Friday, January 18, 2013

Old Wine, New Flask: Shabbat Dinner Online

In Pirqei Avot / Teachings of the Fathers, we read the following (5:27):
Rabbi Meir used to say: Do not look at the flask but at what is in it; there may be a new flask that is full of old wine and an old flask that does not even have new wine in it.
A piquant piece from the Huffington Post crossed my desk late Friday afternoon on January 18. I wouldn’t necessarily call this news, but it is Jewishly relevant. Posted on Craigslist, this ad received replies from all over the world:
Shalom! We are five handsome and two not so handsome single men. And, yes, we are Jewish. Bound by tradition and emboldened by wit, we are hosting an epic Shabbat dinner -- a little challah, a little wine, and a lot of gefilte fish -- in downtown Washington, DC on Friday, January 18, 2013. In a nod to our orgiastic traditions, we are inviting seven lucky ladies to feast with us. Echoing the State of Israel's Declaration of Independence, we will consider you, "irrespective of religion or race," as long as you "bring your own lactaid pills." 

To be considered, please submit a picture of yourself. We'd also like to hear more about you!

Please answer two of the following questions with another question: What's your favorite Shabbos activity? Which biblical forefather do you admire most and why? What would you establish as the 11th Commandment? What's your favorite episode of Seinfeld? Curb Your Enthusiasm? Which character from Girls speaks most to your personality? What is your favorite double mitzvah? Why would you answer a Craigslist ad about a Shabbat dinner?

You must also answer two of the following, not in question form. Where do you go to get your hair straightened? Are you a self-hating Jew? Have you read Portnoy's Complaint? Explain why a two-state solution would or would not work? How do you feel about the Shoah? What is your favorite yiddish word and farvus? Zach Braff: Dreamy, or in your dreams? Do you appreciate hairy backs?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, what year did you go on Birthright?
If you are one of the seven chosen people, you will receive additional information regarding the time and location. We look forward to reading your reply and gawking at your picture.
If I were grading this as a school project, I would give it a B for effort (how hard is it to post an ad on Craigslist, after all?) and a B+ for creativity. I'm a tough grader.

But for finding a new way to honor Shabbat, a fundamental feature of Jewish life? A+ all the way.

As our 24/7 culture sails forward into infinite connectedness, never powering down, it’s good to see enterprising Jews using technology to find ways to reconnect for Shabbat; that is what Shabbat is all about: restoring the 24/6 week and rejoicing on the seventh day. The flask may be new, but the wine is properly aged. 

Shabbat shalom!

UPDATE (2/7/2013): One of the female participants was interviewed anonymously by the website Click here to read about her Shabbat dinner experience.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, January 11, 2013

Let My People Pray - Va-era 5773

When Israel was in Egypt’s land / Let my people go

These are the words of the old spiritual, originally composed and sung by black slaves in America about their plight, their desire to be set free from bondage. Slaves who were brought here from Africa were stripped of their original tribal cultures and made to worship as their white Christian masters did, and they found strength and solace in the messages of the Bible. The thematic line of this spiritual, “Let my people go,” comes from Parashat Va-era, which we chanted this morning. God instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh and say:
ה' א-ֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים שְׁלָחַנִי אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר, שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻנִי בַּמִּדְבָּר
The Lord, God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.”

What the spiritual leaves out is the second part of that verse, about worshipping God in the desert. What is God’s justification for requesting freedom for the Israelites? It is not necessarily that they deserve freedom because slavery is wrong. Rather, they should be released so that they could receive the Torah and thereby worship God freely. The command given to Pharaoh from God is as much about religious freedom as it is about physical freedom. Moshe delivers this request to Pharaoh multiple times in this parashah and next week’s, as the plagues are unfurled on Egypt, and it is always couched in the language of spiritual purpose. As our Etz Hayim commentary points out (p. 359), “It was not only freedom from something, it was freedom for something.”

