Friday, February 24, 2012

Name That Jewish Value - Terumah 5772

Welcome to Adar.  In the spirit of the season, I’d like to offer you the following:

A man was boasting about the piety of his rabbi.

“My rabbi, may he live to be 120, is so pious that he fasts every day - except, of course, for Saturdays and holidays.”

“How can that be true?” asked his friend.  “Why, just this morning I saw your rabbi eating breakfast.”

“That shows how much you know,” replied the first man.  “You see, my rabbi is very modest about his piety.  If he eats, it is only to hide from others the fact that he is fasting.”  [Big Book of Jewish Humor, Novak & Waldoks, p. 198]
I’ve been having an ongoing curricular discussion with Danny Mishkin, Temple Israel’s Director of the Youth House and Teen Engagement, on the subject of Jewish values.  In rethinking the Youth House, he has insisted that classes be focused on teaching these values, and as such has re-oriented my thinking about what we do here educationally.  His goal is to help teenagers build, if you will, “Jewish-colored glasses” - that is, to encourage them to view the world according to Jewish values, and act on them.  A secondary goal is to help parents of teens and the rest of the community appreciate what their children are learning, by having them present their work at the end of each unit, and thus bringing them into the conversation as well.

My question for you today is, “What is a Jewish value?”

Truth is, I had not thought too deeply about this until very recently.  Had I been asked that question 12 years ago, before I started cantorial school, I’m not sure if I would have known how to respond.  This is, of course, not a good sign, as I am a proud product of the Conservative movement.  I grew up attending a Conservative synagogue regularly on Shabbat and holidays, attending Hebrew school, becoming bar mitzvah, and continuing in the Hebrew High School at the same place; I also spent summers at Camp Ramah and participated in USY.  In college, I affiliated with Hillel and attended the Conservative minyan there.  After grad school, I taught Hebrew school at the Conservative congregation in Manchester, New Hampshire, and when I moved to Houston, single and in my mid-20s, I joined a Conservative congregation, read Torah regularly, and sang in the choir.

Even given all of that, had you forced me to identify Jewish values, I’m not sure I could have pointed to more than giving tzedaqah and the principle of 613 mitzvot, and I would have been hard-pressed to name a long list of these mitzvot.

So now I’m going to give what might be called a “pop quiz.”  Read the following passage from the Torah, Parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:1-8.  Can you infer any Jewish values from this text?

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה:  מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.  ג וְזֹאת, הַתְּרוּמָה, אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ, מֵאִתָּם:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.  ד וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי, וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּים.  ה וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים, וַעֲצֵי שִׁטִּים.  ו שֶׁמֶן, לַמָּאֹר; בְּשָׂמִים לְשֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה, וְלִקְטֹרֶת הַסַּמִּים.  ז אַבְנֵי-שֹׁהַם, וְאַבְנֵי מִלֻּאִים, לָאֵפֹד, וְלַחֹשֶׁן.  ח וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.  And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats' hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.  And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (New JPS translation)

The values that I see immediately here are volunteering/generosity, community, building nice places in which to worship, and the presence of God.  If we dig a little deeper, we might find others.  

(BTW: Ramban (Spain/Israel 1194-1270 CE) says that the building of the mishkan, which immediately follows the episode at Sinai, is essentially a way for the Israelites to continue the conversation with God.  Perhaps this suggests the value of tefillah.)

What are the most important Jewish values that you can think of?

Social action / Tiqqun Olam (“repairing the world”)
Modesty and piety (as with joke above)

Now, not all of these are exclusively Jewish, but they are all definitely principles that Judaism upholds.

Here are Danny’s top three Jewish values:

Hakhnasat Orhim - welcoming guests, and this might refer not just into your homes or into the synagogue, but also welcoming those on the periphery of the Jewish community into the center

Avoiding Avodah Zarah - not making idols, and perhaps more specifically the false idols of the wider society - pursuing material goods over good relationships, the whole range of activities that we undertake for selfish interests only

Im ein ani li mi li, ukhshe’ani le’atzmi mah ani? (Pirqei Avot 1:14) - your wants do not outweigh the needs of others

I think that this discussion speaks to the central question of Jewish identity in today’s world.  That is, how can we maintain our Jewishness when there are no barriers to complete assimilation into the wider society, and we are (on the whole) not committed to traditional Jewish practice?  (Aside: Poll numbers from Gallup released last week showed that among American religious groups, Jews have the highest well-being, and are also the least “religious.”)

