Monday, April 14, 2014

Equal Access to God - Pesah 5774

My eldest son’s bar mitzvah was in Israel two-and-a-half weeks ago. He lives at Kibbutz Ein Gev, which might just be Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), located on the eastern shore of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. We put together complete, Conservative-style, fully egalitarian Shabbat evening and morning services there for family and friends and kibbutzniks, but we started the process in Jerusalem, two days earlier at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. There, on Thursday morning, we held a service where Oryah laid tefillin and read Torah, accompanied by his immediate family.

What was particularly unique and interesting about this day for me, in addition to my son’s bar mitzvah, was that this Thursday morning service took place not at what most of us think of as the Kotel, but at what might be described as a new ancient location: the southernmost area of the Western Wall, just under the archaeologically-significant outcropping of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch. (It was named after the early 19th-century American biblical scholar, Edward Robinson, who identified the arch on a visit to Palestine in 1838 as part of the ancient bridge that led to the Temple plaza from Jerusalem’s downtown prior to the Roman destruction in 70 CE.)

To distinguish it from the main plaza in front of the Western Wall where most people congregate, this area has come to be known informally in recent years as “HaKotel HaMasorti,” the Conservative Western Wall (Masorti being the international term for the Conservative movement).  But now it has a new name: “Ezrat Yisrael.” It’s really a very clever name: it’s the name of an area in the Second Temple that was open to all Israelites (i.e. those who were neither Kohanim or Leviim). However, to the speaker of modern Hebrew it suggests a place that is open to all Jews, differentiated from the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue called the ezrat nashim, the women’s section that is separate from that of the men in any Orthodox synagogue; this name also derives from ancient Temple, where there was also an ezrat nashim.

Since last September, when the Israeli government finally agreed to make access to the Masorti Kotel easier, there are a couple of new features at the Robinson’s Arch area. There is now a huge, expansive platform with several rolling lecterns overlooking the site, which may be reserved in advance by anybody wishing to hold an egalitarian service there. There is also a special, separate entrance adjacent to the main entrance to the Kotel Plaza, with a sign saying “Ezrat Yisrael” and a security guard (although no metal detectors, as for the traditional Kotel). These innovations have made the whole experience far more pleasant and convenient and accessible than the site had been previously. As I passed through the new entrance, I thought, Pithu li sha’arei tzedeq, avo vam odeh Yah. Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter to praise God. (Psalm 118:20 - We sang those words a few minutes ago in Hallel.) It has been a long time coming that this prayer space of equality, where women and men may worship in contemporary style, where all can be seen as equal with respect to God, where all may participate fully, is now open to the public and functioning respectfully.

We held our service on the new platform, overlooking the ancient walls built by King Herod nearly 2,000 years ago, and enjoyed the relative peace and serenity of the scene as compared with the hubbub of the traditional Kotel area.

A little basic history is called for here: Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Judaism was mostly centralized. Worship was governed by the kohanim, the priests, and included pilgrimage and agricultural sacrifice.  When the Temple was destroyed and the role of the priesthood effectively nullified, a new group of leaders, scholars that went by the title of “Rav” or “Rabban” or “Rabbi” developed a new way to engage with God: through words of prayer and words of study. As a result, they redefined what it means to be holy for Jews. Holiness would no longer be assigned to one central place, but would be carried with the Jews in their hearts and minds wherever they went throughout the world. We each carry within us the spark of holiness, and wherever we gather to sanctify time or to engage with the ancient words of our tradition, that holiness multiplies itself to make a miqdash me’at, a little place of holiness.

(As an aside here: It was this portability and effective democratization of Judaism that enable us to survive. As I referenced on Shabbat Hagadol, we could have disappeared when the Romans ceased the Temple service. But instead we found a creative workaround. This is why the Dalai Lama convened a bunch of Jewish leaders back in the early 1990s to learn strategies on how a people may maintain its faith in exile; this tale was the subject of Rodger Kamenetz’s book, The Jew in the Lotus.)