The Kotel in 1910, with men and women praying in close proximity, without a mehitzah. Many such images exist.
The religion that God bestows upon the Israelites in the latter parts of the book of Shemot / Exodus is, of course, that of the priestly sacrificial worship, practiced first in the desert using the portable tabernacle, the mishkan, and in later centuries in Jerusalem at the First and Second Temples. Fast forward more than a millennium, to the year 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, and the Jews needed to find a way to reach God through a means other than sacrifice. And that route was prayer, which we continue to do today. Rather than animal sacrifice, we offer today avodah shebalev, the service of the heart, as Maimonides puts it.

Here at Temple Israel, as is the custom in virtually all Conservative synagogues, we pray in a style that reflects the openness of our society to full participation of men and women. This is, of course, a break with historical Jewish practice that only came about within the last half-century or so. We are egalitarian; we count women and men equally under halakhah / Jewish law. And this is as it should be, because the world has changed in the last 2,000 years.

In our society, women can be doctors, lawyers, CEOs, judges, politicians, or even the leader of the most powerful country on Earth. So why, when it comes to Jewish ritual, should they be confined to the “back of the bus”, that is, the other side of the mehitzah (the wall separating the sexes in Orthodox synagogues)? Why should women be prevented from leading the community in tefillah / prayer, reading from the Torah, becoming rabbis or mohalot (those who perform ritual circumcisions) or soferot (scribes that write holy documents like the Torah)? The very idea of keeping women from participating in all aspects of Jewish life is not just absurd, but deeply offensive.

Times have changed. We have changed. And mainstream Judaism has always accommodated change.

I was recently asked by a member of this community if I would work as a rabbi in an Orthodox synagogue. My answer was, as you may not be too surprised to hear, no. Not because I do not respect Orthodoxy and those who choose to pursue Judaism according to its principles - I do very much so, as an advocate of religious freedom and pluralism. Not because Orthodoxy is inauthentic - it is of course as authentic an expression of Judaism and at the same time in many respects just as modern as we are. And not because much of Orthodoxy does not accept me as a rabbi.  I could never be an Orthodox rabbi because this, the Conservative movement, is my spiritual home.

There are three principles of Conservative Judaism that are to me non-negotiable:

1. That we accept that Judaism has developed and changed historically, and what we today call Judaism was not handed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but is a product of two millennia of natural growth. Judaism as we know it, including Orthodoxy (a modern concept in itself), has never been fixed.

2. That we accept modern understandings of God and the Torah, according to the tools of academic inquiry and contemporary philosophy, and allow them to stand alongside and interact with the traditional views;

3. (and this is the most important item) That we accept men and women as being equal before God - the principle of egalitarianism.

Today is not only Shabbat, the second-holiest day of the Jewish calendar, but also Rosh Hodesh Shevat, the first day of the eleventh month of the Jewish year. Rosh Hodesh is not really a holiday; it is a day that is slightly elevated above the rest of the month because it marks the renewal of the lunar cycle that was so important to our ancestors. Today is the day of the new moon.

Unlike other, more significant holidays, Rosh Hodesh has no special practices other than a few liturgical changes. There are no special foods, no particular ritual items like ram’s horns or palm fronds or a candelabrum. To my knowledge, there are no Rosh Hodesh songs or stories.

In his comments to the story of the Molten Calf (Parashat Ki Tissa), Rashi cites a midrash that the women are given Rosh Hodesh as a day of rest because the female Israelites refused to surrender their jewelry to Aaron to build the calf. So there is at least a midrashic basis for making Rosh Hodesh a special day for women.

As such, there are two things that have developed for Rosh Hodesh in the last two or three decades. One is the widespread establishment of women’s Rosh Hodesh groups, which can take a variety of forms because there is nothing in classical Jewish literature or practice that indicates how to do this. Rosh Hodesh groups often feature discussion, recitation of tehillim / psalms, some group activities, and of course food, and all for women. I have, in fact, never been invited to participate in a Rosh Hodesh group! (But hey, I’m not bitter.)

