Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Making Connections Through Ritual - Tuesday Kavvanah, 11/29/2011

What is meant by the term ritual?

The question was asked, curiously enough, at a Ritual Committee meeting last night.  I gave an extemporaneous answer, but after sleeping on it, the following definition surfaced:  Ritual is what connects us in a Jewish context - to ourselves, to each other, to the community, to God.

The spirit of ritual is captured in the following, easily-overlooked statement that appears at the very beginning of  many siddurim / prayerbooks, to be recited in the morning before tefillah / prayer begins in earnest:

הריני מקבל / מקבלת עלי מצות הבורא: ואהבת לרעך כמוך
Hareini meqabbel / meqabbelet alai mitzvat haborei: ve-ahavta lere-akha kamokha
I hereby accept the obligation of fulfilling the Creator's mitzvah: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

This statement is a brief reminder that one of the underlying goals of tefillah should be to connect God, the Torah, the self, and the other, succinctly captured in a preparatory kavvanah / statement of intention.  By citing Leviticus 19:18 at the beginning of the service, even before the formal berakhot / blessings have begun, we bring all of these connections into focus.  This is indeed the essence of ritual.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Best of Both Worlds - Toledot 5772

There are several Shabbatot throughout the year that have a special name related to the calendar.  For example, there is Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  There is Shabbat HaGadol, right before Pesah.  And so forth.  Today might be called Shabbat Toledot, after the parashah that we read this morning, or it might be called “Shabbat Thanksgiving,” for obvious calendrical reasons.  Regardless of what you might call it, this is a great Shabbat to be thinking about being both Jewish and American.

A few days ago, a member of this congregation was telling me about a Persian synagogue in Los Angeles that has “an American rabbi.”  
“But we’re all American,” I pointed out.  
“You know what I mean,” she said.

Since Napoleon granted the Jews of France emancipation in 1789, one question that Diaspora Jews have constantly struggled with is that of national identity.  Napoleon’s intent was to make the Jews of France French.  A primary goal of the German haskalah, or Enlightenment, in the late 18th century was to encourage German Jews to be thought of as Germans.

But really we have always wrestled with identity.  In the beginning of Toledot, Rebekah is troubled by the twins wrestling with each other in her womb.  Ya’aqov and Esav are not only foreshadowing the struggle between the two brothers that spreads over three parashiyyot in the Torah, but also physically demonstrating the ongoing struggle that Jews have always faced when grappling with the non-Jewish world.

Ya’aqov, of course, represents the Jews.  In next week’s parashah, he will be renamed Yisrael, and it is for him that the people of Israel are named.  Esav is considered the father of Edom, the people who live across the Jordan river to the east of Israel.  In rabbinic times, when the rulers of Israel were Roman, the name Edom was used as a euphemism for Rome.

Ladies and gentlemen, we continue to face this struggle today.  And particularly right here in Great Neck, among those of us who identify with Temple Israel and the Conservative movement.  Let me explain:

Orthodox Judaism, in general, expects that its adherents will always choose Jewish law and practice over secular options.  For example, there is no question that children in Orthodox homes will not attend school on, let’s say, the first two days of Sukkot when they fall on weekdays.

Reform Judaism, meanwhile, expects that its adherents will make educated Jewish choices, understanding that halakhah, traditional Jewish law, is no longer binding on them.  Secular concerns are thereby given a seat at the table when engaging with Jewish life.

Our environment, the Conservative movement, is where things get really complicated.  On the one hand, we accept halakhah as valid and binding.  We work within the halakhic system, not outside of it.  The service that we are all participating in today is, with a few small exceptions, the same as what you will find in most Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues.  This is a kosher building; we observe Shabbat here traditionally, and thus we don’t, for example, take money or turn lights on and off and we ask people not to use cell phones or cameras in the building on Shabbat.  

But all of us are engaged with the rest of the world, the non-Jewish world, as well.  And it is that struggle that most of us face on a regular basis.  Do we keep kosher at home, and how?  What about outside the house?  Do we come to synagogue regularly?  Do we celebrate holidays, particularly the less well-known ones?  How do we educate our children Jewishly?  Do we continue to learn Jewish tradition after bar/bat mitzvah?

I read a report this week from Brandeis University about Jewish teen engagement in the New York area.  It’s really a fascinating portrait of teen involvement in Jewish life, a subject that many of you know to be of utmost importance to me.  The 344 teens surveyed were among the most connected to Jewish life - all had celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah in a New York-area synagogue between 2006 and 2009, and two-thirds had continued their Jewish education after bar/bat mitzvah.  It’s possible that some who were surveyed even came from this community.  Among the more interesting findings were:

About 80% of those surveyed said that being Jewish was very important to them, and nearly half had some involvement in a Jewish youth group, but only 7% cited Jewish activities as being their top priority; the majority cited team sports as receiving the greatest priority.  Few had an interest in Jewish ritual or synagogue participation.  “Many give high importance to family and to making the world a better place,” says the study, “but they do not attribute their sense of personal or societal right and wrong to Jewish teachings.”