That said, I must confess that I have become, in recent years, somewhat disenchanted with whole Kotel experience. It has become an obsession for our people - these ancient stones. Certainly, they are laden with history, and certainly, it is a place that speaks with great emotional power. But since the Roman destruction, there really are not holy places in Judaism like there are in, say, Islam. Holiness is where the Jews are, and is not tethered to any particular location.

But the fascination with that big, open-air, continuous pick-up minyan adjacent to an ancient retaining wall is challenging to me. It has a faint whiff of avodah zarah, idolatry. The history of the Temple Mount is powerful and inspiring, incorporating the ancient Jewish tale of destruction and rebuilding coupled with hope and Divine connection, but it has never been, and was never intended to be what it has become in recent years: an Orthodox synagogue. We do not worship rocks, ladies and gentlemen. We worship only God.

Today, the Kotel has a mehitzah (that was not always the case) and an Orthodox rabbi appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, who has expressly forbidden mixed minyanim, or even women-only services that feature women singing out loud like men do. I continue to read accounts of how some of the worshippers there have become increasingly bold about telling others how to behave / pray / walk / dress and so forth in the plaza. Ladies and gentlemen, there are many paths to God, and if my approach differs from yours, that’s fine. We should make an effort to accommodate each other where possible, and respect each other’s path.

When I am at the Kotel, I too feel the ancient reverberations of our history and our tradition emanating from that wall. And I feel the sadness of loss, the hope of rebuilding, and the yearning of two thousand years of exile. Indeed, the ancient ruins of Israel, the wellspring of our heritage, made it not just possible but mandatory that the Jewish state be located there, and not in Madagascar or Birobidjan or Brooklyn or Vilna.

But even more, I feel the pain of divisiveness, the arrogance of those within our midst who want to tell others what to believe and how to act, the anger at the insulting and even dangerous behavior of those who have somehow incorporated intolerance into their religious zeal.

If those Herodian rocks could speak, what would they say? Can’t you people all just get along? Can’t you just accept that there are many paths through Judaism, that every Jew should be entitled to visit this venerated, historical place and access God through whatever means he or she chooses? If those rocks could speak, wouldn’t they remind us of the Talmudic passage that tells us that the Second Temple was lost due to sin’at hinam, causeless hatred?

The victory of the last year, when the Netanyahu government agreed to created this open prayer space for egalitarian groups at Robinson’s Arch, is of utmost importance because of the message it broadcasts to the Jewish world: Women count too. And this message, which is a bridge we crossed at Temple Israel in 1976, has not yet infiltrated into much of the traditional Jewish world. Pesah in particular is a time when we should actively recall this, because of a passage in the Talmud related to the seder (Pesahim 108a):
ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס.
Ve-amar Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Nashim hayyavot be-arba’ah kosot halalu, she-af hen hayu beoto hanes.
R. Joshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated for the Four Cups, because they too participated in the same miracle.
It may be hard to believe for the frummer residents of Beit Shemesh and Boro Park, but half of those who were redeemed from Egypt were female. And so they deserve a place at the table as well, not relegated to another room or behind a mehitzah. And not just on Pesah, but in all aspects of Jewish life.

Why do we need to continue to focus on the equality of women? Because there are Yiddish signs in neighborhoods of Brooklyn asking women to step off the sidewalk in deference to a man. Because there is an ongoing campaign in Jerusalem and other primarily Haredi cities to remove women from sight: prohibition of women on advertising billboards, or when they do appear, vandalization by anonymous zealots. Because an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolis, was harassed and spat upon by Haredi residents of Beit Shemesh two years ago because they felt that her dress was was not sufficiently modest. Eight years old!

This is all the more reason why the Ezrat Yisrael is so important. While certain quarters of Judaism are busy trying to make women invisible, we have succeeded in elevating them by actually building a raised platform. We have physically elevated those choosing to worship adjacent to the ancient site of Beit HaMiqdash, and thus raised them spiritually as well.

