Friday, April 3, 2015

Slavery is not an Ancient Abstraction - Pesah 5775

There is a certain amount of debate in the pages of Jewish commentary about a verse that appeared in yesterday’s Torah reading, Exodus 12:42:
לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַיהוָה, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַיהוָה, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם.
That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. (JPS translation)
I have also seen “leil shimmurim” translated as, “a night of watchfulness,” playing on the apparent connection to the simple form of the verb, lishmor, to guard or keep.*

The debate in interpretation is regarding the watchfulness. Who is being watchful? Is it, as Ibn Ezra suggests, that God was watching/guarding the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nisan, when the Angel of Death swept through, to see them depart safely? Or is it, as Ramban states, that the Israelites are to be watchful on this night when we commemorate our departure from Egypt, as we have done for the last two nights?

Our Etz Hayim commentary (p. 389), by the way, splits the difference: it is a night of vigil both for God and for us. Regardless, Pesah is unquestionably meant to be a holiday of awareness. Awareness of ourselves, of God, of our freedom, of spring. Pesah is about paying attention, about guarding, about being ready to act.

*****

I remember leading a seder at my home a few years back, and leading a discussion (yes, I lead discussions at home as well with my family - I am, after all, their rabbi. They pretend to listen and occasionally participate as well). We were talking about the passage that I think is the most essential line in the entire haggadah (After Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir'ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim.
In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt.
It is a direct quote from the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5), and the imperative to me seems clear: the whole point of Pesah is not to speak about the journey from slavery to freedom in the abstract, but rather to understand it as our current reality. We are all former slaves. We have all earned our freedom, with God’s help. And we must actively recall that redemption every day of our lives.

So there we were, talking about the import of this statement, when it suddenly occurred to me that we had, sitting at the table with us, a person who had actually been a slave. So I asked, has anybody here ever been a slave? And my father-in-law, Judy’s father, who spent seven months in a labor camp in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex, said yes. And that very moment was so powerful that no more questions were required. He had lived that very journey. He had survived the Exodus.


'After the Sale: Slaves going South' by Eyre Crowe (c.1853)

I mention this because slavery is not something that is only in the past. It has always existed, and still exists today. In fact, estimates vary widely, but despite the fact that it is illegal in every country in the world, there are between 20 million and 36 million slaves. That’s somewhere between the population of New York State and California. About three-quarters of them are located in India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. India alone has about 14 million slaves, around one percent of the population.

There are different types of slaves, among them bonded labor, where people take loans under the condition that they work off the debt, but are never successful in doing so; sexual slavery, including forced prostitution and the like; and child labor, which is the predominant category in India.

Now, you may make the case that challenging circumstances (war, economic hardship, and so forth) create slaves, and that is surely true. But this is what is more troubling is this: however slaves came to be enslaved, we keep them enslaved. Many of the products that we buy - food, clothing, electronics - have slaves involved somewhere along the production line. Just as the Nazis used my father-in-law and perhaps millions of others to keep their balance sheet in the black, so too do the economic engines of today’s global marketplace. You can read all about it on the Internet - simply type “contemporary slavery” into your favorite search engine. And it’s not just products, of course. The US State Department estimates that about 50,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked into the United States each year to be forced into prostitution.

So when we discuss slavery as free people around the seder table, we should be aware that it is not an ancient abstraction. Slavery is very real, and still an ongoing scourge. It is even in our midst. And hence we need to be watchful. We need to pay attention to where our money goes, who it benefits, and who it punishes.

OK, Rabbi, thanks for the bad news. Now what can we do?

First, be aware. On this holiday of awareness, when we decrease our joy by removing drops of wine from our cups while mentioning the ten plagues, when we only recite a partial Hallel to account for the suffering of the Egyptians, when we stay up late at the ready, when we make it a point to teach our children about freedom, we need to remind ourselves that there are oppressed people in horrible circumstances in the world, even as we recline as free people at the seder table. And we should know  how our spending habits affect the lives of others.