I could cite interesting statistics all day, but the fundamental message that emerged for me was that our teens are, like all of us, engaged in a kind of wrestling match.  We all straddle this fence of Jewish vs. secular activities, understanding, belief, and of course identity.

We who are seated together in this room are quite an unusual mix of Americans.  Some of us were born here; some in Europe, some in Iraq or Iran, a few in Israel and elsewhere.  On my father’s side, I’m the fifth generation in America.  Although my maternal grandmother was born in what is today Ukraine, my mother’s grandfather on the other side fought for Uncle Sam in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  My wife’s first language is Hungarian, although her parents came to this country by way of Israel in the late ‘60s.

It is a fundamental human quality to separate ourselves according to national identity.  The Greeks are distinct from the Turks who are distinct from the Mongols who are distinct from the Chinese, and on and on.  The Torah itself, a particularly human document, is obsessed with classification not only about what is kosher or not, but also about categories of people: tribal affiliation, man, woman, child, slave, rich, poor, and so forth.

A century after Napoleon granted the Jews citizenship, French army captain Albert Dreyfus was convicted of treason on the basis of falsified evidence.  The question that roiled France was, are the Jews really French, or does their allegiance lie elsewhere?  (The trial and its aftermath inspired the secular Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl to pursue Zionism as a solution to this problem.)

In my lifetime, nobody has ever questioned my loyalty as an American.  I don’t think anybody will doubt that we live here in America at least as well if not better than in any other place and time in the last two millennia.  We are well-integrated into society; there are few barriers to Jews even at the highest echelons of politics, business, and academia.  And few of us would argue that this is a bad thing.

But looking around the American Jewish world today, one must marvel at the various communities to our right on the religious spectrum that are, in some ways, isolating themselves from wider American society.  They attend their own schools, live in their own neighborhoods, and avoid contact with people who are not of their community.  There are American Jews who do not celebrate Thanksgiving because to do so is to assimilate, and they are studiously trying to avoid doing so.

Our community, however, is not like that.  Most of us celebrated the non-religious, secular American holiday two days ago (I hope that just as many observed Shabbat, the second-holiest day of the Jewish year, last night with a traditional meal).  We are integrated into the fabric of American society.  We are as much American Jews as Jewish Americans, and as much Americans as our non-Jewish neighbors and colleagues.

So that raises the question in my mind: when few of our teenagers, our most connected teens, consider Jewish activities a priority and fewer still have an interest in Jewish practice, how will we maintain firm ground in the eternal struggle that we as Jews have had with the non-Jewish world?  How will we continue to maintain our customs and our traditions moving forward?

My suggestion is the following: seek out the best of both worlds and grab it.  Jewish tradition is rich with family-centered activities, valuable life lessons gleaned from ancient texts, and moments to connect with God.  American life, meanwhile, highlights the spirit of independence, stellar opportunities for education and advancement, and plentiful cultural offerings that go far beyond what’s on TV.  Leaving aside this season’s commercial fervor for shopping, being an American is a blessing that can only be elevated by the principles that Jewish tradition teaches, like expressing gratitude for what we have, taking care of the needy among us, and judging others fairly.

While I would not go so far as to call this the Promised Land, and you know how important the modern State of Israel is to me, I cannot deny that America has been good for the Jews.  As we stand here looking into the future as immigrants and the children of immigrants, we must find a thoughtful way to balance Ya’aqov and Esav, to embrace the elements of Jewish life and American society such that the former part of that equation is not eclipsed by the latter.  

Happy Shabbat Thanksgiving!  

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 11/26/2011.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Essential viewing: Dr. Ron Wolfson speaking to the 2011 Rabbinical Assembly convention

Dr. Wolfson delivers a crash course in the value of welcoming to a group of Conservative rabbis.  It's nearly 47 minutes, but he is so engaging that you won't even notice the time.  Click on the link below, and enjoy!


Save the date: Ron will be spending a weekend at Temple Israel as a visiting scholar, May 4-6, 2011.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Every day can be Thanksgiving - Tuesday Kavvanah, 11/22/2011

Thanksgiving is a non-denominational American holiday of gratitude, a sentiment that Jews know well.  The very first statement that we customarily make upon waking is the following:

מודֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם. שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ
Modeh (for women, modah) ani lefanekha melekh hai veqayyam, shehehezarta bi nishmati behemlah, rabbah emunatekha
I am grateful to You, living, enduring King, for restoring my soul to me in compassion.  You are faithful beyond measure.