The second is the Women of the Wall. I have mentioned them here before - this is the Rosh Hodesh group writ large, consisting of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform women, that has been meeting in Jerusalem at the Kotel, the Western Wall plaza, every Rosh Hodesh since 1988. They feature a shaharit / morning service conducted entirely by and for women. They did not meet today, because it is Shabbat, but will reconvene again for Rosh Hodesh Adar in a month.

Here is the troubling part: since 2002, when the Israeli Supreme Court allocated the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall for non-Orthodox, egalitarian groups who wanted to conduct mixed-gender services at the Kotel, it has been illegal for any group to conduct a service on the women’s side of the mehitzah at the traditional Kotel, and illegal to conduct egalitarian services anywhere in the Kotel plaza. Furthermore, any woman wearing the traditionally male tefillah accessories, tallit or tefillin, can be arrested, and some of the Women of the Wall have indeed been taken to jail and subjected to harsh treatment.

The Kotel, the exterior western retaining wall of the Second Temple complex, rebuilt by King Herod in the 1st century BCE, has long been considered the holiest site in Judaism. Every tourist group goes there; I remember my first visit as an eager 17-year-old, when the tears welled up from deep within me as I extended a hand to touch the ancient Herodian stones.

The area that is traditionally thought of as “The Kotel” is actually a very small fraction of the total surface area of that western retaining wall; it became elevated because for many centuries, it was the only part of the wall that was accessible to visitors.

Today, the entire Kotel plaza is effectively an Orthodox synagogue. It has its own rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) extraction, appointed by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Recently, Rabbi Rabinovich wrote an opinion piece in Israel’s Yedi’ot Aharanot newpaper explaining how he is a moderate fighting off the intrusions of “extremists” like Women of the Wall, in which he said the following:

This is how fanaticism operates. It asks for protection in the name of tolerance, then thrives and flourishes until it becomes too late to stop the devastation it brings on us all.
I'll say it loud and clear: As long as I am the Western Wall's rabbi, fanaticism will not establish a foothold at the site. The Kotel's stones can teach us about the price of zealotry.

Women who want to hold a prayer service, who want to participate in the mitzvot of Jewish life, and men and women who want to pray together near the traditional Kotel are “fanatics” who will bring “devastation” on all of us. Thus saith Rabbi Rabinovich.

The worst possible kind of fanatacism is that which has the gall to declare itself mainstream. Non-Orthodox Jews represent more than 80% of American Jewry. What we do is not extreme. We are the mainstream.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Kotel is not a synagogue. It is a very old wall. And it belongs to all of us: Haredi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular, humanist, Zionist, non-Zionist, etc.

Some of you might be thinking right now, “Why does this matter? Why should I care if the Kotel functions like a Haredi synagogue?”

Let me tell you why this matters. We live in an age in which our children’s commitment to Israel, something which the American Jewish community has long taken for granted, is undeniably on the wane. So when they go to Israel with their synagogue or youth group or Birthright or whatever, and they see that the State of Israel, aided and abetted by the intolerance of the Israeli Rabbinate, dismisses the mode of Judaism in which they were raised, this only creates doubt about their connection to the Jewish State. For most of us, ladies and gentlemen, our connection to Judaism is deeply associated with what we do in synagogue. Rejection of our mainstream practices by the increasingly right-wing religious authorities, in league with the Israeli government - THAT is what will bring devastation on us all.

Let My people go, that they might worship Me. Indeed.

There is here a slight glimmer of hope: Natan Sharansky, the former Russian refusenik who is now the head of the Jewish Agency, has been assigned by PM Netanyahu to study the matter and come up with a plan. I am cautionsly optimistic, but let’s see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, let us hope and pray that we are soon set free to worship as we please, as our ancestors once were.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, January 12, 2013.)