Second, act. The Torah exhorts us over and over to recall that we are slaves, and to behave accordingly. I counted these instances a few days ago: there are at least ten instances in the Torah where it says a variation on the following, “Do not oppress the stranger/poor/slave among you, because you were slaves in Egypt.”** And add to that the Torah’s imperative, also recurring in many places and forms, to care actively for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst. We read one such example in today’s Torah reading (Lev. 23:22 - identifies the mitzvot of Pe’ah / leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested, and Leqet / leaving gleanings for the poor). Our tradition requires us to act. And action can take the following forms:

  1. Donate to organizations that work to free slaves, end human trafficking, and work for human rights all over the world. Here are a few: (I can’t make any claim as to whether or not these are good charities)
It may be just a drop in the bucket, but every life that is reclaimed from slavery brings our own redemption one step closer. Think of it as a mitzvah in the category of piqquah nefesh, saving a life, which takes precedence over all other mitzvot.
  1. Consider buying “fair trade” products when possible. This is not necessarily a cure-all, but may have an impact, particularly if many of us do it. The most visible fair trade products of late are coffee and chocolate, but certification labels are now appearing on textiles and other products. Look for them. We have the potential to change the world merely by altering slightly our spending patterns.
  2. You may want to consider submitting a suggestion to the companies that supply the goods that keep us fed, clothed, and digitally connected. Some of the websites listed above allow you to do this directly from the website.

Our obligations in this season go beyond recalling the Exodus. Pesah is a festival of freedom for the entire world, but it is also a journey of awareness. Be watchful. Be aware. Take action.

Hag sameah.

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Sunday morning, 4/5/2015.)

* Back in cantorial school, they taught us a melody, a “mi-sinai” tune (not actually from Mt. Sinai, but so old that it might as well be) for the series of piyyutim that begin with “leil shimmurim,” recited on the first two nights of Pesah, inserted into ma’ariv service. I’ve never actually used that melody in a synagogue, and the piyyutim do not appear in our siddur, but they are still bouncing around in my head.

** The ones I found, using a concordance, were:
Exodus 22:20, 23:9
Leviticus 19:34
Deuteronomy 5:15, 10:19, 15:15, 16:12, 23:8, 24:18, 24:22

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why You Should Vote MERCAZ

As you know, I am strongly attached to the land, the people, and the State of Israel; last year I was there no less than four times. In my late 20s, I was so close to making aliyah that I was interviewing for full-time jobs in Israel. When I decided instead to go to cantorial school, and realized that there was no way to make a living in Israel as a hazzan, I opted to remain here in the Diaspora, although Judy and I are still keeping an eye out for that ideal retirement apartment in Tel Aviv.

As an American Jew, I can’t vote in Israeli elections, and the internal workings of Israeli politics are one degree removed from my immediate sphere of political awareness. However, Israel is different from every other nation in that we Jews who choose to live in Diaspora still have a voice in some of the operations of the ongoing endeavor of building the Jewish state. Our voice is the World Zionist Congress, which will convene next fall in Jerusalem, and the interests of the Conservative movement are represented by our party, MERCAZ (literally, “center”).


MERCA USA

First, a crash course on the World Zionist Congress: This is the same body that was first convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. There will be 500 delegates from around the world, and 145 of them will be sent from the United States. Any person that belongs to one of the member organizations of the WZO, and that includes the Conservative movement and hence Temple Israel, may vote. The last vote was held in 2010, and we were allotted 33 seats, as compared with 56 for the Reform movement and 35 for the Religious Zionist (Orthodox) slate. It is notable that Reform’s ARZA claims that Reform-affiliated programs in Israel received $4.3 million in World Zionist Organization funding in 2013, as a direct result of those 56 seats.

Second, why you should vote for MERCAZ: Our platform is available at votemercaz.org, but the major points include support for religious pluralism and freedom in Israel, ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, peace and security in Israel, environmental progress, and of course Masorti and Conservative-affiliated programs and institutions. These are all things that we stand for, in Israel and here in Great Neck, and as such it is imperative that we Conservative Jews turn out the vote.

Voting is through April 15th at votemercaz.org. It costs $10, but the potential return for Israel and the Conservative/Masorti movement is much more valuable. (Added bonus: TIGN member Marty Werber is 35th on the slate of delegates. If MERCAZ receives enough votes, he goes to Jerusalem in October to represent us.) If you need a paper ballot, please contact me at Temple Israel. I am a member of MERCAZ and have already voted. Have you?



~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, March 12, 2015.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Purim: An Opportunity to Lighten Up

Purim is, arguably, the only Jewish holiday with a built-in sense of humor. If the holidays gathered for a party, Tish’ah Be’Av would be sulking in a corner, Yom Kippur practicing self-denial in another room, and Purim would be a kibbitzing wise-guy, cracking one-liners and elbowing Pesah in the ribs. Not only do we dress in costume and behave raucously on Purim, but even the serious obligation of the day, the reading of Megillat Esther, is supposed to be rapid and funny. Some have the tradition of chanting the different characters’ lines in the story in silly voices. We fold the scroll like a letter, rather than respectfully rolling it. It is the holiday of anti-gravitas, a day of sheer silliness.

