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Welcoming Interfaith Families / Our Two Lives – Hayyei Sarah 5780

It seems that I’m giving an inadvertent sequel to the sermon that I gave last week.

And that is mostly because last Shabbat morning, I was reading the Federation’s new study on the experiences of interfaith families in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. I served on an advisory committee of clergy members and community leaders for the study, and also helped the researchers locate interfaith couples with whom they could speak to collect information about their experiences within the Jewish community. As you may know, we have members of this congregation where one or more family member is not Jewish according to halakhah / Jewish law, and of course we welcome those members just as we welcome Jewish members to our services, our programs and activities, and to participate in this community just as the Jewish members do, with a few exceptions related to ritual leadership.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study are the quotes collected from these couples. Some of the material actually made me feel that Beth Shalom is doing a decent job, like the note that only five out of 17 non-Orthodox congregations’ websites actually contain language explicitly welcoming interfaith couples. Ours is one of them:

While Beth Shalom is a community rooted in the Jewish tradition, many of our members are part of families who celebrate other traditions, cultures, and religions. Rather than separate ourselves from other traditions, we embrace the diversity of our members and seek to welcome their friends and family into our community in as many ways as possible. This year, we have formed a committee to investigate how we can do this in a meaningful and respectful way.

So that’s a good thing, even if the committee was actually formed three years ago.

But something else in the study caught my eye, and it connects directly to the subject of last week’s sermon, that is, when I spoke about the challenge of being welcoming while preserving our standards of synagogue behavior:

At one service we went to, they just put a yarmulke on my kid’s head. And when I took it off there was judgment, and there were comments made, and I’ve really never felt comfortable in that setting since. And I haven’t really felt comfortable with that rabbi since then either. (Non-Jewish partner)

I read that, and I thought, well, that might have been me. And I really try very hard not to be judgy. I know that we live in an environment in which any kind of perceived slight is something that may drive people away from the synagogue in such a way that they will not come back. And yet, there was this quote from a non-Jewish partner, from a family that was clearly looking for community and connection.

And I’m picturing the situation: here comes the rabbi, with the best of intentions, and he slaps a kippah on a little boy’s head. And mom is not happy.

OK, so maybe that wasn’t me. I don’t know. I certainly hope it wasn’t.

Here’s the key: we have to find a way to make people feel welcome AND to uphold our standards.

****

Switching gears for a moment, a curious textual oddity happened in the first verse that we read this morning (Bereshit / Genesis 23:1):

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

If you’re listening closely, you’ll see that the word “shanah” or “shanim,” that is, “year” or “years” appears no less than 4 times in this verse. It is the fourth one, “shenei,” that is most curious. To understand it, you have to know that Hebrew has a grammatical phenomenon that sometimes changes the shapes of words.

The last three words, “shenei hayyei Sarah,” should be understood as “the years of Sarah’s life.” The word, “shenei” is called a construct form. It appears when two nouns are smushed together in such a way that indicates that the first belongs to the second. You know many constructs: Rosh Hashanah: the head of the year; Simhat Torah: celebration of the Torah; birkat hamazon: the berakhah of food (i.e. grace after meals). In our verse, the word “shenei” is the construct form of “shanim,” years. Actually, this is a dual construct: shenei hayyei Sarah is “the years of the life of Sarah.”

However, an alternate translation, nonsensical according to the context, is that “shenei” here means “two.” So you might translate shenei hayyei Sarah as “Sarah’s two lives.” A midrash in Bereshit Rabba (58:1), following this read, tells us the following:

 וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מַה צֹּרֶךְ לוֹמַר שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה בָּאַחֲרוֹנָה, לוֹמַר לְךָ שֶׁחָבִיב חַיֵּיהֶם שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְלָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

“Sarah’s lifetime.” What is the need for adding shenei hayyei Sarah, “the years of the life of Sarah” at the end of the verse? It tells you that the lives of the righteous are beloved by God, both in this world and in the world to come.

That is, Sarah’s two lives are the one in the here and now, and the one in the afterlife.

But another way we might read this is that Sarah had two lives in her 127 years: one as a partner to Avraham and a mother to Yitzhaq, and everything associated with those things – her life in relationship to those around her; and the second as the first of the imahot, the matriarchs of the Jewish story: the powerful, decisive leader who stood alongside and guided her husband through the challenges of life, who became a role model for her compassion, her strength, and her industriousness.

We too fulfill multiple roles. And I am thinking now of the way that most of us move seamlessly between our secular lives and our Jewish lives. Many of us are parents or grandparents who work in the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) world, proud citizens of this secular nation who are committed to democratic ideals and engaged with contemporary society.

