Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

שאינו יודע לשאול: The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the Future – Yom Kippur Day, 5778

Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first three in the series:

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present

Kol Nidrei 5778: The Simple Child Sees Only the Past

arba'ah banim

***

Today, we take a look at the שאינו יודע לשאול / she’eino yodea lish’ol, the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. That child is our future.

I hosted my first Pesah seder when I was a sophomore in college. I wasn’t able to go home for sedarim that year, so I figured I would do it myself in my co-operative house at Cornell, where I lived. So, figuring I had to make it somewhat traditional, I got from my mother instructions on how to make certain Jewish foods. Tzimmes. Matzah-ball soup. And, although I was effectively vegetarian at that point, I learned how to cook a chicken for my friends.

The next time I hosted my own seder, I did it my way: fully vegetarian. No tzimmes. No matzah-ball soup. (Maybe there was gefilte fish.) I roasted a beet instead of a shank bone to put on the seder plate. My mother was shocked.

The Passover Seder Plate and New Traditions | The Kitchn

Our expression of Judaism has never ceased to change. Customs come and go. Musical tastes and styles change. What they consider traditional Jewish foods among the Persian Jews, for example, is quite different from what they ate in Poland on Rosh Hashanah, and that has everything to do with geographical separation of these communities, and the changes that took place within each.

And, as I have emphasized over these holidays, we are living in a time of great change here in the New World. So great, in fact, that many of us who are intimately tied to traditional Jewish institutions have not even figured out that it’s going on.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the Jewish world is reaching the growing number of Jews who are not connected to Jewish life or institutions. We all want to do this – Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Federations – but nobody really knows how. Chabad does it by bringing some Jewish rituals into the public square. We in the non-Orthodox world tend to reach out by putting together great programs and hoping that people show up. (We at Beth Shalom are trying to change this model with Derekh, our new programming area with five entry portals.) But we all want the disaffected Jews to find their way in.

Consider also that Jewish North America is quite different than it used to be.

  • Roughly 60% of Jews who have married in the last two decades have married somebody who is not Jewish;
  • We are no longer exclusively white and Ashkenazi (although of course calling Jews “white” is problematic);
  • We no longer have the expectation that a Jewish household consists of one woman, one man, and a couple of children;

Furthermore, Judaism is attracting new members – not those who wish to convert for marriage, but people also genuinely motivated by the appeal of our rich, ancient tradition. And not only that, but many of those of us who grew up with two Jewish parents and had a Jewish education are uncomfortable in traditional Jewish environments because we don’t know Hebrew, we haven’t learned Talmud, we can’t speed through the Amidah like the old-timers seem to do, or we simply find Jewish rituals baffling.

In short, we have many Jews and people married to Jews who are part of the community, but have not found their way in.

I heard about a new program recently, called Honeymoon Israel, which has come up with a new way of reaching out. The program was founded by Mike Wise, who was at one time the head of the Jewish Federation of Buffalo. He was in Pittsburgh back in the spring to discuss launching a cohort of Honeymoon Israel here. Let me explain how it works:

Basically, it’s a week-long trip to Israel at a heavily subsidized price (I think it’s $1800 per couple) for couples aged 25-40 that are within their first five years of marriage (or commitment – marriage is not actually required). At least one partner must be Jewish, and at least one partner must not have been on an organized trip to Israel (e.g. Birthright). Among the organizers’ stated goals are the following (from their website):

  • We particularly welcome participants of diverse backgrounds, including interfaith couples and LGBTQ couples.
  • One of our goals is to create a fulfilling, welcoming experience for people without strong Jewish connections. There are no rules about how “Jewish” you need to be to participate.

Most importantly, each of the trips builds a cohort from a particular metropolitan area. Thus, if you are from Denver, you will be traveling to Israel with 19 other couples from Denver. Same for New York, Atlanta, DC, and, as of next spring, Pittsburgh. That is an essential part of the experience, because when these couples return to their home cities, they have an instant cohort of other Jews with whom to gather for Shabbat dinner or a Passover seder. They have an entree into community.

You see, the goal of the trip is not necessarily connection to Israel, per se, but rather connection to Jews and Jewish life. Israel may be the destination, but this is more about the journey – the Jewish journey after their return. In fact, each couple is screened (there is a waiting list, particularly in the larger cities) and the ones with WEAKER Jewish connections are actually more likely to be selected for the trip. That pretty much guarantees a greater bang for the investors’ buck – reaching deeper into the ranks of disconnected young Jews and giving them a better chance to connect them.

So here is the fascinating part: the demographics of the 2000 or so who have participated include about 70% interfaith couples, and among the remaining 30% about half include a partner who converted to Judaism. About 9% are same-sex couples. As you may imagine, the participants run the gamut of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. This is an honest portrait of Jewish America. As such, the trip organizers work very hard to make sure that the language is inclusive, that there is no apparent agenda in terms of conversion or other religious pressure.

Now, there are some among you who are clearly thinking right now, “But rabbi, how can this possibly be a Jewish trip if (א) they are not requiring participants to put on tefillin every day and (ב) a third or more of the participants are not even Jewish?”

The early 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, raised a secular Jew, was on the verge of becoming Christian to further his academic career, but gave traditional Judaism a final shot before taking the plunge. He quickly discovered the richness of our tradition, and went on to write one of the best-known works of contemporary Jewish philosophy, The Star of Redemption, and to establish the Lehrhaus, the contemporary House of Jewish Learning, in Frankfurt. When asked later in life if he was putting on tefillin every day, his answer was, “Not yet.”

Franz Rosenzweig - Wikipedia

Franz Rosenzweig

Let me tell you this, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, we in the Conservative movement accept the traditional idea that halakhah / Jewish law applies to us, that Shabbat and kashrut/dietary laws and daily tefillah / prayer are an essential part of what we do as Jews.