Purim 5775 at Temple Israel of Great Neck
And, as if to drive the point home, the climax of the story includes a line that mandates the tradition to lighten up on Purim. When Esther convinces Ahashverosh to issue an edict that the Jews may defend themselves, the response among the Jews is (Est. 8:16):
לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר
Layhudim hayetah orah vesimhah vesasson viyqar.
For the Jews there was light, happiness, joy, and honor.
This is a total reversal of where they had been - from mourning, sackcloth, ashes, and wailing to light, happiness, and joy. And these are things we all need a little more of. In fact, we invoke this line every Saturday night, year-round, as we bid goodbye to Shabbat during havdalah. Why? Because when Shabbat leaves us, we need a little lift, a reminder that although we return to work and the mundanity of the week, we carry a little light and joy with us.

Purim is, of course, the annual mother lode of joy. Megillat Esther, and really the entire holiday, remind us that we all run a regular deficit of joy and humor, and furthermore that we indeed have the capability of bringing those things into the world. Let this day of happiness and mirth remind us that we can bring those things to others every day, that we can share some of our own light, when we have a little extra to spare. Lighten up! It’s Adar.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Feb. 19, 2015.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Jewish Mission - Mishpatim 5775

When I was young, I did not think too heavily about personal meaning in my Jewish involvement. We were a family of shul-goers and Torah readers, and our Jewish experience was defined by driving the 20 miles back and forth to our synagogue in Pittsfield, MA several times a week for Hebrew school, for Shabbat morning services, and for other types of Jewish involvement. Being Jewish meant showing up; that was the essential means through which we identified.

For many of us who came of age in the 20th century, being Jewish was about joining a synagogue, spending holidays with family, marrying a member of the community, and trying to make it in the New World despite prevalent anti-Semitism. The desire to be connected to a community, to identify with a people and a faith, was what built great synagogues like this one. Identity was defined by membership, and institutions like this were as much about social life and status as about Judaism.

And, as has often been observed, the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so. Robert Putnam, the professor of public policy at Harvard, demonstrates over and over in his book, “Bowling Alone,” that the concept of membership and group participation as an essential part of our identity peaked in the middle of the 20th century and has been on the decline since.

Today, membership is not enough to sustain identity for most people. As I have said here before, the data show that the fastest-growing religion in America is “None.” (Note: not “nun.”) Americans are far more isolated from one another, and often alienated from faith and ethnic groups. We are, as Putnam suggests, bowling alone. The “social capital” that Putnam describes as the glue that held our society together has largely eroded.

The greatest philosophical challenge of our time, and indeed the challenge facing most faith communities, is meaning. Our sense of how we derive meaning from our lives has changed tremendously.




Today, everything is individualized. It’s not about “us.” It’s all about “I” and my iPhone. (This is somewhat i-ronic, since most of us are today carrying devices that connect us into one central data location, where we are little more than bits of information.) The task, therefore, of the American synagogue is to create meaning on a personal basis for all who enter, to attempt to reach the individual heart and soul of everyone in its orbit.

So how exactly do we do this? The Torah gives us a few hints. Today in Parashat Mishpatim, we read the following (Ex. 22:20-21):
וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.  כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן.  
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
And there are many other such formulations. Over and over, the Torah exhorts us to pursue acts of hesed, of lovingkindness - for the sojourner among you, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the worker who depends on his daily wages, and so forth.

(BTW, the word “ger,” which in modern Hebrew means a convert to Judaism, is better understood traditionally not as a convert, but as a non-Israelite who lives among Israelites. That is, a ger is a stranger, one without family connections or property, and therefore presence in the margins of society.)

We understand and appreciate the plight of those in need, in all their forms of need, because we came from a needy place. We were subjected to the very worst treatment that humans can concoct. We were slaves, and we emerged from slavery as a nation.

The verse is crying out to us: slavery symbolizes what it means to be oppressed, disenfranchised, downtrodden. We understand this. And the Torah reminds us of this many times; I have not actually counted the number of times that this occurs, but an anecdote floating around out there says that it’s somewhere in thirties. Regardless, it’s far more than the number of times that we are commanded to keep Shabbat or kashrut. (And as you may know, there is no explicit Torah commandment to pray three times daily, or to read the Torah, to recite Qiddush on Friday night, etc. That is another indicator of how important hesed is, relative to those things that we consider essential parts of Jewish life.)

