Tag Archives: tradition

Choice vs. Obligation: How Might We Relate to Judaism Today? (Mitzvah, Part 1 of 2)- Emor 5776

I had a couple of very relevant conversations last week surrounding Judaism and choice.

The first was at Community Day School this past Monday morning. I was there for what seemed to me a very curious thing: to promote the wearing of tefillin. Now this might seem totally normal – after all, I promote Jewish observance every day of my life. I in fact promote that particular mitzvah quite often during our weekday morning minyan – when there are men who enter to worship and do not have tefillin, I offer it to them. They rarely take me up on the offer, and I do not push. There is, it seems, something particularly alien about putting on tefillin for those for whom it is not a regular mitzvah.

And just to be clear, the mitzvah of tefillin is on par with all of the other positive, time-bound mitzvot, like the observance of Shabbat, wearing a tallit, sitting in the sukkah, eating matzah and maror on the first nights of Pesah, studying Torah, daily prayer, etc. There is nothing that distinguishes this one as compared with any other particular mitzvot – that is, it is just as valid, and still applies to Jewish adults.

Opinions Vary on Women and Tefillin Question

But what was challenging for me about this discussion was not the promotion of a mitzvah, but rather the assumption that it is a choice for post-benei-mitzvah kids in a Jewish day school whether or not to wear them, particularly while it is not a choice for them to fulfill the mitzvah of daily prayer.

Now, it is not my intent to criticize CDS – I think that they are doing a wonderful job endowing our children with Jewish learning. My intent is to examine where we are today as Jews, a subject that many of you know is exceedingly important to me.

The second conversation was here at the Religious Services Committee meeting on Thursday evening. Among the topics discussed that evening was the question of whether women in our congregation be required to wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin during our services. Now, I do not need to go into the halakhic / Jewish law issues surrounding this question – we’ll save that for another day. (Suffice it so say that it is a very interesting question, but of course we know that traditionally women have not been considered “obligated” to wear these ritual items, but the Conservative movement has said that they may take them upon themselves if they desire.)

What emerged during the conversation is the question of those men who come to weekday morning minyanim and wear a tallit, but no tefillin, to which they are clearly obligated under Jewish law. Generally, we do not force anybody to do anything. So if we were to insist that women were to put on these ritual items, we would have to insist that these men do as well.

The question upon which I am focused is not tefillin, per se, but the idea of choice. Because the way that Judaism has traditionally been understood, we do not really have a choice. God has placed the mitzvot in front of us (613, as you may know, although this is a debatable figure), and it is our obligation to fulfill them. “Kol asher dibber YHWH na’aseh ve-nishma,” said our ancestors back in Parashat Mispatim. “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will obey.” (Ex. 24:7) That’s what the covenant, the berit, with God is all about. God gives us good things – rain, abundant harvests, fertile livestock, etc. – and we perform the mitzvot. (Why do we call circumcision a berit millah? Because millah / circumcision is the sign of that covenant, that berit with Avraham, Yitzhaq, and Ya’aqov and every Israelite who came after them.)

The traditional way of thinking in Jewish life is that if we choose not to fulfill our side of the covenant, God’s expectations of us, we have clearly transgressed.

Now, it is DEFINITELY NOT my intent to make anybody feel guilty about what they do or do not do. I don’t believe in guilt – it’s not a part of my religion.

Nonetheless, I think we do need to feel out this concept of choice. We are not living, after all, in the second century CE, when the early rabbis were codifying these principles, or even the 19th century, when the modern movements (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) are beginning to crystallize. Today we are in a very different place, both in our relationship to Jewish tradition, and the wider society’s relationship to religion. And, as we all know, the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so.

So the question comes down to this: Do we, in fact, feel “obligated” to the mitzvot of Jewish life? Do we feel compelled to fulfill our end of that berit, that covenant? Can we even understand God in such a way that makes the whole idea of berit work?