There are, of course, many different ways to be Jewish, and many types of Jews.  Speaking not as a rabbi but as a lifelong Conservative Jew, I would say that all of us in the Conservative movement are committed to living a life that is distinctly Jewish but not isolated from the wider society.  That is, the vast majority of us embrace most holiday observances and lifecycle events, and we believe in teaching our children something about Judaism.  Many of us practice some form of kashrut.  But as far as an ongoing, daily commitment to every jot and tittle of traditional Jewish religious observance, most of us are not in the same place as many of those who identify as Orthodox.

So that leaves us with this essential question: how can we make our daily lives infused with Judaism, if many of us do not see ourselves as living within what the Rabbis called “arba amot shel halakhah,” the four cubits of personal observance of Jewish law*?  

This is a question that I wrestle with daily.

People often suggest (especially on weekdays when we don’t make a minyan) that the rabbi should speak more forcefully from the pulpit about fulfilling various aspects of halakhah, of Jewish law.  Although I have done this occasionally (for example, two years ago on Yom Kippur I spoke about “turning off” for Shabbat), I am not convinced that it is an effective use of this space.

Rabbi Stecker and I could stand up here on this pulpit and exhort this entire community (or at least the ones in the room) to pray three times daily in a minyan, to get all your suits checked for sha’atnez (the prohibited mixture of wool and linen), to commit to wearing tefillin (yes, even the women), not to spend money or drive anywhere (except to Temple Israel**) on Shabbat, and so forth.

But most of us are not likely to embrace significant changes in our Jewish practice, or at least, in accord with the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s famous pronouncement on the subject, “not yet.”  Most of us are comfortable with the moderate approach that has become the de facto, if not the ideological stance of the Conservative movement - that is, a traditional, egalitarian synagogue experience and some home rituals and lifecycle events, but without the communal expectations for public and private halakhic observance that the Orthodox world demands.

(By the way, did you see the article in the New York Times about Tibet’s favorite food?  Apparently, the Dalai Lama, who is expected to be a vegetarian in accordance with Buddhist values, occasionally eats meat outside of his compound in Dharamsala, India.  In other words, he keeps a kosher home, but eats treyf out.)

Returning to the question of maintaining Jewish identity, I think that Danny is onto something here, and that something is the set of Jewish values that we have already identified.  That is, we should try to orient our thinking such that we understand that everything that we do, that all the choices we make, can be seen as extensions of our Jewish selves.  If we envision our lives through the lens of these Jewish values, we have a better chance of maintaining an ongoing relationship with the set of principles that define Judaism.

Let’s take, for example, hakhnasat orhim, welcoming guests.  There are many ways we can act on this value.  Yes, we can open our homes to others, just as Avraham Avinu opened his tent to the strangers who were walking in the desert.  But what are some other ways to welcome?

Welcoming people in this building - making this a true place of comfort for all
Inviting “the other” into your life / activities
Getting to know your neighbors
Being involved with your community, and bringing others with you
Making school, work, synagogue, street, etc. a safe, welcoming space for everybody

All of these things, which can include many sub-activities (e.g. greeting somebody, giving directions to the sanctuary, engaging a visitor in conversation, and so forth), can all be understood as acting on the Jewish value of hakhnasat orhim.  

Point is, we can take all of the Jewish values that we have listed, and re-frame our thinking such that we see all of our daily activities as flowing from our Jewish identity.  These are things we can teach to our children, and speak of when we are at home and away.

Here’s a suggestion for an “assignment” that you might want to take on: find a Jewish value to which you would like to commit.  Print it out and stick it to your refrigerator door with a magnet.  Put it on a sticky note in your wallet.  And then pay attention to what you do every day, and see if you are living up to that value.

Behatzlahah!  Good luck.  Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, February 25, 2012.)

* Talmud Bavli, Massekhet Berakhot 8a
הכי אמר רב חסדא מאי דכתי' (תהילים פז) אוהב ה' שערי ציון מכל משכנות יעקב אוהב ה' שערים המצויינים בהלכה יותר מבתי כנסיות ומבתי מדרשות
והיינו דאמר ר' חייא בר אמי משמיה דעולא מיום שחרב בית המקדש אין לו להקב"ה בעולמו אלא ארבע אמות של הלכה בלבד
Thus said R. Hisda: What is the meaning of the verse: “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” (Psalm 87:2)? The Lord loves the gates that are distinguished through Halachah more than the Synagogues and Houses of study.  

And this conforms with the following saying of R. Hiyya b. Ammi in the name of Ulla: Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of Halachah alone.

** In 1950, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah / responsum on the Shabbat that said that if you do not live within walking distance to a synagogue, it is better to drive than to stay at home for Shabbat.


  1. great post!


  2. Thank you, Andressa. Shalom, and Shabbat Shalom to you as well.