And it is this mitzvah, the mitzvah of recalling slavery for the purposes of doing good works for others in need, more than any other mitzvah, which has the potential to infuse our lives with meaning.

Our holy mission as Jews is to work to improve the welfare of others:  to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to uplift those whom society has neglected. Our mission is to ensure that all people are treated justly, and to fill our lives with acts of righteousness. That is why we are “Or LaGoyim,” a light unto the nations of the world.

The Viennese psychiatrist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl, published an extraordinarily influential book a year after the end of World War II: Man’s Search for Meaning. What Frankl learned in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz was that in an environment designed to break the human spirit, those who had the best chances of survival were the people who had a sense of purpose. And, Frankl confesses, the ones who survived were not the brightest, the cleverest, or even the strongest physically. “The best of us did not return,” he says.
“There is nothing in the world… that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.”
Frankl goes on to speak of a uniquely modern problem that he calls the “existential vacuum,” the sense felt by many of his patients that life is meaningless. And if, as Frankl notes, as many as 60% of Americans found life somewhat meaningless in 1946, all the more so today: as we are continually distracted by our devices, as we work longer hours for less money and watch helplessly as our children run from activity to activity solely for the purpose of impressing an Ivy League admissions committee, as we recede into the ever-more solitary environment of our comfortable living rooms and digital nests, the existential vacuum has grown.

But there is a way out of the vacuum. What gives our lives meaning? It is doing for others. It is extending our hands to those in need, in all the ways that we can. That is the holy purpose to which we are called: Gemilut hasadim - acts of lovingkindness.

The mitzvot of Jewish life, including the Top Ten that we read last week and the many more that we read today in Parashat Mishpatim, give our lives a framework for holy living. But following Jewish law - observing Shabbat, kashrut, tefillah, holidays, etc. - is not enough for most of us. Whether we pursue the 613 mitzvot with zeal or not, we must add to that the layers of activities that make Judaism a fully meaningful pursuit: reaching out to others for the purposes of hesed.

Almost every synagogue that I have ever visited contains a sculpture or other artwork displaying the tablets that Moshe brought down from Mt. Sinai, and we must always remain close to our textual tradition. But the real, essential role that synagogues must play in the future is to provide structure for going beyond these basic rules, beyond those tablets, to build communities that provide meaning for individuals. We have to create meaning. We have to be platforms that give our members, and the wider community, the chance to fulfill their holy purpose: to reach out to those in need through works of lovingkindness.

Shabbat shalom.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tu Bishvat: A Mystical Opportunity to Repair the World

Living in the town of Tzefat in 16th-century northern Israel, Rabbi Isaac Luria dwelt among Spanish-Jewish exiles who traded heavily in the mystical concepts of kabbalah, ancient received wisdom. Rabbi Luria, sometimes referred to by his acronym, the AR”I (Elohi Rabbi Yitzhaq, the divine Rabbi Isaac), crafted a new approach to kabbalah which envisioned God’s tzimtzum (contraction) in creating the world. This tzimtzum caused the infinite light of God to be poured to overfilling into the vessels that had contained the ten sefirot (Divine emanations) of the Tree of Life, causing many of them to shatter. Some of these vessel fragments became bound up with sparks of the original light in impure qelipot (shells). Rabbi Luria saw one of our goals as Jews to be liberating those sparks from the qelipot, and thus repairing the world.


http://www.reversespins.com/sefirot.jpg

One ceremony which grew out of the Lurianic school of kabbalistic thought is the Tu Bishvat seder. Modeled on the Passover discussion and dinner that we all know, the mystical Tu Bishvat seder featured the consumption of shelled fruits and nuts as a physical manifestation of our task to repair the world through seeking and opening the metaphorical qelipot. Although Tu Bishvat is identified in rabbinic literature as the day on which all trees in the world turn one year older, the Lurianic kabbalists reframed it as an opportunity to celebrate not only the actual trees, but the Etz Hayyim, the sefirotic Tree of Life, and to return sparks to their primordial source.

