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All of This Belongs to You: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of the old comedy troupe from England, Monty Python, and spent (or arguably wasted) a good chunk of my adolescence memorizing some of their routines. 

There is a scene in their classic 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” when a feudal lord is preparing his son’s wedding, and is trying to explain to his adult son the importance of marrying the young woman that the father has chosen, because her father owns a lot of property. The son, who does not seem to care for property or farming or being a feudal lord, is completely disinterested. He only wants to sing, and the father is intent on stopping him from doing so, so that he can focus on the wedding.

At one point, the father gestures to the window dramatically, as if to survey all of his fields, and says, “One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

The son, regarding the window, says, “What, the curtains?”

The young man does not see the huge tracts of land that his father wants to bestow upon him. He does not see the legacy he is poised to inherit. He would rather just sing.

****

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in Jewish history. We are witnesses to the one of the most dramatic changes in Jewish life that has ever occurred. Let me explain.

Do you remember Abe Salem, alav hashalom / May peace be upon him? Abe was a key figure in this congregation, the Ritual Director, Torah reader and service leader for nearly a quarter-century. He was a survivor who spoke a barely-understandable patois of Yiddish and English, told nearly- unbelievable stories, like how he had once personally received a pistol from David Ben Gurion, and how in 1939, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, he was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp because the Russians suspected him to be a spy.

Abe is gone. He passed away two years ago at the age of 97. Zikhrono livrakhah. May his memory be for a blessing.

Ladies and gentlemen, the texture of the Jewish world is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when synagogues were run by scrappy survivors like Abe. Gone are the Old World sensibilities which drove the community of the past. Gone are the classic bubbies, who devoted their lives to cooking and doling out often-unwanted advice. Gone are many of the institutions that sustained Jewish life: the kosher butchers and bakers that once populated Murray Ave., the daily Yiddish papers. Gone are the Bundists, the Hebraists, the proto-Zionist veterans who left their comfortable lives in America to go serve in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. 

All that is left is us, ladies and gentlemen. We are the inheritors of our millennia-old tradition. And we are woefully ill-equipped to inherit it.

Because the top of the agenda for our parents and grandparents was assimilation. It was to be American. It was to fit in, not to stick out, not to be a greenhorn. When my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Pinia Reyzl Bronstein, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, at age 8, speaking not a word of English, she decided that she was going to acquire a perfect American accent, and she quit speaking Yiddish. And when she was raising my mother and her siblings on the North Shore of Boston, they would go to the neighbors’ apartment when they wanted to eat clams, like Americans; she would not dare cook them in her own kitchen while her mother, my great-grandmother Hannah was alive; after she was gone, kashrut disappeared as well.

My grandmother was not so moved by her Jewish heritage. She may as well have left that back in her shtetl, in what is today Ukraine. She knew that to be an American meant that she did not need to keep kosher or to fast on Tish’ah Be’Av.

Did you know that it was not uncommon for American Jews to celebrate Christmas in the first half of the 20th century? Families had trees and even hosted Christmas dinners: 

“In his 1958 study of second-generation immigrant Reform Jews on Chicago’s South Side, clinical psychologist and rabbi Milton Matz revealed that in the second generation parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to “hyphenate the contradiction between his Americanism and his Jewish ethnicism.” (Rabbi Joshua Plaut, myjewishlearning.com)

In subsequent generations, parents realized that there might be a contradiction here, and today there are very few Jews who celebrate Christmas. But no matter: the project of assimilation was deeply entrenched.

And in the course of this great project, what did we lose? I’ll tell you:

  • We lost the deep knowledge and familiarity with Jewish living. 
  • We lost the sense of the synagogue as an extension of our living rooms. 
  • We lost the sense of love and appreciation for the text of our tradition, the value of prayer and indeed the value of having a regular prayer practice. 
  • We lost the sense of deep interconnectedness and interdependence within our community. 
  • We lost the sense of the extended family as the essential unit. 
  • We lost almost all of the close neighborhoods in which the people knew and trusted each other and the businesses that depended on proximity. 
  • We have reduced our Judaism to lip-service: many of us declare proudly that we are Jewish without knowing what exactly our tradition teaches us.