But the approach to take when welcoming marginally-connected folks into the fold should be, “Not yet.” Don’t hit them over the head with dietary restrictions, with shutting down for Shabbat, with diving into Rashi and Rambam.

Rather, we should welcome them by building a network of other Jewish people with whom they can dip their toes in the water. But we need to warmly invite them in rather than push them away by setting the bar too high. We cannot make them feel inadequate for not knowing Hebrew or what Shemini Atzeret is. (Heck, I don’t really know what Shemini Atzeret is!)

Our goal, as contemporary Jews and people who appreciate the value of our tradition, is to open the doors. Just throw ‘em wide open and say, “Come on in! We value you. We want you as a part of our community. We don’t judge you for your sexuality or if your partner is not Jewish. Bring them along!”

Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, here is an area where we need to do a little bit of teshuvah. We have been judgmental. I am aware of a number of instances where people who do not match the expectations of others have been told unfriendly things. The tough ones are those who stuck around despite the judginess. The not-so-tough ones probably never came back.

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to turn our backs on anyone who walks into a synagogue, who seeks to connect with Jewish tradition. Yes, we still have an obligation to halakhah, to Jewish law. But nobody will learn this if they are turned away at the door or made to feel unwelcome.

One thing that Mike Wise mentioned is that in their interviews with potential couples for Honeymoon Israel, there were a lot of tears; many stories of rejection.

But the outcomes have been positive. Honeymoon Israel continues to track their participants afterwards, and have found overall greater levels of engagement with Jewish life, and a greater sense of shared involvement in Jewish life, even when one partner is not Jewish.

We are a synagogue – beit kenesset. A place of gathering. And we should strive to make sure that all are welcome here.

20160620_095719_resized

And for those of you who may be wondering, “But Rabbi, doesn’t the future of Judaism depend on making sure that our children only marry Jews?” I would respond by saying, “Actually, the future of Judaism depends on making sure that all who enter into our synagogues understand the richness of our tradition. The future of Judaism depends on sharing our wisdom and values with the world. The future of Judaism depends on offering a deep sense of connection and spirituality. The future of Judaism depends on supporting each other as a community. Perhaps most importantly, the future of Judaism depends on imparting all of this to our Jewish children and grandchildren. And if some non-Jewish partners get swept up in our enthusiasm for these things, then that is simply wonderful.”

Now of course we are still bound by halakhah, Jewish law in the Conservative movement, but I’ll tell you this: in 5777 I welcomed 15 new Jews into our berit, our covenant. Six of them were women married to Jewish men and their children. That is what we stand to gain by being open.

We need to look for those who do not know how to ask, and help them, gently, assuredly, to find their way in.

And certainly, I understand why many of us are concerned about opening up the tent. We are, as the philosopher Simon Rawidowicz declared in the title of his 1948 essay, “The Ever-Dying People,” on how Jews have always been anxious about their nascent disappearance.

Rabbi David Hartman addresses this issue in his book, A Heart of Many Rooms (Jewish Lights, 1999). He says the following:

“If we can rid ourselves of the obsession with certainty and finality – if we can internalize the spirit of the covenantal idea – then the uncertainties of the modern world will not deter us from renewing the vital interpretive processes that define our religious heritage.”

OK, so I know Rabbi Hartman’s prose is slightly impenetrable, but his point is that embedded in our berit, our covenant, is God’s keeping God’s word to us regardless of the uncertainty that modernity has brought us. It’s going to be OK. But if we want Judaism to continue, we have to be less focused on merely practicing Judaism and more interested in the meaning behind what we do, and making sure that we continue to interpret and redefine for today. Judaism did not stop moving forward in the shtetl of Eastern Europe. Ever since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE (remember from the first day of Rosh Hashanah?), Judaism has never ceased to grow and change; that is the source of its resilience. And we have to continue to let it move forward today, given the realities of where Jews are.

And where might we find the meaning that our tradition teaches? How might we engage those vital interpretive processes to which Rabbi Hartman refers? You could throw a dart onto just about any page on the Jewish bookshelf and hit something powerful.

The bottom line of Judaism, drawn from our historical texts, is treating each other well. About society. About the providing for the needy among us; about treating the refugee among us respectfully, about ensuring that the orphan, the widow, the homeless in our neighborhood are taken care of. All of that comes from the same books that speak about kashrut and Shabbat. We read in the haftarah today, the words of Isaiah (58:5-7), speaking of the fast day of Yom Kippur:

“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?…

No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free; …

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”

That is the Judaism we must teach to the she-eino yodea lish’ol, the child who does not know how to ask. That is the future we must create.

I spent a good deal of this sermon speaking about the mysterious “they” who are unconnected to Jewish life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all the ones who do not know how to ask, because we have been conditioned not to ask. We have been intimidated by the apparently high bar of knowledge it seems you must have to enter and learn from Jewish text.

That’s gotta stop. The Jewish future depends on your willingness to invest your mind and heart in our rich tradition, in the words that have enabled us to survive the last 2000 years, through persecution and oppression and genocide.

The challenge, moving forward, is to find your way in. And not just you who are here today, but the many more who are not. And we’re going to help you with that.

Over these holidays, we have built a bridge across the Jewish year, uniting the framework of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the Pesah theme of the Four Children. When we complete this High Holiday cycle this evening with Ne’ilah, you do not have to wait until Hanukkah or Pesah to reconnect; this thread of Jewish connection, of the Jewish operating system, is there for you all year long. Come back to Beth Shalom regularly; stay connected; watch for the Derekh programming coming your way. Make a little more room in your heart and mind for what we are doing now – what you put into this community will be paid back to you doubly in the satisfaction of creating a better you, and a better world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/30/17.)