Chairman Mao famously said, “Women hold up half the sky.” Well, they did in ancient Israel too, and in Egypt, and they do so today. (Maybe even more than half.) But that does not mean that our work is done - on the contrary, we must continue to strive to make men and women equal partners in holiness, with equal access to God.
By bringing together the sparks of holiness found within every one of us, male and female, we can only raise ourselves higher.

Hag sameah.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What Makes Pesah Work? - Shabbat Hagadol 5774

I was recently somewhat surprised to see an ad on my Facebook scroll for a Passover seder at a nearby Italian restaurant. It’s not a kosher restaurant, and all the more so during Pesah. So OK, there are Jews in this world for whom kashrut, for Pesah or otherwise, is not so high on the list of priorities. But the thing that got me was the line, “A Very Reformed Seder Service (20 min.).”

Now, leaving aside the term “reformed,” which knowledgeable Reform Jews read as a kind of slur - reform is an ongoing process, not something that was done in the past - the enticement that the ad seemed to be presenting was that this seder experience would be long on food and short on ritual. (It’s curious that Facebook thought I would be interested in this seder.)

Then what is it, exactly? Is it in fact a seder? Or is it just a family meal that includes matzah? And the larger question is, why does the seder continue to be the most-observed ritual of the Jewish year? What makes it work?

About three-quarters of American Jews will turn out on Monday evening at somebody’s seder.  (BTW - Thank God for the Jewish week. Just two days after writing this, my new issue comes, and there’s a front-page story about how attendance at sedarim is declining. *sigh*)

But why? Is it the food? Is it the story? The songs? The gathering of family? The questions? The short answer is, yes to all.

Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

1. May be redefined in modern terms
2. Does not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society)
3. Offers a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas)
4. Centers on the child
5. Is infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Sklare pointed to the Pesah seder and the lighting of Hanukkah candles as being the best examples of such rituals in his book, America’s Jews, published in 1971. And really, little has changed in the last four decades: Pesah may still resonate because it pushes all those buttons. And Dr. Sklare’s thinking seems to still be on the money, half a century later. In this time of decreasing Jewish engagement, particularly outside of Orthodoxy, Pesah is a model that still works.

Away from the cold, academic glare, however, something else is true: Pesah works because we make it work. Perhaps in accord with Sklare’s first observation, that a ritual is likely to be observed if it may be redefined to suit contemporary issues, the message of Pesah continues to resonate with us. Slavery is still an unfortunate reality of today’s world (go to for more information on that); poverty and oppression may be found just about wherever we look. Those members of our people who fought for civil rights in the 1960s read the haggadah in that context, and there are those who read it today with the various ongoing struggles for equality - for women, for gays and lesbians, for non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel - in mind.

But I think there is more to the story.

In the central portion of the seder, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt (the item identified as Maggid, “telling”), there is a classical midrashic exposition of a passage from the Torah. The passage is the one that begins, “Arami oved avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5-8). You are probably familiar with it. The Torah presents these verses as the proto-liturgical  monologue that the Israelites would recite when bringing their first fruits to the kohen, the priest, on Shavuot, and it encapsulates the story of Jacob and his family going down into Egypt, where they became a great nation, and then were enslaved, and God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, etc., etc.  

Within the midrash is the following comment on four words from Deut. 26:5:
וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְצֻיָּנִין שָׁם.

Vayhi sham legoi gadol. Melamed shehayu Yisrael metzuyanim sham.

They became a great nation. It teaches that the Israelites were distinguished there [in Egypt].
The Conservative movement’s “Feast of Freedom” haggadah (which we use at the congregational seder on Tuesday night) elaborates on this as follows:

[The Israelites] became unique… through their observance of mitzvot. They were never suspected of unchastity or slander; they did not change their names and they did not change their language.

What makes us a great nation, ladies and gentlemen, is just as true today: we have our own heritage, our own traditions, our own laws. We also have our own language, the Hebrew language, which underwent a tremendously successful revival in the last century as a modern tongue. We also continue to keep our own Hebrew names, which we continue to use, for example, when we call our daughters to the Torah for bat mitzvah, as we did today, and when our sons stand under the huppah, and at various other points in the Jewish life cycle.