It is undeniable that we have also gained: we gained more freedom, more independence. We moved out of cramped, urban environments into leafy, roomy suburbs. We gained entree into all quarters of American society, including into the exclusive clubs and law firms and echelons of government. And still, despite current trends, obvious signs of anti-Semitism are the exception rather than the norm.

Get ready, folks; I am about to do something I almost never do: use a sports analogy:

We are witnesses to the greatest Jewish hand-off play ever. What do I mean?

The American Jewish project of assimilation has run its course. We are done. We are as American as every other immigrant group.

And I am in fact concerned. But I am also hopeful.

Why? Because the receivers of that heritage, that handed-off football, are reclaiming it. Our parents and grandparents carried it for some time, and now it will be ours. Not mine; not the rabbis and the historians and the Judaic Studies professors, but ours as a community.

****

As you probably know about me by now, my primary goal is not only to teach Judaism, but to make the case for why you need it. I’m not so convinced that everybody in the room is on board. Because, if you were, you would be here more often! You may find this hard to believe, but we almost never fill the sanctuary on Shabbat morning even though there are only 1600 seats. 

But my intent is not to make you feel guilty. It’s rather to inspire you to to be a student of your own heritage, work harder and, to reach a little higher in giving shape to your spirituality, to dip maybe a second toe into the water of Jewish life beyond the lifecycle events of baby namings, ritual circumcisions, benei mitzvah, marriage and death. Because doing so will ultimately be repaid to you in ways that you may not yet appreciate.

Nobody had to make this case a half-century ago. Why? Because the Jews were just showing up.

Today is different. The Jews do not just show up. A piece of conventional wisdom says that Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish. Today, Jews come to synagogue to feel Jewish. We are fully-assimilated Americans. When I feel the need to “get my Jew on,” I go to synagogue. Maybe.

Over these days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am going to give you reasons to show up, to find meaning, to enrich your life and your relationships and to improve the world through Jewish life, learning, and ritual. Now that the project of assimilation is complete, we can, and we must reclaim what is ours, and take our wisdom to make our lives and our world better. All of this belongs to you – now take that football and run with it.

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.


Perhaps one of the greatest and best-known stories in the Talmud (found in tractate Bava Metzia 59b) is that of the Tanur Shel Akhnai, the oven of Akhnai. It’s about an argument that some rabbis are having about whether the Tanur shel Akhnai is kosher. The halakhic particulars of the oven do not matter, but what does matter is that one rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, believes the oven is kosher, and so, apparently does God. But all the other rabbis disagree.

On that day, R. Eliezer answered all the answers on Earth (i.e. the halakhic objections) and they did not accept it from him. He said, “If the law is as I say, that carob tree will prove it”; the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. 
The other rabbis said: “We do not allow proof from a carob tree.” 
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, the river will prove it”; the river flowed in reverse direction.
They said: “We do not allow proof from a river.”…
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, a voice from Heaven will prove it”; a heavenly voice [i.e. God’s] said, “Why do you disagree with R. Eliezer, who is correct in every way?” 
R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said, “Lo bashamayim hi.” “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12)…
R. Natan met Eliyahu haNavi and said to him, “What did the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One do?” Eliyahu said to him: “God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.” 

What does this story teach us? For one thing, that the tradition is ours. We received some initial, Divine communications, however they came down to us, and thereafter, we took the tradition and made it our own. And ultimately, we make the tradition. It belongs to us.  We interpret it in each generation as we carry it.

It belongs to us because the tradition of Jewish learning and teaching across the ages is unique in the world. Our “religion” (and I use that in quotes because it is an inadequate term) is not only arcane rituals and mumbling ancient words in synagogue, but rather as much about the body of wisdom called “Torah,” which we continue to learn.

It belongs to us because we all understand and relate to the concept of God differently: some of us understand God as a law-giving being; some of us understand God as a force in nature that works in and around us; some of us understand God as the human imperative to do good for others in this world, and the theological palette is truly limitless. And all of these conceptions of God belong to us as well.