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תם: The Simple Child Sees Only the Past – Kol Nidrei 5778

Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first two in the series:

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present

hashmal arba'ah banim

***

Throughout my life, there have always been two flags on either side of the bimah, or the Jewish  stage: the American flag and the Israeli flag. This is not an arrangement that derives from divided loyalties, but rather a double measure of pride: On the one side the pride of being a citizen of the nation that provided a safe haven for my family members who fled persecution in Czarist Russia and enabled them to thrive in an open, tolerant land, and on the other side the nation that continues to symbolize the dawn of our Jewish redemption, a beacon of hope and democracy in the Middle East and an eternal symbol of our tradition.

So let’s talk about the tam, the simple child: In the Pesah haggadah, what is the answer given to the simple child’s question of “Mah zot?” What is this?

בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

It was with a mighty arm that God took us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)

The answer given to the simple child dwells only on the past. No complexity: we were slaves, and then we were free. Only history; no present or future.

Although our past is essential to who we are today, we cannot be content to be the simple child, to dwell only on the past. That cannot be us. Let me explain.

What does the past look like? Well, I think it’s different depending on how many years you have been on this earth.

If you are over a certain age, you might see our history of persecution drawn in relief; you might remember the Shoah and its aftermath; you might recall that Jewish identity in the middle of the 20th century went hand-in-hand with remembering the Holocaust, and how the sympathy of the world in the late ‘40s contributed to the creation of the State of Israel (Pew Study 2013: 73% of Jews said that “Remembering the Holocaust” is essential to what it means to be Jewish, more than any other feature of Jewish life). You may also be aware of the arc of upward mobility of American Jews, and in particular the pattern of those who remained culturally Jewish but increasingly looked to religious leaders to be their proxy in spiritual matters.

Those of you who are younger than I am (I am grateful to have walked this earth for 47 very complicated years) might have a different perspective on the past. You grew up in America with no barriers to entering wider society. Anti-Semitism has not seemed particularly relevant, at least until the last year, with the rise of the alt-right. You have never lived in a world without a strong, resilient State of Israel. You may even be increasingly disappointed that Israel may not be the or lagoyim / the light unto the nations that we expect her to be. Your relationship to Judaism is far less connected to institutions, and more do-it-yourself.

So how do we move forward together from this point, as one people who are drawn to two flags?

We cannot be the simple child, only replaying and living in the past. Rather, we have to acknowledge the past and embrace the future. That is, we must embrace the unknown.

 

100 Years of Balfour

Let’s consider Israel.

This is a fascinating year with respect to Israeli history, because we are commemorating two anniversaries this year. On November 2, 1917, the same year that Beth Shalom was established, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated the following:

“His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.”

It was a major victory for the political Zionists who had been working with the Brits to secure a Jewish state, with the goal of fulfilling hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years.

Remember on Rosh Hashanah, when we spoke about the Romans destroying the Second Temple in 70 CE?  From that point on, that region was controlled by one empire or another.

Successive waves of immigration, starting in the 1860s, had brought tens of thousands of pioneers to the land, so that by 1917 there were already a good number of Jewish pioneers living in Palestine and building the new home for the Jews. But they had not yet received any assurance from any major player that a new Jewish state was even remotely possible. They were working the fields, growing Jaffa oranges, and meditating on the words of Theodor Herzl: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you desire it, it is not a fantasy.

With the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I, the land that the Romans had labeled Palestine now lay in British hands. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, then president of the British Zionist Federation, worked quickly with British politicians, including Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (the one who wrote the famous Declaration), to set the foundation for a new political entity in the region. (Dr. Weizmann went on not only to found the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, but also to become the State of Israel’s first president.)

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Arthur Balfour - Apr. 13, 1925 ...

The Balfour Declaration paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Herzl’s desire became a reality; the Jewish dream of being am hofshi be’artzeinu, a free people in our land, had taken a substantial leap forward. (BTW, the British government reinforced its support for the Balfour Declaration in April of this year.)

Fast forward 50 years after Balfour, to June of 1967. The State of Israel, 19 years old and only tenuously holding on to her tiny piece of land,  She pre-emptively attacked her Arab neighbors, who were busy amassing troops to attack. In what came to be known as the Six Day War, Israel captured not only the Old City of Jerusalem, reuniting the city that had been divided for 19 years, but all the remaining territory of the historical Palestine, plus the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights, effectively tripling its area. The world, including Diaspora Jewry, woke up to the fact that Israel was here to stay.

But the heady victory of the Six Day War not only secured Israel’s future and guaranteed her ongoing stability, it also set up fifty years of political complexity on the ground. Not only was she still technically at war with the entire Arab world, but now also in control of an additional 1 million Arabs, who had been building a national identity in resistance to Egyptian and Jordanian control, and who were certainly not grateful to their new landlords. It was only five years later that the Palestinian Black September terrorist operation killed 11 Israelis in Munich, opened up Israelis to ongoing terror at home and abroad.

Herzl and Weizmann and Balfour and Ben Gurion did not anticipate that we would be in the place that we are today: a world in which the intractable challenges of creating safety, security, and peace in the Middle East have cost the region nearly 100,000 lives and, by one estimate, $13 trillion dollars.

So while we continue to celebrate the past, to revel in nearly 70 years of the state of Israel, we also have to be realistic about the future. Many of you know that I am an incurable optimist, and optimists are especially rare right now.

I am also a proud Zionist, one who is committed to an Israel that continues to be strong and democratic. And I am also the father of an Israeli 11th-grader, a kibbutznik who is facing his bagruyot (the high school matriculation exams) with greater anxiety.

But I also believe in talking, in bringing the relevant parties back to the negotiating table. I wish I had the answers.  I don’t know how to bring about peace and security for Israel. But I do know that the status quo is not sustainable, that the arsenals of Hezbullah and Hamas continue to grow, that the next time rockets fly from Gaza they will reach my son’s kibbutz, and that the only way things will change is by looking to the future rather than the past.

