Friday, May 25, 2012

What is Torah? A Shavuot Postulate

When I applied to the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the spring of 2004, I was just completing the cantorial program there, and was eager to find ways to connect my cantorial and soon-to-be rabbinical sides.  In preparation for the dreaded committee interview, I prepared a devar Torah on a musical topic.*

One of the deans of Rabbinical School challenged me.  “Is that Torah?” he asked, implying that addressing an issue within Jewish music was beyond the realm of an acceptable devar Torah.  His tone of voice suggested that I might as well have been discussing the exhaust system of the 1960s-era Israeli-manufactured car, the Susita.

“Why, yes,” I said.  “Whatever connects us to our tradition, to Jewish life and learning, is Torah.”  His head made a dubious motion, but he let it go.  They accepted me to the program, so I suppose that I must not have been that far off.

Literally, the word “Torah” means “instruction,” and is a cousin to the Hebrew word “moreh,” a teacher.  It appears in the Five Books of Moses many times, referring not to those books as the collected body of stories and law, but in the narrower sense of God’s instruction on a particular matter.  Even in the case of the most-invoked of those occurrences, “Torah tzivvah lanu Mosheh, morashah qehillat Yaaqov,” (“Moses charged us with the Teaching / As the heritage of the congregation of Jacob,” Deuteronomy 33:4) it is not clear that “Torah” refers to our Torah or just the book of Deuteronomy.

In rabbinic literature, the word takes on a greater meaning: not just specific instruction, or the Five Books of Moses, but the full body of Jewish learning.  For example, Avot 1:1:
“Moses received Torah from God as Sinai.  He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the members of the Great Assembly.  They formulated three precepts: Be cautious in rendering a decision, rear many students, and build a fence to protect Torah.”  (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals)
Torah is far more than what is mounted on the two wooden poles, the scroll that we parade around on various occasions and honor by kissing and teaching our children to chant from.  It is, rather, the entire institution of learning that the rabbis of the Mishnah interpolated all the way back to Moses, the building of fences and the teaching of students and the debating of the most esoteric points of language and context.  It is a living tradition, one which we continue to learn and teach and review and embrace and challenge today.  Everything in our tradition can ultimately be traced back to the Torah (although occasionally via convoluted hermeneutic paths); everything that we do that makes us Jewish is Torah.

As such, the festival of Shavuot is far more than just a commemoration of the events at Mt. Sinai.  It is the anniversary of the gift of Judaism in all its forms, from the ritual to the cultural to the political offshoot of Zionism.  This is the birthday of Jewish life; join us as we learn Torah together on Saturday night to celebrate.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, May 25, 2012.)

* The topic was the similarity of the Ashkenazic and western Sephardic melodies of Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea of Reeds, and how that this wandering tune tells an appealing historical tale of our people.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

No Freedom of Religion at the Western Wall

A couple of weeks ago, while attending the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (the professional organization of Conservative rabbis) in Atlanta, I heard Israeli journalist and nascent politician Yair Lapid declare that Israel is the only place in the Western world where Jews are not free to practice their religion as they wish.  He was referring to recent events that have resulted from the unseemly alliance of government and right-wing Jewish religious interests: a tourist group of Conservative teens being denied the use of a sefer Torah at a hotel run by a secular kibbutz, the constant police presence and occasional arrest of participants at Women of the Wall's monthly service at the Kotel / Western Wall.

Speaking to a room full of Conservative rabbis, who are committed to a Judaism that is both firmly rooted in tradition and yet open to modern ideas and the principle that Judaism has never existed in a vacuum, Mr. Lapid said:
"I believe the Jewish identity is in danger and you are the gatekeepers, the people who believe Judaism shouldn't be a jailhouse of ideas, but a liberator of ideas. No one can claim ownership over the Jewish God." (as quoted in Haaretz)
This was, of course, an easy applause line for that audience.  Nonetheless, the sentiment here is very powerful, and very important for the future of Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora.