It belongs to us because there is no single right answer on virtually anything in Jewish life. There is no single way to be Jewish. There is no single, correct answer for most questions in Jewish law. We have no pope; there is no single commentator who has a monopoly on interpreting our tradition. Torah, our textual basis is flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of understandings. 

And how do we make it ours today? By re-interpreting once again. By taking the football and running with it.

By acting on the ways that our tradition brings us value today. Here are some examples:

Our tradition teaches us how to be a family: Dine together, particularly on Shabbat. Express gratitude together, with the words of our tradition as well as your own words. Come to Beth Shalom, where we have services and activities for the whole family.

Our tradition teaches us how to be good parents: Bless your children and hold them tight, like each of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs did. Guide them with the wisdom that our ancestors gave us. Teach them the values of derekh eretz / treating others with respect, hesed / acts of lovingkindness, and hakarat hatov / recognition of the good that we have been given. 

Our tradition teaches us how to be good citizens: Seek to understand the people around us; do not swindle or deceive others, do not curse the deaf or put obstacles in front of the blind; share our wisdom and our joy with our fellow human beings, and greet everybody with sever panim yafot / a pleasant face.

Our tradition teaches us how to be an authentic person: Act on the statement of the sage Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Our tradition teaches us how to maintain holiness in all our relationships: Remember that every person on this Earth has within them a spark of the Divine, a modicum of holiness. Never forget that. Strive to seek the holiness in each other in all your dealings, whether in business or in encounters with strangers or in matters of the heart.

And the ritual aspects of Judaism support all of those things. That is why we have them. That is why what we do in the Conservative movement is an excellent approach to being Jewish: we maintain our traditions while acknowledging that the world has changed and we must change incrementally along with it. 

Why do we do what we do?

Because tefillah / prayer gets us in touch with ourselves and sensitizes us to the world around us.

Because observing Shabbat allows us the physical and emotional space to let go of our anxiety and just live in the moment, not swept up in commerce or politics or work.

Because kashrut / the dietary laws remind us on a daily basis of our responsibility not to cross certain lines in God’s Creation. We were not given this world so we can abuse it. And not only that, but it’s worth remembering that what comes out of our mouths should be as pure as what goes in.

Because qehillah / community provides the framework of support that we all need, in times of grief and joy, mourning and depression and celebration and hanging out and schmoozing, and everything in-between. And all the more so in the past year, in the context of what happened a few blocks away from here on the 18th day of Heshvan in the past year. We were there for each other.

Because Talmud Torah / Jewish learning teaches us that all of these things are found on the Jewish bookshelf in abundance. It’s all there, ladies and gentlemen. You just have to reach out and grab it.

I know. You’re thinking, there is so much to Judaism, and I’m so busy, and Beth Shalom offers so many portals into Jewish life. Where can I possibly start? 

Here’s an easy one: host a Shabbat dinner. Look, you’re going to be eating dinner on Friday night anyway – just make it a wee bit more special. I am happy to help you out with home rituals if you need. Invite guests. Enjoy! Then do it again. 

Then consider an online study group – Derekh, our targeted programming arm, is now coordinating them via Zoom. Or drop into Rabbi Jeremy’s Talmud class, or my Lunch and Learn. Stop by the monthly Shabbat morning Discussion service, where we get into the “whys” of what we do. The bar is not as high as you think.

***

Ladies and gentlemen, every time the Torah is put away, we sing, Ki leqah tov natati lakhem, torati al ta’azovu. For I [God] have given you a good heritage; do not forsake My Torah.

We sympathize with the young man in the Holy Grail, who only wants to sing. But we need to see the land, not just the curtains. And we need to dedicate ourselves to that property, the rich heritage of which we are the inheritors, even as we sing.

We take the tradition that our ancestors received at Mount Sinai, and we are still fashioning it to suit our needs today. We continue to make an ancient tradition new. We continue to make it ours. Lo bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens. It’s down here with us, it’s fourth down and three yards to go. Take the hand-off.

All of this belongs to you. As they say in the Talmud as an invitation into the text: Ta shema. Come and learn.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/30/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

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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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