We cannot simply look back and admire the string of successes of the last 100 years. Even if we leave aside the question of a Palestinian state or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran: Israel has serious challenges within, among them many citizens living in poverty, the always growing divide between secular and religious Jews, the politically fractious nature of Israeli politics, and of course the current government’s willingness to throw non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry under a bus for political purposes.

Those of you who heard my Hamilton impression on the first day of Rosh Hashanah may be relieved that I will not be rapping again. Nonetheless, Washington’s advice to Hamilton from the Broadway show comes back to me here: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing is harder.”

Embracing the future means that we have to keep talking, keep facing all of the serious challenges before us, and look forward.

 

American Jewish Experience: Decline of “Ethnicity”

But Israel is only one of the flags of my identity; the other flag paints my Magen David in red, white, and blue.

The landscape of American Judaism has changed dramatically since this congregation formed in 1917 as the first Jewish congregation established in Squirrel Hill. And that has everything to do with what you might call a decline in a distinct Jewish “ethnicity” among American Jews.

It has often been said that the Jews are like everyone else, only more so. And today, that is more true than it has ever been!

The world of our parents and grandparents was one of exclusion from the wider society. Living apart from the Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles was expected in the old country; when our forebears immigrated to this country many of them maintained their distinct dress, language, foods, songs, and of course religious rituals for a generation or so.

But my grandmother, who was 8 years old when she came to Boston in 1921 from the province of Volhynia in the Ukraine, did not want to be a “greenhorn.” She refused to speak Yiddish. She soon learned that she loved to eat lobster and clams, like so many other Bostonians. She wasn’t so interested in Jewish life. And so she, like many other immigrants, began to shed the ethnic attributes of the old world.

Nearly a century later, where are we as modern Jews? We speak the same language, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and hold the same jobs as our gentile neighbors. And, perhaps most significantly, they don’t mind socializing with, and even marrying us. So where does that leave our Jewish identity?

Much of what we think of as Judaism is highly connected to Jewish ethnicity. And now that the ethnicity is mostly gone, the practices associated with Judaism seem, for many, irrelevant.

Today, while our Shabbat morning services are full and lively, we occasionally struggle on weekday and even Shabbat evenings to make a minyan of ten people. Only reluctantly can we get members of the congregation, even those who know and love tefillah, to come on a regular basis to help us make a minyan, a quorum of ten. Even more troubling to me is the idea that the weekday service is there only for people to say kaddish, memorial prayers for their deceased loved ones. I am fairly certain that’s not the original idea of daily tefillah / prayer.

Meanwhile, from where I stand, the number of younger people in our orbit who derive meaning in services seems to decline.

We are in a totally different place today from when this congregation began; the Jews have a completely different view of themselves. We do not necessarily need a social club of our own, since we are welcome everywhere. We do not need a place where people can schmooze or kibitz.

We cannot operate a synagogue based on the models of the past. We cannot only look backward with nostalgia. That is what the simple child does.

Instead, we have to take what we have and move forward. And what we have is the richness of accumulated Jewish wisdom. We have the words of the Torah, which tell us to leave a portion of what we reap in life to those in need. We have the words of the Talmud, which speak of the essential obligation of visiting those who are ill, of performing deeds of lovingkindness, of making peace between people. We have the words of philosophy, which teach us to find the meaning in our concrete, scientific world. We have the words of tefillah, of prayer, which bring us humility and compassion as we reach within ourselves and out to the Divine. We have the ongoing inspiration that is the State of Israel and our connection to it. We have all of these things, even if we do not speak Yiddish or eat gefilte fish.

Sea Breeze Fish Market in Plano Offers Classes, House Made ...

All of that has already been uncoupled from the trappings of ethnicity. But we still need a synagogue, because this is the house that keeps all those things alive. This is the place where we teach them, where we live them. It has been observed that while Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish, today they come to BE Jewish.

Ladies and gentlemen, this particular moment, 100 years after the establishment of Congregation Beth Shalom and 100 years since Lord Balfour set in motion the creation of the State of Israel, we are at a critical juncture. We need to continue to be here as a community, as a synagogue, offering guidance and inspiration and community and connection and qedushah / holiness. We need to continue, as our mission statement says, enriching lives through community, lifelong learning, and spiritual growth.

And we need Israel to be there as or lagoyim, that inspirational light unto the nations, a beacon for Diaspora Jews and for the rest of the world.

And so that’s why we have to think to the future. That’s why we cannot be like the simple child. We cannot merely think wistfully about the past, and expect that the 20th century version of Beth Shalom will always be relevant. We have to look forward. We have to think outside the box. We have to find ways to connect with people that are new and powerful.

And that’s why I am counting on all of you.

Many of us in the room know that this is the only night of the year on which one wears a tallit, a prayer shawl. Traditionally, the tallit is worn only during the day.

It is customary to wear a tallit in the evening on Yom Kippur because our prayer never stops; even though we go home and sleep. We don’t eat, and we deny ourselves a range of physical pleasures. It is as though on this day we never stop pleading with God for forgiveness.

In the spirit of the full 25 hours of kavvanah / intention of Yom Kippur, when you go home tonight, take that one step further. Rather than fantasizing about breaking the fast tomorrow evening, take some time to think about what it is that will make you put more time and energy and resources into building our future together.

Do not think that because you cannot read Hebrew at light speed you are not capable of contributing to the future of Judaism. Do not think that if you do not know Maimonides from Mendelsohn you are unworthy of creating the Jewish future. On the contrary: I’d make the argument that this would make you uniquely qualified to participate in the conversation. If being Jewish matters to you but you do not know exactly how or why, then you are perfectly positioned to help us envision our community for the next 100 years.

