Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Kavvanah: The Accidental Reset and the Elul Moment

A curious thing happened to me a few nights ago.  I was re-installing some software on my computer, and my media player program suddenly decided that we were back in 2010.  After syncing (I know, that looks funny; do you prefer "synching"?) my mp3 device, I noticed that all of the podcasts were two years old.  I had what you might call an "Elul moment": Where am I?  What year is this?  Am I the same person I was two years ago?  Have I been replaying the same material for all of this time?
After some technical tinkering, I was able to convince my gadget that it was now 2012 (or maybe the end of 5772), and all was right again.  But lingering from the sudden bout of reflection was a kind of gratitude, a reassuring acknowledgment that in fact, no!  I am not who I was two years ago.  I have two more years of growth and change in my internal personnel files.

We grow incrementally, such that we often do not notice the ways in which we have changed.  But that is what the month of Elul is for -- reflection, evaluation, inventory.  How have you changed since last Elul?  Is it for the better?  If not, what can you do about it?

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, August 24, 2012

Shofetim 5772: Justice, Democracy, and The Observant Life

The Republican National Convention meets this week in Tampa, to be followed a week later by the Democratic convention in Charlotte.  The scent of politics is in the air, and the well-oiled wheels of democracy are turning.

These conventions, I must admit, seem like something of a dinosaur in today’s media climate, with the instant sharing of information and the curve of the 24-hour news cycle.  The presidential candidates have been established for months, and while the recent addition of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to the Romney ticket added a boost of excitement to an otherwise foregone conclusion, I can’t say that I really have any great interest in watching either of these conventions on television.  If somebody gives a truly wonderful speech, I am certain that it will be available on YouTube before the speaker steps off the podium.

This election season, and in particular the acrimony that has been festering between right and left and lately manifested itself in the barbs that are already being traded by the presidential campaigns, have me thinking quite a bit right now about democracy.  And, as it turns out, Parashat Shofetim gives us some good fodder for discussion on this very topic.

As such, I was quite pleased when an essay on Judaism and democracy was brought to my attention this week.  It appears in the new guide to the Conservative movement’s approach to Jewish law and thought entitled The Observant Life.  The publication of this book represents a sort of watershed moment for the Conservative movement.  It was written and edited by a gaggle of Conservative rabbis, led by Rabbi Martin Cohen of the nearby Shelter Rock Jewish Center.  I would like to point out that I don’t get any commission for pushing it, but nonetheless I think it’s something that we all should own and read.
Why is this a watershed?  Because a consistent historical weakness in the Conservative movement’s approach to Judaism has been its general unwillingness to commit to one particular position on many issues.  Throughout the golden years of the middle of the 20th century, Conservative Judaism was a big tent, offering space for those who grew up in Orthodoxy and those who were moving towards secularism.  What is striking about this new volume is that it is a kind of unified coalition, a halakhic and meta-halakhic statement on where we stand.

Although meant in some ways to replace the classic Conservative guide to halakhah / Jewish law by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, The Observant Life is much more than Rabbi Klein’s book.  I might make the case that while Conservative Judaism is still a big tent in some respects, there are some basic things upon which we all agree.  This book reads something like a current dictionary for the movement, and I think it is a reference that no home dedicated to this movement should be without.

So the essay on Judaism and democracy from The Observant Life that caught my eye is called, “Citizenship,” and it was written by Rabbi Jane Kanarek, with whom I worked for a couple of summers at Camp Ramah in New England.  It opens with the observation that there are voices in the Jewish world that suggest that Judaism and democracy are incompatible (a statement that is, I think, most often made when discussing Israeli politics).  Rabbi Kanarek asserts that there is in fact a Jewish democratic current that runs through our history and literature, although it may differ somewhat from Western democracy.  Not surprisingly, the Jewish take on democracy begins with the line that we read this morning right at the beginning of Parashat Shofetim (Deut. 16:20, p. 1088 in Etz Hayim)
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף
Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof.
Justice, justice shall you pursue.
The Torah requires us to live in a just society.  And not just to live there; many commentators have addressed the curious repetition of the word tzedeq; after all, would it not have been enough to say, “Tzedeq tirdof” / “You shall pursue justice”?  The Torah must mean something much stronger: to actively, physically pursue justice, or to pursue justice justly, or perhaps that we should pursue justice and only justice.

Rabbi Kanarek suggests that this verse suggests not only justice in “interpersonal behavior among individuals, but also with the ethical construction of the larger society in which those individuals live.”  The two tzedeqs, therefore, imply two types of justice: the more immediate, daily justice between you and me, between individuals, and the larger picture of justice, that is, between us and them, between governments and peoples or rich and poor and so forth.