Three rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary were detained on Tuesday for praying at the Kotel while wearing their tallitot / prayer shawls in the same way that men do.  They were not arrested, but merely roughed up; one was approached by a policeman while reciting the Shema, when it is halakhically impermissible to respond.

This is not freedom of religion.  Since the Kadima and Likud parties have reunited like old brothers, and the next Israeli election cycle will be a year and a half away, Mr. Lapid and his Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party will not have the opportunity to address these issues in the Knesset any time soon.  Let's hope that change comes sooner.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

For a video of the three women talking about their experience, click here.

For a reaction piece from Jonah Rank, another rabbinical student who was there, click here.

For more information about Women of the Wall, click here.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Slow Boat to Change - Thursday Kavvanah, 5/16/2012

A particularly inspiring story broke this week.  Gac Filipaj (pronounced "Gahtz Filee-pie"), an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, graduated from Columbia University with honors.  This might be unremarkable, were it not the fact that Mr. Filipaj has worked at Columbia for the last 19 years as a custodian, where he was entitled to take a certain number of courses free each semester.  It took him seven years to learn English, and then 12 years of full-time work and part-time school, but he earned a Bachelor's degree in Classics this past week.

His tale is one of change -- long, slow, arduous change.  What is so beautiful about Mr. Filipaj's story is not necessarily the "bootstrap" experience, raising himself up in accord with the great American myth, but rather the idea that we all have within our powers the ability to change ourselves, our status, our mindset, our lives.

Of the 13 baqqashot / requests found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times daily, we find that the first is for personal knowledge:
חָנֵּנוּ מֵאִתְּךָ דֵעָה בִּינָה וְהַשכֵּל. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', חונֵן הַדָּעַת
Honnenu me'itekha de'ah binah vehaskel.  Barukh Attah Adonai, honen hada'at.
Grant us knowledge, wisdom, and discernment.  Praised are You, Adonai, who graciously grants us intelligence.
Why is this the first on our list of baqqashot?  Because it is only through intelligence that we discern the right choices, the ones that enable us to become better people and to change ourselves.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Little Rain, A Lot of Humility - Wednesday Kavvanah, 5/2/2012

Yesterday morning as I was preparing to leave for morning minyan, it was raining quite heavily.  Our gutters have not yet been cleaned of the spring debris, and so the water was spilling out of them, flowing down the windows, and leaking into the dining room, where a small puddle was gathering.  Hmm, thought I.  No matter how great the structures we build around ourselves, no matter how much we try to seal ourselves off from the forces of nature, Creation always manages to find its way in.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a scientific person.  I cannot deny that for this world to make sense, the laws of physics dictate that (for example) the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and the universe 14 billion or so.  I am wary of theologies that mandate checking the intellect in favor of blind faith, or even those that attempt to square science and religion where they seem to conflict.

But certain poetic / midrashic approaches always appeal to me; creative ideas about the ways through which God enters our rationality, just as the rain finds its way into the rabbi's parsonage.  It is indeed possible to clothe ourselves in logic, in academic scaffolding, and thereby ignore the still, small voice of the Divine.  However, even those of us whose understanding of the world seems waterproof occasionally find ourselves dripping wet, and particularly in the context of loss or joy or life's milestones.  Those are the times that we are most likely not only to seek friends and family, but also to let God in. 

In every morning service, just after the morning berakhot / blessings, we read (or more likely mumble) the following:
הֲלא כָל הַגִּבּורִים כְּאַיִן לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלא הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע וּנְבונִים כִּבְלִי הַשכֵּל
Compared to You, all the powerful are nothing, the famous, insignificant; the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason.
This brief passage, stuck in the middle of a great deal of text, deserves more attention than it ever gets.  A little dose of humility in the morning, a reminder of the long view, helps us to see that no matter what we achieve or own or create, there are even greater things, and this is an invaluable principle to carry with us into the day as we work, learn, and love.  Sometimes we need that rain.

Rabbi Seth Adelson