I hope you, unlike the tam, the simple child, will look to the future. You chose to be here tonight.  Make the decision to be here next week.  Invest in the future of this community with integrity and pride.  And please don’t just come to me with, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that you should do.” Rather, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that I want to do, and I’m willing to help make it happen.” Because our sustainability depends on your willingness to partner with this community in building together.

To read the final installment in the series, The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the Future, please click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, evening of Kol Nidrei, 9/29/17.)

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4 Whys #4: Why Do We Need Torah? – Yom Kippur 5777

As you surely know by now, this is the fourth and final sermon on the topic of “Why?” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we covered, “Why be Jewish?” On the second day, “Why do we need the mitzvot, and Shabbat in particular?” Last night, we discussed why we need Congregation Beth Shalom.

Today’s why is, “Why do we need Torah?” Why do we need to learn the words of our ancient tradition, our stories, our customs and principles and values and laws?

***

I recently heard a podcast that positively blew my mind. It was on Radiolab, which is an NPR program about ideas, often featuring scientific subjects.

The idea featured in this particular episode is about inter-connectedness, about networks, but not how we usually think of them. It was uncovered primarily by a professor of forestry from University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, whose research has demonstrated, effectively, that trees are networked with each other through something called a mycorrhizal network, and that this network helps the trees support each other.

The way it works is as follows: in the soil, there are tiny, nearly invisible tubes called mycorrhiza, which are parts of various kinds of mushrooms. Fungi. There can be miles of these tubes in a pinch of soil. The tubes affix themselves to the roots of trees, and engage in a kind of exchange with them: the tree provides sugar to the mushrooms, and the mushrooms provide minerals to the tree.

Brain Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the example of an ideal leaf The Fungi ...

Note to plant pathologists: yes, I know this is not the kind of fungus we’re talking about here. But it’s a pretty photo nonetheless, don’t you think?

OK so far? It’s even better than that.

Not only is there an exchange between the fungi and the tree, but the fungi, which are connected to many of the other trees nearby, actually share nutrients through the network between trees. And the trees support each other – when one tree needs more nutrients, the other trees will, with the help of the network, send them. When there is a shortage of one type of nutrient, the mycorrhizal network will hoard that nutrient and dole out to the neediest trees. The network also ropes in the assistance of other creatures – bacteria and insects – to help maintain the whole system.

It’s almost as though the forest is “thinking,” like some kind of huge plant brain; strategizing, sharing, supporting.

What is truly revelatory and beautiful about this is that it seems that there is no such thing as a lone tree. Each tree is linked into the whole system. Prior to discovering the network, Dr. Simard had noticed that when you pulled out one tree, sometimes another nearby tree of a different species would die, clearly a result of upsetting the balance in the network.

So why am I telling you this?

When I heard this story, my mind immediately went to us, the Jews, and how we are linked together.

When you think about it, it’s downright unbelievable that we are still here. I mentioned this briefly on Rosh Hashanah – we outlasted the great empires that ruled Israel, that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, that dispersed us all over the world. We have long since bid goodbye and good riddance to the Babylonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Russian czars, the Fascist regimes of the middle of the 20th century.

What has kept us alive? I would like to propose that our metaphorical mycorrhizal network, the invisible, powerful connection that has maintained our network and supported us is Torah. Not THE Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, but “Torah,” without any definite or indefinite article. It is a much more comprehensive term. Torah is what flows from THE Torah.

It refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf.  Torah obviously begins with the Torah, which we read through each year. But that is just the beginning – Torah in its greater sense is all of our collected learning, including the rest of the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – the entire Hebrew Bible), and it flows through the collected network of rabbinic texts which make up the Jewish bookshelf: the Talmud, commentaries and supercommentaries on the Torah, midrashim, halakhic codes (Jewish law), mussar (ethical commentaries), Hasidic stories, kabbalistic literature, the words of tefillah (prayer), Jewish music and artistic interpretation, and on and on.

“Torah” in its greater sense is the ongoing project of two thousand years of intellectual development: debating the meaning of our ancient texts across generations, continents, and centuries; it is the thread that connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to our families, to Israel, to our people.

Torah (in its greater sense) is what holds us all together. It is our unseen, yet essential network. None of us are individual trees; we are the Jewish forest, connected by a textual, mycorrhyizal network, sharing and distributing all of that wisdom, ancient and modern.

What holds us together is words. Centuries ago, we were dubbed by the Muslim world as Ahl al-Kittab, the People of the Book. But we took that moniker proudly as our own: we are Am haSefer.

“Ours is not a bloodline,” write Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book, Jews and Words, “but a textline.” What connects us from generation to generation is not Hanukkah candles or matzah or even Yom Kippur. It is not our being an extended cousins’ club. It is not mah-jongg, or eating Chinese food on Christmas. It is our collected body of wisdom. What connects Moshe (Rabbeinu) on Mt. Sinai to Moshe (Maimonides) in 12th century Cairo to Moshe (Mendelssohn) in 18th century Berlin is that thread of interpretation that makes the matzah come alive for us today. Without the text, it’s just a lousy, unsalted cracker.

In what is one of the best-known stories found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b-57a), Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai effectively launches rabbinic Judaism by having his students smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin.

The year is 69 CE. The Jews have been revolting against the Romans for a few years, trying to preserve their way of life, their land, and particularly their Temple, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, wherein they have been sacrificing animals and produce to God for nearly a thousand years. The Romans, led by Vespasian (who is not yet the Roman Emperor), have taken Israel by force, and have surrounded Jerusalem.

After having been smuggled out as a corpse, Rabban Yohanan arrives at Roman military headquarters, and pops out of the coffin in front of Vespasian. A lively debate ensues in which the Romans exhibit their inclination to live by the sword, and Rabban Yohanan counters with proto-rabbinic wisdom: “All neighbors who do harm to others find that they have done it to themselves,” he says. Vespasian understands that he is in the presence of a very wise man.