Rabbinic tradition also upholds the principle of dina demalkhuta dina, or “the law of the land is the law.”  As such, our obligation to pursue justice is tied to the wider community in which we live.  We cannot merely follow Jewish law and the law of the land, but we must also strive to make sure that the law of the land is just.  Maimonides tells us (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot De’ot 6:1) that if you live in a place where the norms of behavior are evil, you should pick up and move somewhere else.  

Perhaps you have heard about the legal battle over circumcision in Germany.  In June, a regional court in Cologne ruled that circumcision should be prohibited in that city, and just this past week, a German doctor filed charges against a Bavarian rabbi for performing circumcisions; the court has not yet decided to hear the case.  The June ruling, however, has provoked a fresh round of xenophobic anti-circumcision rhetoric in Western Europe, and coupled with recent attempts to ban kosher slaughter reveals a quite troubling trend regarding the free exercise of religion on the continent.  Modern European states are not the kinds of places from which Maimonides would argue that the Jews should flee; they are mostly just societies.  Jews and Muslims in Germany are fighting this decision, of course; from our perspective this situation has put the principles of Tzedeq tzedeq tirdof and dina demalkhuta dina in direct conflict, and we of course should all be arguing for tzedeq in the dina demalkhuta, the law of the land.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, a representative to Congress from Missouri, Todd Akin, made a remark about rape for which he was roundly criticized (there is no need for me to repeat it here).  Thank God, our free press quickly set the record straight that there was no scientific basis upon which to base his remark.  But what I think that this incident brought to the fore, and particularly in the context of some of the other statements that are being made on each side of the presidential campaign, is that political speech has limits.  Nobody is entitled to his or her own facts.  When we consider the current debate over Medicare that the presidential candidates have raised, it is clear to me that each side is spinning the numbers to their own advantage, making it quite difficult for the average citizen to puzzle out who is telling the truth, or if there even can be an objective truth here.

I noticed this week, by the way, that there are multiple ostensibly non-partisan websites dedicated to “fact-checking” politicians.  Some of the best-known are and  This is an age in which trust of big institutions, particularly government, is frightfully low, and I suppose that it is a credit to the strength of our democracy that such sites are there to help us sort out fact from fiction in political speech.  

However, doesn’t the very existence of these sites suggest a problem?  Call me naive if you will, but shouldn’t truth be the same regardless of which side of the aisle you are seated, and not molded to some politically-expedient variant on reality? Once again, thank God for our free press.  

Returning to Rabbi Kanarek and democracy, she points to an argument in the Mishnah for free speech.  We also read this morning that the Torah mandates the death sentence for one who does not follow the ruling of kohanic judges (Deut. 17:12-13, p. 1092).  The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 11:2-4) follows this by stating that a zaken mamre, a rebellious elder, should be executed ONLY if he teaches people to act contrary to the court’s rulings.  However, if the zaken mamre makes it clear that he is only stating personal opinion in opposition to the court, and does not encourage others to violate the law, then he is not punished.

Hence we can understand the Mishnah as implying that free speech is permitted as long as it does not lead to illegal action, and so while I shudder to think that politicians such as Mr. Akin can say grossly incorrect statements in public, we must defend his right to do so, and take him to task as necessary, and this is precisely what took place this week.

I have brought these items to your attention not only because we need to know about them, but because we need to be vigilant; as Jews, our tradition mandates that we uphold the principles of democracy.  Rabbi Kanarek’s chapter also addresses issues surrounding separation of church and state, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and equal protection under law, all of which can be construed from the Jewish bookshelf.  Democracy, which may be seen as flowing from the principles of justice, requires continual pursuit on multiple levels, and as such we must work hard to protect these principles with zeal.

President George Washington, in his thank-you letter to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit there in 1790, spoke not only of the freedom and tolerance engendered by American democracy, but perhaps gave a knowing wink at the Jewish role in helping to shape democracy.  He wrote:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Let us hope that such tolerance, as supported by the other principles of democracy and justice indicated by Rabbi Kanarek in her chapter in The Observant Life, continues to flourish here and abroad.  Meanwhile, enjoy the political spectacle of the coming weeks, and buy the book.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Focus On The Soul: Put On Your Elul Glasses

Looking around the chapel this morning at shaharit / the morning service, I noticed that ten of the eleven people present were wearing eyeglasses.  A simple technology that has been in use for hundreds of years, glasses perform an amazing feat: they bring what is not clear into focus.
If only there were something so simple to slip on over your head that would help us bring our daily choices into focus, a sort of mind-glass, such that we could perceive clearly and always do the right thing!  Alas, such a device does not yet exist.

But now that we are in the month of Elul, and the Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance (bookended by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a mere three-and-a-half weeks away, the time has come to look back over the past year and consider which of our deeds, our words, and our thoughts were out-of-focus.  Put on those Elul glasses!  The time for teshuvah is rapidly approaching.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Re-affirming Jewish Connection Through Holy Eating

I grew up in a kosher home, and that was no small feat in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  We had to drive an hour over a mountain to Albany to get kosher meat, or rely on the once-a-month deliveries to our synagogue, and of course there were (and still are) no kosher restaurants in the Berkshires.