The Talmud (Yerushalmi Berakhot 1a) tells us that sleep is one-sixtieth of death; when we wake, we should be grateful that we have returned to being 100% alive.  This short statement, which seems to have first appeared in a siddur / prayerbook in 1695 (very recent compared to most other Jewish prayers), captures an essential theme: that nothing should be taken for granted, and that life is a gift that we are continually given every day. 

Thanksgiving is an annual event, but we wake up every morning.  Give thanks!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Love, Not Fear

Four elderly Jewish men are seated around a table in a cafe.  “Oy,” says one.  “Oy vey,” says the second.  “Nu?” says the third.  The fourth says, “Look, if you guys are going to talk about politics again, I’m leaving.”

I am not going to talk about politics today, but I am going to talk about grief.  Like those men seated around the table, I grieve for this world.  I grieve out of love.

Rabbi Stecker and I are currently teaching a class on Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived.  We read this past Tuesday evening a piece of the introduction to one of his best-known works, the Mishneh Torah, his comprehensive compendium of Jewish law.  In it, Maimonides describes one reason for writing this work is that Jews in the 12th century know far less about Judaism than their forebears did.  Maimonides laments,

וּבַזְּמָן הַזֶּה תָּכְפוּ צָרוֹת יְתֵרוֹת, וְדָחֲקָה שָׁעָה אֶת הַכֹּל, וְאָבְדָה חָכְמַת חֲכָמֵינוּ, וּבִינַת נְבוֹנֵינוּ נִסְתַּתְּרָה; לְפִיכָּךְ אוֹתָן הַפֵּרוּשִׁין וְהַתְּשׁוּבוֹת וְהַהֲלָכוֹת שֶׁחִבְּרוּ הַגְּאוֹנִים, וְרָאוּ שְׁהֶם דְּבָרִים מְבֹאָרִים, נִתְקַשּׁוּ בְּיָמֵינוּ, וְאֵין מֵבִין עִנְיְנֵיהֶם כָּרָאוּי אֵלָא מְעַט בְּמִסְפָּר

“In our time, severe troubles come one after another, and all are in distress; the wisdom of our sages has disappeared, and the understanding of our discerning men is hidden.  Thus, the commentaries, the responses to halakhic questions, and the settled laws that the Geonim wrote, which had once seemed clear, have in our times become hard to understand, so that only a few properly understand them.”  (Introduction to Mishneh Torah, line 40.)

I often hear the same lament today.  Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.  Maimonides grieved for the lack of Jewish knowledge in his day, and out of love he produced one the most prized offerings of the Jewish bookshelf.  

I grieved this week.  I even cried.  Like Abraham, whose wife Sarah dies at the age of 127 years, and he weeps for her, as we read at the beginning of our Torah reading today.  I too wept.  

I heard a speaker last Sunday evening at the Forest Hills Jewish Center.  His story is so moving, so tragic, and yet so inspiring.  It is a story of grief and love.

His name is Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian ob/gyn and native of the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza who holds the distinction of being the first Palestinian doctor to serve in an Israeli hospital.  In fact, he was a resident at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, delivering Israeli babies, when my son Oryah was born there in 2001.  I may have, in fact, seen him there at the time.

Dr. Abuelaish’s story is at once tragic and inspiring.  During Operation Cast Lead in January, 2009, the IDF bombed his Gaza apartment, killing 3 of his 6 daughters and his niece, and seriously injuring another daughter.  It appears to have been a horrible accident, although the IDF has never admitted that, instead claiming that they saw suspected terrorist activity in the apartment.

As a long-time friend to Israel and Israelis, Dr. Abuelaish knew Shlomi Eldar, the Gaza correspondent for Israeli TV’s Channel 10.  The two spoke regularly about the situation in Gaza during Cast Lead, and describe each other as friends.  When the shell hit his apartment, Dr. Abuelaish called Eldar’s cell phone.  Eldar was on air at the time, and put the doctor on speakerphone so that all of Israel could hear him screaming hysterically, on live TV, in mixed Hebrew and Arabic, “Ya allah, habanot sheli, mah nish’ar?”  Oh God, my daughters, what’s left? Can’t anybody help us?  For seven gruesome minutes, Eldar debated what to do, and then walked off the set to make some phone calls to see if he could get help for the family.   The incident was played and replayed all over the world, inflicting doubt and pain on the Israeli psyche and the world stage

Dr. Abuelaish possesses what can only be described as an ironclad optimism that seems incorruptible by tragedy.  Despite what he has suffered, he has recently published a book called, I Shall Not Hate, and when he is not practicing medicine and teaching at the University of Toronto, he lectures world-wide about peace and the necessity of the two-state solution, and telling audiences of all sorts that politicians are the enemies of peace, and that an agreement is within reach of both sides.  

It is important to mention here that this doctor, who specializes in treating infertility and has helped many Israelis conceive and give birth, is an observant Muslim.  He attributes his strength in the face of tragedy and love of humanity to his love of God.  