We at Temple Israel will attempt to liberate a few sparks on the evening of January 30, as we gather for the N’ranena musical Kabbalat Shabbat service, followed by dinner and a mystical Tu Bishvat experience. Join us as we drink four cups of wine or grape juice, eat tree produce, chant a niggun or two, and connect with the Tree of Life. It will be a sacred moment for the entire family.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, January 9, 2015

Heritage Trumps Hatred

As we begin the book of Shemot / Exodus and recount once again our descent into Egypt as a family and our ascent from slavery as a people, I am reminded by current events of the enduring value of peoplehood, and how it is a source of comfort in dark times. Within the first few verses of this book, the Egyptian pharaoh describes us as "benei Yisrael," the people of Israel (Ex. 1:9), the definition serving to set us apart as the other, as distinct from the native Egyptian population.

With today's hostage-taking episode in a kosher grocery in Paris, resulting in at least four dead and five wounded, our "otherness" was once again served to us in a particularly cruel stew of terror and hatred. On the heels of the killings earlier in the week at the office of Charlie Hebdo, it is evident that bad actors in this world include both Jews and free speech in the same cross-hairs.

In moments like these, when our inclination might be to respond in anger, I look to our tradition for strength. We are not a vengeful people; we are not bloodthirsty. Rather, tragedies such as these should be met with the same response that Jews have always had to anti-Semitic acts: to rally around our heritage, our tradition; to return to our mitzvot, our Torah; to remain stubbornly proud of who we are and who our God is. Our pride is more powerful than their hatred.



We mourn for those fellow Jews who fell at the hands of terrorists; our hearts go out to their families, to those of the French Jewish community who are feeling ever more besieged, and to all lovers of peace and freedom throughout the world whose hearts ache over the events of the past week. And we reach once again for the story of our national foundation, invoking as we do every time we finish reading the Torah the words of Eikhah / Lamentations (5:22): Hashiveinu Adonai eilekha venashuva, hadesh yameinu keqedem. Return us to you, O God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.

Let this be a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace, for benei Yisrael.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, January 2, 2015

One Big, Happy, Pluralistic, Dysfunctional Family - Vayehi 5775

I returned from Israel last Thursday, flying from Ben-Gurion Airport on Christmas Eve, which in Israel is known as “Wednesday night.”

My son and I spent two weeks having fun around the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). One day we went up to Mercaz Canada, the Canada Centre, in Metulla, which is a huge complex built entirely by Canadian Jewish communities. Its central feature, of course, is the regulation-size ice rink, where no professional hockey team ever actually plays, but there is a hockey school for kids and plenty of aspiring skaters come to practice. We spent some time on the ice there, and then warmed up by immersing ourselves in the jacuzzi. Soaking alongside us was an older Israeli couple, whom I will call Yossi and Iris. They were very talkative, and soon I knew everything about their family, of whom they were clearly very proud. At some point, they ascertained that I was a Conservative rabbi, and then Iris asked me, “Is it true that you have women rabbis in your movement?” I responded affirmatively.

Yossi offered that he was very troubled by the extreme measures that some haredi Jews were taking to separate men and women: the gender-segregated buses, the separate sidewalks, and so forth. And then he told me something that made my jaw hit the warm, bubbly water: that there are now stores in Benei Beraq (a predominantly haredi city near Tel Aviv) where men and women shop separately.

“What, you mean that there are two sides, and the men get their cottage cheese on one side, and the women get their cottage cheese on the other side, from a separate refrigerator?”

“Yes,” he replied. We sat and soaked that one up. Iris, a calloused police officer, clucked her tongue and shook her head. She asked me if I had heard about Women of the Wall. “Of course,” I said.

Sitting there in the jacuzzi, I gave them a thumbnail sketch of what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We have a historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the ideas that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as we soaked there in the hot tub, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment - an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Jacob on his death bed, each of his sons received some parting words. Some were flowery words of praise; others were clearly critical. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Judah)
יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ--יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ.
You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you...

cf. Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Simeon and Levi)
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים--כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.
Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.

At this stage, the Israelite nation is really only a family. Jacob is here driving home the point, at the end of his life and effectively the end of the family narrative, that our family has internal strife. (BTW, I am from the tribe of Levi!) Not only do we disagree with each other, we are sometimes openly hostile. Not too dissimilar today - our internecine struggles are effectively ancient.

Jacob Jordaens - Self-Portrait with Parents, Brothers, and Sisters. c. 1615. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
In some ways we still retain the sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh
All of Israel is responsible for one another.

We are all dependent on one another, all connected. We have always thought of ourselves in this way. We even have our own term for our connectedness: kelal Yisrael. Loosely translated, it means, “All of us Israelites.”