Although there were times in my young adulthood when I was not so involved in Jewish life, one thing that I have done consistently is maintained my connection to kashrut, the Jewish dietary principles.  Eating, a seemingly mundane activity, is deeply associated with who we are. My daily re-commitment to holy eating kept me Jewish even though I was not otherwise so attached to Jewish institutions and the rest of the 613 mitzvot / commandments. 

Parashat Re'eh contains a captivating passage (Deuteronomy 14:3-21), one that I often reviewed intently when I was a boy. It's the list of animals that can and cannot be eaten (later to be termed "kasher", appropriate, although this word does not appear in the Torah). I have always been drawn to this list for its stark simplicity: these are in, these are out, thus says the Lord.  There are clear lines, at least regarding the specific animals and categories mentioned.

What makes this so fascinating is the series of messages that can be derived from this list.  Among them:

א.  As temporary residents of God's creation, some parts of nature are off-limits to us.  From this we learn that we must have respect for and carefully steward our planet.

ב.  We must be vigilant regarding what goes into our mouths.  It is just as important as what comes out.

ג.  Boundaries, whether instituted by God, a parent, a teacher or a partner, are healthy, and an essential part of proper living.

You are, it is said, what you eat; this can apply nutritionally as well as spiritually.  The limits of kashrut pay off not only theologically, but also in many other spheres.
בתיאבון! Beteiavon! Bon apetit!

Recipe for the perfect High Holiday sermon salad

Rosh Hashanah is a month away! Time to get to work on those High Holiday sermons.

1 premise
2 good stories (if you only have one on hand, it will suffice)
A handful of rabbinic principles
1 quote from Rashi (Ibn Ezra or Ramban will do if you can’t find a good Rashi)
1 bold statement
1 joke
Dash of guilt (note: HANDLE WITH CARE)

Elegant turns of phrase
Witty aphorisms
A personal anecdote or two

Toss well and serve in under 20 minutes.  For some added spice, throw in a deeply moving tale of loss and a few tears.

Serves 300-1800.  
שנה טובה! 
Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, August 3, 2012

Va'et-hannan 5772 - I'm in a Horeb State of Mind

Last week, I went with my family to stay with my parents in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I spent most of my first eighteen years of life.  Although I have lived in many locales, it is the one place where I feel more “at home” than any other.

Taking my family to Williamstown is always a treat, because I have the opportunity to point out little pieces of history: this is the golf course where we used to collect abandoned balls to knock around the yard; there used to be a great candy store here; here is where I once saw Christopher Reeve, who had a home in Williamstown, eating a sandwich.  (I asked for his autograph; he asked me not to tell all my friends to come do the same thing.)

And yet, it's just not the same.  My perspective as an adult, as one who has been to many places and experienced many things since leaving home, makes everything seem somehow smaller, less powerful when seen through adult eyes.  The soccer field upon which we rejoiced in victory and choked up over loss; the schoolyard where 6th-grade drama played out in its full, nasty glory, the single-screen movie theater where my friends and I saw the best and worst movies of the 1980s are today less valent, less polarized with emotional residue.

My current realities of fatherhood, of bills and appointments and the endless logistics of scheduling the modern family have changed the equations of memory and my youth.  What is distant is now far less powerful.  This is perhaps a good thing; if the maxim, “Time heals all wounds,” had no real value, we would never recover from the devastating losses of loved ones, or relationships gone bad, or the truly embarrassing moments that we have all faced.  We grow, we change, we mature.

But more than this, we learn to take responsibility for our choices.  We learn independence.  Ideally, we learn how to lead as well, and we learn that we can conduct our lives without the supervision of others.

We read this morning in Parashat Va'et-hannan the re-iteration of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, the so-called Ten Commandments or Aseret Ha-Dibberot.  Perhaps a few of you remember that two years ago we compared the language back-to-back of each of the occurrences of the Decalogue in the Torah, the first in Shemot / Exodus and the second in Devarim / Deuteronomy, and noticed some significant linguistic as well as thematic differences.  One curious difference between the two scenes that we did not discuss is the name of the place: in Shemot, the place where they receive it is called Sinai, and the one we read today it is called Horev / Horeb.

Why the change?  What's the difference?

The traditional commentators do not have much to say on this.  Rashi does not even appear to notice.  Midrashic sources suggest that Horeb is the original name, and that “Sinai” might refer to the word “sin'ah”, hatred, since it is at Sinai that the Israelites learned to hate the heathens who did not accept God’s word; the parallel with Horeb is that the latter could be related to herev, sword, since this is where the Israelites learned that sinners should be put to death.  As you can imagine, I am not particularly fond of these faux etymologies for a variety of reasons.  