Then something happens that changes the course of Jewish history.

Rabban Yohanan has predicted that Vespasian will soon be the emperor, and sure enough, while they are speaking, a messenger arrives to crown him as Caesar. Vespasian says to him, “I am now returning to Rome, and will send somebody else to take my place. You may, however, make one request of me, and I will grant it.”

Rabban Yohanan says, “Give me Yavneh and all its sages.” That is, give me a little, out-of-the-way, sleepy seaside town where I can assemble a crack team of rabbis to figure out what comes next in Jewish life.

He did not say, give me back Jerusalem. He did not say, just let me keep the Temple and let the Kohanim continue making sacrifices for the Jews.

He said, give me space to start writing the first chapter in the textline. I need a forest where I can plant some fungi.

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Sometimes, we have to conquer our fears of the future and embrace change. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the rabbis of Yavneh fashioned from the rubble of the Roman destruction not a Third Temple, but rather what we know today as Judaism. Thanks to Rabban Yohanan and his scholars, Judaism was re-invented. We, the Jews underwent a paradigm shift, eliminating the barbaric rituals of animal sacrifice and replacing it with the meditations of our hearts. This was the biggest historical turn for our people since leaving slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah, 1300 years prior.

We all need to be a little bit more like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: facing down our fears, letting go of what was, and embracing the future. That’s why I spoke last night about re-envisioning this synagogue, about the vision of Beth Shalom as a center of contemporary Jewish life and learning for the whole region.

And that brings me back to our mycorrhizal network, about our need for Torah, about our need for connection to each other through our ancient wisdom. But first, a collective “Al het.”

Al het shehatanu lefanakha. For the sin we have sinned against you God, by practicing Judaism without seeking meaning within it.

If there is a bottom line to everything that I have said over the past ten days, it is that Judaism’s future depends on our willingness to let it bring meaning to our lives.

Why are we like so many individual trees, not connected to the network? Because we have failed as a community to look to our textual heritage. Because we have assumed that being Jewish meant lighting Hanukkah candles and saying kaddish and “having a bar mitzvah,” without making any serious effort to connect these things to who we are, how we live, what we feel. Because Judaism loves to tell us more about how to do something rather than why.

The key to the Jewish future is the mycorrhizal network of Torah. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai pulled off a nervy stunt to get an audience with Vespasian so he could ask, not for ritual, not for ancient sacrifices, NOT EVEN FOR JERUSALEM, but for Torah.

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As disconnected trees, we will die. As trees whose roots intertwine with the tiny underground tubes, connecting us to our Etz Hayyim, our tree of life, we will thrive.

That’s why we are still here. That’s what makes us a community, a qehillah, brought together for a holy purpose, sustained and nourished by the words of Torah, thousands of years of collected knowledge that is still fresh and fragrant today.

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Why have I devoted these four sermons, nearly 100 minutes of talking, over 10,000 words, to answering the question of “Why?”

I told you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that these are essential questions that we must be asking if we want there to be a future to progressive Judaism.

But more importantly, I want to make you care. I want you to understand the value of what we have inherited. I want you to ask why, and then go seek out the answer. And sometimes, all it takes to appreciate what we do as Jews is a new take, a fresh perspective, a captivating insight.

And beyond that, we should never do anything merely because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” That answer is insufficient for me, and it will not further the cause of connecting Jews with Judaism.

We need to ask “Why?” more. And we need to dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to find the answers.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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The Question of the Moment

It’s hard to believe that 5776 has already flown away from us, and we are headed into 5777, which will be the only Hebrew year in our lifetimes containing three identical digits in a row (of course, this does not seem so special only 17 years after 1999).

You may recall that our theme for the High Holidays last year was Connection, Community, and Kedushah (holiness), and much of what we have accomplished over the last year has focused on those things: parlor meetings, the monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, the new pre-bar/bat mitzvah Family Retreat, the launching of Beth Shalom’s new mission statement, beginning to plan our Centennial celebration, Pride Shabbat, the inauguration of a task force to discuss being more welcoming to interfaith families, and so forth.

This year, the theme for High Holidays is “Why?” Why be Jewish? Why Beth Shalom? Why engage with Jewish living? Why learn the ancient writings that fill the Jewish bookshelf? For the vast majority of us who were born Jewish, we have never thought too deeply about why – we have merely been Jewish by default, and done Jewish things because that is how we were raised. But the contemporary challenge to religion requires that we think more pro-actively about why we do what we do, because if we cannot answer those questions for ourselves, what is the chance that our children will continue to value the rich, meaningful legacy that we pass on to them?

In order to get yourself in the mood for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m going to suggest the following. Spend a few moments answering the following questions for yourself:

  1. What is the most meaningful Jewish thing that I do? Why do I continue to do it?
  2. What is my most powerful Jewish memory?
  3. What is one area of Jewish life and learning that I wish I knew more about?
  4. Why does the world need non-Orthodox Judaism?
  5. What value does Congregation Beth Shalom bring to my life and my community?

If you are not sure how to answer any of these questions, perhaps you will gain some perspective this year during the High Holidays. Let’s hope that we will all be open in 5777 to gain a greater understanding of the tremendous value and meaning in our customs, our rituals, our rich textual tradition.

And I am going to suggest one more thing again this year for services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Wear white clothing to the synagogue on these days. It is traditional to wear a white kittel to acknowledge our need to seek purity. But white can also suggest the search for meaning, the openness to finding meaning in what we do as Jews, not just on the High Holidays, but throughout the year. You don’t need a kittel, but you can simply wear white, and be open.

Shanah tovah!