This is our Jewish framework. But in addition to this, wherever we have lived, we have also taken on some of the aspects of the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) society, although for the most part we were never entirely assimilated to the point where we lost our tradition. Indeed, you might make the case that it is in fact Judaism’s flexibility that has enabled us to maintain our distinctiveness while living among non-Jews, to be both Jewish and something else. Rashi, living in 11th-century France, spoke French and followed some French customs (he was a wine merchant, and historians suggest that he also wore a beret and smoked Gauloises). Maimonides, in 12th-century Egypt, was a court physician to the sultan in Cairo, who treated Jews and non-Jews. Moses Mendelssohn, widely considered teh first modern Jew, joined the elite salons of 18th-century Berlin while continuing to practice his faith. Theodore Herzl, in the late 19th century, was a secular Hungarian Jewish journalist, and yet he arguably launched the greatest modern ideological product of Judaism, that is, Zionism.

Throughout our history, although we kept Hebrew and our names and the Torah, we have navigated the wider culture and adapted to new environments and new host societies. And we have incorporated some things from the non-Jews around us as well: foods, including ritual foods (consider for example the difference between Ashkenazi and Persian haroset, for example), vary tremendously. And music and spoken languages and a whole range of minhagim, of customs, differ greatly depending on where your ancestors landed.

We adapt, we move, we grow, we change. Yes, there are certain commonalities of Jewish life that have continued for two thousand years or more - leather tefillin were found at Qumran, the site where the Essene sect lived at the northern end of the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago. But in every generation, each of us has seen ourselves come forth from slavery to freedom in our own context. We have all melded our tradition to the sensibilities of the day. We have never lived in a vacuum.  We have continually scoured our tradition for contemporary relevance, searching for how the great works of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us. Etz hayyim hi lemahazikim ba. The Torah is our Tree of Life, and in holding on to it we have upheld our nationhood even as we have clothed it in new styles and fabrics.

Had we been rigidly committed to one particular mode of living, Judaism could have died many times over: when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. Or when the Romans laid waste to the Second Temple in 70 CE. Or after the great yeshivot around Baghdad closed up shop in the 11th century CE. Or after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. Or after the Shoah.

So here is a suggestion. When you sit down to your seder on Monday evening, wherever it is, do what Jews have always done: make it yours! Make it relevant! Don’t just do what you’ve always done. That is NOT how Jews do it!

Here are some examples:
  • When the Four Questions come up, don’t just limit yourself to those traditional four. Ask more questions!
  • When telling the story of Pesah, don’t simply read what’s in the good ol’ Maxwell House haggadah. Have somebody summarize it in their own words. 
  • Get up from the table and act it out! Assign parts!  
  • Have everybody improvise parts of the story! 
  • If you have time, prepare some costume items: a staff for Moses, a crown for Pharaoh, a megaphone for God (maybe there is an app for that?), etc. Around our seder table, we’ll be decked out in the 10-plagues masks.
  • Have discussion questions prepared: What are you a slave to? What are the things that you are grateful for? What are the things that make your life bitter? In what ways do you feel free?  Why is spring the best time of year? What hametz-laden item do you miss the most during these eight days and why?
These ideas work for families, for children, for sullen teens, for adults, everybody!

Ladies and gentlemen, what makes Pesah work is you! Your creativity, your enthusiasm, your joy. It’s not just about the kids, as Sklare suggested. It’s about you, living here in 21st-century America.

