Friday, December 28, 2012

Darwin and the Future of Religion - Vayehi 5773

When I was in Israel a few weeks back, I was shopping for Hebrew-language children’s books for my kids, and I found something curious: a book about Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. The level seemed a bit too high for my five-year-old daughter, but I couldn’t resist. I bought it.

After thinking about this a little more deeply, buyer’s remorse set in: I realized that this book might create an unintended consequence. As a proud alumna of our Beth HaGan nursery school and, well, the daughter of a rabbi who likes to read Hebrew Bible stories to his kids, my daughter not only wears her faith proudly, but will also talk your ear off about all of the wonderful things that God does for us. She is certain that God created the world and all of its creatures in six days and rested on the seventh. Will introducing her to another, potentially conflicting idea at such a tender age confuse her? Will she merely accept this as another story that can comfortably live alongside the opening chapters of Bereshit? Will she reject one or the other, and will this jeopardize her chances of getting into Harvard, or worse, JTS?

In any case, we have not yet read it. But I am nonetheless cautiously looking forward to the conversation that we will one day have.

Of course, the discourse about the role of religion in modern life is not only ongoing, but perhaps getting louder. We are all in some sense still struggling to respond to modernity, a process that began (at least in Jewish life) two and a half centuries ago, when Moses Mendelssohn succeeded in joining the intellectual elite of Berlin while maintaining his Jewish identity and practice. Meanwhile, there has been what amounts to an inadvertent series of op-ed pieces in the New York Times about religion and modernity, perhaps featured because December is the time of the year that Americans are most likely to be thinking about religious involvement. Each of them merits individual discussion, but I wanted to address them in the context of this morning’s Torah reading.

Today in Parashat Vayehi, we read about Jacob’s deathbed blessings and curses given to his twelve sons (we’ll talk another day about why his daughter Dinah is not mentioned). As is typical of end-of-life scenes in the Tanakh (like that of Moses at the end of Devarim, or our haftarah today, which took place at the end of King David’s life), Jacob’s pronouncements look backward and forward, referencing stories elsewhere in the Torah (even to events that have not yet taken place according to the Torah’s chronology) and making what seem to be predictions about the future for each son’s tribe. (Biblical scholars actually see this passage as having been written in a different place and time, probably much older than the surrounding text, and co-opted here as Jacob’s words. Hence Jacob’s seeming foreknowledge of where the tribes dwell in Israel and who is scattered among whom.)

But here is the curious thing. Jacob is the only patriarch to die in Egypt, in what we today refer to as the diaspora. He himself has been in Egypt for seventeen years, and he does not know for how long his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be there. He makes his sons promise that they will bury him with Abraham and Isaac in the Cave of Makhpelah in Hebron, but does not insist that they stay there. He seems to be quietly comfortable with the knowledge that someday they will return to the land that was promised to all three patriarchs, that someday their exile will end, and his descendants will take up residence in a land that is now occupied by Canaanites and Philistines and Hivites and Jebusites and so forth. He is not worried that his son Joseph is married to the daughter of an Egyptian priest; all the more so, he adopts Joseph’s Egyptian-born children Menashe and Ephraim as his own, declaring that (Genesis 48:20):
בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה
By you shall Israel invoke invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.
These are, of course, the words we still invoke each Friday night when we bless our own children today.  Jacob, taking the long view, is not concerned about his family’s future, their identity as members of his clan or issues of intermarriage and assimilation.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are times when it is very easy to worry about the future of Judaism, or indeed religious practice in general. As you have heard me say many times in this space, the fastest growing religion in America is “None.” There are those in the more “fundamentalist” sphere (of all of the Western religious traditions) that believe that this is merely a symptom of the gradual tearing down of religious authority to which Spinoza and Darwin and Marx and many others have arguably contributed. We are now reaping what we have sown, they say. 

But my concern is not the decline of religion due to active denial or apparent contradiction between the principles of religion in modern life. My concern is indifference - the vast numbers of people who pass through these doors every year and are not only untouched by the richness of their own tradition, but are also gradually finding themselves alienated by Judaism through their own non-involvement. The threat is not Darwin, ladies and gentlemen, but a dearth of inspiring moments: words, prayer, feelings, music, and communal togetherness.