I have been a lifelong Conservative Jew, and mitzvot such as tefillin have never been presented as optional. On the contrary, it was clear that although many Conservative Jews clearly did not keep kashrut or Shabbat in a traditional way, there was always the expectation that, at least in the synagogue and other public Jewish contexts, the communal standard of observance was higher. To this day, of course, we mandate that food served in the building is kosher, that tefillot are recited thrice daily, that hilkhot Shabbat, the laws of Shabbat observance, are observed, and so forth. In short, we offer an environment in which it is clearly possible to fulfill the mitzvot. And we encourage people to do so, regardless of what they do once they leave.

When I was a camper at Camp Ramah, an arm of the Conservative movement, boys who were post-benei mitzvah were required to wear tefillin at morning services. There was no choice. I did not mind this – as you may imagine, I’ve always enjoyed putting on tefillin. It is likely that not everybody was where I was.

But when I was not at camp, I only rarely put on tefillin as a teenager, and only when I was at a weekday morning service, which happened perhaps three times in high school (the morning of Purim, since I was a regular megillah reader).

Let’s face it: the highest value in American society today is choice. Have you purchased any toothpaste lately? While it used to be that there were about four toothpastes available to the American consumer, today there must be hundreds. What could possibly justify so many choices?

I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA describe America as, “Choice on steroids.” And all that choice has transmogrified our brains. We expect it in all corners of our lives.

Is this good for the Jews? When we have seemingly infinite choice, isn’t it natural to assume that we will have it in our relationship with Judaism as well? Ours is not really a tradition of choice. It is a tradition of mitzvah, of commandment.

The reality, of course, is that we have choice in Judaism, and I don’t merely mean davening at Rodef Shalom, Beth Shalom, or Poalei Zedek. There was a brief period in American Jewish life when converts to Judaism were referred to by the politically-correct-sounding, “Jews by choice.” But today we have to acknowledge that we are ALL Jews by choice, even those of us born to a Jewish mother and steeped in tradition.

So how, then, may we understand mitzvah? This is a particularly relevant question today, when we celebrate a member of our community becoming bar mitzvah, i. e. one who is now endowed with the opportunity for complete spiritual fulfillment of the 613 mitzvot of Jewish life.

There is no question in my mind that the mitzvot are an obligation; some rabbinic writings refer to them as a “yoke,” (ol malkut shamayim – the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, the Empire of God). The very word mitzvah means commandment – something that God has effectively ordered us to do. But these are all alienating terms. Perhaps those of us in the know should refer to the mitzvah as a holy opportunity.

With every potential fulfillment of a mitzvah, with every available holy choice, we have the opportunity to raise our own personal holiness quotient. When you wrap yourself up in a tallit, when you bind the words of the Shema to your arm and your head, when you place a mezuzah on your door frame, when you avoid certain foods or avoid spending money on Shabbat or have a holiday meal with family, you raise your holiness quotient. Whenever you take an opportunity to fulfill a traditional ritual, you elevate yourself and your community just a little bit.

Here are five possible reasons for continuing to take those holy opportunities. Perhaps one of them speaks to you.

  1. Mitzvah. Berit / covenant. The traditional conception of obligation.
  2. Tradition. My ancestors have done this for millennia. Perhaps I should too.
  3. Boundaries. Healthy living requires limits.
  4. Physicality. We need daily reminders of being Jewish to connect us to our tradition, and physical acts (eating, wrapping tefillin, etc.) are the best reminders.
  5. Qedushah .It makes you feel holy.

Ultimately, even though it’s not a choice, many of us perceive it to be. But it’s the right choice, the set of choices our people have been making for perhaps as long as 2,000 years. And maybe, just maybe the reason we are still here, thousands of years after the Roman Empire, the Babylonians Empire, the Persian Empire, even the Ottoman Empire (OK, so it’s only been a century since that one fell), is because we have continued to pursue this path of holiness, because we have continued to make the holy choice when it has been presented to us, to act on those sacred opportunities. The Empire of God, malkhut shamayim, is still here.

(To read part 2 in this series on the concept of mitzvah, click here.)

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/21/2016.)

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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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