So go ahead, set the text of the haggadah to the latest hip-hop hit, or to the music of Frozen. Make it yours. Make it relevant. That is how we will maintain our Jewishness and the eternal appeal of our rituals. Hag sameah!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ten Days, Two Countries, 34 Teenagers: A Physical and Spiritual Journey with the Youth House to Prague and Israel

Two and a half weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening in the Negev desert, I was encamped with 34 teenagers from our Youth House and seven other staff members at Khan HaShayarot, a Bedouin tent complex. (Well, OK, so it’s not really a Bedouin tent - it’s for tourist groups. But it’s staffed by actual Israeli Bedouin Arabs, and it really does consist of a bunch of large tents in the desert adjacent to a camel pen.) We had already eaten dinner and were preparing for a campfire with guitar and singing and s’mores, which, as we all know, are a traditional Bedouin campfire snack.

The time had come for us to recite ma’ariv, the evening service, and we created for the group a decidedly non-traditional tefillah experience. We lined them up as quietly as possible by the entrance to the camp, and then walked them one at a time out of the camp to a slight hill overlooking the camp. Each person was placed far enough from anyone else, to allow them to find their own quiet inner-space, distant enough from their friends so as to be able to hear the special silence one only hears in the desert.  There was some light from the camp below us, and the moon offered us a shadowy sense of the hills around.

Silently, we took in the desert scenery, and I reminded everybody that we are a people that came from the desert, and that prophecy - the Torah, the words of the Prophets - has always been channeled to us in the desert. We then faced north, towards Jerusalem, and recited the words of the Shema and the silent Amidah. After yet more silent reflection, we returned, one at a time, to the camp and the campfire.

Danny Mishkin, director of the Youth House, asked our teens at this point, before the s’mores, to write down a few words about the importance of being on a journey and how that related both to our trip to Prague and Israel and to being Jewish in general. We sat quietly, and everybody spent a few minutes writing in their bound siddurim, which we prepared specially for the trip, incorporating open space for journaling along the way.  

The thoughts expressed were striking. One of the participants wrote the following:

“Tonight was THE most memorable experience thus far. I have never felt as connected to God. Standing in the desert at night with the stars, praying as one group, singing Oseh Shalom made me tear up.”

Another connected the experience to the departure from Egypt:

“As I was walking to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help but think of the Jews leaving Egypt. We have always been a moving people… never fully at home until we received Eretz Yisrael.”

A third related the struggle for the modern State of Israel to the long Jewish journey of the soul:

“It is obvious that in Jewish history, things did not always come easy, such as the land of Israel itself. Endless days of travel breeded an unexpected but needed bond between Jews with the same end goal. By experiencing the same emotions of joy, sorrow, and by just achieving a general sense of what our people collectively had to go through just for the sake of a religion makes this bond unbreakable.”

You might make the case that the essential message of the Torah is that being Jewish is about the journey. Think about it: Noah is sent on a journey by boat that will guarantee a future for humanity (and Noah’s ark does not actually GO anywhere - it has no steering mechanism). Abraham is called upon to leave his father’s house and his homeland to go on a journey to an unknown place, which will some day be called Israel (after his grandson Jacob). Joseph is sent on an unwilling journey to Egypt, and then the rest of his family follows him. Moses is tasked with leading the Israelites on the ultimate journey of redemption: up out of slavery, and back to the land of Israel. And on and on.

It is the journey that defines us as Jews.  In this day and age, when we are free to choose our identities, free to opt into or out of our tradition, it is the experiences, the memories, that will inform who we want to be, whether being Jewish matters and how we want our Jewishness to manifest itself in everyday life.  

Our parashah today, Parashat Vayiqra, is also about an ancient aspect of the Jewish journey. As our bar mitzvah, Yoel, pointed out, it is about a series of essential sacrifices. But all the more so, as Yoel also argued, the sacrificial system that is laid out in the Torah and that was practiced by Israelites for nearly 1,000 years in the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem, was only a point along the way to developing a much better system of accessing the Divine: tefillah, prayer. And he is in good company here. Maimonides, the 12th-century physician and commentator, one of the biggest names on the Jewish bookshelf, said the following about sacrifices in his philosophical work, Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide to the Perplexed:

“Sacrificial service is not the primary object, but rather supplications, prayers, and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object.”