Another possibility given by the midrash is “seneh”, bush, referring to the burning bush, because one theory is that this incident happened on the same mountain.  Or it might be that the mountain is called Horeb, and the land in which it is found is Sinai.  Another midrash suggests that there may have been as many as six names to this location, which perhaps lessens the need to find a reason for the Horeb/Sinai question.

Regardless, it is curious that the name is different in the context of Shemot versus that of Devarim.  I'd like to propose another theory: the names are different precisely because the context is different.  Not Shemot vs. Devarim, per se, but rather that in the first recounting of Moshe's sojourn on the mountain, the Israelites have just left Egypt; they are, for the first time, masters of their own destiny.  They have freedom, and they are not entirely sure what to do with it.  We all know that the generation of freed slaves whined their way across the desert.  “Moshe, are we there yet?”  “Moshe, we're thirsty.”  “Moshe, we miss the meat and the onions of Egypt.”  They are immature, unable to cope with their new status; they must be coaxed by the hand into their new lives.

But the second telling, the one we read today, occurs nearly forty years later.  The tribes are now led by the children and grandchildren of those former slaves, and they have a new perspective.  As such, they are ready to accept the mitzvot, to accept the obligations of the covenant with God.  They are now a mature people, about to enter their own land.  They have changed, and their perspectives have changed.

Horeb and Sinai are not really two names for the same place; they are distinct names for different states of mind.  Sinai is a place not of hatred, but of immaturity; Horeb is a place of readiness, of willingness to step forward into a new life, of leading rather than following.

At Sinai, Moses is at the height of his leadership, but that is as much about the Israelites as it is about him.  At Horeb, Moses is preparing to relinquish leadership, to hand over the reins to Joshua, the only clear leader who emerged from the prior generation.  This leadership piece is an essential part of the Horeb equation.  As the Israelites have matured between Sinai and Horeb, they have also gained the ability to accept and participate in leadership.

Now back to halfway around the world, to the Massachusetts Berkshires.  When I was in Williamstown last week, a piece of news momentarily captured local attention.  A childhood acquaintance ofmine, Andrew Nicastro, was awarded a settlement of $500,000 for his civillawsuit against two retired bishops of the local diocese of the Catholicchurch.  Between 1982 and 1984, when we were in junior high school, Mr. Nicastro was regularly molested by a local priest, Father Alfred Graves.  The lawsuit charged that the bishops knew that Father Graves had committed similar sins elsewhere, and had covered it up.  I knew Andrew from the age of eight or so because we played on the same soccer team; his father was also a member of the faculty with my father at nearby North Adams State College; I was unaware of the abuse until eight days ago.  However, the details of the lawsuit and the settlement indicate that this horrible crime against him could easily have been prevented.

I am not in a position to judge the Catholic Church and its issues, and that is not my intent.  But it is clear that what happened to my friend resulted from a disastrous failure of leadership.  Rather than do the right thing in 1976, when charges against Father Graves were first raised, the bishops covered up the problem and moved him to a different parish, as was done with Catholic priests all over the world when such charges came up.

The diocesan elders were not at Horeb; they were at Sinai.  They responded to the problem not by defrocking Father Graves (as eventually happened, but not soon enough), but rather by seeking a quick fix.  This is not leadership.  We can only hope that after all of the similar cases that have come to light in recent years, that they have in fact made the move to Horeb, have learned to make the responsible choice, and have atoned for their past failures.

I was shocked when I first heard this news a week ago on the Albany NPR station.  Often, cases like this seem to emerge somewhere else.  But this was not a faceless victim; this was somebody I knew personally.

I have always thought of my idyllic Berkshire background as being innocent, pure.  It simply does not seem like a place where disturbing things like this happen.  How could such a thing have taken place, just under all of our pastoral, small-town noses?  Sitting in my parents’ kitchen, reading an editorial in the Berkshire Eagle about the case, I found myself thinking, Where am I?  Is this really Williamstown?  Or is this some other place, some other state of mind? 

Granted, I never went to St. Patrick’s Church.  But on some level, that could have been me.

Perhaps my childhood illusions are now completely gone, eclipsed by the hard, unseemly realities of adulthood, of failure and loss, of dysfunction and criminality.  Regardless, this tale serves as a reminder that no matter where we are, we are never exempt from the responsibilities of doing the right thing.  We can never be at Sinai; we must always be at Horeb.  We must always step back from the situation, from the anxiety and the emotion and sometimes even the inclination to forgive those whom we know personally for their wrongs.  Moshe will not be there to accompany us into the Promised Land; that we must do ourselves.  Let us hope that the Catholic Church has taken that step, so that not only will my friend Andrew find some peace, but that there will be no more like him.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, August 4, 2012.)