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Heart and Mind Balance: Changing Our Understanding of the Synagogue – Yom Kippur Day, 5776

There is a wonderful story about the rabbi who is greeting congregants after services on Yom Kippur. He sees Mr. Goldstein, and realizes that he has not seen him for a full year.

Hayyim,” says the rabbi, “Are you in the army of God?”

“Of course, Rabbi,” says Mr. Goldstein.

“Then how come I only see you once a year?”

Mr. Goldstein leans in close and whispers, “Rabbi, I’m in the secret service!”

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There is a verse from the Torah that we customarily say every time we enter a synagogue, and many of us are familiar with it (Numbers 24:5):

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!

The words come from the mouth of the non-Israelite prophet Bil’am, sent by the Moabite king Balaq to curse the Israelites. What comes from his mouth, however, are not curses, but rather blessings. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) interpret this line to speak of the two poles of Jewish life. Bil’am’s blessing says that the Jews will always have batei kenesset (synagogues: places where Jews have traditionally prayed) and batei midrash (traditional study halls, where Jews have learned the ancient words of our tradition). They read ohalekha = your tents = synagogues and mishkenotekha = your dwelling places = batei midrash.

That’s why Mah Tovu is the first thing in the siddur. That’s why we say it when we enter a synagogue, to recall that even as we lost the Temple in Jerusalem and were exiled and faced so many challenges in Diaspora, we could always count on this blessing.

Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, saw this verse as the key to Jewish survival throughout the centuries. We are drawn near to our tradition by Bil’am’s blessing: The synagogue speaks to the heart and the beit midrash speaks to the mind. These two places are the essential points of qesher / connection in Jewish life. They have kept us Jewish for two thousand years after we should have disappeared, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. That is why we need both. We need to engage both the heart and mind.

Before we go any further, however, I just have to make sure we all know what I mean by beit midrash. Both the beit kenesset and the beit midrash emerged in antiquity, but they developed separately and are identified in the Talmud as separate places. We all know the synagogue. But most contemporary Jews, and probably the vast majority of Jews throughout history, have not been in a beit midrash.

Picture a bunch of Jews seated around tables, heavy books open in front of them, reading, discussing, or indeed arguing, mostly in pairs, around the room. The walls are lined with books – sets of the Talmud, rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, collections of midrash, texts and translations, dictionaries, the tools of textual study. Some are deep in thought. Some sway in concentration. Some schmooze with each other and laugh. That’s a traditional beit midrash.

You may recall that I have spoken over these holidays now for three times about the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, and qedushah, also known as connection, community, and holiness. But today I’d like to add something to it: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov. Heart and mind.

A synagogue is a place where we make connections with each other and with God, where we build and engage with our community, and where we seek qedushah, holiness and holy moments. However, it is not meant to be only a beit kenesset, a place of gathering for prayer, but it should also serve as a beit midrash, a place of learning. The needs of the contemporary Jewish world require the synagogue to be both.

The synagogue is meant to be a place where we express emotion, of openness, of expressing our vulnerability. I have literally held the hands of fellow Jews as they cried in synagogue, as they grieved for lost loved ones, as they took an inventory of their lives and came up wanting. That’s what this place is for. It’s about love and yearning, as I spoke about last night. It’s about the ritual framework that supports us in our times of need, and helps us achieve exultant highs in our times of joy.

heartWe don’t have too many spaces like this in our society any more. Those of you who heard me speak in August about the future of the Conservative movement might recall that I mentioned the sociologist Robert Putnam, who documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam points to the disappearance of social societies (the Elks, the Shriners, Hadassah) and bridge clubs and bowling leagues and even couples dining out together to show that we have less and less social capital, that is, connections with each other, than we did in the middle of the 20th century. This is not healthy for a whole bunch of reasons.

But Putnam does point out that houses of worship still offer social capital in spades. You meet people at services, you kibbitz at kiddush, you celebrate together and grieve together and talk and learn and sing in synagogue.

This building makes our world a better place, and it functions by helping us connect to our emotions. The synagogue resides in the heart.

But the beit midrash is all about the mind. It’s about logic and deduction, about puzzling through ancient language and situations that are as resonant today as they were two millennia ago, because we continue to apply them to how we live here and now. It is a place where we connect to each other through the shared joy of the quintessentially Jewish pursuit of textual learning, and we unlock the qedushah found within the words of our ancient scholars. As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”

mindLearning the words of our tradition is, according to the Mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1), the highest mitzvah in Jewish life. Higher than keeping Shabbat and kashrut. Much more important than fasting on Yom Kippur. That is why the beit midrash is so essential to Jewish life. Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah, says the Mishnah, weighs more than all of the other mitzvot combined.

And so our tents and our dwelling places, the beit kenesset and the beit midrash, are the places that connect us to each other and to God. These are the places where connection, community, and qedushah are quite literally fashioned.

And today, for us, they have to be the same building. This synagogue must be for the heart and the mind. It must be a beit kenesset and a beit midrash, because the Jewish world needs both.

But it took me a while to figure that out.

***

More than eight years ago, when I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary as a newly-minted rabbi, I was under the impression that the most important thing for a rabbi to exercise was the mind. In the seven years that I spent there, I put a sizeable spike on my knowledge curve in the area of Torah, halakhah, Jewish history, ritual, critical approaches to the Tanakh, etc. All very heady stuff, gleaned from old, dusty books.

It took me several years thereafter to understand that while it is impressive to appeal to the mind, the appeal to the heart is much more valuable, much more welcome, and much more likely to inspire people (i.e. you). I can give the most sophisticated, deep, self-impressed reading of Torah verses, and it might be greeted with a shrug at kiddush. But I have found that when I demonstrate that the Torah can be interpreted to help us live better lives as Jews and as people, I find that the message is far more likely to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

So, for example, it seems that when thinking about Yom Kippur, we usually consider its mechanical aspects: fasting for no less than 25 hours, not bathing, repenting by reciting the standard language in the mahzor with the traditional melodies, confessing our sins, striking our hearts, blowing the shofar at 7:58 PM, and so forth.