But these recent pieces in the Times have struck a hopeful chord. The first, one that I discussed last week when I substituted for Rabbi Stecker at his bi-weekly “Jews and the News” class, is by an evangelical pastor, John Dickerson, about the decline of evangelical Christianity. While reading Rev. Dickerson’s piece, I experienced a strong sense of what psychologists call counter-transference: the phenomena that he describes (declining membership, fewer young people involved, decreased political power of their adherents due to smaller numbers) mimic patterns in non-Orthodox Judaism. His conclusion is that evangelicals must focus on their core principles, and that a movement in disarray has hope for building.

The second op-ed of interest was written by University of North Carolina history professor Molly Worthen about the apparent growth and power of secularism. She points to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showing that the “nonesof America are now 20% of the population, up from 16% just five years ago. Dr. Worthen cites religious Christian activists who pointed to this study as evidence that the foundations of our society are crumbling.

But Dr. Worthen also gives us a historical reality check, noting that despite the apparently declining interest in religion, that there have always been a fair share of what we today call the “unaffiliated”. Even in traditional America, where the French sociological tourist Alexis de Tocqueville found in the 18th century an open market of religious ideas that led to greater religious commitment than in Europe, regular church attendance before the Civil War “probably never exceeded 30 percent.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the largest Jewish organization of the British Commonwealth, wrote a wonderful essay about the continuing value of religion today. He cites similar statistics about declining religious involvement in Britain and the U.S., and then observes the following:

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums [sic].”
Like Dr. Worthen, Rabbi Sacks also points to the invaluable research of sociologist Robert Putnam, author of the essential works Bowling Alone and American Grace. Putnam concludes that while “social capital,” the glue that binds us all together in society, is on the decline, religious communities are still supplying social capital in spades.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.”
Rabbi Sacks offers this as proof that not only will religion survive the Darwinian forces of natural selection, but that it will serve as a bulwark against the creeping individualism that the information age seems to have hastened. Rituals, prayer, study of traditional texts, and so forth build trust, empathy, and foundations of a healthy, cooperative society.

What these articles all point to, and particularly that of Rabbi Sacks, is that religious tradition will always have a certain appeal, and that the mere fact that we are still here a century and a half after Darwin published On the Origin of Species testifies to this. Of course we have to work hard to do what we do better, and there may in fact be even leaner years on the horizon. But, like Jacob, we know that not only will we continue to offer inspiration in the future, we will do so in all the resplendent complexity that the modern Jewish world offers: many choices, many approaches, many points of view. And that’s a good thing.

I recall a trenchant discussion from when I was in rabbinical school. I was in Talmud class with Dr. David Kraemer, who is also the librarian of the JTS Library, one of the finest collections of Jewish books and documents in the world. We had taken a slight diversion from discussing some of the finer points of hilkhot Sukkah, the laws related to fulfilling the mitzvot of the festival of Sukkot, to talk about why it was OK for Jewish kids to collect candy on Halloween. Judaism has never lived in a vacuum, he reminded us, borrowing ideas and holidays and rituals and music from surrounding cultures. Halloween, or for that matter Christmas, are no more threats to Judaism and Jewish culture than Israeli supermarkets that sell pork products. We will continue regardless; we will continue to be, as was promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as “numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). Our concern should only be to continue to try to reach people through all of the means at our disposal, traditional and not-so. 

In short, the message of the day (with a nod to science fiction writer and staunch atheist Douglas Adams) is this: Don’t panic. Judaism, including liberal variants such as ours, will soldier on and continue to offer inspiration to those who seek it. Our task is to, just as Rev. Dickerson suggests, focus on the essentials of our faith, and let the forces of natural selection do the rest.
Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, December 29, 2012.)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Vayyiggash 5773: The Jewish Solution to Gun Violence