We are kind of like a giant cousins’ club. Since the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, some have called this phenomenon “peoplehood.” One of the major results of this sense of peoplehood in modern times is the State of Israel; a more mild form is the pride that American Jews used to take in playing “Spot the Jew”: knowing that the Three Stooges and and Dinah Shore and Kirk Douglas were all Jewish.

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. I am not sure exactly why this happened, but I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I believe we are indeed still one people. We are all Jews, even if large fractions of the Jewish world do not accept other large fractions. And certainly, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the world might serve to remind us all that those who hate us surely do not care about our divergent approaches to halakhah or whether or not we ordain female rabbis or call women to the Torah.

Let’s consider where we are as a people.

Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Chabad (they get their own category), Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, apathetic. Yes, the demographic studies of recent years continue to show that we are on a continuum with respect to religious observance and other measures of engagement. But we are also deeply divided, and to some extent, that is the Jewish tradition. From the moment that the Israelites left Egypt, when they began to complain to Moshe Rabbeinu about the lack of food in the desert, continuing through to the Talmudic tradition of rabbinic argument (Beit Hillel vs. Beit Shammai, etc.), to the response to modernity that gave us the range of movements and synagogues and political and cultural rivals, we like to disagree.

Even so, it seems to me that the rift between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy is still growing. It used to be that most American Jews, regardless of their level of Jewish observance, kept a kosher kitchen so that anybody could come over and eat. That is hardly the case today; I suspect that not too many Orthodox-identified Jews would even eat in my house.

Perhaps the greatest point of fracture is intermarriage. You know the numbers, at least anecdotally: two-thirds or more of American Jews marry non-Jews. Yes, that statistic is lower for Conservative-identified Jews (roughly ⅓ of those who grow up in our movement marry out), and much lower for Orthodox. But the reality is inescapable. We are not going to stem the tide of intermarriage. That ship has sailed. The question facing us all now, and particularly here in the Conservative movement is, how can we stay true to our principles of accepting the validity of halakhah and yet not lose all of those Jews?

A colleague of mine, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, the senior rabbi of a large Conservative congregation in suburban Boston, recently floated a trial balloon about intermarriage. As you may know, Conservative rabbis are bound by a standard of rabbinic practice not to perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews. His idea was to perform such weddings, with the proviso that the non-Jewish partner commits to raising Jewish children.

Immediately after going public with the idea, there was an uproar in his congregation that compelled Rabbi Gardenswartz to backtrack.

And furthermore in the “uproar” department,just last week at the USY International Convention, the student leadership of USY voted to change the language in its policy regarding inter-dating for regional officers. While the policy used to say, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating,” the new language is, “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of interdating, but certainly not quite as strong as the original language. (I actually prefer the newer language because, rather than merely being prohibitive, it actually challenges our teens to consider the aspects of holiness in human relationships.) Coverage in the Jewish press has been scathing (the JTA wire article on the subject was titled, perhaps unfairly, “USY Drops Ban on Interdating”).

The issue goes right to the heart of who we are today, not as Conservative Jews per se, but as American Jews. Do we see ourselves as Americans who occasionally dip our toes into the sea of Judaism, or does halakhah infuse all parts of our lives with holiness? Obviously, this issue is so trying because some of the members of our cousins’ club see any tolerance of intermarriage and intermarried Jews as a threat. In their minds, this is not Hillel vs. Shammai; this is Hillel vs. Antiochus and the hellenized Syrians of yore.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that the concept of kelal Yisrael, of the Jewish sense of shared heritage, destiny, and values still resonates. We have made certain strides right here in Great Neck, and that bodes well: the recent Shabbat Project, the joint study and siyyum in memory of those massacred in a Jerusalem synagogue in November, and the ongoing friendly Rabbinic Dialogue are all good signs of healthy, pluralistic engagement and cooperation.

Pluralism means that we should tolerate each other, acknowledge each other. We who call women to the Torah will never agree with those who must walk and ride and shop in single-gender environments. Those of us who support the State of Israel with all our hearts will never understand our fellow Jews who protest its very existence. We do not have to agree, but we have to at least acknowledge each other as fellow members of the tribe. And I think that we are still doing that. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family.

We have to continue to work together, for the benefit of our extended cousins’ club. I very much hope that we will.

Shabbat shalom.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(A variation of this sermon was originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 1/3/2015.)