In other words, the Torah describes the sacrifices in detail. But that form of worship was not God’s ultimate plan for us. Maimonides, writing more than a millennium after the destruction of the Second Temple, believed that prayer was the higher goal. Sacrifice, after all, was limited; it only took place in the Temple, and was performed by an intermediary: the kohen, the priest, who took your sheep or ram and offered it up to God. “But,” Maimonides states, “prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person.”

So why did God give us all of these mitzvot if the higher goal was prayer? Because, said Maimonides, the Israelites needed to be weaned from the idolatrous ways of the Egyptians and the Canaanites in a way that did not challenge what they were familiar with too severely. God’s plan was that eventually we would offer the words of our hearts rather than the bounty of our flocks.

What we do today as Jews when we gather in synagogues, or when we offer berakhot before and after meals, or when we communicate with God alone, is the superior form of worship. The spiritual journey from sacrifice to prayer amounts to a democratization of our connection with God.

Vayiqra, ladies and gentlemen, is one leg of our spiritual journey. And we as a people, and as individuals, are on a constant journey. Every single one of us here.

Some of us might be aware of this - there are active seekers among us, looking for that next spiritual high, searching for meaning within and without. You know who you are.


Most of us, however, are probably not aware of our journeys. Our lives are complex - we are thinking about many things - the job, the family, the kids, the next vacation, or how am I going to make the next rent check, or how am I going to help my cousin who is battling drug addiction, or how on Earth am I going to broach the topic of end of life choices with my parents? We have too many things to worry about. Who has time to be concerned with our spiritual needs?

But we all have them. Jews and non-Jews. And, I think, Jews more than most, because, at least in the Diaspora, we have always been on the outside. We ask ourselves, what does it mean to be Jewish? How can I be both Jewish and American? Why should I care, and if I don’t care, what then is my relationship to this ancient tradition, handed to me by my parents and grandparents?

As Jews, we have always been on a journey, both physical and spiritual. The physical one was often forced upon us, and for our ancestors who suffered oppression and anti-Semitism wherever they went, it was this struggle that kept them Jewish. Today, in 21st century America, where our greatest enemy is indifference, we need to send ourselves on journeys to accomplish that task.

So where are we going? To quote the Hasidic Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav, “Kol mah she-ani nose’a, ani nose’a raq le-eretz Yisrael.” Everywhere I go, I am going to Eretz Yisrael. Not physically, but with every step, we are moving closer to Israel in spirit.

All the more so regarding the trip that we took with 34 Great Neck teens. The mind of the average high school student is in a bunch of different places at any given moment - they are thinking far more about all of the uncertainty and awkwardness of being a teenager: How will I fit in with this crowd or that? How can I convince my parents that I am more mature than they give me credit for? How do I balance school work with time for myself?

And our job was to cut through all of that classic teen stuff and help them along their spiritual journey. Because that is what visiting Israel is all about.

What made this trip work was not just Israel. It was not the combination of Israel and the Czech Republic, although that was really cool. It was not the tefillah, or the Kotel, or the desert, or the Bedouin tent, or the guide.

More than any of those things, it was the journey itself. It was voyaging together from here to there as we reflected on our experiences, as we sang and danced and welcomed the Shabbat on a Jerusalem rooftop. It was how we marveled at the tenacity and the tenuousness of the residents of the Terezin ghetto, who created a secret synagogue in a barn, as we sang in that synagogue Hannah Senesh’s famous poem Eli, Eli to remember them and their striving to connect with their faith under such conditions.

What made the trip successful was the internal journey, the spiritual traveling that took us not from New York to Prague to Tel Aviv via Amsterdam, but from the Diaspora of the mind to the Promised Land of the heart, from the cool distance of the teenage identity struggle to the close connection with our ancient religious and national heritage.

We did that. And the greater we, the we of this community, should be proud of that. You gave these kids a series of memories that they will carry with them for the balance of their lives, that will always serve to reconnect them to Jewish life. So kol hakavod!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, March 8, 2014.)