And yet, many of us are also deeply committed to Jewish tradition – our Shabbat, our holidays, our lifecycle events, our Torah learning, our Jewish values. And it may in fact be that when we travel amongst non-Jews, we do not think about that Jewish life. Perhaps we just think of ourselves as Americans, or Pittsburghers. We do not feel our Jewishness in every interaction.

But just as Sarah was one person, so too are we. And what we might learn from this is that there should be no mehitzah, no divider between who we are as Jews and who we are in a secular context. We should make our daily choices based on Jewish values and guided by the Jewish calendar and halakhah / Jewish law. We should act on the principles of qehillah / communal interdependence, derekh eretz / respect for the other, hakarat hatov / gratitude for the good that we have, Talmud Torah / learning our texts, and so forth as we interact with everybody around us, in all the spheres of our lives.

This is what Judaism teaches us: fuse those two lives together. Make them one. You are not a Jew only on Shabbat morning! We smell fragrant spices at havdalah to bring the joy of Shabbat into the rest of the week; so too with the Torah of compassion, of responsibility, of tzedaqah, and so forth. We bring that Torah to the world as an essential part of who we are.

And the converse should also be true: just as we bring our Judaism proudly into the world, so too should we welcome those non-Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks who come into our space, into our synagogues and homes. We should welcome them in with the same zeal with which we should carry our Torah out into the wider world.

Let’s face it folks: history has taught us, for thousands of years, to keep our Judaism to ourselves. The anti-Semitic blood libels, the pogroms, the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians in which the Jews could never really win, the second-class dhimmi status imposed on Jews in the Muslim world, and of course the attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis taught us to keep quiet and keep our religion to ouselves.

But you know what? Today we can walk proudly through our streets with our Judaism clearly visible. I refuse to be terrorized by re-energized anti-Semites. And we must be proud to share that tradition with whoever enters a synagogue.

We don’t have to beat them over the head with it. We don’t have to put a kippah or a tallit on anyone who does not want one, or on any kid whose parent does not like it.

But we must, at the same time, invite them in. Perhaps the language should be simply, “Would you like a kippah?” Or, “Would you like a tallit?” Or, as I say to those without tefillin on weekday mornings, “Would you like a set of tefillin? I am happy to help you put them on.”

If the answer is no, then it’s no, and there is no need to press any further.

But in bringing together our Jewish and our secular selves, we ought to be sensitive to where people are, particularly those who are anxious about entering a Jewish space. We do not need to give anybody an excuse not to come back. Rather, we want them to leave thinking, “Wow. Those folks really love their tradition. And they invited me in.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/23/2019.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Tallit – Shelah Lekha 5779

(This is the fourth installment in an occasional series on the fundamentals of Jewish life. The others are:

I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

I’m a Fundamentalist: Refrigerator-Magnet Texts

I’m a Fundamentalist: Tefillin – Mishpatim 5779

Thank you for reading!)

I must say that I have been recently surprised by the number of people, and in particular Jewish men who are bar mitzvah (i.e. 13 years of age and older) who are declining to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) when they enter our sanctuary. When I was growing up, a tallit was de rigueur for all men and older boys, and in fact a ritual that we looked forward to participating in. (I mentioned earlier that the Torah describes this mitzvah / commandment in the portion we read this morning.)

Now, things are a little different today: with the resurgence of Orthodoxy in the last few decades, many more of us are exposed to the minhag / custom, which has become prevalent in Orthodoxy, that some have of not wearing a tallit until one is married. BTW, the reason that we expect all Jewish men of bar mitzvah age to wear a tallit in synagogue is because we assume that most of us are not fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit under their clothing, the tallit qatan. So we urge people to fulfill the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the big one with which we are all familiar.

Also, of course, in a highly integrated community like this, we often have people here who regularly attend Reform synagogues, where wearing a tallit is optional, so they are not inclined to put one on merely because they are in a Conservative synagogue. And we are also living in a time in which nobody likes to be told that they “must” do anything, regardless of where they grew up.

Furthermore, of course we encourage women to take this mitzvah on as well, although we do not require it of women, only adding to the level of confusion. Even though it has traditionally been observed by men, the Talmud (e.g. Menahot 43a) and many prominent rabbis throughout history (e.g. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam) indicate that women are not merely encouraged, but required to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit (similarly, Jewish sources also permit women to wear tefillin, including the great Maimonides).

But I am going to make the case for why you should be wearing a tallit, regardless of your gender.

According to what we read in today’s parashah, the tzitziyyot, the knotted threads that hang from the four corners of the tallit, are mnemonic devices. We need to be reminded of our obligations, not only to God, but also to each other. That is the goal of religious practice, and that is the whole point of the tallit, according to what we read today in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Let me explain:

I recently heard a wonderful episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain called “Creating God.” The guest, social psychologist Azim Shariff, described an academic study that showed that Muslim shopkeepers in the souq in Marrakesh, Morocco, gave more money to charity when they heard the azan, the Arabic call to prayer which is sounded from mosques five times a day.

