment significantly.

So along those lines, please know that we will be in touch with you – by mail, but hopefully also in person – about contributing to Beth Shalom’s future.

We hope – we urge you to take hold of this opportunity to participate in this campaign, to consider a meaningful gift that will ensure that the Beth Shalom of the next 100 years will be more meaningful, more connective, more essential than the last 100. Beth Shalom has been here for you for nearly a century; now Beth Shalom needs you.

Why do we need this congregation? Because it will guarantee a strong, traditional, yet egalitarian and progressive Jewish anchor in this community for the next century. Because it will continue to support and nourish our subsequent generations. Because it will continue to enrich your life through community, lifelong Jewish learning, and spiritual growth. Because our lives need more qedushah, more holiness.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Kol Nidrei, October 11, 2016.)