But we should also consider that this is a time to acknowledge that we are broken, and that we are yearning for wholeness. Nobody here among us is perfect; we all come to Yom Kippur with something in our hearts that needs to be cleansed. As I said last night, we yearn for closeness with God, for mending our relationships, for spiritual purity. These are ideas which flow from the heart.

Consider this for a moment: the public confessional prayers, the Viddui, are recited 12 times over the course of this day. Six times in the silent Amidah, wherein we confess our sins to ourselves, and six times out loud, in public, led by the sheliah tzibbur / the congregational emissary who leads us in prayer. And every single time it is in first person plural: we have transgressed, we have cheated, we have stolen; for the sins we have sinned against You by qalut rosh / superficiality, or by qashyut oref / being stiff-necked, and so forth.

Think about that: we are standing in public, confessing to a whole litany of deplorable behaviors. Doesn’t matter if we have done them or not. We are all stating, to ourselves AND out loud, that we are broken. How powerful is it that Jewish tradition asks us to do so! How therapeutic!

(There is a nice custom to go with this, by the way: we all know that we strike our chests. But something else you can do during the confessional is lean over a bit; hang your head in shame. We should not be proud of having transgressed. We should not be standing upright. We should be a little hunched over.)

That picture of Yom Kippur, going beyond the mechanics of the day to connect our tradition with how we live now, is an appeal to the heart. And that is far more attractive to all of us then the most well-executed midrashic analysis that is delivered entirely divorced from the realities of our lives. The Torah is meant to teach us lessons about how to live better, not to be analyzed dispassionately in slices arrayed on sterile glass slides.

And yet, it seems to me that what works best in the Jewish world is when the heart and mind are in balance. In parallel, just like in the verse: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

To uncover the love in Judaism, you have to dig deep into Jewish text. You have to go back to the mind.

When we study Torah, we acknowledge that there are shiv’im panim latorah, seventy faces to the Torah, that is, seventy ways (at least) of understanding every passage, every word, every story, every mitzvah, and so forth. (OK, so maybe not seventy, but that’s just rabbinic-speak for “a whole bunch.”)

There are many ways of understanding our foundational text, and the way we approach this text, referred to rabbinically as “Talmud Torah,” we must take as axiomatic the idea that no single approach is the lone correct understanding. Talmud Torah includes the seventy faces. And among those faces are those of the heart and those of the mind.

When we study Torah, we should not merely ask, “What does this mean?” but we should also ask, “What does this mean to us?” And this takes a whole lot more work. The standard commentators on the Torah that some of us know (Rashi, Ramban, ibn Ezra, etc.) usually try to resolve issues within the text by working through the challenging language. Midrash, stories written to fill in the gaps of the Torah, seeks to humanize the text by completing it. And Hasidic tales tend to go even further by seeking the personal angle – how might we learn from this to emulate the acts of piety and selflessness of which Hasidic lore often speaks.

There are many ways to find answers to the question of “What does this mean to us?” Talmud Torah for the modern audience has to hit us where we live: to answer questions like this:

  • What do I want my children to learn about life?
  • How do I make a difference in this world?
  • How do I balance my commitment to my family with my work obligations?
  • How do I improve myself?
  • Why is this world so much more complex than it used to be, and how do I navigate the complexity?

And so forth.

These are all essential questions that we might often overlook if they are not staring us in the face. And that’s why the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah. You can light all the Hanukkah candles you want; you can daven with passion while fasting on Yom Kippur; you can gorge yourself on matzah and sit in the Sukkah and make sure your boys are circumcized and your doorposts have mezuzot and on and on, but until you commit to learning the precious words of the Jewish bookshelf, you cannot fully appreciate the richness and value of our tradition. When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.

In an ideal synagogue, the one that we are building here at 5915 Beacon St., we will strike the proper balance between heart and mind. We will not only pray, ask for forgiveness, seek teshuvah / repentance, rejoice and mourn, but we will also learn the words of our tradition and what they mean to us. We will be both a beit kenesset and a beit midrash.

I have taken that journey from the mind to the heart and back again. And you can too. But it requires entering the Jewish study hall, that part of the synagogue devoted to lifelong Jewish learning. We will all have to dig deeper. You need both the heart and the mind to sustain that qesher, that connection with our tradition.

So – I know you’re waiting for this now – what’s the action item, Rabbi?

I would like you to seriously consider one simple question, a question that I hope will help you re-envision your entire understanding of Judaism and of the role of the synagogue. This is a kind of a self-test:

“How has your relationship with Judaism changed in the last ten years?” Judaism – the set of rituals and texts and customs that make up our tradition. Not the cultural trappings: the foods, the institutions, the cool Jewish sites you saw on vacation in Spain.

If you search very deeply and your answer is, “It hasn’t,” then we have some work to do, to engage your heart and mind. Give me a call, shoot me an email, message me on Facebook; I would love to meet up and talk about it.

If you can come up with a whole litany of things you have learned and practices you have adopted and books you have read and holy moments you have experienced, and ways you have applied values from our tradition to your life, then we still have some work to do, because Judaism is a lifetime of learning.

Talmud Torah keneged kulam. Keep learning, and asking “What does this mean to us?” It is high on my agenda here at Beth Shalom to move this congregation forward, and that will require a little more beit kenesset and beit midrash. Unlike Hayyim, who is in the “secret service,” I hope you will join me as we focus on both the heart and the mind, and we continue our collective journey in search of connection, community, and qedushah, holiness.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur, 9/23/15.)

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