What this demonstrates is that when we are reminded of religious tradition – mitzvot, commandments that compel us to do good things for each other and our community – we are more likely to actually DO those things. We are more likely to work for the common good; we are more likely to remember those around is in need; we are more likely to reach out to others.

We need those reminders: Reminders of the value of our Jewish heritage. Reminders to keep our traditions close, because they bring real value to us as individuals and to our community and the world.

There is a strain of Jewish thought that says that mitzvot have no intrinsic value or meaning – that they are simply commandments that must be followed (Rashi is among those thinkers; so too the modern Israeli commentator/gadfly Yeshayahu Leibovich). For example, there is a mitzvah / commandment in the Torah known as shilluah ha-qen, the requirement of shooing away the mother bird before taking her young from the nest (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhot 5:3) tells us that this should not be interpreted as displaying mercy so that God will be merciful to us. Rather, it is merely a statute to be followed, just like so many others in the Torah, because it is there.

But I cannot be Jewish in this way. I need to connect with my tradition with my heart and mind, to understand that God asks us to do certain things for a reason. I need motivation, and cannot suspend my reason and logic, and, I think, so too most of us in the Conservative Jewish world.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel that Jewish values are the most essential feature of Jewish life, that we should behave not according to ancient law codes and customs, but rather that our behavior should be guided by traditional values evident in Jewish text: tiqqun olam (repairing the world), hakhnassat orhim (welcoming guests into your home), biqqur holim (visiting the ill), derekh eretz (respect), praise and gratitude and so forth.

But values are not enough. There is an intermediate position, a path that pursues both the traditional actions, the mitzvot, and also encourages thought about the values that drive them. And that’s the kind of Jew that I want to be. Sign me up for that: the marriage of action and intent.

An example: in this approach, tefillah / prayer, admittedly a hard sell for most modern people, can be deeply meaningful, but only if you actually wrestle with the text. The mere recitation of words in a foreign language because ancient rabbis dictated a standard framework for tefillah is, well, uninspiring. But the combination of meaning, words, themes, music, meditation, and choreography brings me clarity, improves my concentration, helps me to examine myself, gives me a daily dose of qedushah / holiness and humility, and frames my day.

And in my mind, this type of Judaism is suggested by today’s parashah. We chanted the passage which we know and love as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one about the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41). The passage says explicitly that wearing the tzitzit (plural: tzitziyyot) is to remind us of the mitzvot and not to stray from the right path. But then it goes on to invoke the Exodus from Egypt, a seminal event in the establishment of the Jewish nation. The passage thereby suggests that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only their performance, but connecting them with our history, our peoplehood, and our obligation to remember where we came from and the obligations we have to aid the oppressed, the bound, the enslaved.

The tallit gadol, which many of us are wearing right now, is generally thought of as a ritual article, that is, something worn during services. If you wear a tallit qatan, you are always reminded of all of the above all day long.

But I’d like to suggest the following: when we are not in the synagogue, we need reminders. We need metaphorical tzitziyyot. We need to be reminded of the important things: yes, the values; yes, the customs; yes, the laws. We need to connect the doing with the understanding. And we do that through physical rituals.

Ladies and gentlemen, the struggle for the Jewish future will not be merely about reproduction; it will be a struggle for meaning – for understanding the values embedded within Jewish practice, for relating those things to how we live our lives on a daily basis. We need the “why” behind the “what.” And wrapping ourselves up in a tallit is an essential part of that process.

The tallit is so integral to Jewish life that we see it every time we look at the flag of the state of Israel; it is such an intimate part of our experience as Jews that there is a custom of burying one’s tallit with the deceased – it is effectively the only thing we take with us when we leave this world. And I think it’s the only ritual item that makes us feel as if we are being swaddled in our tradition.

So how do we maintain those reminders when we are not wearing a tallit? The metaphorical tzitziyyot remain after we take it off.

We feel swaddled in our tradition when we make the Shabbat special, a day apart from the craziness of the week, in whatever ways we can, traditional or otherwise. And when we make dietary choices that reflect our holy relationship with God’s Creation. And when we sanctify our relationships and always seek to partner with God in repairing this world. And when we seek out the ancient wisdom in our textual heritage.

That is why I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to the tallit: the physical ritual of being wrapped up in a tallit serves as a kind of glue that binds us to our tradition; it reminds us daily of our values and customs and practices and how they improve our lives and our society.

So go on, swaddle yourself up in a tallit, and you will find those metaphorical tzitziyyot when you take it off, and thus keep the reminders of Jewish life in front of you. That is how we will continue to build a better world. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/29/2019.)

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