Many of you know that I just returned from Israel five days ago. (I think I just got over the jetlag this morning.) Calm has prevailed since the operation in Gaza ended a month ago, and Israelis go on about their lives, as they usually do.
Every time I go back to Israel, however, and I do so at least twice a year, I cannot help but think about Jewish identity - what it means to be Jewish, and particularly what it means to live as a modern Jew in a secular, democratic world.
My Israeli son Oryah is now almost 12, and the girls in his class are now celebrating their benot mitzvah. He goes to a secular school, so their bat mitzvah celebrations are just fancy parties, nothing more -- no religious component. No being called to the Torah, no remarks on the weekly parashah, no berakhah by the parents, and so forth.
As it turns out, our time together included two benei mitzvah celebrations.  The first was the bar mitzvah of a cousin in Tel Aviv. This family is also devoutly secular, but for some reason chose to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue. It was at night, but as is customary in some Reform congregations, the Torah was taken out and the bar mitzvah boy chanted from it as relatives were called up for aliyot. At the dinner reception afterward, I asked Oryah if he thought this experience would be different from his classmate’s bat mitzvah that he would be attending the following day.
Abba,” he said regarding his female friend’s family, “They’re not Jews. They’re just Israelis.”
I was captivated by this answer. Not Jews, just Israelis. We chatted for a few minutes about what it means to be Jewish, and maybe that cleared up the matter (at least for me). But for him, there was no confusion: Jews go to synagogue. “Just Israelis” don’t. Very simple.
Perhaps one of my main interests as a rabbi is helping us learn what it means to be Jewish today: how do we incorporate Judaism and Jewish values into our lives, what does Judaism teach us about all of the features of contemporary society, how can Judaism help us navigate the choices that face our families, our businesses, our education, and so forth. Central to these concepts is the very question of identity: are we Jewish Americans? Are we American Jews? How does our allegiance to this great nation interact with our commitment to the State of Israel, our cousins who live there, and the special challenges they face?
I suppose that these questions are particularly relevant in December. I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, a place that was home to fewer Jews than the first couple of rows in this sanctuary. As such, it was a constant struggle for me to define myself. I was in many ways just like my classmates, except that I did not go to church or celebrate Christmas or Easter.
All the more so, the question of Jewish identity is at the forefront of my mind right now, because I am struggling to find a Jewish response to the tragedy that occurred eight days ago in Connecticut. In preparation for teaching my Youth House class this past Tuesday, Rabbi Stecker suggested to talk with the students about how we should respond as Jews. That is, what does Judaism teach us that might be helpful in managing our grief, counseling our families, and preventing such horrible things from happening again.
This is, of course, not so easy. And also not so easy for us to separate our Jewish identity here from our American identity. In today’s parashah, we read about Joseph, effectively the first diaspora Jew, and his managing the seven years of good crops and seven years of famine on behalf of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Joseph creates what seems to be the first recorded centrally-planned economy, and he is not an Egyptian, even though he has an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife. An outsider, he succeeds in fundamentally changing the agricultural system of Egypt.
We are fortunate to be living in a place and time in which Jews are not considered outsiders; we are fully welcome in American society, and for most of us, our American identity is more relevant than our Jewish identity.  
However, it is sometimes possible to separate our American-ness from our Jewish-ness, and in the case of this tragedy, I think we may respond as Jews as well as Americans.
We have responded as Jews by reciting words of prayer today, gathered as we do on every Shabbat. We have responded by turning to God with the hard questions. But we also need to respond by making sure that such a thing never happens again.
In responding to the tragedy in Newtown, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited his Jewish background in an interview on the subject, when he said, “I don’t know what your religion teaches you; mine teaches you to take care of each other.”
What was he talking about? Let’s take a look.
The Torah tells us the following (Leviticus 19:16):
לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה.
Do not stand by the blood of your fellow; I am the Lord.
In other words, don’t pursue your livelihood at the expense of another’s life. Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that we are required pre-emptively to protect the safety of others (Deuteronomy 22:8):
כִּי תִּבְנֶה בַּיִּת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִּיתָ מַּעֲקֶה לְגַּגֶךָ וְלֹא תָשִּים דָמִּים בְבֵיתֶךָ כִּי יִּפֹּל הַּנֹּפֵל מִּמֶנוּ:
When you build a new house, then you shall make a fence around your roof, that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone falls from there.
In other words, we are required by the Torah to take steps to prevent anybody from being hurt, even where the potentially injured might be somewhat at fault.