He recalled, as he spoke last Sunday night, that Cast Lead ended just two days after that tragedy, and at the time he remarked to his remaining daughters, almost inconceivably given what had happened, “I am satisfied that the blood and souls of your sisters and cousin is not wasteful or futile. It made a difference in the lives of others and saved others by announcing the cease fire and showing the human face of the Palestinians.”

There had been widespread Israeli support for Cast Lead.  Virtually all Israelis agreed that they had to halt the thousands of rockets that were falling on cities in the south.  But this scene on live TV with a screaming doctor, a friend to Israel who had brought so much Jewish life into this world, this touched a nerve among Israelis.  Watch it on YouTube, and then treat yourself to all the shocking invective against Israel, Israelis, and Jews posted as comments below the video.

Ladies and gentlemen, if this man, who suffered such a tragedy, can choose not to hate, not to seek revenge, but to preach the message of peace, then so can all the rest of us.  Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish has chosen love over fear, anger, and bloodthirstiness.  

Avraham cries for Sarah.  He grieves for her out of love.  Rashi points out that she dies just after the story of the Aqeidah, the binding of Isaac, because when she learns that Avraham almost sacrificed their son, parhah nishmatah mimena, va-metah, her soul fled from her and she died.  Sarah passed away in grief for love of her son; Avraham grieves for his wife out of love.

One of the beautiful features of childhood is innate optimism, the naive understanding of the world that gradually slips away as we age and encounter suffering.  

In the upcoming class that Rabbi Stecker and I are teaching at the home of one of our Temple Israel member families in December, to which you are all invited, we will be discussing what Jewish sources teach us about raising children.  And of course, the way it goes with children is something like this: as parents, we do the best that we can to try to give our offspring everything that they need to be responsible, capable, well-adjusted adults.  

And we often try to protect (or indeed over-protect) them from the reality that life is difficult, that sometimes you try your best and fail, that suffering and loss are an essential feature of our existence.  Sometimes, we do our children an injustice by shielding them from pain; that is the premise of the popular books by the psychologist and author, Dr. Wendy Mogel.

However, I would wish on nobody, even my greatest enemy, the tragedy that befell Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.

I do, however, wish that everybody could contract his incurable optimism, and that all of the parties involved and committed to recalling the litany of historical wrongs of a century of conflict would let it go and come to the table to hash out a plan.  There are some things that we, the Jews, will have to give up on, and some things that they, the Palestinians, will have to give up on as well.  And that will hurt.  But we do not really have a choice.

Some of you are now thinking, “Oh, Rabbi Adelson, that’s so naive!”  

Well, maybe so.  Perhaps a wee bit of hope remains deep inside me somewhere, despite the rampant pessimism of our age.  But what I want to challenge us to do today is to conquer fear, which is the true enemy of peace.

We protect or insulate or isolate our children out of fear.  The journalism industry delivers fear to us daily through more and more channels, as it thrives on the maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Within Israel today, there is fear of the Haredi world displacing secular Zionism - a former Mossad chief recently stated that ultra-orthodox Jews are a greater threat to Israel than Iran.  In Europe, there is fear of a Muslim takeover.  Here, we fear many things, and especially during an election season: illegal immigrants, taxes, “death panels.”  

We may indeed grieve for this world, for the loss and suffering and change and all the different things that cause us pain.  But we cannot allow our grief to yield more fear.  

We cannot grieve only for our own losses, for spilt Jewish blood.  I don’t care how many Palestinian prisoners Gil’ad Shalit was redeemed for.  Blood is blood.  Jewish blood, Arab blood, Christian blood are all the same.  Why do we spill out wine from our cups at the Passover seder table when reciting the Ten Plagues?  Because the Egyptians suffered as well, and as such our joy is lessened.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish writes in his book, “To those who seek retaliation, I say, even if I got revenge on all the Israeli people, would it bring my daughters back?  Hatred is an illness.  It prevents healing and peace.”

Fear breeds hatred, and love gives us peace.  And love should not be equated with naiveté.  I hope that as we continue into the future, we seek to surmount our fears, and not just with regards to the Middle East, but here at home, in our families, in our work and school and social environments, and here at Temple Israel.  

As each of us in this room gets older, we will surely grieve more.  May God see to it that we grieve in love, and not in fear.


As a coda, I would like to mention that Dr. Abuelaish founded a charity in memory of his daughters.  Called the Daughters for Life Foundation, it awards scholarships to girls and women in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the rest of the Middle East, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, to help elevate the status of women throughout the region.  Dr. Abuelaish believes firmly what is described on the foundation’s website, that:

“When female values are better represented through leadership at all levels of society, overall values will change and life will improve in the Gaza Strip, in Palestine as a whole, in Israel, and throughout the Middle East.”


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 19 November 2011.)