But clearly these statements are general; they are not specific to our case. However, an essential principle in rabbinic law is the idea of “Siyyag laTorah,” that is, building a fence around the Torah. Let me explain what this means.

One of the best-known principles of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) is the separation of meat and dairy. The Torah says, “Do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” (Deuteronomy 14:13) Interpreting on the basis of siyyag laTorah in later centuries, rabbis of the Talmudic period extended this straightforward prohibition into a complex series of sub-prohibitions, including having separate pieces of cookware and silverware and plates, waiting a certain period of time between consumption of meat and dairy, and processes by which things that were accidentally contaminated could be rendered “kosher,” i.e. fitting, once again. This series of fences has made absolutely certain that the law could not be trampled upon.

Or consider the Shabbat. The Torah tells us to “Remember the Shabbat to keep it holy,” (Exodus 20:8) and forbids on Shabbat the performance of something called “melakhah,” which we generally translate as “work.” Later rabbinic interpreters extended melakhah to include 39 categories of work, including such things as harvesting, sewing, writing, building, lighting fires, and so forth. Further interpretation yielded a set of guidelines that set Shabbat aside as a truly unique opportunity to disconnect from the pace of our crazy lives, and enjoy those things that are most valuable: spending time with family and friends, and getting re-acquainted with God.

How do we build a siyyag laTorah, a fence to prevent episodes like that which took place last week, or the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, or at Columbine High School in 1999, or the one at the University of Texas in 1966, or indeed each of the more than 10,000 homicides perpetrated with firearms each year in this country? We think like Jews: we build fences.

The rabbis of the Talmud, reading from the sources I mentioned above and from elsewhere in the Torah, declared that (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a):
שכל ממאבד נפש אחת מישראל - מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל - מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא.
Anyone who causes one life to be lost... it is as if they have destroyed an entire world, and anyone who saves one life... it is as if they have preserved an entire world.
(Yes, I know the text refers only to Jews. But as modern people who are an integral part of the fabric of largely non-Jewish society, we are also required to pursue justice for all those who live around us.)

Elsewhere the rabbis prohibited selling weapons and carrying weapons, noting that these activities are disgraceful and dangerous (Mishnah Shabbat 6:4, Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 15b and Makkot 10a, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 12:12).

We who do not seek to prevent such tragedies by any means possible are guilty of standing by while others suffer; we are guilty of destroying the entire world. On the day after Sandy Hook, news outlets reported that sales of the type of rifle used by the killer went up dramatically.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Jewish solution is this:

1. Automatic weapons designed purely for killing people, and bottomless magazines of ammunition, should be simply unavailable.

2. Security should be tightened around public places, and people should be checked for weapons when entering crowded areas, just like they are in Israel.

3. People who, as much as this is possible, might be identified as potential threats, should have easy access to mental health care. 

Consider this, ladies and gentlemen: a commentator I heard on NPR pointed out that it is significantly easier, less expensive, and socially acceptable to acquire an assault rifle, a weapon designed for nothing less than murder, than it is to get treatment for mental illness. 

How can we live in such a society and not be guilty of standing by the blood of our neighbors? How can we watch as more than 30,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds every year (including homicides, suicides, accidents, and so forth), 3,000 of them children and teens? That’s nearly 100 people every single day.

In Israel, private gun ownership is scarce; the Jewish solution there means that fewer than 10 people are murdered with guns every year, none of them children. (Statistics courtesy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and New York Times columnist Charles Blow.)

Returning to the question of Jewish identity, we acknowledge that there are many ways to be Jewish. Some of them involve religious observance, some include Zionism, some are dedicated to cultural traditions. But all Jews have the ability to tap into the principles of our ancestors, so easily conveyed by Mayor Bloomberg. We take care of each other. This is our heritage: we approach life in a way that highlights the sacred spark that God has given every creature, and we zealously protect those Divine sparks.

I conclude by reminding us all of the words of the prophet Isaiah (2:4), “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.

Like Joseph, one Jew among many Egyptians, we can change America for the better; like Isaiah, one prophet of peace among many warriors, we can herald a different time.

Shabbat shalom. May this be a Shabbat of peace.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, December 22, 2012.)